*Faulty Predication

An inauguration is where we get to see the president sworn in.

How do you like that sentence? Does anything strike you as a little off? How about this one:

A hurricane is when wind speeds reach 74 miles per hour.


The purpose of toothpaste was invented to help people care for their teeth at home.

When I’m editing newspaper articles, from time to time I find myself staring at a sentence like one of these and scratching my head. The sensation is a little like getting rear-ended at a traffic light. You just sit there blinking, trying to figure out what’s wrong with the world, momentarily unable to remember how the world is supposed to be.

There’s a term for this problem. It’s called faulty predication. And it’s explained like this: Faulty predication occurs anytime a subject doesn’t make sense with the verb. More precisely, it happens when the subject can’t logically do or be whatever the verb says it’s doing or being.

Let’s look at our first example. An inauguration is where we get to see the president sworn in.I chose this one because it’s nice and fuzzy. Is it okay? Is it not?

The subject is “an inauguration” and the verb “is” says that it is “where.” Technically, that doesn’t make sense because an inauguration isn’t a place. But can you stretch the meaning to “where” to something like “an event at which,” giving us “An inauguration is an event at which we get to see the president”? Possibly. And you certainly could make the argument that the reader understands what you mean. But it’s pretty sloppy. I wouldn’t let it stand in an article I was editing.

Ditto that for “A hurricane is when.” Technically, a hurricane isn’t a when. More precise would be “a hurricane occurs when” or “a hurricane is what happens when."

Our final example, “The purpose of toothpaste was invented” isn’t as forgivable. It’s illogical. The purpose was not invented. The purpose of toothpaste is … Toothpaste was invented for the purpose of … There are a number of ways to extract a logical statement out of this sentence, as long as you’re focused on the illogic of saying the purpose was invented.

The only way to avoid faulty predication mistakes is to stay vigilant and, especially, to reread what you’ve written.  When in doubt, just ask yourself: Can my subject really do what I’m saying it’s doing? If not, look for a better way to make your point.

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