Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Syntax silences the little red horn

Yesterday I was reading a new and very interesting work of literary scholarship when I noticed a really annoying sentence--and after I saw it once, I kept seeing it again and again on page after page. It's a small thing but it suggests a certain lack of precision.

Imagine that Smith and Jones are both authors of literary works; the sentence I kept seeing looked like this:

Like Smith's work, Jones writes about stuff.


Like Jones, Smith's novel explores other stuff.

Let's look at what is being compared in these sentences:

Jones is like Smith's work.
Smith's novel is like Jones.

This is just clumsy. Smith may be like Jones and Smith's work may be like Jones's work, but I am at a loss to understand how an actual human being can be compared to a work of literature. Other readers apparently have no problem with this sentence pattern, because it appears with some regularity in a book published by a reputable academic press. Nevertheless, I find it annoying, and so does Mrs. Miller, the high-school English teacher who lives inside my head. These sentences would make her shake her head and give a little lecture on faulty comparisons; if I failed to listen, she might get the little red bicycle horn out of her desk drawer, stand up on her chair, and toot until she had my full attention.

How would I fix the sentences? Like this:

Like Smith's work, Jones's fiction is full of stuff.


Like Jones, Smith explores other stuff in her novel.

It's a small change, but these sentences would silence the little red bicycle horn and make Mrs. Miller happy, and sometimes that's all that matters.


JM said...

It makes me happy when you post things like this, because I always agree with you and it makes me feel smart. :)

Bev said...

Glad to be of service.