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SOME TRAVELERS CLAIM THEY DON'T MIND GETTING LOST on the highways; they even enjoy it.

It's a way of discovering new places, they say, of finding new paths. No one, however, enjoys getting lost when she's reading. And the possibilities for getting lost, the potential sources of confusion, are in every sentence, every turn of phrase. There is the large scale to consider: an essay's organization and the transitions from one idea to the next, the way ideas are introduced and matters concluded. (See the section on Coherence for help with such matters.) Within the sentence itself, however, there are many places where our readers can get lost. The problem is thatunlike rereading our own essays for misplaced commas and misspelled wordswe often can't see where a reader can get lost. We know where our sentence was headed, we know what we had in mind, so we're not apt to understand someone else's confusion. This section of the Guide to Grammar and Writing addresses the sources of and remedies for confusion at the level of sentence structure. (At the level of individual wordswords that we often confuse because they sound like other wordsplease review another section, theNotorious Confusables.)

Misfits and Bad Equations (sometimes called "Mixed Constructions")


Think of a sentence as a kind of mathematical structure, an equation requiring two parts: the subject, which is what any sentence is about, and the predicate, which is what we're going to say about this subject. Sometimes we set up both in ways that are perfectly reasonable, separately, but when we put the two together, they just don't fit. Confusion Although the season has not yet begun has caused the public to get over anxious for information about the team.

Repair Work Although the season has not yet begun, the public is overly anxious for information about the team.

This sentence begins with an adverb clause, which is a legitimate way to begin a sentence, but an adverb clause can't act as a noun; it can't be a subject. In the repaired sentence, we've allowed the adverb clause to do its normal modifying work and made "public" the subject of the independent clause. This can happen with structures other than adverb clauseslike prepositional phrases. In its attempt to spark sales of season tickets broke several rules about pre-season publicity. Repair Work In its attempt to spark sales of season tickets, the basketball program broke several rules about pre-season publicity. Repair Work The basketball program's attempt to spark sales of season tickets broke several rules about pre-season publicity. Confusion

It is not impossible for a prepositional phrase to serve as the subject, but it's quite rare in formal prose, and quite unlikely for this sentence. We can either allow the prepositional phrase to modify the independent clause or allow a new subject, the "basketball program," to own the information in the prepositional phrase. It is sometimes tempting to allow what we could call a "double start," a sentence which actually has two subjects in a situation that calls for one. Confusion The new system of student registration, we began to use it in the fall.

Repair Work We began to use the new system of student registration in the fall.

A similar source of confusion occurs with another kind of mixed construction, when we allow a complete sentence to act as the subject of another sentence.

Beginning in the fall of 1997, we began to use the system called Banner, was the responsibility of the registrar's office. Repair Work Beginning in the fall of 1997, we began to use the system called Banner. The Registrar's office was responsible for this initial project.

Confusion

Another mixed construction is the result of an adverbial phrase (frequently the combination of a preposition and a gerund) acting as the subject of a sentence. Confusion By devising carefully worded forms ahead of time made the registrar's job much easier.

Repair Work Devising carefully worded forms ahead of time made the Registrar's job much easier.

Adverbial clauses cannot be allowed to act as subjects, either. Even if students' records are lost in the shuffle of registration does not mean they will have to start the process over. Repair Work Even if students' records are lost in the shuffle of registration, they will not necessarily have to start the process over. Repair Work Students do not have to start the process over if their records are lost in the registration shuffle. Confusion

If the subject-predicate equation hinges on a to be verb, we must be careful that the elements on either side of the verb are equal in kind and that they can, in fact, be equated. Those who want the new fieldhouse on campus and those who want it in the city would be an unlikely place at this time. Repair Work Those who want the new fieldhouse on Confusion

campus and those who want it in the city will have to agree on the best place for it to be built.

The phrases "the reason is because" and "the reason why is because" have crept into our language in spite of their inherent redundancy. The word reason means why or because, so to create a subject-predicate equation in which the subject means the same thing as itself is redundant. Think "the reason that" and the problem is solved. The reason they were so eager to sell tickets is because they're trying to refurbish the old fieldhouse. Repair Work They reason they were so eager to sell tickets is that they're trying to refurbish the old fieldhouse. Repair Work They were so eager to sell tickets because they're trying to refurbish the old fieldhouse. Confusion

Two more phrases that create subject-predicate difficulty are is when and is where, especially when we're trying to create our own definitions. A definition must consist of nouns on both sides of the equation represented by the to be verb, not a noun and an adverb clause. Confusion Confusion Libel is when you print something that can ruin someone else's reputation. Libel is where you've printed something that can ruin someone else's reputation.

Repair Work Libel is the publication of material that can ruin someone else's reputation.

Problems with Pronouns


You might want to review the section on Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement and take the first two quizzes at the end of that section before reading this section.

When pronouns do not agree with their antecedents or when it is not clear what the pronouns refer to, confusion will follow. Do not allow a pronoun to refer to more than one thing at once. In the sentence below, does "them" refer to the recruits or the veteran players or both? To encourage the recruits to blend in with veteran players, the coaches let them play in summer leagues. Repair Work The coaches let the recruits play in summer leagues so they'd be able to blend in with veteran players. Confusion

Be careful not to allow too much text between a pronoun and its antecedent; your reader will have difficulty, again, figuring out what the pronoun is supposed to refer to. Does the "who" below refer to the recruits, the friends, the team? The recruits seemed to blend in with the team's master strategies and make friends on the team who played during the summer months. Repair Work The recruits who played during the summer months seemed to blend in with the team's master strategies and make friends on the team. Confusion

Be careful of clauses beginning with which, that, it and this as relative pronouns or demonstrative pronouns. Make sure it is perfectly clear what these pronouns refer to. In certain situations, a pronoun might refer to a specific word in a preceding clause or the entire preceding clause. In the sentence below, does the "which clause" (the adjective clause) tell you that the reporters knew about the team's history or that they discovered that the coach was ignorant? The new coach seemed to know nothing about his team's recent history, which reporters seem to pick up on quickly. Repair Work Reporters quickly picked up on the fact that the new coach knew nothing about his team's recent history. Confusion

In the next sentence, does "it" refer to spending extra hours or to the strategy? The coaching staff agreed to spend extra hours devising strategy, but it wasn't necessary. Repair Work It wasn't necessary for the coaching staff to spend those extra hours devising strategy. Confusion

And what does "this" refer to? The assistant coaches and the head coach seemed to know nothing about drawing up plays, and they couldn't agree on what their master strategy should be. This seemed to bother the press more than the players. Repair Work The fact that the assistant coaches and the head coach seemed to know nothing about drawing up plays and couldn't agree on a master strategy bothered the press more than the players. Confusion

Make sure that "it" always has a clearly defined, sensible antecedent. Confusion Coach Espinoza made several recruiting trips around the country, but it came to no avail.

Repair Work Coach Espinoza made several recruiting trips around the country, but her efforts were not successful.

Confusing Comparisons, Mixed Metaphors


When we're speaking among friends, we can get along saying something like "Michigan wants this game more than Indiana" and everyone knows what we mean. But when we're writing, we should say that Michigan wants this game more than Indiana does; otherwise, someone is left wondering why Michigan would want Indiana at all. Comparisons must be stated fully to avoid confusion. Confusion Coach Calhoun tends to analyze games more than his assistant coaches.

Repair Work Coach Calhoun tends to analyze games more than his assistant coaches do.

At the risk of exploiting a clich, compare oranges to oranges, apples to apples. Confusion The stress of getting ready for a big basketball game is worse than a wedding.

Repair Work The stress of getting ready for a big basketball game is worse than the stress of getting ready for a wedding. Repair Work The stress of getting ready for a big basketball game is worse than that of getting ready for a wedding.

Be careful when you're comparing things of the same class. We can't say that Michael Jordan was better than any basketball player because Michael Jordan was a basketball player. To make such a comparison logical, we'd have to say that Michael Jordan was better than any other basketball player. And, finally, finish your comparisons. We're all aware of automobile advertisements claiming that "Car X is better and faster!" Better and faster than what? Be careful, also, not to mix metaphors. We often use metaphors or analogies to make things more vivid for our readers:

Students were sprawled across the sun-drenched quadrangle like fat seals on a California beach. Students lined up at the bookstore cash register like ants.

If you refer to the students as "ants," however, don't turn them into penguins in the next sentence. The manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Davey Johnson, was quoted as saying this about a temperamental player: "He's probably got a lot on his plate. We've turned the page. I don't have a doghouse." (Hartford Courant: 8/13/99) Any one of those metaphorical phrases might be fine, in informal speech at least, but to mix them this way creates confusion.

Problems with Modifiers


Review the appropriate sections on Misplaced Modifiers and Dangling Modifiers, two major sources of confusion. Also, take the quiz on Modifier Placement at the end of that section.

Shifts in Verb Tense and Pronoun Reference


Review the section on Consistency of Verb Tense and Pronoun Reference. Shifts in verb tense and pronoun reference can be a major, if temporary, cause of confusion. If there's anything worse than not knowing where you are, it's not knowing when you are. Paragraphs that begin with a dominant present tense should stay in the present; paragraphs that begin with a dominant past should stay in the past. It's that simple. When logic demands, you can shift tense, and your reader will stay with you; when you shift tense without reason, however, you're going to lose your reader. Shifts in pronoun reference often leave readers wondering whether you're clear about whom you are addressing. An abrupt shift from third-person reference or first-person reference to "you" can leave a reader wondering, "Hey, how'd I get dragged into this?"

Double Negatives
Recent attempts to demonstrate that double negatives have a respected place in our language's history and to show how double negatives function in other languages and in English dialects to emphasize the negative are not enough to redeem this Bad Boy of Standard English. A double negative results when one uses more than one negative word or construction to express a single negative thought. The parallel with algebrahowever faulty it may be in terms of linguistic theoryhas a powerful hold on the popular attitude toward double negatives. Two negatives, people say, make a positive. That surely isn't always true: there is no way that the line of the popular song "Can't get no satisfaction" can be read as a positive. Still, using a double negative in formal prose is a definite no-no (!) and will lead only to confusion for most readers, who will try to reconfigure the double negative into something algebraically positive. Remember, too, that words such as hardly, barely, and scarcely are negative in effect, as is n't, the contraction of not. Confusion The coach was unable to offer no reasons for his team's behavior.

Confusion

In fact, he was hardly able to say nothing at all.

Repair Work The coach was unable to offer any reasons for his team's behavior. Repair Work In fact, he was hardly able to say anything at all.

Pruning Excess Verbiage and Eliminating Clichs


Review the section on Using Concise Language for tips on avoiding redundancies and clichs. Although these writing pitfalls will not necessarily lead to confusion, they will eventually annoy your readersor, worse yet, bore them. One further item: in our section on Vocabulary Building, we have a section on Using Five Dollar Words (where a fifty-cent word will do) that warrants your attention. Eschew obfuscation.

Proofreading for Confusion


The best advice we can give on proofreading for sources of confusion is that you shouldn't undertake this task yourself. If time allowsand after you've given your text some time to "cool" a bit, so you have a bit more objectivity about your precious wordsgive the text to a friend or understanding relative (parents and significant others are notoriously bad proofreaders). Have them read it out loud to you. When they look confused (a stumbling in the voice, a glazing of the eyes, a "Huh?"), it's time to highlight that sentence to return to it later, looking for the patterns and applying the remedies we've suggested on this page. If a friend is not available, try reading your text into a tape recorder and then play it back while you read along, stopping the tape and fixing things as you go along. What's important here is that more than one faculty both eyes and ears are at work. And if someone else's mind is also at work, four faculties are at work. Those little glitches that trip up readers and cause confusion won't stand a chance. If your school or college has an Honor Code in place, make sure you are not in violation of that code by asking a colleague to help proofread your paper. If seeking that kind of help is a violation of the Honor Code, then your school's Honor Code needs to be revised. Ask faculty members if they would ever dream of sending out an article for publication without having a colleague look it over in an editing mode.