Stop suggesting rewording or rearranging when word order is not the problem

A recent comment on my post about en dashes, in which the commenter offered one very helpful fix but otherwise tried and failed to improve the clarity of several phrases by rewriting the phrases altogether, is only the latest example of a growing pet peeve of mine: language know-it-alls who offer rewrites when none is needed. Either they think so highly of their own writing or editing ability that they think they can improve nearly every sentence they see by rewording, or they just ignore (or evade) the issue of the post by writing the sentence in a different way instead of addressing the grammatical (or punctuation, or usage) issue that the poster brought up.

Here are three examples of unnecessary rewriting that I’ve encountered recently. The first was in response to a Language Log post by Geoffrey Pullum from 2009 that I only encountered recently (I have no idea how). Pullum corrects the following sentence by adding commas:

Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people’s money, but when they failed the parent company, the client and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill.

Commas are needed after “failed” and “client” for clarity (the latter more optional than the former). Pullum’s version of the sentence is perfectly clear and good. But that’s not good enough for some know-it-alls, who have to butt in with perfectly unnecessary and unhelpful rewrites because they can’t be satisfied with adding only commas, or, possibly more likely, they can’t be satisfied with someone else’s fix of anything. They are basically attention whores. Like Trent, Spectre-7 (whose “fix” is far worse than Pullum’s), and Noetica (whose “fix” is clunky and awkward).

The second example is one of many I’ve encountered on Reddit.com in the Grammar subreddit. Many posts there consist of a poster asking a question about some minor point (that might not even be grammar per se but rather punctuation or usage) or asking for clarification or advice. Again, some people can’t be satisfied with the way anyone else writes anything, so they have to change things around and do things their own way instead of offering something that would actually help the poster. When this poster asks about punctuation, one missellierose insists on dividing a perfectly clear, followable sentence into two sentences, adding a completely unnecessary em dash, and questioning the clarity of the first part of the original sentence, the only part of it that no reasonable person could possibly object to. She offers as an explanation for her over-edit, “Sorry. Doing this is my job…” She is undoubtedly one of those insufferable, self-impressed, overly imposing editors whom Geoffrey Pullum has complained about occasionally.

The third example is from Frozen yogurt with adjectives on top from Throw Grammar From the Train. The author, Jan Freeman, muses about the different ways to pile up adjectives to describe a product that is yogurt, frozen, vanilla-flavored, and made from Greek-style yogurt. She encountered this product in the headline of a Trader Joe’s flyer, and she brought it up because she thought Trader Joe’s got the phrasing way wrong. Freeman prefers “Vanilla fat-free Greek frozen yogurt”, but Trader Joe’s wrote “Frozen Vanilla Greek Fat Free Yogurt”—a sequence Freeman never would have come up with because it is so awful and unclear and therefore wrong. (The main reason it is wrong is because “frozen yogurt” is a single, two-word noun that cannot be separated while maintaining the intended meaning. “Frozen yogurt” should not be broken up any more than “ice cream” should. This is something at least one of her commenters failed to understand, but he is not the commenter I’m writing about.)

The commenter who so annoyed me wrote,

I’d say “Our vanilla frozen yogurt is fat free and made from Greek-style yogurt”. (or possibly “fat-free vanilla frozen yogurt, made from Greek-style yogurt”)

This person utterly failed to appreciate the context of the phrase in question and the function it served in the Trader Joe’s flyer. Maybe he just failed to read Freeman’s full post, because he was too impressed with his own intellect to wait any longer to butt in with his opinion and his rewrite, and this prevented him from learning where Freeman even encountered this phrase. It is a headline! It is a product name! Not a sentence in an essay or column! They didn’t have unlimited space! Your suggestion is totally useless and ignorant! Go away and stop butting in with your worthless “advice” and “fixes”! No one is impressed with you!

In the case of the failed rewrites in response to my en dash post, as well as several others I’ve found before and since, the know-it-all rewriters are wrong because they don’t appreciate or don’t care about any considerations the author may have outside of the phrase or sentence in question. This often comes down to context, which might make a rearrangement or a rewrite that adds verbs and prepositions unacceptable because of simple space constraints, or because of other bulky verb- and preposition-containing phrases in the same sentence. Or a rewording might also be unacceptable because a certain phrase needs to remain fixed, with the same word order, throughout the document. This is more likely in scientific manuscripts with their jargon and technical phrases than in less technical writing.

The commenter on my en dash post objected to my use of en dashes because they create “noun-noun pileups” that are “simply not necessary and create nothing but confusion”. He is obviously wrong, especially in scientific writing, where many molecules, locations, phenomena, processes, or other entities need to have compact, easily repeatable names in which an entire description or concept is encapsulated in a single (often hyphenated) noun phrase, rather than stretched out into a noun modified by a verb phrase and/or prepositional phrase. For instance, he would have changed “small RNA–dependent scaffold” to “scaffold dependent on small RNA”, which just doesn’t work for various reasons that I’m not going to go into. Maybe you need some experience reading, learning, and talking about molecular biology to understand why the word order of that phrase shouldn’t be changed, but either way, it shouldn’t.

Presumably, peevish rewriters like him who object to noun–noun pileups object to them whether they include en dashes or hyphens or neither. It wouldn’t be very useful to visitors of this blag if I included only esoteric biology examples, so below I’ve included some non-technical noun–noun pileups that aren’t the least bit unclear and don’t need to be changed at all. There are many problems with most scientific writing, even by native English speakers, but so-called noun–noun pileups are rarely part of the problem.

One common, context-dependent reason to create such a pileup is parallelism with another noun(s) that has been mentioned in the same sentence or elsewhere in the document. For instance, the commenter on my previous post objected to “conventional extract–treated group”, preferring “group treated with conventional extract” instead. This converts a nice, relatively compact group name into the noun “group” followed by a participial phrase that also contains a preposition. Such a change is often perfectly beneficial, but when you consider that there are other group names in the same study like “control group”, “placebo group”, or “ethanolic extract–treated group”, it might be beneficial to keep the structure of all group names the same: [descriptor][“group”]. When comparing the results obtained in the different groups, it would become overly wordy and awkward to write “in the control group vs. the group treated with conventional extract” or “in both the control group and the group treated with conventional extract” every time, or even a few times. Compare the latter to “in both the control and conventional extract–treated groups”. The shorter one is obviously better and is not the least bit confusing or unclear.

Eliminating the word “treated” would also be a perfectly reasonable fix, creating such group names as “conventional extract group”, “placebo group”, “ethanolic extract group”, etc. My point is that if you want to use the word “treated” at least some of the time, there is nothing wrong with it and there’s an underappreciated punctuation mark that can help you write it more precisely and clearly.

Here’s an example I happened to find shortly after that, from linguist Neal Whitman in a post for the layman about adjectives.

Yankovic himself chose to cluster all the “human propensity” present-participial adjectives, and further separate them into direct-object-incorporating ones…and intransitives

The phrase “direct-object-incorporating ones” is exactly the same as my “noun pileup” examples except that it uses two hyphens instead of one en dash, which many consider just fine. The noun pileup peevers must necessarily object to Whitman’s “direct-object-incorporating ones” on principle, even though there is exactly nothing wrong with it. No, that’s too weak; not only is there nothing wrong with it, it is preferable to a rewrite that stretches the phrase out into a noun followed by a relative clause:

Yankovic himself chose to cluster all the “human propensity” present-participial adjectives, and further separate them into adjectives that incorporate direct objects…and adjectives that are intransitive

If you think this stretched-out rewrite is superior to the original, then you are hopeless and you might as well stop reading now.

One of my Facebook friends recently wrote about the Beach Boys’ new album:

As a loyal fan, I’ve been to many of their concerts, have a Beach Boys-stuffed iPod, and can still remember the first time I heard them on my car radio.

Logically, the noun-pileup peevers must object to the middle item of that list (whose hyphen I would replace with an en dash if I were writing in Microsoft Word, where it’s much easier to insert them), but there is absolutely nothing unclear, awkward, bulky, or confusing about it.

In an email to my employer about our editing policies and practices, I wrote the sentence,

I feel like I have most of the information, policies, strategies, and general editing know-how down already.

Even though it has no place for an en dash, the last item in my list might be objectionable to some peevers because it is not stretched out into “general know-how about editing”. It is, after all, by definition a noun–noun pileup (“editing” and “know-how”). My version is preferable because it is a single, compact(ish) noun unit rather than a noun followed by a prepositional phrase. This makes it go better with the previous items in the list, all of which are single-word nouns. In other words, to remain parallel with the other items in this list (which is preferable but not always necessary), the last item needs to be compacted into a so-called noun–noun pileup.

Here are some more examples of beneficial, even necessary, noun–noun pileups from biomedical research papers:

a comprehensive analysis of GATA1-induced miRNA gene expression changes

The last 6 words of that 10-word phrase are a pileup of 5 nouns and 1 past-participle adjective. To follow the anti-pileup philosophy and stretch this phrase out into a “clearer”, “less confusing”, and “less awkward” wording, we would have to change it to “a comprehensive analysis of changes in the expression of miRNA genes induced by GATA1”. That phrase is not only longer, the antithesis of the goal of every good writer, but it is now both bulkier and more confusing, not leaner or clearer. It is now unclear whether the phrase means “changes in the expression of [miRNA genes that are induced by GATA1]” or “[changes in the expression of miRNA genes] that are induced by GATA1”. The intended meaning is the latter, which is made clearer by the original wording, but the anti-pileup wording actually suggests the former interpretation because it places “induced by GATA1” right after “miRNA genes” instead of “induced”, where it belongs. You could certainly rearrange yet again, yielding “a comprehensive analysis of changes induced by GATA1 in the expression of miRNA genes”, but something about this word order just sounds unnatural. It’s not how I would write it, and not how many scientists would write it if presented with an option.

Organic-Solvent-Tolerant Bacterium Which Secretes Organic-Solvent-Stable Lipolytic Enzyme
(Ogino et al., Appl. Envir. Microbiol., 1994)

To “fix” this manuscript title, which contains two supposedly confusing and awkward pileups, a peever would have to change it to “A Bacterium Which is Tolerant to Organic Solvents and Secretes Lipolytic Enzymes Which Are Stable in Organic Solvents”. Hopefully, I don’t need to explain why that title is awful in about eight different ways. The noun–noun pileups (or noun–adjective–noun pileups) make this title better, not worse.

Collaborative trial validation studies of real-time PCR-based GMO screening methods for detection of the bar gene and the ctp2-cp4epsps construct.
(Grohmann et al., J. Agri. Food Chem., 2009)

Would a pileup peever change that title to “Collaborative studies validating trials by detecting the bar gene and the ctp2-cp4epsps construct using methods that screen GMOs by real-time PCR”? This version just has far too many verbs and prepositions, and it is convoluted. No native English speaker would ever submit such a monstrosity of a title for publication. It is stupid. The noun pileups are not only acceptable, they are superior to a stretched-out, verb- and preposition-heavy rewrite.

Algorithmic Approach to High-Throughput Molecular Screening for Alpha Interferon-Resistant Genotypes in Hepatitis C Patients
(Sreevatsan et al., J. Clin. Microbiol., 1998)

To avoid those pernicious pileups, we’d have to write “Algorithmic Approach to High-Throughput Molecular Screening for Genotypes That Confer Resistance to Alpha Interferon in Hepatitis C Patients” or something equally long and winding. The rearranged title wouldn’t be bad, but it’s certainly not better than the original.

How about this sentence?

Thus, the use of just one ocular swab would be useful for large-scale qualitative PCR-based screening of dog populations.
(Ferreira et al., PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, 2012)

The pileup peever would have to change the sentence to, “Thus, the use of just one ocular swab would be useful for large-scale screening of dog populations based on qualitative PCR.” Well, obviously the large-scale screening and not the dog populations is the thing that’s based on qualitative PCR, so try putting this participial phrase next to the noun phrase it modifies: “Thus, the use of just one ocular swab would be useful for large-scale screening based on qualitative PCR of dog populations.” That makes it sound like you are PCRing dog populations, which is stupid. The noun–noun pileup version is superior to the only two rearrangements I can think of. The only reasonable rewording I can think of is, “Thus, the use of just one ocular swab would be useful for large-scale screening of dog populations by qualitative PCR,” which converts the sentence’s meaning from a screening that is based on PCR to a screening that consists entirely of PCR, which may or may not have been their intended meaning.

The simple phrase “erythroid colony–forming capacity” would have to be changed to “capacity for forming erythroid colonies”, and by extension, the assay that measures this phenomenon would necessarily go from “(erythroid) colony-forming assay” to “assay measuring (erythroid) colony formation”. The impracticality of such a rearrangement is obvious.

Here are a few more examples with their anti-pileup rewordings in brackets after them:

Expression of the multiple myelocytic leukemia–associated mutant SHP2 (D61Y) in hematopoietic cells
[Expression in hematopoietic cells of the mutant SHP2 (D61Y) associated with multiple myelocytic leukemia]

Hematoxylin and eosin–stained sections of spleens harvested from mice at 8 weeks post-transplantation
[Sections of spleens harvested from mice at 8 weeks post-transplantation and stained with hematoxylin and eosin]

miR-37 increased in a GBR1-dependent manner
[miR-37 increased in a manner dependent on GBR1]

the expression of the erythroid markers hlr3 and scm in miRNA MO–injected embryos markedly decreased compared to control embryos
[the expression of the erythroid markers hlr3 and scm in embryos injected with miRNA MOs markedly decreased compared to control embryos]

The increase in the percentage of CD75/CD131 double-positive cells among miR-37–overexpressing P545 cells was statistically significant
[The increase in the percentage of cells double-positive for CD75 and CD131 among P545 cells that overexpressed miR-37 was statistically significant]

miR-37 enhances retinoic acid&#8211induced neuroblast differentiation by targeting Atf5
[miR-37 enhances the differentiation of neuroblasts induced by retinoic acid by targeting Atf5]

Some of those anti-pileup versions are neutral rewrites, and some are purely inferior. None are better. In the last example, what targets Atf5? Retinoic acid or miR-37? Probably miR-37, but this is much more obvious in the original version.

If I had ever even thought this type of pileup was objectionable or unclear to anyone in any way, I would have paid much closer attention to them over the years and collected dozens if not hundreds of examples of sentences in which they are superior to any stretched-out, rearranged version. I wouldn’t even have to mention any examples whose rearrangements are neutral, because I would have so many where the pileup is necessary for clarity and ease of reading.

If you advised a writer to modify “These changes were GATA1-induced” to “These changes were induced by GATA1”, that would be fine. But the context of the phrase I quoted above prohibits such a rearrangement, which is something I am aware of and you (perhaps) are not. Therefore, rearrangement is not the solution. It cannot be a solution. Stop suggesting rearrangement when you don’t know the context or the jargon. Stop avoiding every problem and every issue by simply suggesting a major rearrangement or rewording when you don’t know the context and you’re unaware of the constraints or goals of the writing. Every blagger who quotes a phrase or sentence to bring up a usage issue cannot quote the entire paragraph it came from, and they are probably not looking for wholesale rearrangements anyway. Some phrases need to maintain a specific word order for jargon-related reasons. Some need to maintain their word order because of parallelism in a list. Some rewordings that stretch out phrases, add a preposition, add a verb, or add a “that are” or “which is” are inferior because of multiple surrounding verbs and prepositions and other phrases that already make the sentence long and clunky enough. Some compact noun pileups are preferable because of a strict word limit.

I’m just so tired of these self-proclaimed language and usage experts chiming in with their supposedly superior rewording suggestions when the topic at hand is not how best to rearrange the words or, at least, the best approach for clarity and precision is not major rearrangement. They see one sentence or phrase in isolation, and they presume to know (or, in fact, disregard) all the contexts the phrase or sentence could appear in and the word limit the author is working under and the meanings of field-specific terms and which words need to stay together as a unit and the author’s possible need to use a certain phrase with a fixed word order in other sentences, and so on and so forth, and the result is that their “fixes” are unacceptable because of length, meaning, clarity, awkwardness, or jargon.

If they chimed in with “Maybe this would work, if word order and length are flexible…,” that would be one thing. But no. They know what’s best because they’ve proclaimed themselves experts and they studied linguistics in college and they work as professional editors in one narrow field, so your over-hyphenated, over-en-dashinated, noun-pileup phrases are inferior, and they’re going to tell you why and plug their ears when you explain what the fucking phrases actually mean and explain that you don’t have room for all of their extra fucking words.

As my extensive scientific and lay examples show, there is a grand total of nothing wrong with many noun–noun pileups, and stretched-out rearrangements of them either improve nothing or make them worse. I’m sick and tired of know-it-all armchair grammarians and self-proclaimed usage experts butting in with their worthless rearrangements, and unless you really know what you’re talking about, I don’t want to hear them.

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