Alex Steer

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The articulation of your differences

444 words | ~2 min

This article from The Age begins with the most incredibly mangled sentence:

John McCain finally succeeded in articulating clear differences in how he would tackle the economic crisis to that of rival Democrat Barack Obama.

This is made up of an impressive number of syntactic and stylistic wrong turns.

  1. 'Differences in' instead of 'differences between', making it seem like there's been a change in a single thing (i.e. 'I've noticed such a difference in you since you gave up smoking') rather than a distinction between several ('There's a big difference between lemons and melons').
  2. The use of an indirect question as a noun phrase ('how he would tackle the economic crisis'). There's nothing wrong with this - it's fine to say 'there's a difference between how you make toast and how I make toast' - but it's followed by...
  3. 'To' as a differentiating preposition. There's a long-standing convention, which may be a bit fuddy-duddy and is often more a hindrance than a help, that one should use 'from' here: 'I am different from you', not 'I am different to you'. However, that's not the big problem. The problem is that this differentiating construction only really works after the adjective 'different'. Here it's used to follow up the phrase 'articulating clear differences in how he would tackle the economic crisis'.
  4. 'Rival Democrat Barack Obama'. This is a problem of framing. If I were a stuntman, and there were another stuntman called Bob Evans with whom I were competing for work, I could describe him as 'my rival stuntman Bob Evans'. This is pretty common, and implies that we are both stuntmen, and he is my rival. However, if I were a sewage worker, and I were in a competition to find the best person whose job title began with 'S', and Bob was in that competition too, I'd describe him as 'my rival, stuntman Bob Evans', or as 'my stuntman rival Bob Evans'. Why? Because, in 'my rival stuntman Bob Evans', 'rival' is an adjective; in the other examples, it's a noun denoting Bob. Likewise, 'rival Democrat Barack Obama' makes 'rival' look like an adjective, and so implies that McCain is a Democrat too, which he's not. 'His Democrat rival Barack Obama', or 'his rival, Democrat Barack Obama' would fit better.

In short: top work, The Age.

PS - no, this hasn't turned into a 'ranting about bad writing' blog, but this one was hilarious, and hopefully a bit instructive.

# Alex Steer (17/10/2008)