Here’s a sentence I read a few days ago in a newsletter about literature. Read it yourself and see if something seems awkward to you:
Many biographers debate whether Leonard could or should have gone the next step for his wife by replacing the ineffectual bromides, milk diets and rest cures she got from a dozen doctors with psychoanalysis.
Here’s what bothers me: It sounds as if she got the ineffective cures from doctors afflicted with psychoanalysis. Of course if you think about it for a moment, you realize that’s not what the writer meant. The sentence is trying to say that Virginia Woolf (Leonard’s wife) should have been treated with psychoanalysis rather than “the ineffectual bromides, milk diets and rest cures she got from a dozen doctors.”
There’s a simple guideline that tells you why this sentence is awkward: It breaks up words that should go together: “replacing with psychoanalysis.” Here’s one way to improve the sentence:
Many biographers debate whether Leonard could or should have gone the next step for his wife by rejecting the ineffectual bromides, milk diets and rest cures she got from a dozen doctors and replacing them with psychoanalysis.
Before we go on (I think the sentence still needs improvement), I’d like to explain why there’s no comma after “a dozen doctors” (she got from a dozen doctors and replacing them with psychoanalysis). There’s no need for fancy grammatical terminology. Just zoom in on the word and. Is it followed by a sentence? (There’s an easy way to tell: Does it start with a person, place, or thing?)
replacing them with psychoanalysis
No. So there’s no comma because replacing isn’t a person, place, or thing. (Click here and look at Comma Rule 2.)
Let’s go back to the improved sentence, which still isn’t good enough, in my opinion. There’s too much information to be crammed into one sentence. I especially dislike “could or should have” – it hints at a big issue and deserves its own sentence. Here’s my revision:
Many biographers debate whether Leonard should have insisted on psychoanalysis instead of the ineffectual bromides, milk diets and rest cures she got from a dozen doctors. It’s a complicated question because….
I didn’t complete the sentence because I don’t know why Leonard might not have been able to try psychoanalysis for Virginia. Perhaps no competent practitioner was available. Or Virginia might have resisted the idea. Or there might have been some other problem that I haven’t thought of.
I hope I’ve made my point. Sometimes clumsy writing conceals a gap in the writer’s understanding. Fixing a bad sentence isn’t always a matter of shifting a few words or inserting some new punctuation. Sometimes you have to rethink what you’ve written or go back to the library.