Avoid Confusing Your Readers

Here’s a problem my husband spotted in a gardening column he was writing for our newspaper. Florida is a great place for gardeners because you can have flowers all year-round. Charlie recommended three winter annuals: Shasta daisy, snapdragon, and petunia.

Then he realized a novice gardener might think he meant Shasta daisy, Shasta snapdragon, and Shasta petunia. So he rewrote the sentence with Shasta daisy at the back: snapdragon, petunia, and Shasta daisy. Problem solved.

(If you’re a knowledgeable gardener, you might not see the problem. So let me give you a similar sentence: Chocolate milk, ice cream, and candy. This sentence could be read two ways: chocolate milk, chocolate ice cream, and chocolate candy – OR only the milk has chocolate flavoring.)

Charlie’s thinking process makes an important point. Many people overestimate the importance of formal grammar. They assume that if you know the parts of speech and can diagram sentences, you’ll be a good writer.

But formal grammar wouldn’t have helped my husband with that sentence. He needed to read the sentence while pretending to be a reader who knows nothing about gardening.

It’s not easy to set aside everything you know and read a sentence from another point of view. That kind of thinking requires an almost Zen-like emptiness of mind.

Schools don’t generally teach student writers to think that way, but they should. It’s a good habit to develop, and now – at the beginning of a new year – might be a good time to resolve to do it!

a Shasta daisy

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2 thoughts on “Avoid Confusing Your Readers

  1. AvatarKelly Pomeroy

    I don’t think any of your husband’s readers would be confused with what he wrote. But I’m having a problem with your hyphen in “year-round.” Theoretically, it should be “year round,” because the two elements bear more or less equal stress. As you probably know, adding a hyphen (or running the two words together) throws the main stress onto the first element, turning the phrase into a two-part adjective:

    He’s off duty. He’s an off-duty cop. The house is run down. It’s a rundown house.

    So I say that “year round” is an adverbial phrase, and “year-round” as a two-part adjective. I can’t find confirmation of this in my dictionaries, however, so I’m just putting this out there for your consideration. If you would answer to my email, as well as here, I would appreciate it, since I’m getting forgetful.

  2. Avatarballroomdancer Post author

    I think I could have worded my point better. When I reread Charlie’s column myself, that sentence confused me, and I had to read it again. My brain carried “Shasta” over to snapdragon and petunia. Ideally, a sentence should work correctly the first time. And maybe smarter minds that mine wouldn’t have stumbled.
    I’ve seen year-round as a folksy expression with the hyphen, and that’s how I did it in this post. If you come across something more definitive, I’d be very interested.
    Happy New Year – and thanks, Kelly!

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