Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India

Here’s a troublesome sentence I read in an article about Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, in last week’s New York Times:

Modi is the proud son of a tea-stall owner who became a canny politician and skilled orator and who now, Putin-like, does adventure TV shows like “Man vs. Wild.”

It sounds (to me, anyway) like the tea-stall owner became a canny politician who does adventure TV shows. Wrong! The sentence doesn’t make it clear that the son became a skilled politician and TV star.

There are several ways to fix the confusing sentence. Probably the easiest solution is a couple of commas:

Modi, the proud son of a tea-stall owner, became a canny politician and skilled orator who now, Putin-like, does adventure TV shows like “Man vs. Wild.”

A better choice, though, might be to make it two sentences:

Modi, the proud son of a tea-stall owner, became a canny politician and skilled orator. Nowadays, Putin-like, Modi is doing adventure TV shows like “Man vs. Wild.”

You often hear that grammar and sentence diagramming are needed to avoid writing confusing sentences. No. You need to know how to write a variety of sentence patterns. Then you can play with the sentence and come up with a better version.

How do you learn those sentence patterns? By reading. If you used a flashlight to read under the covers when you were a kid, you were on your way to becoming an effective writer.

(Maybe we should give every schoolchild a flashlight!)

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