Today we’re going to look at two sentences that contain errors. Of course I’ll explain the mistakes – but my real purpose today is to ask whether the mistakes matter.
The first sentence is from a New York Times article from 2013 by psychologist Maggie Koerth-Baker: No Diagnosis Left Behind: The Not-So-Hidden Cause Behind the A.D.H.D. Epidemic. (I should explain that A.D.H.D. is an acronym for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.) Here’s the sentence:
Numerous brain-imaging studies have also shown distinct differences between the brains of people given diagnoses of A.D.H.D. and those not — including evidence that some with A.D.H.D. may have fewer receptors in certain regions for the chemical messenger dopamine, which would impair the brain’s ability to function in top form.
Did you notice the indefinite pronoun reference? Here it is: which would impair the brain’s ability to function in top form. The word which should refer to something that’s already been stated. But if you ask what impairs the brain’s ability to function in top form, you come up with this answer: The smaller number of receptors in the brain of someone with A.D.H.D. Since those exact words don’t appear in the sentence, we have an indefinite pronoun reference.
Does the mistake matter? I would argue that it doesn’t in this case: The sentence is perfectly clear. So why would anyone even bother learning how to identify and label a construction called an indefinite pronoun reference? Here’s why: In some situations (a legal case, for example), precision is essential.
Now let’s look at today’s second sentence. My friend Ellen Massey sent me a link to an NPR feature about this problematic sentence from the just-adopted party platform of the Texas Republican Party:
Homosexuality is a chosen behavior that is contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths that has been ordained by God in the Bible, recognized by nations our founders, and shared by the majority of Texans.
Take a look at the second half of the sentence: ...that has been ordained by God in the Bible, recognized by nations our founders, and shared by the majority of Texans. You can’t say that truths “has been ordained.” You need the verb have.
So – according to the sentence – it’s homosexuality that “has been ordained by God in the Bible, recognized by nations our founders, and shared by the majority of Texans” – the opposite of what the Republican Party intended. (Oddly enough, the 2014 version of the platform had the correct verb.)
Now let’s ask the same question: Does the mistake matter? Everyone knows what the Republicans meant. You can make a strong argument (as I did with our first sentence) that a writer’s real goal is to be understood, and one picky mistake doesn’t change anything.
But suppose a sentence like this was the pivotal point in a legal case. Do attorneys ever take sentences apart to determine their meaning – and do judges ever hand down decisions based on a grammatical construction?
You betcha. Arguing that a mistake slipped past you and changed the meaning of a sentence probably won’t hold water in a court of law. (In the workplace, your boss might not have much sympathy either.)
And there’s something else to consider. Articles about the mistake in the homosexuality sentence appeared in the Huffington Post, the Texas Tribune, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. How many of us are willing to risk being embarrassed that way?
A word to the wise: Learn as much as you can about sentence structure – and always double-check your verbs! A mistake you overlook could come back to haunt you.