It seems I never stop editing. Two sentences in a recent New Yorker article (“Personal Best” by Atul Gawande, October 3 2011) made me stop and think. (Incidentally, the New Yorker is a well-edited magazine – I have gripes only a few times a year.)
These sentences interest me because they’re both correct (the first is an example of a grammatical point few writers seem to understand) – but I still think rewriting is necessary.
Here’s the first sentence:
Perlman, disabled by polio, couldn’t play the violin standing, and DeLay was one of the few who were convinced that he could have a concert career.
Two things here fired off my mental editing machine. Gawande’s choice of were (one of the who were) deserves a round of applause. Most writers would have used was (“Delay was one of the few who was convinced”). My thinking: few…were. If you wanted to use was, you’d have to revise the sentence like this:
Perlman, disabled by polio, couldn’t play the violin standing, and DeLay was one instructor convinced that he could have a concert career.
But there’s something there that bothers me: Using “he” in a sentence about two males, Perlman and DeLay. I’ll admit that few readers would be confused. Obviously Perlman is the person whose concert career is in doubt. Still, I can imagine a reader’s brain halting for a few milliseconds to make sure it really was Perlman.
OK, let’s get even pickier. “And” is a weak way to join two sentences.
So I might have revised the sentence like this:
Most instructors believed that Perlman could never have a concert career because his polio forced him to play the violin sitting down. DeLay was one of the few who thought otherwise.
You probably noticed that I made two sentences out of the original – often a cure for awkward or ambiguous sentences.
Here’s the second sentence that stumped me:
Knowledge of disease and the science of treatment are always evolving.
My problem is “knowledge.” Did Gawande mean only knowledge of disease, which seems to be the case, or knowledge of both disease and the science of treatment? If so, the verb should have been is. (Click here and see Rule 4.)
Now you could argue that Gawande’s choice of are indicates that he meant knowledge of disease to be a separate thing from the science of treatment. But why set all the English teachers out there a-wonderin’? There’s a simple solution: Insert “the” at the beginning of the sentence.
The knowledge of disease and the science of treatment are always evolving.