Mighty Red Pen

November 19, 2012

I saw the sign

Filed under: Pop culture,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 7:08 pm
Tags: ,

This sentence is possibly one of the most tortured pieces of writing I have come across in a long, long time. It appeared in an article about a recent performance Aerosmith gave outside the Boston apartment building they used to live in back in the day.

“Across the street from 1325 Commonwealth Ave. is a sign that Aerosmith band members wrote in a book they would see when they walked out the front door of their apartment building during the early 1970s.”

Here’s the problem: this poor little sentence is trying to do too many things at once. Is it a sign they wrote in a book? Is it a book they would see when they walked out the front door of their apartment building? Or is it neither of these? My red pen is itching to get at it.

From the rest of the article, we find out that it’s a sign they would see when they walked out of their apartment and that they wrote about in a book. But that’s a long way to get there from here. With a little editing, this sentence could be pared down and reordered to reflect that, something like this (for example):

“Across the street from 1325 Commonwealth Ave. is a sign that Aerosmith band members would see when they walked out the front door of the apartment building, which they lived in during the early 1970s. They wrote about seeing the sign in their book.”

But unfortunately, that’s a lot less interesting than the idea of them writing a sign in a book they would see when they walked out of their apartment. And hey, it was Aerosmith, and it was the 1970s. Anything was possible.

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4 Comments »

  1. The problem is that the relative is being extracted from a subordinate clause. Usually the relative pronoun functions as a subject, object, object of a preposition, or complement of the relativized clause. In this case it’s the object in a clause dependent on the one being relativized. Depending on who you talk to, this is flat-out ungrammatical or at least highly infelicitous and uncommon, especially in edited prose. I’m sure Neal Whitman or someone from Language Log could explain better.

    Comment by Jonathon Owen — November 19, 2012 @ 8:35 pm | Reply

  2. People in glass houses etc – In your version you have an errant comma. “they walked out the front door of the apartment building, which they lived in during the early 1970s” – What apartment building? The one they lived in the 1970s. It’s restrictive. I wouldn’t normally mention it, as it’s a bit like finding fault for the sake of it – ‘Oh, look, aren’t I clever?’. But isn’t that exactly what you do when you pull up ordinary people and not just professional writers, as in your post “Not too shabby”.

    Comment by Warsaw Will — November 21, 2012 @ 4:45 am | Reply

  3. It reads like the first sentence of an Italo Calvino novel.

    Comment by marty — January 10, 2013 @ 12:01 am | Reply


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