Our goal as writers: clarity.
The best expression of that ideal I've ever heard came from the Roman rhetorician Marcus Quintilianus (35-100 A.D.):
"We should write, not so that it is possible to understand us, but so that it is impossible to misunderstand us."
I am convinced that the writers of the following examples of garbled prose knew exactly what they wanted to say. However, they lost their way, thus leading us astray.
Consider this, from a New York Times profile of David Zaslav, CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery:
"As a young boy in Brooklyn, Zaslav spent Saturday afternoons at the movies with his father, who worked for the family's plumbing business, now called Zaslav & Sons, while attending law school at night."
Who was in law school, father or son? The writer unconsciously trips up the reader for a moment, causing confusion — a cardinal sin in writing. Reading further, we learn that it was the son.
To save the sentence, try this:
"As a young man in Brooklyn attending law school at night, Zaslav spent Saturday afternoons at the movies with his father, who worked for the family's plumbing business, now called Zaslav & Sons."
Anything interrupting flow creates a disservice.
Writers, not readers, should do the work.
Another example: "Prosecutors have asked a federal judge to revoke the bond for the mother of a Virginia boy who shot and wounded his first-grade teacher after she allegedly failed multiple drug tests while awaiting sentencing on two felony charges."
Certainly the writer did not want us to believe that the teacher failed drug tests and was awaiting sentencing.
But as in too many cases, the writer's mind races and compresses ideas that come out in the wrong order.
Two more classics:
1. "The gardens were rescued from decades of neglect and vandalism by [the] Women's Committee."
2. "The family lawyer will read the will tomorrow at the home of Mr. Hammon, who died June 19 to accommodate his relatives."
Please let me know how you would fix those blunders.
Gary Gilson can be reached through www.writebetterwithgary.com.