Naturally Clear

My local grocery store recently posted this sign at its front door: Due to unprecedented Coronavirus related supply and delivery disruptions, along with heightened customer demand; we will not be issuing rain checks. This somewhat icy decree continues, in fact, for another 21 words, but the first section here will be enough to illustrate a common problem with the semicolon and say something about speaking frankly in a natural voice.

In an earlier post (Due To), we descended into the consequences of beginning a sentence with an ambiguous and high-sounding locution. The opening phrase due to is not doing anything the more common because of can’t, and when that’s the case, we are usually better served to follow the more humble among us. And, moreover, when we make that change, we are less befogged to see that the phrase along with heightened customer demand served no purpose other than to boost the official distance of the authority presumed behind the statement.

We should always cringe at woolly phrases like heightened demand, as we should always ask whether something needs to be said at all: if the supply is short, then isn’t the demand probably high? And is there in truth a meaningful distinction to be made in this context between supply and deliver? If I came for a roll of paper towel and found the shelf empty, would I really pause to wonder whether it was the factory or the truck that brought about this downfall? The distinction here is meaningless, and when our words do not advance meaning, the puffy and fluffy should always be shorn.

This substitution and trimming, however, does not get us very far in correcting the real problem of this statement, which is the semicolon. In two earlier posts (Running On and On and Finding a Rock in a Stream), I pointed out that semicolons shore up sections of a sentence that would otherwise run together in grammatical confusion. Here, however, the problem is exactly the opposite. The 14 words before the semicolon constitute a prepositional phrase, and that phrase has then been isolated by the semicolon. But prepositional phrases cannot stand alone, because the point of a preposition is to show some relation between things. The relation here is between disruptions and issuing rain checks, and the semicolon is standing strong between the two. If we change the semicolon to a comma, meaning can again flow across both sections of the sentence.

We can make, then, this revision: Because of unprecedented Coronavirus-related supply disruptions, we will not be issuing rain checks. We have brought the tone of the statement down from the clouds, reassociated grammatically the opening section of the sentence with that which follows, and have connected the compound adjective Coronavirus-related with a hyphen. Better, but even better would be this: Because the Coronavirus has disrupted the supply of many common items, we will not be able to issue rain checks. In this second revision, we have changed the entire opening prepositional phrase (beginning with the preposition because of) into a subordinate clause (beginning with the conjunction because); this then forces us to convert the noun disruptions into the verb disrupt (always a strong move in revision) and gives us the opportunity to address the original idea of heightened customer demand in a more conversational way: common items are probably items in high demand. Note, too, that the imperial we will not be issuing has become now a question of capability: we will not be able.

All of these changes stem from a standard of writing we can never forswear: presenting ideas clearly in a natural voice. To present ideas clearly means we have done the thinking required, and in a natural voice means we choose to stand with, not over and against, those we are addressing. And the social consequences of these requirements of good writing are one reason the study of language has long been considered indispensable to education.


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