Revising Is Investigating

You will know immediately, as I did, what this sentence posted at the entrance of a store means to say: Help stop the spread of Covid and stand six feet apart. We are being told to do two things, help and stand, and we understand, without being told anything more, that those two actions are closely related.

Revising what we write is not always about correcting errors. It can also be about hunting for hidden meaning, so that by looking closely at the words we’ve composed, trying alternatives and seeing what new meaning results, we might decide that the revised design says even better what we had intended—and surprising ourselves to find that we didn’t say that in our original. Or perhaps it will happen that the revision, upon inspection, doesn’t really improve our draft in any material way. Revising is investigating, and sometimes an investigation concludes that there was nothing to be investigated after all.

So let’s look for a moment at the conjunction and in the sentence we began with. This coordinating conjunction carries a tremendous burden in English; we often ask it to bear a lot of meaning, much more than it’s really responsible for, because we naturally sense that some meaningful relationship exists between things closely associated. That is why we should get in the habit of investigating it closely, especially when it joins two clauses, as it does here.

Grammarians classify and as a cumulative conjunction, meaning that its sole function is simply to join or gather together or amass elements that are presumably related in some way. Here, it joins two clauses, and since every clause is a thought, we suspect that it is carrying some logical meaning: perhaps it represents a conditional sentence (if you want to help stop the spread of Covid, then stand six feet apart), or perhaps it is meant to introduce not a clause but a prepositional phrase that will tell us how to reduce the contagion (help stop the spread of Covid by standing six feet apart). Both those ideas (and a few more as well) are implied by this very basic and common cumulative conjunction.

Our close investigation, then, has yielded other possible versions of the original, all grammatically correct but all different in their complexity. Conditional sentences require some logical thought, some amount of time to comprehend their intent; and given the circumstances of the sentence (a sign at the entrance of a store), we could rightly judge that the writer would be working against himself in expecting busy shoppers to stop and read a complex idea with consideration. The second revision, producing a prepositional phrase, simplifies matters a little, but it risks wordiness, as all prepositional phrases do, and that again may stand as a barrier to getting the attention of shoppers. This second revision tells us that something will help stop the spread of Covid, but it’s not directly telling us to do it.

So after a little testing, revising, and trying, we might just rightly conclude that the original gets done what needs to get done in the circumstances. It is telling us directly, frankly, seriously to do what we know we should do—help and stand. The two imperatives preclude the niceties of reason because we should be way past the need for rational convincing. The structure of the original sentence implies that what we need to do is obvious, and at the entrance of a store, it serves simply to remind us of what we already know. The original, then, should stand—but now we know why.


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  1. Thank you for making Tuesday and Thursday better each week; I always enjoy your blog. In this case, however, would a semicolon be more effective than the “and?” Its compactness contains power. DCL

    1. Replacing the conjunction with a semicolon is, yes, an effective way to concentrate the power of two related thoughts; juxtaposition increases force. The only reservation here would be the context: would the semicolon appear out of place in a public notice? My own feeling is that it would be acceptable in the more restricted setting of office or classroom. In fact, in public, one could imagine seeing the two clauses separated entirely into two simple sentences (Help stop the spread of Covid. Stand six feet apart.), the better to emphasize the urgency of the commonsense measure.

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