In an earlier post (Why Theory?), I referred to what is called an anticipatory construction, a sentence design in which we refer to something we haven’t yet mentioned. Reading the sentence My friend Andy, as do many under financial strain, fell victim to a predatory lender, we wonder what it is that many do, and that remains unclear to us until we read fell victim. The verb do has anticipated its reference; hence, the anticipatory construction.

Guardians of the language, being by definition of a more conserving (I don’t say necessarily conservative) nature, usually censure this construction for the burden it places on the reader to sort things out. One enduring principle of writing (and of speaking as well) is that the writer does the work, not the reader. The reader has only two responsibilities: to know the language and to be paying attention, and it falls to us as writers to know what we want to say and present it organized and discernible. Bryan Garner, in his beyond excellent Garner’s Modern American Usage, says that the “best antidote” for the anticipatory construction (or reference, as he calls it) is “to become a stickler for orderly presentation and to develop an abiding empathy for the reader” (p. 51). Empathy, because the work of thinking clearly has been shifted nonchalantly from writer to reader.

Garner’s prescription that we keep to an orderly presentation of our ideas is the right and natural medicine for the anticipatory syndrome. To correct our sentence, we need only move the subordinate clause as do many under financial strain to the end of the sentence: My friend Andy fell victim to a predatory lender, as do many under financial strain. This brings the subject (My friend Andy) and predicate (fell victim) into juxtaposition, closing the gap between the two and foreclosing any misunderstanding. And if this cumulative design is not to our liking, we could move the same subordinate clause into the predicate, interrupting the verb before it reaches its complement but still remaining shy of the anticipatory error: My friend Andy fell victim, as do many under financial strain, to a predatory lender. This design has the additional effect of delaying the onerous agent to the final position of the sentence, where things are felt most sharply.

To every thing, though, there is a season, and some will argue that placing a little mental effort on the reader, as the anticipatory construction does, will keep attention at the ready. In the sentence Although I read them with a lawyer’s trained eye, those loan documents are difficult to understand, the pronoun them refers to the phrase those loan documents, which appears in the following clause. A pronoun normally refers to an antecedent, a word or phrase that goes before it (the literal meaning of the word antecedent), but here the antecedent of them is really a postcedent, appearing after, not before, its pronoun. You can imagine how that might unnerve some more critical minds.

It lies, though, to each of us to decide, sentence by sentence, whether the design we’ve written is meat or poison. We can agree that the confusion wrought by the anticipatory construction never does a reader any good, but perhaps what we sometimes call anticipatory is really only suspensive, rousing a little expectation that is quickly satisfied. That, I think, would reasonably justify the use of the postcedent for the pronoun them in our second example. It’s right here, in recognizing that language does not exhibit the impersonal rigor of mathematics, that so much pleasure can be found in the creative tension between rules and freedom—neither dominating, but both tumbling like dogs playing. It’s all much easier that way.


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