What to do when a very long noun form is the subject of the sentence

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JOSE A. CARILLO

WHAT do you do when your favorite newspaper mesmerizes you with a sentence this long: “A free seminar on using novel nutritional technologies and innovative techniques to help Filipino poultry raisers optimize their yield and increase their profit in the light of rising feed and production expenses has been set at the EDSA Shangri-la Hotel at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, its organizer, ABC Biotechnology Corp. said”?

That sentence—it’s from an actual news release run by a Metro Manila broadsheet (only the company name is disguised)—almost always stumped participants of my business writing seminar many years ago when I asked them to rewrite it for clarity. Its subject is, of course, the 32-word behemoth phrase “a free seminar… rising feed and production expenses,” and its operative verb is “has been set.” However, by the time you reach that verb, no doubt you’d already be gasping for air and likely would have lost track of what the sentence is trying to tell you.

Years before I made that sentence a staple writing exercise, an avid follower of this column from India asked me how best to deal with monstrously long noun forms like that. He sent me a news lead that, although it had a subject less than half as long, was no less troublesome from both the construction and reading comprehension standpoints: “Isolated instances of terrorist outfits manipulating the stock markets to raise funds for their operations have been reported.”

Surajit asked: “How do I reduce the length of the subject? In one of your past columns that briefly dealt with this topic, you suggested that the long subject be broken up [to introduce the verb earlier using the discontinuous-phrase option]. I tried it with the sentence above, but the resulting sentence doesn’t sound natural. Look: ‘Isolated instances have been reported of terrorist outfits manipulating the stockmarkets to raise funds for their operations.’”


I explained to Surajit that the problem with sentences with a very long noun form as subject is that the operative verb comes too late to execute the action, making such sentences confusing and difficult to read. I strongly cautioned him against routinely reducing the length of the noun phrase to solve the problem as he had done, for it can oftentimes alter the semantics of the sentence seriously.

I suggested trying the second option of reconstructing the sentence to start with the much-maligned expletive “there” up front this way: “There have been reports of isolated instances of terrorist outfits manipulating the stockmarkets to raise funds for their operations.” This is superior semantically and structurally to the discontinuous-phrase option, although many grammarians frown on it on the ground that using the expletive “there” weakens the action of the verb.

That leaves us only one other option: putting the problematic sentence in the active voice. It’s the best option really, but it will require the sentence to specify the doer of the action. Assuming that it’s the United Nations, we can do this very straightforward reconstruction: “The United Nations has reported isolated instances of terrorist outfits manipulating the stock markets to raise funds for their operations.”

That sentence looks good and reads very well indeed—strong proof that putting sentences in the active voice is actually our best option for dealing with problems with long noun forms as the subject of the sentence.

Following the same pattern, I think it will now be a simple matter for everyone to reconstruct for clarity that sentence we started with: “A free seminar on using novel nutritional technologies and innovative techniques to help Filipino poultry raisers optimize their yield and increase their profit in the light of rising feed and production expenses has been set at the EDSA Shangri-la Hotel at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, its organizer, ABC Biotechnology Corp. said.”
Do it now.

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. Visit me on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/jacarillo. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo. E-mail: j8carillo@yahoo.com

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