Friday, 21 November 2008

Mind the gap

There's an old joke about a man who is told by his doctor to take one pill, twice a day. "But doctor," the patient protests, "After I've taken it once, how am I supposed to take it again?"

I am that man.

Every day as I walk to the subway I pass an apartment building with a sign that says, "Walking on the grass with dogs is prohibited." And every day I spend the next few minutes puzzling it out. Does that mean that I can walk on the grass with one dog? Does it mean that if I have more than one dog I can let them walk on the grass while I walk on the sidewalk?

At the bus terminal: "Passengers must stand on this side of the line while waiting for the bus." But how can a passenger who, by definition, is already on the bus, wait outside the bus?

On the subway there are signs showing a person stepping over that small, but not insignificant space between the station floor and the train. "Mind the gap," it reads. Someone, obviously with a mind similar to my own, had scrawled on one of them: "Not really."

If there is a way to misread a sentence, I'll probably find it. Because of this I sometimes spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure things out, but it also makes me a half-way decent editor. I've even developed it into a kind of aphorism which I try to drive home to my students: "Stupid readers make smart writers." All this really means is that a good writer will look at his work to see how it can be misinterpreted.

One of the most common problems I've noticed among my students (and a lot of the writers on the Internet) is that because they know what they mean, they aren't careful enough to ensure that the reader also knows what they mean.

During my years teaching I've collected a number of priceless examples of sentences that really could have done with a bit of the "stupid reader" check.

"To begin with, at least 14 countries have implemented cell bans while driving across the world.

A bit unclear whether the 14 countries were driving across the world as they banned cell phones, or whether they put into place a ban against driving across the world while using cell phones. Either way, it's pretty impressive.

"In November of 1973, the Québec jury acquitted Morgenataler but the Québec Court of Appeal throws out the verdict and is jailed for 18 months."

That'll teach the Quebec Court of Appeal to throw out a verdict instead of recycling it!

"Abortion is a controversial issue that exists mainly on the effects on pregnant women."

Will nobody stand up for the rights of pregnant men?

It's a simple rule, but surprisingly over-looked. Before sending in your copy or hitting the "publish post" button, make sure your sentences not only make sense, but that they do so in only one way.

I'll leave you with a few more words of wisdom taken from my students:

The agricultural technology has developed very fast in the past 50 years; and the world has produced enough food for every one on this planet by just looking at the number.