Make the verb work, not the reader

Marx saw labour as the essence of what it means to be human. But that’s no reason to make our readers work hard to understand what we write.  With careful editing, we can usually communicate difficult ideas fairly clearly.

Here’s an example of an unnecessarily labour-intensive sentence, from the start of Isaac Balbus’s 1984 article ‘Habermas and feminism’. If you can read this sentence without wanting to punch something, well done.

The effort of Jürgen Habermas to reconcile the manifest tension between his assumption of a commitment to ideal speech that is inherent in communicative competence, on the one hand, and his awareness of the heretofore ubiquitous counterfactual status of anything even approximating ideal speech, on the other, has culminated in an evolutionary theory of communicative competence.

Ouch.

Why is this sentence so hard to read? Because it starts at the end. Until the final clause, you literally do not know what the sentence is about.

All Balbus needs to do is turn the sentence around:

An evolutionary theory of communicative competence has resulted from Habermas’s efforts to reconcile the tension between two things: his assumption of a commitment to ideal speech that is inherent in communicative competence, on the one hand, and his awareness of the heretofore ubiquitous counterfactual status of anything even approximating ideal speech, on the other.

That sentence still makes me want to punch something. But not quite as hard.

As with an earlier post of mine, the key is to make the verb work. Celia Elliott’s excellent guide offers lots of tips about how to do this, and lots of examples.

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