Man, that’s heavy…

In reading Chapter 2 of Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style by Virginia Tufte, I wasn’t sure what I might glean about noun phrases. On the first page of the chapter (p. 37), she led me on my way: “Because there are more nouns than any other part of speech in the English vocabulary, noun phrases offer a tremendous stock of meaning.” Noun phrases appear in all sorts of places in a sentence, and lead us to that meaning.

She talks of the varieties of noun phrases, including the nominalizations, the positions and functions of noun phrases, fragments (gasp, no, you can’t use fragments in technical communication!), long noun phrases, pronouns, and gendered nouns and pronouns. Along the way, a few things caught my eye as important to my role as a technical editor.

Tufte suggested that science writers (one kind of technical writers) often string nouns and noun phrases together “in an attempt toward economy and accuracy” (p. 43). I understand that long noun strings might shorten a sentence, using fewer words, but it is not an efficiency in time or understanding. I need to go do some research on this, but I am sure that it takes people longer to parse and untangle long noun strings than it does to read a longer prepositional phrase or other noun phrase that makes it more readily apparent what they are talking about.

Speaking of longer sentences, Tufte does speak to how “heavy” a sentence can become when it includes numerous, embedded prepositional phrases (with lots of nouns) as well as several relative and subordinate clauses. If crafted well, a long sentence with many noun phrases is syntactically fine and quite readable, but it is easy for those types of sentences to get away from us. I really liked the description of a “heavy” sentence from the noun phrases, instead of a “long” sentence.

Finally, Tufte’s discussion about pronouns was really a good way to end her chapter on noun phrases. She talked about first person, second person, and third person pronouns and when or how they are used in the different types of writing. She stated that technical communication (she doesn’t call it this, but I read it as such) uses second person “you” as a way of engaging the reader or connecting with the reader. She also suggested that second person could sound “preachy or invasive” (p. 50) if overdone. She also tackles the gender pronoun and how some usage guides suggest that the plural pronoun is an acceptable way of avoiding the him/her, him or her, she and he debacle, instead of just using the masculine form. I must say that I rely on the plural pronoun in my speech and informal writing, but in the technical communication that I edit, the sentence is recast to be precise in our use of the correct pronouns.

That’s it for now. Go forth and write lighter more artful sentences.

Happy editing everyone!

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