Sentences in Need of Help

Yesterday’s International Herald Tribune included two sentences that might have benefited from one more pass by the editor:

1 To the surprise of no one who has followed the issue, a new report provided evidence that the cyber attacks coming from China are heavily state-sponsored rather than being the work of independent actors.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry (or maybe it was his translator) decried “the evidence in this so-called report”. But as the existence of the report is not in doubt, the modifier would have worked better in its traditional place in government denial-speak: The “so-called evidence” in this report.

2 In a news story about the arrest of a Mr. Yaacoub, the grounds were described as “suspicion of taking part in the continuing shadow war between Israel and Iran and Hezbollah”.

If you know the regional politics, you know to read the end of this sentence as A AND (B+C). But if you didn’t know the politics, you might think that Israel and Iran are together at war with Hezbollah or that all three are at war with each other.

If the subject were something less negatively valenced, such as friendship, you could simply move the first party before the subject e.g., “this was part of Bill’s continuing friendship with Susan and Carlos”. But as the subject is “shadow war”, doing that might come across as blaming one side or the either entirely for the war — it’s Israel’s shadow war with or Iran and Hezbollah’s shadow war with. I could not find a better way but no doubt many of you can.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “Sentences in Need of Help”

  1. I think the editor could have fixed the second sentence: “suspicion of taking part in the continuing shadow war between Israel and its enemies, Iran and Hezbollah”

    1. That works for the Trib, but the WSJ’s would read: “suspicion of taking part in the continuing shadow war between Israel and its enemies, Iran, Hezbollah, and Chuck Hagel.”

  2. 1 To the surprise of no one who has followed the issue, a new report provided evidence that the cyber attacks coming from China are heavily state-sponsored rather than being the work of independent actors.

    (Trying to avoid changing the sentence too much) “To the surprise of none of the major players in the West, a new report provided yet more evidence that the cyber attacks coming from China are heavily state-sponsored rather than being the work of independent actors.”

    A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry (or maybe it was his translator) decried “the evidence in this so-called report”. But as the existence of the report is not in doubt, the modifier would have worked better in its traditional place in government denial-speak: The “so-called evidence” in this report.

    Quite. Almost certainly the translation; if the spokesgoon was really huffing up a storm, ‘so-called report’ was probably phrased in a lot more insulting way.

    “suspicion of taking part in the continuing shadow war between Israel and Iran and Hezbollah”.

    “between Israel and Iran and Iran’s Hezbollah allies.”

    max
    [‘Must hurry and produce the disposable words.’]

  3. Perhaps the first example means just what it says.

    The word “report” carries an implication of serious import, perhaps backed up by some serious study/scholarship. We here on RBC make frequent note of “reports” which are little more than partisan propaganda.

    1. Yep, that was what I was thinking. The idea of “so-called report” is “It’s not a report, it’s a propaganda piece/hatchet job/disinformation/etc.”

      Much as when I refer here to Those People as “self-styled conservatives”.

  4. In the second example: “the continuing shadow war between Israel on the one hand and Iran and Hezbollah on the other.” I know that uses more words. But the Strunk rule is “omit needless words”—not needful ones.

    1. The ambiguity in the sentence is cause by the use of the preposition “between” with three objects. A better sentence, with no extra words, could cite “the continuing shadow war of Israel against Iran and Hezbollah.”

      1. Also, presumably Yaacoub was arrested by a government. So it wasn’t really “suspicion of taking part in”, because aiding your own side would hopefully not be a crime. So “suspicion of aiding Iran and Hezbollah in their shadow war against Israel.”

        Or, to avoid any blaming implications Keith is afraid of: “suspicion of aiding Israel’s enemies, Iran and Hezbollah, in the continuing shadow war.”

      2. That would be shorter, but I believe the article wishes to avoid such an asymmetry. “Against” could be read to label one side as the primary instigator.

        On the other hand, I’m not sure that a disambiguation is necessary at all; after all, the target audience (i.e. readers of the International Herald Tribune) should be roughly familiar with the situation in the Middle East and be trusted to know what the general relationship between the three parties is. Just as when I’m mentioning the two Washington Post columnists Anne Applebaum and Dana Milbank in the same sentence, and then refer to the former as “her”, that’s not an unclear antecedent as long as I’m talking to people who know that Dana Milbank is a guy who just happens to have a unisex first name.

        1. I’d rather you didn’t mention Anne Applebaum and Dana Milbank at all. Or the wretched wastepaper company they work for.

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