oil spills and grammar spills

June 11, 2010

I have just read a paragraph so bad that I am going to deconstruct the whole thing for you. It’s only a drop in the ocean, too: I could do the whole article if there weren’t so much of it.

Here at Text Pixels we realise the oil spill in the Gulf is a very serious matter. It is far more serious, in its urgent immediacy and need for action, than the chronic low-grade grammar spills that occur all around us every day. The particles of oil floating freeform in the sea are more hazardous to life than rogue particles flung about in a sentence.

And yet, we do wish that the people of the Guardian would use smaller quantities of sentence dispersant! Like oil particles, these sentence particles, badly used, stick to things and make the clear water of meaning all dirty. Look at this:

The oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico is even worse than previously thought, with twice as much oil spewing into the ocean than earlier estimations suggested, figures show.

First, that flotsam afterthought, “figures show.” Technically, it is the subject of the sentence: “Figures show [that] the oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico is even worse than previously thought, with twice as much oil spewing into the ocean than earlier estimations suggested.” See? But they can’t say that, because it is a newspaper. In their way of doing things, the oil spill – the main point of the sentence – must be the first phrase.

Somebody else might have thought this made “figures show” less important – or possibly important, but the subject of another sentence – but no. In newspaperland, it can just be tacked onto the end.

It’s not good for the English language. It’s not good for helping people to develop a habit of clear thinking. But we’re used to it.

But “twice as much than”? What is the point of this? It’s not just a crap style convention, it’s wrong. And it’s wrong in a stupid, pointless way.

Yes, I know you can just about decipher the meaning of the sentence. But the sentence isn’t helping, is it. And why listen to people who clearly aren’t listening to themselves?

But even if you’ve given this sentence the benefit of the doubt, the next one will leave you literally – yes, literally, not just figuratively – not knowing how much oil is pouring into the gulf, figures show. Here:

Latest estimates from scientists studying the disaster for the US government suggest [that] [sic] 160-380 million litres (42-100 million US gallons) of oil have already entered the Gulf. Most experts believe there is more oil gushing into the sea in an hour than officials originally said was spilling in an entire day.

First, a small point. If you “suggest 160-380 million litres” you are making a suggestion of it. You are proposing it. “Say, what about 160-380 million litres this evening? Either that or a movie, I don’t mind which.” What this sentence is trying to do is to suggest that something is happening. That these litres of oil are doing something.

Secondly. I know that I am a “words person” and not a “numbers person,” but doesn’t this mean that it is less like “twice as much than” and more like “24 times more as”? Which is it?

In fact: what are these figures, that dangle precariously off the edge of a sentence and “show” us things? Perhaps the last sentence in the paragraph will show us what they mean. But no:

It is the third – and perhaps not the last – time the Obama administration has had to increase its estimate of how much oil is gushing.

But it is. It is the last time the Obama administration has had to increase its estimate. It may not be the last time it will, but that is a different thing.

In fact, this awful paragraph hasn’t conveyed any actual information at all! And the rest of the article goes on the same way. I for one hope that, when the Guardian needs to report on Obama’s revised figures, it will take all necessary precautions to avoid another meaning spill like this one. It’s taken half the morning to clear it all up.

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