Editing Principle 12: Sloppy Syntax Hides Weak Arguments

That’s what I think when I’m not feeling particularly generous. Of course, not everyone knows they’re using sloppy syntax, so I can’t say that this is deliberate on people’s parts—that they’re disguising the fact that they haven’t thought something through with syntax that sounds enough like proper English to pass, but isn’t, and the resultant linguistic wobbliness helps them slip in logical leaps and category errors and worse.

(I’ll have to dig up some examples, but at the moment all I can think of is George W. Bush and his Bushisms.)

So just to reiterate: I’m not saying people use sloppy syntax consciously as part of some deliberate con. I’m saying if you haven’t thought something through, but for whatever reason you’re forced to write and/or publish about it, sloppy syntax is your friend. It will help you get away with a poorly constructed argument.

I've seen this countless times in my own writing. It just happens. It happens less than it used to, I’m pleased to say, but it still happens. And I’ve seen it as often in the writing of MIT professors as I have in the writing of…well, people younger and less lauded.

How or why does this happen? Here’s one possible reason: Whenever we're not sure how to complete a thought, it's vastly easier to type _something_ and move on, and think, "Oh, I'll get back to that and fix it later." Well, we don't always get back to it later, and the more times our eyes pass over what’s actually a mistake, the more it looks o.k. to us.

So the big point is, you may need an editor. If you’re lucky, the collaborative process of fixing the sloppy sentence will help you clarify your thinking, your argument, even your larger outlook.

Megan Hustad