What We Can Learn from One Damn Sentence

By Mike Feinsilber

Everyone who writes or who thinks about writing probably has a list of things that drive him nuts. I know I do. High on my list is the missing “that.” Back in the bad old days of journalistic writing, editors (and some J-school professors too) used to preach that “that” was a useless word that said nothing. So members of my J-school generation dropped the “that,” thinking they were saving space. Big mistake. What they were doing was confusing readers.

My well-grounded teeth ground again on the morning of Friday, August 9, 2013 when my eyes collided with this sentence in a Wall Street Journal article about how a Washington law firm, Patton Boggs, is trimming its payroll:

“It is the sort of overhaul some competitors began years earlier and one Patton Boggs leaders say will spur more partner exits before the year is through.”

If you had to read that sentence three or four times to get its author’s meaning, so did I. Now provide the missing “thats”  and see how much easier it goes down:

It is the sort of overhaul that some competitors began years earlier and one that Patton Boggs leaders say will spur more partner exits before the year is through.

Clearer, right? The author saved two words and caused nine out of 10 readers to reread the sentence (or abandon the article). For a newspaper much concerned with profit and loss, this was not a profitable tradeoff.

But wait. We’re not finished with that lousy sentence.

The reader comes across the phrase “one Patton Boggs leaders” and thinks, “Wait a minute. That’s ungrammatical. Should be one Patton Boggs leader.” Only after a couple of re-reads does the reader get what the writer tried to say. The “one” refers back to “overhaul” and not forward to “leaders.” Ohhh. The fault this time was a pair of absent commas. Put them in and read that murky sentence one more time:

It is the sort of overhaul that some competitors began years earlier and one that, Patton Boggs leaders say, will spur more partner exits before the year is through.

Better, right? I hate to blame ye olde editor again, but I think he was the culprit. He preached against commas. Said they were usually unneeded. Called them space-wasters. Boy, was he wrong.

Believe it or not, we’re not through with that damn sentence yet. This time my grievance is with the phrase “will spur more partner exits.”

Partner exits?

Oh, she means departures by partners. The offense here is her use of a noun as an adjective. It shouldn’t be done, or it should be done with care.

Back when I was the writing coach at the Washington bureau of the AP, a writer wrote a lead which I waved in the air for years. It started out this way: “Outrage over passport application delays…” What was the cause of the outrage? Passports, a noun? No. Applications, a noun? No. It was about delays, delays in processing applications for passports. But the reader didn’t figure that out without unnecessary delay.

Readers read with a subconscious search for nouns. Nouns are the names of persons, places or things. Nouns tell us what the sentence is about. So when the eye comes across “partner exits,” the brain thinks, “this is about partners.” But no: what the writer wanted it to be about is exits. She was just being cute. Her cuteness cost you a mini-second. Worse, you wound up thinking about her writing rather than her meaning.

In an essay in the Wall Street Journal of September 3, 2013, Mark Goldblatt, a journalist, novelist, theologian, professor and former proofreader, writes about grammar, and what difference it makes.

“While there is definitely such a thing as good writing, there’s no such thing as good grammar,” he says. “The belief that there is betrays a basic misunderstanding of grammar’s purpose—which is to illuminate, not to sparkle.…The best thing you can say about a writer’s grammar is that it’s competent; it doesn’t get in the way. Competent grammar is grammar you don’t notice.”

Does the Wall Street Journal read the Wall Street Journal?
Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor, and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.


  1. “It is the sort of overhaul that some competitors began years earlier and will spur more partner exits before the year is through, Patton Boggs leaders say.”

    This was my revision, which at first I thought settled the matter. You know what? This exercise is harder than it looks. In my revision, who is spurring, the overhaul or the competitors?

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