When writing is “correct,” yet flawed

Analyzing and solving beyond mere mechanics

Consistently, the problem I see with novice editors is, on the one hand, not knowing when they should limit themselves to strictly mechanical copyediting, and on the other, not knowing when — and how — to intervene more deeply. (Not knowing, in other words, what level of edit a piece requires.)

When it comes to editing by the light of purely rule-bound measures — spelling, hyphens, caps, subject/verb agreement, the generally accepted judgments on common issues of usage — they typically do well enough. But when it comes to judging the quality of the text, they become unmoored. They know very well the mechanics of correctness, but they cannot evaluate whether passages are coherent, sentences cohesive. Whether tone and style is appropriate to audience and purpose. Whether sentences are crisp and lively. Whether rhythm and cadence are in alignment with substance. Whether any of the myriad other elements that can go awry when words are marshalled together into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into whole works, have in fact done so.

They have no tools in their toolkit for that.

As a result, novice editors often intervene too little or too much. And the interventions they arrive at tend to fall into the realm of “this sounds better, this is how I would write it” rather than “here’s a solution that fixes the problem.” They tend also to apply the rules they’ve learned rigidly, in lock-step, rather than taking into consideration also matters of style and context. They have not yet learned that — based on the nature of writing (indeed, language) itself — the answer to nearly any point of syntax or usage, style or strategy, any question at all about phrasing or structure or approach, ought to be prefaced with that most profound of editorial truths: “It depends.”

. . .

The rules of mechanics are relatively easy to learn, easy to apply. And they do tend to be rules, mostly inflexible, mostly also finely focused. The principles governing the quality of a piece of writing are infinitely more varied and complex. And malleable. They are guidelines, not to be applied either inflexibly or automatically. Learning to work with them takes time. It takes judgment and skill and a deep feel not only for the logic and grammar of the language, but as well for its ambiguities, its mysteries, its poetry.

Writing can be grammatically incorrect (or incorrectly following a given style) in a fairly finite number of ways. The subject matches its verb or it does not. The modifier is placed correctly or it is not. The pronoun has a clear antecedent or it does not. And the fixes tend to be rote. Sometimes the error is subtle, and it certainly takes skill to recognize the more nuanced instances. But there is in general a finely focused structural or, with respect to case, inflectional template to be followed.

But there are many, many ways for writing that is “correct” on all points of grammar and syntax to be flawed. It might be unclear. It might be imprecise. It might lack flow. It might strike the wrong tone, cite the wrong particulars, misplace or squander emphasis. It might feel “passive”: limp, lackluster. It might, conversely, be too noisy. It might lack transition. It might lack cadence. It might be too choppy or simplistic. Conversely, it might be overly verbose — not simply long, but long in a way that doesn’t reward the reader. Long in a way that wastes time and energy. Leggy.

And that’s a remarkably partial list.

Nor do these woes travel alone. They come in new and interesting combinations — and in new and interesting guises. There are as many ways for writing that is “correct” to go astray on any given point (or the particular combination at work) as there are individual styles of writing. A sentence or paragraph may be unclear, imprecise, strike the wrong tone, in ways that are impossible to predict or to catalogue. How is one to approach a landscape like this as editor, where so much can go wrong and in entirely idiosyncratic ways? How is one to stay rooted in providing solutions, defensible solutions, that transcend mere personal preference? The answer is by studying not collections of rules, nor the more narrowly focused issues, but the structure of the language itself. And by attending also to how structure informs comprehension. Underlying those wondrously multifaceted individual styles of writing are principles — based in the language itself, and in our decoding of it — that govern the ways in which sentences and paragraphs in English are most generally clear, most typically successful; and working with these principles provides an organized and disciplined approach to identifying and untangling problems of flawed writing. These principles, in other words, reveal a framework that transcends individual style and strategy. Understanding that framework enables the editor to more easily parse the problem, which in turn suggests the remedy.

That’s the first point: correcting actual flaws, revising always for good reason. Never revising just “because.” The second point is constructing the revision. These fundamental principles suggest remedies based on the problem to be corrected, but they do not dictate exact fixes. Nor is there typically only one solution, which gives rise to another component of editing: restraint. The deeper an editor goes into the text — that is, the less mechanical the issue, the more substantive the

There are as many ways for writing that is “correct” to go astray on any given point (or the particular combination at work) as there are individual styles of writing.

problem — the more so will individual sensibilities shape responses. Those sensibilities should be attuned as much as possible to the editing context: the text, the audience, the writer, the assignment. No two editors are likely to line edit in the same way, but two experienced editors should each be solving the same issue or issues. And attempting, each in her own way, to arrive at a solution that works seamlessly with the text.

Editing at this level — paying attention to how the writing itself works (or doesn’t) — means going beyond the simple correction of errors of grammar, usage, and, to some extent, syntax. It means delving into the soul of the language. And for an editor, it means doing this in service of another.

. . .

So, what do I mean by grammatically correct, yet flawed? Here are a very few, very simple examples to help clarify the distinction between the two. But note that these are simple examples: they do not begin to canvass the richness of even these points they touch on.

Overloaded subject

A sentence like the following, which is perfectly “correct” by any measure of grammar, is awkward and difficult to parse because the subject is overloaded:

How the linear information contained in DNA can generate a specific three-dimensional organism in the course of development from the fertilized egg is one of the great mysteries of biology.

English does not well support such lengthy subject phrases, not of the sort found here, which offer the reader no respite, no moment even to breathe, before encountering the verb. A bit of suspension before the verb is fine, and that can be a useful technique for creating energy, drama, engagement. (Periodic sentences, anyone?) But too much and the sentence becomes difficult to parse.

One solution here might be simply to flip subject and complement:

One of the great mysteries of biology is how the linear information contained in DNA can generate a specific three-dimensional organism in the course of development from the fertilized egg.

Now the subject and verb orient us, and we can tackle the lengthy complement (beginning at “how”) because we have a framework to hang that information on.

It’s possible, of course, to take the revision further. Something like this is more graceful:

This is one of the great mysteries of biology: how the linear information contained in DNA can generate a specific three-dimensional organism in the course of development from the fertilized egg.

Once you begin to recognize the relatively straightforward problem of an overloaded subject, you have identified the problem to be solved, which helps direct you to the change to be made. The specifics of that change will have to do with context.

Overly nominalized

In a sentence like the following, common in engineering-speak, there are too many unhelpful noun phrases, aka nominalizations:

The hardware heat-load of the room will change repeatedly over the life of the room, and it is important that the primary criteria in the determination of the air conditioner placement be its effectiveness in addressing the current planning load, and their adaptability to changes in configurations.

For any overly nominalized sentence or passage, there are steps you can follow to break that potential description or action out of the static noun phrases and into the heat and the heart of the sentence. Which solution, exactly, you go with would have to do with context: the writer’s tone and style (or the style desired in that publication, even if the writer doesn’t yet meet it), the purpose of the piece, audience.

Here’s one possibility (assuming the phrase “it is important” is a keeper):

The hardware heat-load of the room will change repeatedly over the life of the room. For this reason, it is important to place the air conditioner where it will be most effective in addressing the current planning load and most adaptable to changes in configurations.

There are any number of ways to redesign this sentence. And if the entire document is written in this same style, a likely scenario, you would have to know whether the mandate was to revise the style entirely or simply to smooth out the most noticeably difficult-to-parse portions.

Overly qualified

This sentence (yes, it’s real) offers a dramatic example of what happens when too much qualification is woven in:

Often, perhaps in most cases, a model represents data that has permanence on the system. Sometimes, however, a model may represent data that is transient. In such cases, the data doesn’t really have a permanent location, and, therefore, the model only “contains” it in the most fleeting of senses.

Typically, for sentences that are overly interrupted in this way, you would begin by stripping out enough of that redundant metadiscourse so that the piece flows unimpeded, while still retaining enough to get the message across. And then tinker with what’s left. There’s a reason for qualifying statements. But a bit of qualification goes a long way.

This might work:

In most cases, a model represents data that has permanence on the system. In some cases, though, it represents data that is transient. In such cases, the data doesn’t have a permanent location, and so the model only “contains” it in the most fleeting of senses.

Or (with further change) this:

A model most often represents data that has permanence on the system. Sometimes, however, it represents data that is transient. Transient data doesn’t have a permanent location, and so models that represent such data only “contain” it in the most fleeting of senses.

When there are several potential solutions available for a particular issue, which one you go with — or which you suggest — would have to do also with larger issues of context, with voice and tone, even with how the rest of a given paragraph reads.

Misplaced emphasis

This sentence, in a discussion focusing on investors, emphasizes the wrong point:

In January 1999, Hewlett-Packard became Paradigm’s third major investor by purchasing a 15 percent stake in the company.

For misplaced emphasis, the solution is often just to move things around. English is end-focused and so in straightforward SVO-type sentences, the emphatic point will be at the end. (Other constructions often serve also to shift emphasis.) In this particular sentence, simply swapping those two bits of info — the percentage purchased and the fact that this company was now the third major investor — does the trick.

Like this:

In January 1999, Hewlett-Packard purchased a 15 percent stake in the company, becoming Paradigm’s third major investor.

And now the sentence emphasizes the point germane to the discussion.

. . .

Examples of these and other ways for writing to be flawed come up again and again, though typically in completely new and intriguing ways, in line with an individual writer’s style. If you have a structured approach for analyzing the quality of a piece of writing, if you can see those patterns, you have a powerful tool for constructing remedies. When you are engaged in this process as the writer, you can use these insights to better guide you as you work. As writer, you have complete freedom in what you do and how far you go, down to reconceptualizing entire sections and passages, as your thoughts and ideas for a piece evolve. But as editor, there are boundaries.

Here’s a deeper dive into two of those general principles that surface how we parse and comprehend text in English.

Overloaded subjects

The problem with overloaded subjects

The basic sentence is composed of two interacting parts: the subject and the predicate. Most sentences begin with the subject phrase, which makes little sense until it is “activated” by the predicate phrase. The predicate phrase, in turn, does not make sense unless we can recall the subject in its entirety.

The sentence hinges on this transaction between the subject and the predicate, which does not begin until the subject is complete. When the subject is cumbersome, the transaction drags. When the subject is brief, the transaction flies.

Save lengthy info for the predicate

As a rule sentences are clearer (and more emphatic) when most of the information is saved for the predicate. Clarity depends not so much on the amount of information as on its wording and location.

The news of the sentence — what the reader takes away from the sentence — is in the predicate. Subjects are mere static labels until predicates breathe life into them. The story is in the predicate.


In the following sentences, the subject is weighed down with too much information, requiring the reader to hold too much unanchored material in mind before being able to engage in sense making.

Diagnosing the problem helps direct the fix.

Passage 1

So, you’d not want this, with the overly suspended subject:

Alaska’s grueling 1,200-mile Iditarod sled-dog race from Anchorage to Nome over some of the most remote terrain in the world begins Saturday.

But perhaps this:

Beginning Saturday is the Iditarod, Alaska’s grueling 1,200-mile sled-dog race from Anchorage to Nome over some of the most remote terrain in the world

Or this (depending, as always, on context):

Alaska’s grueling 1,200-mile Iditarod sled-dog race begins Saturday. In the race, sledders and their dogs will travel from Anchorage to Nome over some of the most remote and treacherous terrain in the world.

Passage 2

You’d not want this:

The mystery of how developing organisms choreograph the activity of their genes so that cells form and function at the right place and at the right time is now being solved.

But perhaps this:

Now being solved is the mystery of how developing organisms choreograph the activity of their genes so that cells form and function at the right place and at the right time.

Or this:

Now being solved: the mystery of how developing organisms choreograph the activity of their genes so that cells form and function at the right place and at the right time.

Passage 3

You’d not want this:

A discussion of the design of X Windows and its impact on system performance and how to configure UNIX systems and X Windows for best performance is included.

But perhaps this:

Included in this course is [or This course includes] a discussion of the design of X Windows and its impact on system performance, as well as how to configure UNIX systems and X Windows for best performance.

Building drama

The flip side of that general principle is that you can use suspension to good effect, heightening the drama of a sentence by delaying — just enough, not too much — the completion of a thought. This technique also works hand in glove with the principle of end focus.

This sentence has a mild bit of suspension, which builds up to the introduction of the company, but doesn’t stop there:

In this corner, weighing in at $600 million and with 250 employees, is Pixar, represented by Battlin’ Steve Jobs.

If the sentence had ended instead at “Pixar,” the focus would be even more strongly on the company, instead of on its CEO. And that change would set up expectations for a different sort of information to follow.

Misplaced or squandered emphasis

End focus

English sentences are, in general, end-focused. The point of greatest emphasis is that point the entirety of the sentence has been leading us to and preparing us for: the endpoint. This is particularly the case in nonfiction narrative or expository text.

How a sentence ends affects its clarity and its strength. Grammatically complex structures are easier for us to parse when they come later, rather than earlier, in the sentence. So as editors (and writers) we should most often be thinking of pushing long and complex phrases towards the end. Sentences that end powerfully — with the native point of emphasis in line with what it is the sentence seeks to emphasize — are stronger sentences.

Additionally, in explainer writing of any sort, a common structure for sentences is “known to new”: that is, sentences will tend to begin with what is already known (either previously mentioned or assumed to be known) and then lead into the new information. In this way, too, what is new is aligned with the most typically emphatic point. It’s a natural partnership.

Now, a word of nuance. Not all sentences will follow this pattern. That would be deadly dull. But the sentences introducing new information should, for the most part, hew to it. Or follow one of the other patterns for shifting and controlling emphasis. In these patterns, the emphatic point is deliberated shifted to other points in the sentence.

English, full of variety.

Shift modifiers and stage-setters left, shift new information right, trim the end

The easiest way to achieve an emphatic-ending sentence (for the typical sentence that places its emphasis at the end) is to move information around by category. Shift modifiers, parentheticals, and stage-setting info like details of time and place towards the front of the sentence. Often, these will be less directly relevant to the main point, and more preparatory to it—which means that often, too, these will express known information. If there is other clearly known information in the sentence, shift it left as well.

Conversely, shift the new information towards the end of the sentence. Now fiddle with the phrasing to make it all work. Remember not to overload the subject phrase.

Lastly, trim the end if it’s not yet neat and tidy. Sometimes there’s additional straggling information at the end that can go altogether. Sometimes, everything else is in place and that’s the only problem.

As always, remember that these are general guidelines, not a rigid formula.


In the following sentences, the power of the endpoint is misplaced or squandered. The endpoint may not align well with the emphasis that sentence is aiming for in the context of its passage. Or the sentence may fizzle out at the end, sapping its momentum by concluding on less important material that belongs earlier in the sentence. Sometimes, these are missed opportunities, rather than actual flaws.

Diagnosing the problem points you in the direction of the fix.

Passages 1 & 2

Ideally, you’d not have this, with the sentence dwindling at the end into irrelevance:

The question of which developer’s kit to write to does not have a clear-cut answer at present.

But this, concluding on a point of substance:

At present, the question of which developer’s kit to write to does not have a clear-cut answer.

Likewise, not this:

It was a dreadful performance, with too many players posted missing for the most part.

But perhaps this:

It was a dreadful performance, for the most part, with too many players posted missing.

Passage 3

You’d not want this, where the first sentence ends strong, the second weak:

Workarounds are expensive, both to code and to test. They are unfortunately inescapable in some circumstances.

But perhaps this, shifting that metadiscourse, where we so often like it as readers, to the front of the sentence:

Workarounds are expensive, both to code and to test. In some circumstances, though, they are inescapable.

This shift not only places the emphasis in the second sentence squarely on the new news, but it also provides a smoother transition into that sentence and a tighter link between the two sentences.

You might also tighten up the thought with this:

Workarounds, however inescapable, are expensive to code and test.

As always, context would help determine which way, and how far, to take revisions.

Passage 4

Now this sentence would be fine — if the emphasis truly belonged on the debates:

A new project, code-named Pink, emerged in the late 1980s after furious internal debates.

But the sentence looks to be introducing this new project into the discussion. (And in the passage it comes from, it is.) Rephrasing the sentence to introduce that information at the end aligns sentence structure with sentence substance:

Later in the decade, after furious internal debates, a new project emerged, code-named Pink.

Passage 5

Note that sometimes the seemingly less emphatic endpoint is deliberate — and delivers a different twist, as here (in a heading):

Humans Can Safely Eat Pet Food, For The Most Part

The downshift at the end in this case produces a particular tone, one the writer is angling for.

Delaying the endpoint

There are methods for delaying the endpoint so as to give it more impact when it arrives.

As here:

Ram Singh was wrong in this particular case: the accused were arrested; they were charged; they were found guilty of rape and — because, in the end, Jyoti Pandey did not survive the attack — murder.

Sadly, this is no mere sample sentence.

. . .

What’s particularly challenging about editing is the many slippery ways that writing can go wrong — and the way in which context comes into play. What might be clear and appropriate in one context may be entirely unsuited for another. How the editor responds, then, will have to do not only with the nature of the writing itself, but with the purpose and audience for that writing. And, naturally, the nature and scope as well of the assignment.

When undertaking any editorial review, the editor must juggle these key aspects. The strengths and weaknesses of the writing. The context for that writing: who it’s for, what it’s for. And the nature and scope of the editorial assignment.

Studying the principles by which clear sentences and paragraphs are built, on a strong foundation in English grammar, can give you the tools to diagnose and repair a wide range of ways that writing can fail to communicate what it seeks to communicate. How you focus and apply those tools will then have to do with what’s expected of you as an editor. And those expectations will change depending upon the industry you’re working within and your role in the process. But if you’ve made these principles a part of your toolkit, you’ll be prepared — whatever your role.

. . .

Epilogue: try this at home

Where can you turn to get beyond the relatively simple issues of grammar and mechanics? Where do you go to study the principles of English sentence construction in a comprehensive and disciplined fashion?

To my mind, two of the foundational texts for that are Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects (Martha Kolln and Loretta Gray) and Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Joseph Williams and Joseph Bizup). Rhetorical Grammar walks you through the patterns underlying virtually all simple clauses, independent and dependent, as well as all infinitive, gerund, and participial phrases. The book then analyzes the primary components of the grammatical system in terms of form and function, and in terms of the effects of different structures. It’s powerful stuff. Style makes for the perfect companion, seeming almost to pick up where Rhetorical Grammar leaves off. Informed by the same insights and a similar perspective, it focuses on how sentences go astray in every other way apart from being grammatically incorrect. And it does so in deliberate and clarifying detail.

There are a number of other texts that build on similar principles, but these two still seem to me to offer the best and most comprehensive treatment, with a wide variety of examples. They’re tough going, best approached within the framework of a class. If you’re determined enough, though, you can do it on your own — or better yet, in a study group.