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Subject-verb distance signals heavy load ahead

[20 Aug 2014] When authors put distance between the subject of a sentence and its verb, they give their readers a hard time, mainly because there’s a bigger load on the short-term memory.

Here’s an example from a law firm’s promotional booklet – ie, a document where the firm is trying to sell its services, in this case to headteachers. The subject-verb distance is not enormous at 28 words but the verb is in the passive voice, which tends to muddy the waters, and there’s a fairly complicated structure with two parenthetical phrases (‘if any’ and ‘amongst others’):

‘The view [subject] by some critics of the academy programme such as the teaching union NASUWT, amongst others, that academy schools will have minimal impact, if any, on pupil outcomes is not shared [verb] by a majority of primary and secondary academy school headteachers themselves.’

This is followed by an even worse effort where there’s a double passive-voice verb and no sign of any doer for the verb ‘said’ (actually the doer was ‘headteachers’).

‘Nearly a quarter of all academy conversions were said to be driven by the opportunity to raise pupil outcomes.’

Just for the record, the jargon phrase ‘pupil outcomes’ means what pupils achieve, usually judged by exam results, and ‘academy conversions’ means state schools that become academies.

The booklet has several other long-winded sentences that will cause many headteachers to flick their internal off-switch rather than hire the law firm to represent them. This one, for example, begins with ‘whilst’, which is often a mark of turgid writing as it leads to long two-part sentences: [cont]

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