Sentences are rarely perfect. A journal article consists of about 240 sentences and there is just not enough time to perfect every one of them. Still, it can be instructive to look at a single, wholly adequate sentence with an eye to its imperfections. One is not here making fun of the author; one is just trying to learn how a sentence works. Consider the one we looked at on Wednesday, written by James Surowiecki and published in The New Yorker:
That prompted the Harvard economist Jeff Frankel, a member of the committee that officially declares when recessions begin and end, to declare the downturn over.
The core of this sentence can be captured as follows:
That prompted Jeff Frankel to declare the downturn over.
But Surowiecki (or his editor) recognized that readers of The New Yorker might not know who this Frankel guy is. Since he is making a declaration, he has to be (a) an expert and (b) an authority. The two pieces of information—(a) he's a Harvard economist and (b) he's a member of the committee that officially declares when recessions begin and end—provide this information clearly and efficiently. Imperfect?
Well, yes. But perhaps unavoidably. My editing sense begins to tingle whenever a key term is used twice in the same sentence. Surowiecki explains why Frankel is the right guy "to declare the downturn over" by telling us that he is "a member of the committee that officially declares when recessions begin and end". This isn't as bad as using a word in its own definition, but it feels like the same kind of mistake. It seems uninformative even if it isn't. Now, like I say, this may be unavoidable and let me show you why.
If we want to fix the problem, we first need to learn something about Jeff Frankel. We can go to his homepage and get his "short bio" (a small PDF file). There we learn that Frankel "directs the program in International Finance and Macroeconomics at the National Bureau of Economic Research, where he is also a member of the Business Cycle Dating Committee, which officially declares recessions." That confirms what Surowiecki told us, but it also gives another way of putting it:
That prompted the Harvard economist Jeff Frankel, a member of the Business Cycle Dating Committee, to declare the downturn over.
As a sentence, this one is free of the imperfection I mentioned before. But an editor might rightly look at it and ask whether it really does the job of providing the reader with information about Frankel's authority to make the relevant declaration. Do people know what the Business Cycle Dating Committee does? Fine, the author might say, I'll replace the name of the committee with a description of its authority. (If you're curious, you can see what the committee looks like here.) And that's what gave us the published sentence.
To satisfy me, couldn't we just replace "declares" with another word that means the same thing. That's a possibility, but it may take some time to find a word that isn't subtly misleading. My impulse was to suggest "decides", as in:
That prompted the Harvard economist Jeff Frankel, a member of the committee that officially decides when recessions begin and end, to declare the downturn over.
But there's an important difference between deciding and declaring something, isn't there? Frankel and his committee did not decide that now was the time to end the downturn. They merely observed that their criteria had been met and could now "officially" (precisely) declare it to be over. So, we may be stuck with those two occurrences of "declare". If so, one option is to split it into two sentences:
Jeff Frankel is a member of the committee that officially declares recessions. The recent steady growth in the economy and creation of jobs prompted him to do declare this one over.
Something like that. But whether or not it's a suitable solution depends on the flow of the paragraph. And that's what we will look at next week.
One last thing. It is not true that a short sentence is more likely to be perfect than a long one. For an analysis of a short but imperfect sentence, see this post. For an analysis of a long sentence that approaches perfection, see this piece I published in Jacket.