Subtle redundancy—the hard part of writing 5

rogersgeorge on July 3rd, 2010

Here’s part of the caption under a photo on the front page of a local newspaper whose name shall remain unmentioned, but you’ll figure it out if you live near me. The context is a photo of a whale carcass.

“…to allow scientists to examine the creature for clues of how it may have died.”

Can you tell what’s wrong with this sentence?

“Clues” implies indefiniteness, and so does “may” (which is incorrect for two other reasons which I’ll get to in a moment). So we have a redundancy—an unnecessary repetition.

Now to decide which to remove, the “clues” or the “may.”

For one thing, they called it a carcass in the headline, and said “dead animal” elsewhere in the caption. The animal is clearly dead—no “may have died” here. Furthermore, they might not figure out why the animal died, so “clues” is appropriate.

So let’s go with “…to allow marine biologists to look for clues to how the creature died.”

Two more goodies from this sentence:

  • First, note the change to a more specific term than “scientists.” Better writing.
  • Second, use “might” to express doubt, not “may.” Save “may” for permission.

You may now go forth and write better.

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