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University of Chicago Writing Program

Sentence of the Week: Communicative hair

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This week's sentence:

Head teacher Nigel Pott said the school had been trying to resolve the issue of Chloe's hair since before Christmas. Despite liaising with Chloe and her parents, her hair had stayed a pink colour, Mr. Pott said.

This week's passage reports a complex dispute among at least three parties: a young woman, her teachers, and her parents. Unfortunately, the second sentence unexpectedly adds another participant: hair, which appears to be negotiating on its own behalf. How can we restore Chloe's hair to its normal condition of bashful silence?

What went wrong: a modifying phrase gone wild

The sentence begins with an initial modifying phrase, a practice that can work perfectly well:

Despite consuming three pieces of pumpkin pie in five minutes, George clamored for chocolate cake as well.

While the behavior described here may be questionable, the sentence works. The initial modifying phrase is meant to modify George, and does. George is our pie vacuum. If we're missing a slice of pie, George should be our first suspect.

Modifying phrases can run amok, however, when they get too close to a word that they're not meant to modify.

Wrong: Despite consuming three pieces of pie in five minutes, chocolate cake had not lost its appeal.

Ouch. In this version, the modifying phrase modifies "cake," making it sound as if the cake has been eating the pie. This probably is not the case, unless all the available desserts at a dinner party have decided to engage in some ghastly form of inter-confection cannibalism.

How can we fix the sentence?

In the original sentence, the school is liaising with Chloe's hair, a meeting that would would make for a great, if alarming, viral video:

Despite liaising with Chloe and her parents, her hair had stayed a pink colour.

We can revise the sentence in at least two ways. First, we can provide a more appropriate subject for the main clause:

Despite liaising with Chloe and her parents, school officials could not persuade Chloe to restore her hair to its usual color.

Now it's clear that the school officials, rather than the hair, have been liaising. Another possibility: convert the initial phrase to a full-fledged clause, making clear at once who is doing what.

Although school officials met with Chloe and her parents, Chloe's hair remained pink.

Other possibilities: some advantages of abstract subjects

Both of our suggested revisions work grammatically. There are, however, other ways to revise the sentence. It would be possible to tinker with the subject of the second clause:

  • School officials failed to persuade Chloe to change her hair.
  • Chloe's parents did not require her to change her hair.
  • Chloe persisted in keeping her pink hair.

Each of these possibilities has a slightly different implication, and these differences are worth pondering. When the subject is "school officials," the officials seem slightly more responsible for the negative outcome. When the subject is "Chloe," she seems more at fault.

And this brings us to an advantage of the original (flawed) sentence -- but also to one possible reason why the author ran into grammatical trouble. The author made "hair" the sentence's subject, even though the sentence's opening phrase is haunted by the ghost of one of the human characters (school officials). Why do this? After all, the real parties to the dispute are all people. The hair, unfortunately for it, has no say: it is utterly at the mercy of human beings, all of whom are far better equipped -- with free will, with opposable thumbs -- to take action. Why then give hair the starring role?

One possible answer: a laudable desire to avoid finding fault with the human characters prematurely. When the author reports that the hair remained pink, he sticks to the facts, and refrains from speculating on explanations. Readers are free to speculate about who said what to whom during the failed negotiations. They may wonder all they please about Chloe, her parents, and the school officials. But since the dispute is ongoing, the writer follows a higher calling. He lacks the information to place blame. By making "hair" a subject, he doesn't have to. Thus the hair remains pink. This is the rock of discretion to which the author can cling.

In this case, then, the abstract subject does valuable work. But the rest of the sentence must support that work. The lesson for other writers? If you're the sort of writer who is motivated primarily by fear of error, you might be tempted to draw a rashly hyper-cautious conclusion from this week's sentence. You might be afraid to use an opening modifier or an abstract subject at all -- but that fear would be misplaced. Both can be useful. Avoiding them altogether would be like trying to drive without making any left turns -- possible in most circumstances, but cumbersome, limiting, and ungraceful. Do use opening modifiers and abstract subjects when your argument requires them -- but just make sure they match.

Do you have a candidate for sentence of the week?

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Bad sentences written by University of Chicago faculty, staff, or students are not eligible, since we assume that such persons write bad sentences only while under the influence of some occult force. Apart from this trivial and unimportant restriction, we welcome sentences, bad and good, by any author whatever.