Muddled sentence has multiple problems.

Here is a badly muddled sentence that appeared in a Birmingham News article last week.  A substitute teacher did not report the spill of a large vial of mercury in a school chemistry lab, and officials were concerned about exposure.  Here is the sentence:

Birmingham city school officials will get results from mercury tests it conducted Friday on Putnam Middle School students and faculty in about a week, but don't expect to find anything problematic after a spill shut down the school this week.

Oh my! Where do I begin to correct this? First, the pronoun IT is not clear.  What does it refer to?  If the BIRMINGHAM CITY SCHOOL OFFICIALS (plural and human) are going to get the mercury test results, then it seems logical that THEY (not IT) conducted those tests.

Second, the phrase IN ABOUT A WEEK is way out of place in this sentence. It needs to be much closer to what it refers to, which is the MERCURY TESTS. 

Third, as worded, this sentence makes it sound as if the verb phrase DON'T EXPECT is directed as a command or imperative to the reader, but I think the reporter meant to suggest that those Birmingham school officials at the beginning of the sentence are the ones who DON'T EXPECT to find anything problematic.  The simple fix for this is to use the pronoun THEY a second time to refer back to the officials.

Fourth, I think the information in this sentence should be reversed, putting the expectations of the officials before the BUT.

Here is my suggested rewording:

Birmingham city school officials don't expect to find anything problematic after a spill shut down Putnam Middle School this week, but they will get results in about seven days from mercury tests conducted Friday on students and faculty.


A NOTE OF WELCOME to new readers from my Grammar and Usage workshops in Mobile and Montgomery this week.  Please feel free to comment or ask questions, and don't forget to use the Search slot on the Home Page to find other blog posts that interest you.

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5 Responses to “Muddled sentence has multiple problems.”

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  2. admin says:

    Thank you so much for your kind comments. I’m glad you find the blog worthwhile. Please allow me to repay you with three suggestions that might help you with clear writing in the future. 1. Use MAY when you are asking permission (as in, MAY I simply say…. 2.) Use WHO when referring to people. 3. Avoid using THEY to refer to a singular noun like PERSON. Your comment would then read this way: May I just say what a relief to uncover a person who genuinely knows what she is discussing on the web. Sorry, I can’t help myself when it comes to editing!

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