Friday, March 30, 2012

More picky picky

Came across this in a student paper and couldn't figure out how this student would come up with this conclusion (Constitution=bad, limits freedom).  I am NOT trying to get political here. I just want to show how sometimes placement affects meaning, and in this case had the sentence meaning the opposite of what she really wanted it to mean:
The framers of the constitution were successful in creating a government that was strong but not too strong so as to limit individual freedom. 

 First time I read it, I thought she was saying that the constitution created this government in order to limit individual freedom. This was the conclusion, and the paper said the opposite, so I figured it was just inartful wording (or punctuation-- let's see), that she meant that the government was not the sort of government that was so strong that it limited individual freedom.
And even said that way, it's too confusing.
But the problem is that "so as to limit individual freedom" should modify "too strong". Trouble is, the adjective is actually "not too strong." And anyway, "so as to limit" could just as easily be a sentence modifier giving the motivation of the constitution framers, indicating that their intent was to limit freedom.

 I'm not saying everyone would read it that way. But I'm a good reader, and it halted me just like that. "Huh? But the whole paper is about how the Constitution -protects- individual freedom!" When good readers are confused, we've done something wrong.

And it's easy to clarify so that there's only one meaning. And I will (and did, for the student). But first I want to look into what went wrong in that sentence. And yes, I know that no one is perfect, and this is just a sentence, and I'm being picky. However, good writers should be conscious of the meaning of their sentences, not just the thought that inspires the sentence. And so, no further ado...

Problem 1:
This is one of those sneaky double negatives that turn out sort of to be positive but indirectly.
not too strong so as to limit individual freedom.
'Not" is a clear negative, but "limit" is a sneaky one.
So does this limit or not? Negative or positive? Who knows what is meant?  Would a strong government limit freedom or not? Not clear.
What is it the writer -wants-? Not limitation but protection. Easier to state it in the positive, and rework the sentence to make it positive.

2. "So as to" is a causal (if clumsy) connector, meaning that whatever follows is presumably caused by whatever precedes. But what precedes isn't an action or noun, but rather an adjective (not too strong), and that confused me. Not too strong WHAT? I think, actually, if it was "not SO strong," I might have gotten the idea, though it was still ugly. "Too" creates a comparative to "strong" so sends that adjective backwards in the sentence, so the forward part "so as to, etc." isn't as clearly connected. Not so strong leads forwards, pointing at the "so as to" part.

3. However, "so as to" is clunky here. What matters? what means?  but not so strong as to limit freedom might be better, or not so strong to cause... Hmm. I'd change that around, actually. More later. Just hate "so as to" with its faux legal tone.

4. Let's try a comma to clearly separate the "not" -- the negative untrue part (we don't actually have that "too strong" government)-- from the actual--
The framers of the constitution were successful in creating a government that was strong, but not too strong so as to limit individual freedom.
Little better. I don't like the "that was strong"-- I never like putting in clauses, esp. relative clauses, when adjectives would do-- creating a strong government.

5. How about thinking positive? I mean, the negative didn't happen. That's the whole point. So why give over half the sentence to something that didn't happen and wasn't meant to happen? Let's try positive:
To protect individual freedom, the framers of the constitution were successful in creating a strong but not too strong government.

Now I might add a "how"-- how did they do that-- at the end there, but at least to my mind, that makes sense.

Who's got another picky sentence that doesn't quite work?
Alicia

5 comments:

Amalie said...

It is a bit muddy. I understood it in the way it meshes with the rest of the paper--strong but not limiting(but then people talk that way in these-here parts :) I think it was more that the SO was mislocated than any punctuation errors?

How I read it: The framers of the constitution were successful in creating a government that was strong but not SO strong as to limit individual freedom.

green_knight said...

Amalie, I like your edit. In the original, I stumbled over the 'so as to and I still can't see any way of making it work.

Edittorrent said...

Amalie, yes, that "so" is the problem. Odd?

Adrian said...

I agree the original sentence is clunky, but the edit doesn't read much better for me--it's a pretty big change in emphasis and tone. I'd go closer to the original like this:

The framers of the Constitution were successful in creating a government that was strong but not so strong as to limit individual freedom.

You acknowledged that wording in problem 2, but claimed it was still ugly. For me, that way reads pretty well, so I don't understand what's still ugly about it. My next target would probably be the passive voice rather than the comparison.

The framers of the Constitution successfully created a government that was strong but not so strong as to limit individual freedom.

The contrast between strong and limited government seems to be the crux of the point being made, so I might try a different sentence structure altogether.

Although the framers of the Constitution created a strong government, they also succeeded in limiting it in order to protect individual freedom.

Eh, maybe:

The framers of the Constitution succeeded in creating a strong yet limited government that protects individual freedom.

Or:

Despite the limitations designed to protect individual freedom, the framers of the Constitution created a strong government.

Just riffing.

Edittorrent said...

it is amazing,isn't it, Adrian? How finely tuned sentences can get, must be, to get the exact meaning and also the right feel and sound and tone and all that.

I like to think we're kind of superheroes, we writers.
A