Recently I was running a training course on effective writing for a large Hong Kong organisation. After we had talked about strategies for getting the message across to readers directly and effectively, one of the participants asked me to come and look at a poster pinned up on the noticeboard in the training room. “What do you think?” she asked. “Isn’t this just what you were talking about?” And yes, she was quite right.
In our class, we had been talking about a very common Hong Kong habit when writing English. Following Chinese practice, writers often start their sentences with a subordinate clause (offering background information) before proceeding to deliver the main clause (containing the key information or message of the sentence). One common type of subordinate clause is the kind that is introduced by a subordinating conjunction, like after, although, because, before, unless or while.
This poster is just such an example.
The sentence starts with a subordinate clause introduced by the subordinating conjunction whilst (a rather old-fashioned word which is more commonly written as while in modern English). This is then followed by the main clause ‘it [i.e. the wearing of a seat belt] can reduce your chance of death or serious injury by about half’. There is then another subordinate clause containing background information that finishes the sentence: ‘if you are unfortunately involved in a traffic accident’. The structure of the sentence is thus [subordinate clause 1] + [main clause] + [subordinate clause 2], for a total of 36 words.
Background information can sometimes be useful for the reader, but it can also be of no use at all. Too many Hong Kong writers start their sentences with subordinate clauses like this simply because it fits a certain pattern that they are comfortable with. In other words, the material included in the subordinate clause may be irrelevant to the message of the sentence, or be self-evident to most normal readers and therefore not worth mentioning. Its only function is to make the sentence longer and more difficult for readers to understand.
Let’s consider the usefulness of the two subordinate clauses in the sentence from our poster:
The key purpose of the poster is to get people to fasten their seat belts when driving. Consequently, subordinate clause (1) is irrelevant. In fact, the clause almost seems to be arguing against the purpose of the poster, because it invites readers to think ‘if wearing a seat belt doesn't prevent accidents, why should I bother?’ This is information that the reader does not need to have, and would be better off not having. But because it is the first information delivered in the sentence, it invites readers to take it very seriously.
As for the subordinate clause (ii), it is self-evident. It is true that we need to mention ‘traffic accident’ in the sentence. This tells readers what kind of thing could cause the ‘death or serious injury’ mentioned in the main clause. But to create a 9-word if-clause here is unnecessary, and the use of the word ‘unfortunately’ is especially unnecessary. No one is likely to be ‘fortunately involved in a traffic accident’; everyone takes it for granted that being involved in a traffic accident is an unfortunate thing to happen, so there is no need to state this obvious fact.
How to revise this sentence to make it direct and powerful? We can start by fixing the question that introduces our sentence, because questions like this must be framed ‘Why are seat belts necessary?’. I would also change ‘the wearing of a seat belt’ to ‘wearing a seat belt’ to simplify the wording and make it more dynamic by shifting from a noun-based to a verb-based expression. We might end up with something like this:
Wearing a seat belt can reduce your chance of death or serious injury in a traffic accident by about half.
This is 20 words of very direct and powerful statement in a single main clause, compared with the 36 words of the original sentence, containing two subordinate clauses and a main clause. And here, for comparison, is the choice of the UK”s Department of Transport for Road Safety Week. Which do you think is most effective?
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About this blog
This blog arises from keeping an eye on English in Hong Kong. I often use signs, notices and advertisements that I see as starting points to write about English issues that commonly challenge Hong Kong writers.