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Not All Points Are Trivial, But Some Trivia Are Pointy

August 21, 2012

It may seem a bit cranky to use the recent Akin rape flap/Freudian slip/mouth-engulfing-foot moment in order to make a point about the importance of word order, but to one who believes in the paramount importance of words, no opportunity can be wasted.

The sample phrase, taken from an essay by CNN contributor Tom Carroll follows below:

“Every sexual encounter does not lead to pregnancy, but every sexual encounter leads to the possibility of pregnancy.”

What’s the problem? The problem is that the meaning is just a tiny bit imprecise. Obviously from context we can determine that Tom Carroll does not believe that ‘every single sexual encounter fails to lead to pregnancy,’ but that is one plausible grammatical meaning of the first clause.

What he meant, of course, was this:

“Not every sexual encounter leads to pregnancy, but every sexual encounter leads to the possibility of pregnancy.”

The ambiguous case vanishes. Not only that, but some other nice things happen. First, “leads” parallels “leads,” creating a varied repetition that fits perfectly with the “Not … but …” construction. Second, that “Not … but …” construction promises the reader that a multi-clause sentence is coming. It’s an extra nudge in the right direction. Third, by streamlining the grammatical construction of the first clause and matching the second–by creating that congruency of construction–the sentence focuses like a laser on one single contrast: pregnancy vs. the possibility of pregnancy.

It makes a much better sentence.

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