Maxi-rant 10: The principle of resolution

Does this ring any bells with you: a teacher of English enters the classroom and goes: “Morning, class. Today, we … Jason, stop strangling Pete! Today, we are going to … Harley, detach yourself from Sue! Today, we are going to cover the prin … Dwayne, for goodness sake, put that catapult down!!! Today, we are going to cover the principle of resolution.”? According to my confabulations with British teachers, the scenario itself is familiar enough, but nobody seems to have heard about this mysterious principle – yet the ability to follow it is essential to ensuring appropriate emphasis in everything we write.

This is best illustrated through examples. I vividly remember a letter published in The Times Educational Supplement a few years ago. The letter was written by a disgruntled teacher vehemently opposing a decision to allow some teaching in the classroom to be carried out by teaching assistants in place of teachers. The correspondent attempted to vent her indignation with this statement.

My job is to teach.

But nobody disputed that her job was to teach! That’s what teachers do, after all. What other conclusion did she think readers could possibly reach? It didn’t take me long, though, to realise that her point lacked acuity simply because she didn’t know that the end position in a clause confers the greatest emphasis. What she was trying to say was this.

To teach is my job.

Better still, she could have written:

To teach is a job that’s mine.

 

So this is the principle of resolution in action. You don’t need to know its name to be able to emphasise those parts of your message which you wish to stress: effective communicators do this on auto-pilot. But, of course, not all writers are equally gifted, and that’s where problems arise. And arise they do – with considerable regularity!  My second example also comes from The Times Educational Supplement.

Mr Bell said the telling comparisons were between general FE [Further Education] and sixth-form colleges.

Nope: the emphasis here is on how differently the two types of college perform, the latter outperforming the former.

Mr Bell said the comparisons between general FE and sixth-form colleges were telling.

The next three examples come courtesy of The Sunday Times. The article in which the first sentence appeared was about a revolutionary operation attempting to enable a paralysed Frenchman to walk again.

 

The first attempts [at performing this operation] didn’t go at all well on the French patient.

‘Fraid not.

 

The first attempts on the French patient didn’t go at all well.

 

My daughter fairly won the scholarship.

And what else did she win, pray?

My daughter won the scholarship fairly.

 

John Galliano at Dior makes my dresses.

What else does he make – hats?

My dresses are made by John Galliano at Dior.

My next example has been culled from The Independent.

 

A nurse said that 2,000 people were packed into the hospital which had 600 beds.

No, no, no!

A nurse said that a hospital which had 600 beds was crammed with 2,000 people.

Let me finish with the esteemed Economist, whose columnist was commenting on the recent resurgence of big companies.

 

To a degree, the financial crisis is responsible.

Nope: we are interested not in the culpability itself but in the cause of the big companies’ resurgence.

To a degree, the responsibility rests with the financial crisis.

So watch the principle of resolution: its violations are extremely common – and I’m shining the spotlight on the so-called ‘educated’ usage. After all, all the sources named here are supposed to belong to quality British press, yet many of the giants among the British media have been feeding my collection with a steady stream of similar lapses for yonks – and continue to do so.

 

PS

I’ve now had enough feedback – some of it on Twitter – to conclude that my humorous ‘Waverley’ narrative (the twelve skits published as ‘posts’) may be more suited to a book, so I’ve decided to write it in due course (after completing some other writing projects currently in the pipeline). All my blog posts will thus be free-standing.

PPS (added post publication)

Oops, I nearly revised my post but then decided not to in order to show you how easily the principle of resolution can be violated. I did this in the following commentary on the first example.

It didn’t take me long, though, to realise that her point lacked acuity simply because she didn’t know that the end position in a clause confers the greatest emphasis.

Granted, my violation is not as striking as those quoted above, but, to a language stylist such as me, it is painful nevertheless. Since I wanted to emphasise the communicative importance of the end position in a clause, I should have written something along those lines.

It didn’t take me long, though, to realise that her point lacked acuity simply because she didn’t know that the greatest communicative emphasis was derived from the end position in a clause.

Ouch! Any other suggestions?

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