On the Importance of Readability

I have just “finished” a book of essays about female science fiction writers. I am not going to identify the book further, because the article I am going to discuss was written by a person who, to my surprise, has been a respected faculty member at a reputable university for over a quarter of a century. I don’t want to insult this person, so I won’t identify the person either. I will name the person Al Rockey and will refer to the person as “he,” but this should not be taken to indicate that the person is a man.

Back to the book. It’s a series of studies, each by a different critic, each on a different female writer of science fiction, and it’s on the whole extremely interesting and well done.

The reason for the quotes around “finished,” above, however, is that I did not actually finish one of the essays in the book. The essay, on Joan D. Vinge, is written by the person I’m calling Al Rockey. He may have a lot of interesting and important things to say on the subject of Joan, but unfortunately his essay is, as far as I’m concerned, unreadable. I suffered through ten pages of it and then quit, abandoning the bulk of it (seventeen more pages).

Maybe when he wrote this essay, Al Rockey was very young. Perhaps the essay contains the germ of, or forms one of the chapters of, the Ph.D. thesis he eventually produced. With luck, he had a thesis adviser who cared about syntax and grammar, and the finished product was thus possibly very good, or at least much improved.

But it’s also possible that his thesis adviser was one of those professors who feel that “the big picture” is the important thing and all this fussing about grammar is a kind of shibboleth invented by petty-minded pencil-pushers who are unable to see “the big picture” and therefore carp about the details.1

Al Rockey should have used his dictionary. He is one of the, alas, many who think that “comprise” is just a fancy word that means the same as “compose.”2 The first ten pages of his essay are richly studded with the teeth-grating expression “comprised of.”

I got past a number of instances of this and then found that he also thinks that “kith” means the same as “kin.”3 He probably also thinks that “flotsam” means the same as “jetsam.”4 Where do people get these ideas? Perhaps it’s because the two words are often used as a pair—“kith and kin,” “flotsam and jetsam.” Do they therefore also think that “salt” means the same as “pepper”?

Though mentally shaking my head in disgust, I pressed on with the essay, because I really am interested in Joan D. Vinge. Then I got to the following sentence (I am tempted to copy Dave Barry and say, “I am not making this up”):

“Though frustrated, tense, and anxious, her commitments never become subjective.”

Oooo-kay. Probably he does not mean to imply that a commitment can be frustrated or tense. Probably he means “Though SHE IS frustrated, tense, and anxious, her commitments never become subjective.”

But, um, what does THAT mean? What is a non-subjective commitment, or, for that matter, a subjective commitment? Does he perhaps, possibly, mean “her COMMENTS never become subjective”?

Context is unhelpful. The sentence preceding the Sentence of Mystery ends, “she remains actively in revolt against the values of the system.” And the sentence following the Sentence of Mystery is, “And though her attitude is decidedly negative, her sense of responsibility never permits her to despair.”

I grit my teeth and tell myself to never mind, keep an eye on the big picture. And in the very next paragraph, which concerns a different character, I find the sentence, “One of the events that makes his alienation painfully aware to him occurs when he is declared a traitor and sentenced to death in absentia.”

Let’s try to deconstruct this one. Probably Al Rockey is telling us that one of the events that MAKE his alienation, and so forth. But what is the event, which apparently occurs concurrently with his being declared a traitor and sentenced to death? Oh, wait—maybe the being declared a traitor and sentenced to death is the event. Never mind that that’s not what the sentence actually says, or that it’s actually TWO events.

And alienation becoming aware of something—that’s pretty extreme anthropomorphism. Al Rockey must mean that it makes his alienation painfully CLEAR to him, or that he becomes (painfully) AWARE of his alienation.

How can we rewrite this sentence so that it means what Al Rockey wants it to mean?

Why would we even bother?

And that’s when I just gave up on the essay. Sorry, Joan—you deserve better.


1 Full disclosure: you may have guessed that I am one of those who carp about the details. When I was teaching literature to college students, I amazed and infuriated a number of them by my insistence that they could not understand what they were reading unless they actually knew what all the words meant. I started every class with a vocabulary quiz, on words taken from their most recent reading assignment. Since I allowed them to bring and consult a dictionary, I thought they would find it an easy way to rack up some points toward their final grade. Many of them, however, resented it highly.


2 See the essay on “Comprise and Compose, Including a Glance at Consist and, Oddly Enough, a Cookie Recipe.”


3 “Kin” means those people related to one, whether by blood or by marriage (hence the occasional qualifier “blood” kin). “Kith” means one’s circle of friends and acquaintances.


4 “Flotsam” is material that happens, unintentionally, to float away from a boat, ship, raft, etc.: it may have washed overboard or slid overboard or been accidentally knocked overboard or risen to the surface when the vessel sank. “Jetsam” is material that is intentionally thrown overboard, or jettisoned, usually in order to lighten the vessel.