Robust Sentences

In feedback, I often remark that students overuse “it,” or “that,” or “there is,” or “there are,” or, worst of all, “that means.” Pressed to explain why you should avoid these simple, seemingly essential constructions, I stammer something about their vagueness or how tired your readers will get of reading them. Neither of these explanations proves much. So, instead of trying to prove that these cheap little fillers are weak, let’s do an exercise that demonstrates the vitality of the alternatives to the innocuous fillers that cost your work its strength.

As you examine the samples, notice how often they are improved by substituting robust subject-verb pairs for weak phrases using the verb “to be.”

The examples below are from “Evolution and Bad Boyfriends,” by Piet van den Berg and Tim Fawcett, New York Times, October 11, 2013

The Original Paragraph

There is only a mixed amount of influence parents have had on the love lives of their children throughout history and in societies all over the world. Parents and children frequently don’t see eye to eye on what makes a suitable partner, as studies across cultures have confirmed. You think your daughter’s boyfriend isn’t good enough? It may be evolution’s fault. But how could evolution have led to such an awkward situation as parent-child conflict over mates? In a recent paper in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, we and two colleagues, the biologist Franjo Weissing and the social psychologist Bram Buunk, showed how it could work. When thinking about mate choice, the natural starting point is the theory of sexual selection. This theory, which focuses not on the struggle for existence but on the competition to attract sexual partners, has been hugely successful in explaining the diverse courtship behaviors and mating patterns in the animal kingdom, from the peacock’s flamboyant tail to the chirping calls of male crickets. Modern mathematical versions of this theory show how female mating preferences and male characteristics will evolve together. But when you try to apply the theory to humans, you hit a snag. In humans, there is an extra preference involved — that of the parents.

The text begins:

There is only a mixed amount of influence parents have had on the love lives of their children throughout history and in societies all over the world.

Choose the strongest, clearest alternate phrasing:

  1. If parents try to influence the love lives of their children, they have only been partially successful throughout history and in societies all over the world.
  2. Throughout history and in societies all over the world, parents have tried to influence the love lives of their children — with mixed success.
  3. Parents throughout history and in societies all over the world, have tried—and mostly failed—to influence the love lives of their children.

In the above, the weak “There is” is replaced by “parents try . . . and have been successful,” by “parents have tried,” and by “Parents have tried and mostly failed.” All the substitutions are improvements. The last one uses two strong subject-verb pairs: “parents have tried,” and “parents have failed.”

The text continues:

Parents and children frequently don’t see eye to eye on what makes a suitable partner, as studies across cultures have confirmed.

Choose the strongest, clearest alternate phrasing:

  1. Whenever a pattern of human behavior is widespread, there is reason to suspect that it might have something to do with our evolutionary history.
  2. Widespread patterns of human behavior are suspected to have something to do with our evolutionary history.
  3. Widespread patterns of human behavior are suspected to have evolved.
  4. We credit evolution for patterns of human behavior.

In the above, “there is” is replaced by stronger pairs “patterns are suspected,” and by “we credit.” The active “we credit” is inherently more robust than the passive “are suspected (by whom)?”

The text continues:

You think your daughter’s boyfriend isn’t good enough? It may be evolution’s fault.

Choose the strongest, clearest alternate phrasing:

  1. Your daughter’s boyfriend isn’t good enough? It may be evolution’s fault.
  2. Your daughter’s boyfriend isn’t good enough? Blame evolution.
  3. Your daughter dates jerks? Blame evolution.

In the above, little is accomplished until we substitute the weak and innocuous “isn’t” and “may be” with “dates” and “blames.”

The text continues:

But how could evolution have led to such an awkward situation as parent-child conflict over mates? In a recent paper in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, we and two colleagues, the biologist Franjo Weissing and the social psychologist Bram Buunk, showed how it could work. When thinking about mate choice, the natural starting point is the theory of sexual selection.

Choose the strongest, clearest alternate phrasing:

  1. The natural starting point for any discussion of mate choice is the theory of sexual selection.
  2. We can’t discuss mate choice without discussing the theory of sexual selection.
  3. Sexual selection dominates our thinking about mate choice.

In the above, the active subject-verb pairs “we discuss” and “selection dominates” robustly replace the weak and innocuous “starting point is.”

Choose the strongest, clearest phrasing:

  1. This theory, which focuses not on the struggle for existence but on the competition to attract sexual partners, has been hugely successful in explaining the diverse courtship behaviors and mating patterns in the animal kingdom, from the peacock’s flamboyant tail to the chirping calls of male crickets.
  2. This theory explains that courtship behaviors and mating patterns in the animal kingdom, from the peacock’s flamboyant tail to the chirping calls of male crickets are focused not on the struggle for existence but on the competition to attract sexual partners.
  3. Peacocks flashing their flamboyant tails and male crickets chirping about their plans for the night are competing for sex, not struggling for their existence.

You tell me which robust subject-verb pairs empower their respective sentences.

Choose the strongest, clearest phrasing:

  1. Modern mathematical versions of this theory show how female mating preferences and male characteristics will evolve together. But when you try to apply the theory to humans, you hit a snag. In humans, there is an extra preference involved — that of the parents.
  2. In most animals, female mating preferences and male characteristics have evolved together. But applying the theory to humans is problematic. In humans, the parents also get a vote.
  3. Except in humans, where parents get a veto, female mating preferences and male characteristics have evolved together.
  4. In modern mathematical versions, the theory shows that female mating preferences and male characteristics evolve together, but not in humans, where parents get a veto.

For the above, I leave it to you to find the best, most robust, subjects and active verbs to replace the weak pronouns and verbs “to be.”

The revised paragraph:

Parents throughout history and in societies all over the world, have tried—and mostly failed—to influence the love lives of their children. We credit evolution for patterns of human behavior. Your daughter dates jerks? Blame evolution. [In a recent paper in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, we and two colleagues, the biologist Franjo Weissing and the social psychologist Bram Buunk, showed how it could work.] Sexual selection dominates our thinking about mate choice. Peacocks flashing their flamboyant tails and male crickets chirping about their plans for the night are competing for sex, not struggling for their existence. In modern mathematical versions, the theory shows that female mating preferences and male characteristics evolve together, but not in humans, where parents get a veto.