A brilliant veteran of the publishing world, Steve has edited books, magazines, newsletters, and even technical manuals, bringing a fresh wind of clarity into the morass of modern verbiage. I often consult him when I am stuck on an editorial issue, and he never fails to help.
I recently brought the following conundrum to him, a problem that (surprisingly) I had never encountered before. An author had just sent me a manuscript with this phrase: “Matthew 6:14–16 define . . .”
Since the Scripture passage that is doing the “defining” contains multiple verses, is it considered plural (so that “define,” as used by the original author, is correct), or is it considered one passage, and therefore singular (so that it should say “defines”)?
I was really scratching my head over this one, but Steve clarified it all in a single sentence. He responded, “I would follow William Safire’s advice: If it sounds weird, get rid of it.”
What a succinctly practical piece of advice!
He went on to say that the plural construction here might be grammatically correct in a sense, but in another sense it’s not. Who is doing the defining—Matthew or the verses? Finally, he concluded with his own little aphorism: “If it causes readers to scratch their heads, it’s not good communication.”
I decided to look this up, and though I cannot find where William Safire ever wrote, “If it sounds weird, get rid of it,” I trust that Steve quoted him, or at least paraphrased him, correctly. No matter. The Safire Principle (that’s what I’m going to call it from now on) — “If it sounds weird, get rid of it” — is an extremely valuable and useful piece of advice. (Of course, Steve probably wouldn’t mind if we used the proverb “If it causes readers to scratch their heads, it’s not good communication,” and called it the Dunham Principle!)
This piece of wisdom doesn’t just apply to questionable grammatical construction. We may cause head scratching among our readership for a variety of reasons other than grammar. I’ve seen situations, for example, where an author makes a statement and then quotes someone else, seemingly to support the point just made, but the quote either seems to say the opposite or seems to be irrelevant. (When it’s a Bible quote, this is especially disappointing.)
The Safire Principle can be applied to fiction, as well. Some novelists occasionally let their characters say things that are convoluted, obscure, or just plain silly. Reading dialogue out loud often helps a fiction writer find (and, we hope, delete or reword) weird-sounding statements.
So the next time you catch yourself scratching your head over a sentence in your writing, fix it or get rid of it. Then remember to thank William Safire, and Steve Dunham, for bringing some sanity to the confusion.
David E. Fessenden is a literary agent with WordWise Media Services and an independent publishing consultant with degrees in journalism and theology, and over 30 years of experience in writing and editing. He has served in editorial management positions for Christian book publishers and was regional editor for the largest Protestant weekly newspaper in the country.
Dave has published seven books, written hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, and edited numerous books. He is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences. Writing the Christian Nonfiction Book: Concept to Contract, and A Christian Writer’s Guide to the Book Proposal, both published by SonFire Media, are based on his experience in Christian publishing. The Case of the Exploding Speakeasy, Dave’s first novel, reflects his love for history and for the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan-Doyle.
Dave and his wife, Jacque, live in south-central Pennsylvania and have two adult sons.