Reviewing Deepwater Horizon publications: needing to think twice

As a regular reader of The Economist, I admire the keen attention the contributors pay to the readability of their texts. Usually so enchanted by the ease of reading, the reader can concentrate on the message. Occasionally, however, something happens and I need to read a sentence twice, or even say it out loud to understand the structure. This week the review of Deepwater Horizon publications – to coincide with the first anniversary of the oil spill – put me in this situation. In particular, two sentences caused me to rethink.

‘The sense of the pressure of events as of the overburden of a mile of rock, of the tragic irony of life as usual on the rig even in the minutes that its oily nemesis was roaring up from the well below, is well caught in the best and cheapest of the available accounts, that of the presidential commission on the spill, available free on the internet.’

I was momentarily confused by the ‘of’s’ and the ‘as’.

‘His closing chapter, “The Banality of Catastrophe”, lays out better than anything how everyday and ordinary engineering and business practices can be even when on the cusp of becoming unhappily extraordinary.’

Here I was briefly on the wrong track through the misinterpretation of the relationship between ‘how’, ‘everyday and ordinary’, and ‘engineering and business practices’.

I recall the exercises we did in discourse analysis at Edinburgh in the early 1980s. There was an overlap with psycholinguistics as we studied the predictive effect of the words on the next ones to come. We had to work with incomplete sentences taken from published texts, usually newspapers, and predict the next word, then the next words after that. Some of my colleagues went on to subject unsuspecting students to their cunningly chosen test half-sentences. Many would, unsurprisingly, discover a statistically significant difference between the predictions of English-mother-tongue speakers and foreign students. Some sentences were notoriously impossible to predict. Perhaps the sentence beginning ‘His closing chapter, “The Banality of Catastrophe”, lays out better than anything how everyday and ordinary engineering and business practices …’ would be one of these.

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