Attention-Span Blues



Fewer and fewer of us curl up with a good book anymore. Who can read nonstop for more than an hour, if that? I won’t bore you with my deep thoughts on why this is—not when I can bore you with so much other nerdy stuff.

But I will say this: American attention spans started shrinking with the ascendancy of television in the fifties and drugs in the sixties. And now computers and hand-held gadgets have unleashed yet more fiendishly seductive distractions.

Writers are far from exempt from this cultural inability to concentrate. Here are some recent newspaper and magazine passages that suffer from the same problem: they each fail because their authors somehow zoned out in midsentence.

He speaks in a voice that is both steady, but tinged with emotion.” The writer never went back and reread this sentence before signing off on it. The way out seems so easy: either remove “both” or change “but” to “and.” The writer wanted to emphasize the incongruity of the voice’s steadiness despite its emotionality. Usually, “steady” describes someone who’s composed, unruffled, businesslike. Good point … too bad the sentence is a dud.

Bulb-outs reduce the length of the crossing and also forces the bicyclists to slow down.” “Bulb-outs reduce” is a good start, but seven simple words later the subject of the sentence is forgotten and we get “forces.” Obviously it should be “force.” As in the previous example, the writer couldn’t handle describing two things at once—in this case, the bulb-outs’ appearance and their function. Either change “and” to “which” or change “also” to “this.”

How will America stop the flight of U.S. high-tech manufacturing operations from going overseas?” It looks OK until you realize the sentence says that “the flight” is going overseas. Look again: it should be “operations” that are going overseas. All I can figure is that the writer got intra-sentence amnesia after writing “the flight of” and so thought it necessary to add “from going overseas.” The fix is painless: “How will America stop the flight overseas of U.S. high-tech manufacturing operations?” or “How will America prevent U.S. high-tech manufacturing operations from going overseas?”

Smokers have twice the number of problems with their teeth than nonsmokers.” Who’d ever say “twice the number than”? By the time the writer wrote “than nonsmokers,” all that went before seems to have been forgotten. It should be either “smokers have more problems than nonsmokers” or “smokers have twice the number of problems that nonsmokers do.”

These examples of writers’ carelessness prove the same thing over and over: America’s attention shortfall has taken its toll. In every case the problem was apparent and the solution was simple. I daresay these mistakes would never have seen the light of day but for one sad fact: We’ve become too lazy to proofread.

Tom Stern

Posted on Tuesday, October 11, 2016, at 11:50 pm

If you wish to respond to another reader's question or comment, please click its corresponding "REPLY" button. If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

6 Comments on Attention-Span Blues

6 responses to “Attention-Span Blues”

  1. Jer R. says:

    On TV now Science Channel. Quote the lady: “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.” Is that a redundancy?

    I so enjoy this newsletter each time I get it.

    • Yes, that’s redundant, unless you’re clairvoyant and can see into the future. It’s a little tricky though partly because we’ve become so used to hearing it. The sentence “It’s like nothing I’ve seen” sounds and feels just a bit too brief. Maybe we could at least remove either “ever” or “before” so that we get “It’s like nothing I’ve seen before” or “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

      Thank you for the kind words, and thank you for writing.

  2. Lidy V. says:

    Very interesting column by Tom Stern!
    I guess the proof-readers aren’t any lazier than before the distractions came into place: but the “market” doesn’t allow to hire them nowadays … It’s the same as with translators: here in the Netherlands not a profession that may give you high earnings … Time for the editing blues? But so many people like to read logical and inspirational texts … there is hope! And thanks for your enduring support.

  3. William M. says:

    These examples of writers’ carelessness prove the same thing over and over: America’s attention shortfall has taken its toll. In every case the problem was apparent and the solution was simple. I daresay these mistakes would never have seen the light of day but for one sad fact: We’ve become too lazy to proofread.

  4. Jane says:

    Hi. Please help settle a disagreement — we can’t find the answer on the internet! Is it: “lucky her” or “lucky she”?

    • This is one of those areas where there is no one correct answer. There are a couple of ways to look at this:

      1. The answer depends on what the phrase is short for. If you were to write a full sentence, would you write Lucky for her that the bus was late (“Lucky her”) or Lucky that she wasn’t any later for that bus (“Lucky she”)?

      2. This more likely falls into the area of idioms. We don’t hear people saying “Lucky I” or “Lucky he.” “Lucky her” follows the same form as “lucky me” or “lucky him” that we commonly hear. In these cases, her, me, and him are all object pronouns.

      We would lean toward the idiom reasoning, but you could avoid the whole thing by saying “lucky lady”!

Leave a Comment or Question:

Please ensure that your question or comment relates to the topic of the blog post. Unrelated comments may be deleted. If necessary, use the "Search" box on the right side of the page to find a post closely related to your question or comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *