The importance of minimizing suspensions

15 July 2003

 

      I have come to believe that one of the most overlooked problems in scientific and technical writing is excessive suspensions. I have yet to see it discussed in any handbook on any kind of writing. This document explains this problem and begins to address it.

      By “suspension” in writing, I mean an unresolved construction (group of elements). This definition follows the dictionary: “a temporary withholding of a belief or a decision,” which in turn follows from the definition of “to suspend” as “to hold in an undetermined or undecided state while awaiting further information.” The adjectival form of “suspension” is “suspensive,” as in “suspensive hyphenation” (for example, “a two- or three-stage process”).

      Writing is full of suspensions. They range in scale from a few words to an entire document. They particularly afflict scientific and technical writing because of the complexity of these genres. Although suspensions are a natural part of writing, many are unnecessary, and make the writing unnecessarily tiring and hard to follow. We can improve our writing by recognizing these unnecessary suspensions and removing them.

      Suspensions are a natural consequence of formulating constructions and ideas from multiple words, sentences, paragraphs, and sections. While moving through a construction, the reader must hold the new elements in active memory (a holding tank analogous to a computer’s RAM). That taxes the reader’s reserves, particularly with longer or more difficult constructions. Once the construction is complete, the reader “grasps” it (understands it) and shifts it to higher-level memory (analogous to a computer’s hard drive). That frees the reader’s RAM to begin collecting elements from the next construction, and so on. The process of reading is thus one of mapping a series of words sequentially onto the most active part of the brain, organizing them and transferring the meaning to a higher-order area of the brain, and then repeating the sequence until the reading is finished. The mapping process is hierarchical, with two or more of those higher units eventually being combined into a still-higher unit. By the end of a document, the brain may be holding many levels of complexity at once.

      Even though our brains are marvelous things, they have their limits, and shouldn’t be overloaded unnecessarily. The fewer suspensions they have to deal with, the better.

      That is the basic theory behind suspensions. Here are some examples that show the process in more detail. After that we consider how to reduce the number of suspensions.

      Consider first what happens as we read the simple sentence “I went to the store.” We first map the first word, “I,” and check to see whether it represents a complete thought. Being a single word, it does not. [First words of sentences are always suspensions.] We then map the second word, “went,” next to “I” and check to see if the combination “I went” makes a complete construction or thought. It does, and so we combine them into the single element "I went" and go on to the next word.

      This process is similar to the way a calculator handles numbers in registers. If, for example we are going to add 1 and 2, we first enter the 1 into register 1, the lowest. Then we enter the 2 into register 1, which bumps the 1 into register 2 above. The calculator then adds the two and places the answer into register 1. The process looks like this:

 

Register 2

 

1

 

Register 1

1

2

3

 

      The process for "I went" is similar, but a bit more complicated. "I" goes into register 1. "Went" then goes into the same register, which bumps "I" up to register 2. The brain then combines the information in the two cells together ("I went"), like adding the 1 and 2 above. If the information forms a complete unit, the merged words are dropped into register 1 (like the sum above). If not, they are left alone. The process involves three steps, and looks like this:

 

Register 2

 

 I

 

Register 1

I

went

I went

 

Note that the trial combination of "I" and "went" is not shown here, only the successful result.

      The brain continues through the sentence by adding “to the store” one word at a time, remembering that “I went” is now a unit. The next word, "to," is obviously a suspension because it is an incomplete construction. This puts “I went” into the second register and “to” into the first. Next comes “the,” which is also a suspension, even with "to." Thus "the" goes into register 1. Next comes "store," which by itself is another suspension and creates four registers of information. But "the" and "store" can now be merged into "the store," which allows the upper two registers to drop down by one each. Then "to" can be added to make "to the store," for only two registers occupied. Finally, "I went" and "to the store" can be merged into "I went to the store."The events in the registers appear as follows:

 

Register 4           I went      

Register 3

 

 

 

 

I went

to

 I went

 

 

Register 2

 

 I

 

I went

to

the

to

I went

 

Register 1

I

went

I went

to

the

store

the store

 to the store

I went to the store

 

      The process for reading the five words “I went to the store” thus involves nine steps, four registers, and five suspensions (“I,” “to,” “the,” "store," "the store"). See how complex it is to read a short, simple sentence? Think how much a longer, more-complex sentence can tax the brain.
      For longer sentences it is more convenient to show the sequences of unresolved elements on horizontal lines rather than as vertical registers. The meaning is the same, however. The example above becomes:

 

1    I

2    I / went

1    I went

2    — / to

3    — / to / the

4    — / to / the / store

3    — / to / the store

2    — / to the store

1    —

 

The number at the beginning of each line is the number of unresolved elements, or registers needed.

      Now if you want to see how much a single extra word can complicate things, consider what happens when the premodifier “Yesterday” is added to the beginning of the sentence: “Yesterday I went to the store.” This simple introductory element functions as a “clausal modifier,” that is, it modifies the entire independent clause that follows it. That means that it pairs with the entire clause rather than separately with any of its elements. That in turn means that it does not add its meaning to the sentence until the very last minute, when the entire independent clause is available to group with it. That means that “Yesterday” is held in suspension until the very end of the sentence, even though it is read first. The steps for this sentence are:

 

1    Yesterday

2    Yesterday / I

3    Yesterday / I / went

2    Yesterday / I went

3    Yesterday / — / to

4    Yesterday / — / to / the

5    Yesterday / — / to / the / store

4    Yesterday / — / to / the store

3    Yesterday / — / to the store

2    Yesterday / —

1    —

 

      The process for reading the six words “Yesterday I went to the store” has become 11 steps instead of nine, with maximum five unresolved elements instead of four, and, most importantly, eight suspensions instead of three. The true situation is even worse than this, for the figure of ten suspensions counted only steps with at least one suspension present. Several steps contained two or three suspensions. Counted individually, they amount to 13 suspensions. Thus one word has added five suspensions. Think what would have happened if a multiple-word premodifier had been used instead.

      Other common suspensive elements include premodifiers in noun phrases, subjects separated from their verbs, and pronouns placed before their nouns. Premodifiers in noun phrases can be particularly pernicious when they are numerous and contain structures within structures, which will require the reader to change directions while reading, that is, to back up and regroup words he has already read. Here is an example of a simple noun phrase with no required changes of direction: “The newest analytical technique for measuring dissolved oxygen.” The first four words are processed as follows:

 

3

 

 

 

 

The

The

 

 

2

 

 

The

The

newest

newest

The

 

1

The

The newest

newest

newest analytical

analytical

analytical technique

newest analytical technique

The newest analytical technique

 

      This operation requires eight steps, three registers, and six suspensions. Completing the phrase with “for measuring dissolved oxygen” add the following steps:

 

3

 

 

 

 

The newest analytical technique

2

 

The newest analytical technique

The newest analytical technique

The newest analytical technique

for measuring

1

The newest analytical technique for

for

for measuring

for measuring dissolved

dissolved

 

The newest analytical technique

The newest analytical technique

 

 

for measuring

for

The newest analytical technique

 

dissolved oxygen

measuring dissolved oxygen

for measuring dissolved oxygen

The newest analytical technique for measuring dissolved oxygen

 

      That gives for the entire phrase a total of 17 steps, three registers, and nine suspensions. Note how the postmodifying prepositional phrase only added half as many suspensions as the premodifying part of the noun phrase created. Note also the one rearrangement of grouping, as “for measuring” later was broken into “for|measuring dissolved oxygen.”

 

 

      Here is an example of a noun phrase that requires more rearrangement during reading: “A more persistent positive NAO index phase.” this is a classic “front-loaded” noun phrase, with all its multiple modifiers placed before the head noun “phase.” Its registers look like this:

 

5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A

A

4

 

 

 

 

 

 

A

more

more

3

 

 

 

 

A

A

more

persistent

persistent

2

 

 

A

A

more

more

persistent

positive

positive

1

A

A more

more

more persistent

persistent

persistent positive

positive

NAO

NAO index

 

A

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

more

A

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

persistent

more

A

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

positive

persistent

more persistent

A

 

 

A more persistent positive NAO

 

 

 

NAO index

positive NAO index

positive NAO index

more persistent positive NAO index

A more persistent positive NAO index

A more persistent positive NAO index phase

index phase