Oysters and Clarity

Here’s a favourite example from one of my lecturers. This is a sentence that conveys meaning and is even grammatically faultless, but is incomprehensible to most people:

Oysters oysters eat eat.

If you come at the sentence knowing what it means, it’s clear. If you come at it afresh, it’s unreadable. Try to figure it out before reading the next paragraph. Oysters oysters eat eat.The thing you have to start with is imagining that some oysters are cannibals — and the implication of that is that there are some oysters that are victims of the cannibals. These victims are the oysters oysters eat. But you know what? Even those oysters fated to become victims of cannibals have to eat, albeit perhaps not other oysters. Thus, when they get hungry, even oysters oysters eat eat. If you know what it says, it parses itself. If you’re a stranger, you just stare at it and blink.

One of the things that Amy the Editor has been trying to teach me is this: find the sentences that will make a stranger stumble. Find them and rewrite them. And here’s the rub for a writer: rewrite them even if they’re technically grammatically correct and even if they’re technically correct and elegant in formulation. Oysters oysters eat eat.

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