Bugbears: SVO,O,+VO

Taken from a recent BBC News technology story (which appears to have been taken down, but you can still Google this phrase if you don't believe me):

A gadget for the blind reads labels, audio books and plays music.

I see this type of sentence construction a lot, even from professional journalists, and I believe that most people don't have any problem with it. But I do.

This gadget reads labels and plays music, but what does it do with audio books? 'Read them', I hear you say. But, except as a headline, you would never write:

A gadget for the blind reads labels, audio books.

Instead you would write:

A gadget for the blind reads labels and audio books.

This suggests the original construction needs another 'and'. Giving you:

A gadget for the blind reads labels and audio books, and plays music.

I suppose the comma is optional, but it helps indicate a change of verb is coming.


Anonymous said...

Is this not a bit picky JD? Besides (unless this has been written in brail as well) the the blind probably won't care if there are commas or not!

Gloom Raider said...

This seems to be increasingly common, at least among the things I'm compelled to look over. I'm glad it annoys somebody else; I always correct it, and always suspect I'm the only one who cares in the first place.

Brandon Dilbeck said...

I was taught about parallelism only once in high school. It's something that should be brought up two or three times through a child's education.

JD (The Engine Room) said...

Oh definitely it's a bit picky. That's one of the joys of being a sub. And I did say that most people don't have a problem with this sort of construction!

Funny thing, being a sub: it's a mix of the trivial (minor grammatical quibbles) and the very significant (making sure copy is legally sound, for example).

And talking of parallelism, I found this nifty quiz online:


Anonymous said...

Not knowing the entire context of this sentence, the original seems acceptable purely as a declaritive.
Commas can be used to list, which is what they are doing here. Your suggestion of putting an extra 'and' in seems unnecessary and reads in an immature style.
If you asked "what does a gadget for the blind do?" the answer would be "it reads labels, audio books and music".
Perhaps another suitable alternative would be "A gadget for the blind that reads labels, audio books and plays music." Obviously, the syntax is dependable on the context of this sentence, for example whether it intended to be a statement or not. However, the bottom line is that there is no correct answer and there is nothing incorrect about these constructions.

JD (The Engine Room) said...

Fantastic, I've really divided opinion here. So far we've got one 'don't care', two 'I agree' (I'm taking Brandon's comment as such), and one 'I don't agree'.

Anonymous: regarding context, yes, the sentence is a statement. Not sure about changing it to "it reads labels, audio books and music" - sure, you get rid of the awkward sentence construction, but I would think there is a difference between reading music and playing music (as the original headline said).

I didn't say the original construction was wrong, merely that I personally had a problem with it – the lack of an 'and' between labels and audio books meant I was expecting 'audio books and' to be followed by another noun rather than verb+noun.

I think Language Log refers to this as a 'grammatical WTF reaction'...