Punctuation, please

Imagine a ball with a horizontal hole drilled through it. Now stick a T handle on top. Those are the basic elements of a ball valve. When the hole lines up with pipes on either side of the valve, stuff can flow through. Give the handle a quarter-turn, and the hole now sits at a 90-degree angle to the pipes. Nothing can flow through.

One of my clients was writing about ball valves last week. He wanted to point out that when you shut off the valve, you might trap some liquid inside. That could be a problem, especially if the stuff in the valve were flammable, and you had shut if off because a fire had broken out in the plant. Here’s what my client wrote:

A liquid media trapped in the ball can phase change blowing out the valve seals, if the fluid is say diesel fuel the result could be a new source of fuel for the already raging fire.

Now come along as I get out my editor’s tool kit and give that sentence a tune-up.

First, that sentence is really two sentences, with two separate ideas. The comma in the middle is a good place to snap it in half:

A liquid media trapped in the ball can phase change blowing out the valve seals. If the fluid is say diesel fuel the result could be a new source of fuel for the already raging fire.

Each sentence could use some more commas to keep the various clauses from bumping into one another:

A liquid media trapped in the ball can phase change, blowing out the valve seals. If the fluid is, say, diesel fuel, the result could be a new source of fuel for the already raging fire.

That takes care of the basics, leaving us free to work on some details.

A fluid can be either a liquid or a gas. In the first sentence, the writer wants to make it clear which medium he’s talking about by specifying “liquid media.” But plain old “liquid” will do the job. He also wants to point out that a fire might heat up the liquid and turn it into a gas. Heat would make the pressure build up, possibly enough to blow out the seals. The transformation from liquid to gas is called a phase change. But “phase change” doesn’t work as a verb. We’re better off naming the kind of change we have in mind. So now we have:

A liquid trapped in the ball can change to gas, blowing out the valve seals.

Now we can move on to the second sentence. The author wants to say that diesel, which is intended as fuel for an engine, could instead become fuel for a fire. But it sounds a little confusing to say that a fuel can become a fuel. Instead, how about:

If the fluid is, say, diesel fuel, that could make the raging fire worse.

Put the two revised sentences together and we have:

A liquid trapped in the ball can change to gas, blowing out the valve seals. If the fluid is, say, diesel fuel, that could make the raging fire worse.

Notice that the final version is about 20 percent shorter than the original. When you manage to say the same thing in fewer words, that’s usually a good sign.

Remember, in writing there us usually more than one right answer. These are the improvements I’d make today. If I were to put off the work until tomorrow, I might come up with a better variation. Usually I think of the best version about 20 seconds after I hand the material back to my client.

 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s