Making sense of sentences in election materials

Election materials are starting to appear in our letterboxes, and they feature some ill-conceived sentences.

election brochure

Here’s a sentence/caption from the front of a recent ALP brochure:

Virginia O’Neill teaching her son, Labor Candidate for Brisbane, Pat O’Neill and his sister to read in 1985.

This sentence has two problems – one to do with sets of information, and one to do with Virginia’s relationship to Pat.

Sets of information: ‘Labor Candidate for Brisbane’ is a subset/description of ‘her son’ and ‘Pat O’Neill’ is a subset/description of ‘Labor Candidate for Brisbane’. Unfortunately the punctuation doesn’t make this clear. Removing the comma between ‘Brisbane’ and ‘Pat’, and locating it instead between ‘Pat O’Neill’ and ‘and his sister’ would help. Another option might be to put ‘Pat O’Neill’ in parentheses.

Virginia’s relationship to Pat: In the photograph, Virginia is teaching her baby son Pat to read. The relationship is between Virginia and her son, not between Virginia and the Labor Candidate for Brisbane. The structure of the sentence suggests that Pat was the Labor Candidate for Brisbane at the time when he was learning to read.

So how to write this sentence in a way that will communicate the same message more smoothly? If Pat is the most important person, I’d be tempted to write:

The young Pat O’Neill, now Labor Candidate for Brisbane, reading with his mother and sister in 1985.

If Virginia is the most important person, I’d be tempted to write:

Virginia O’Neill teaching her children, Pat and ???, to read in 1985. Pat is now the Labor Candidate for Brisbane.

Does sentence/caption structure matter in something as ephemeral as election brochures? Yes! Well-structured sentences are quick to read and easy to understand … and presumably that will drive the message home and make the candidate more electable.