“The proportion of biopsies that occur because of these false-positive results that are retrospectively deemed unnecessary (that is, the woman did not have cancer) is about 7%; therefore, many more women will undergo unnecessary biopsies under annual screening than biennial screening.”
The University of Chicago Writing Program offered this passage from a medical journal as its sentence of the week. It’s not a particularly egregious example of bad writing, but it does not convey its meaning as clearly as possible. They identify three main weaknesses:
- A long wait for the verb in the first clause.
- A long chain of modifiers for “biopsies.”
- A missing statistic
Their rewritten sentence reads:
When women between the ages of forty and sixty-nine receive annual mammograms, they get almost twice as many false-positive results as they would if they received mammograms biennially. These false-positive results can lead to unnecessary biopsies. When women in this age group get a positive result on an annual mammogram and then get a biopsy, only X% of them prove to have cancer. But the other Y% prove to be cancer free. Therefore, many more women will undergo unnecessary biopsies under annual screening than biennial screening.
Significantly, the new version is longer than the original. Usually brevity is desirable, but in this case it can squeeze out important statistics and cloud meaning.