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Before considering the latest advances in mass spectroscopy, it could be helpful for the readers not accustomed with this field to briefly define what mass spectroscopy is.

Does the above sentence give the same meaning as that given below:

Before considering the latest advances in mass spectroscopy, briefly defining what mass spectroscopy is could be helpful for the readers not accustomed with this field.

If it is not, how I could change the first sentence with minimal changes to give the meaning of the second sentence

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is about writing advice. – Alan Carmack Oct 14 '16 at 15:09
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    Note that we say accustomed to, not with; but what you probably mean is familiar with. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 14 '16 at 15:09
  • Contra the above remark, the concatenation accustomed with is used, and in this context it sounds better than accustomed to. – Alan Carmack Oct 14 '16 at 16:16
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    We can ignore all the "writing advice" issues - the actual point being queried is a specific type of garden path construction, which can be addressed without bothering about "proofreading" or "stylistic choice" objections. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 14 '16 at 17:04
  • @tosh: If you edit to reflect "writing advice" in comments it's less likely the question will be closed. If you're not around in time to do this and it does get closed I might tidy things up myself (you could always revert or alter my edit if you don't like it). I'd vote to reopen, obviously. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 14 '16 at 17:43
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There are numerous error and "flaws" in OP's exact example text, but this is syntactically equivalent...

1: Before I start, it could be helpful for readers who don't know me to briefly explain who I am
2: Before I start, it could be helpful to briefly explain who I am for readers who don't know me

In shorter examples like that, native speakers will have no problem understanding the intended meaning of #1, and may not even notice anything wrong.

But it's a "garden path" sentence, in that the way native speakers naturally parse the words means we assume the aforementioned readers will be the subject of the verb following to. Obviously when the very next word is the actual verb explain, we realise straight away that it makes no sense for readers to be explaining anything - that's the speaker/writer's job. We're briefly mislead into a false parsing pattern, but soon get back on track.

With OP's exact example, the syntactic equivalents are much larger multi-word text strings, meaning the reader spends much longer going down the wrong path. And he has to go much further back in his "short-term memory" to find an appropriate preceding noun that can serve as the subject of the problematic verb1


1 In my case the problematic verb is explain (the subject of which isn't readers who don't know me, so we have to go further back to find I (= for me to explain). In OP's case, it's define.

| improve this answer | |
  • I too find "to define" is problematic. – tosh Oct 15 '16 at 1:48
  • I'm not sure what you mean by that. The "problem" with your example is that the sequence of the different clauses leads to a parsing error. We start off assuming the subject of the verb define / defining will be "the readers not accustomed with this field", but then we realise that doesn't make sense so we have to backtrack and re-interpret the text with the writer as the subject (because he's the one who will do the defining, not those readers). Everyone must have this same problem - it's just a matter of how much time/effort they need to figure out how to parse it. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Oct 15 '16 at 13:58

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