The butler did it in Get Carter

Simple sentences are the secret of clear writing

Michael Caine played Alfred the Butler in the movies Alfie and Get Carter, the BBC told the world today. I don't believe they meant to tell the world this, but they did.

Complicated sentences can leave the reader confused



Here is what appeared on the BBC News Entertainment pages:

The actor said he would resume writing "when I finish Batman, if I make Batman" - a reference to a proposed follow-up to Nolan's earlier blockbusters Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

The Alfie and Get Carter star - whose new memoir refers to his childhood in the Elephant and Castle area of south London - played Alfred the butler in both movies.

The cause of the confusion is an overly complicated sentence. But what caused the overly complicated sentence? It cannot have been that the writer was in a rush, because it is much easier to write simple sentences. Possibly the writer felt that the light tone of their piece would be ruined by a succession of boring detail and so they tried to get it over with as quickly as possible. 

A sentence should contain only a single idea:
  1. Michael Caine is best known for Alfie and Get Carter.
  2. Michael Caine grew up in the Elephant and Castle and that is why is book is called The Elephant to Hollywood
  3. Michael Caine played the butler, Alfred, in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight
These are all seperate ideas (number 2 is actually two ideas, but because they are closely connected we will allow them in the same sentence).

So the original BBC piece would make more sense if it was recast as follows:


The actor said he would resume writing "when I finish Batman, if I make Batman" - a reference to a proposed follow-up to Nolan's earlier blockbusters Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. He played Alfred the butler in both movies. 

Caine is most famous for his starring roles in Alfie and Get Carter

The title of his memoir refers to the Elephant and Castle, the area in south London where he grew up.

If it now seems a little clunky, why not get around the problem by creating a bullet list of related facts.

The inside track on Michael Caine:
  • Played Alfred the butler in Christopher Nolan's Batman movies
  • His most famous lead roles were in Alfie and Get Carter
  • He grew up in the Elephant and Castle in south London hence the title of his autobiography The Elephant to Hollywood