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I've been going back and forth between a coworker over which of the following is correct and I thought that maybe this SE could help.

I have an application with the following message:

The X algorithm uses color variance to attempt to find a border in the image, surrounds that border using an ellipse, and fits it to a standard size.

However, my coworker says this is grammatically incorrect and it should be:

The X algorithm uses color variance to attempt to find a border in the image, surround that border using an ellipse, and fit it to a standard size.

My coworker says that the second is correct since the subject the verb is referring to is "color variance", but I disagree, the intended subject should be "X algorithm."

Which of the two examples is more correct? Or perhaps the sentence should should be changed to reduce confusion?

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Your sentence makes more sense to me than that of your coworker. But in both sentences I have a problem with the word attempt. What happens if the attempt fails? Presumably neither surrounding the border nor resizing it will happen. If the algorithm fails only very rarely, then you could probably leave out the word attempt, or else you could insert and if successful, separated out by commas, after the word image. –  Shoe Jun 27 '13 at 16:23
    
Incidentally, you have complicated things by using what is called a "run-on" sentence, which always leads to such tricky situations. For clarity, use separate sentences. "The X algorithm uses color variance to attempt to find a border in the image. It then surrounds that border using an ellipse, and fits it to a standard size." –  Kris Jun 28 '13 at 7:15
    
@Kris: I don't think the problem here is a run-on. There would be no confusion if the sentence simply read: The X algorithm locates a border in the image, surrounds that border using an ellipse, and then fits it to a standard size. It's the awkward verb tense structure of the sentence (uses - attempt - find - surrounds - fits) that makes this sentence difficult for the reader. –  J.R. Jun 28 '13 at 10:04

4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I'm assuming that the color variance is only used to find the border, so you're trying to say "The X algorithm 1) uses color variance to attempt to find a border in the image, 2) surrounds that border using an ellipse, and 3) fits it to a standard size. I agree that this is confusing, since the verb "uses" is being treated differently from the verbs "surrounds" and "fits".

Perhaps a clearer option would be

"The X algorithm attempts to find a border in the image (using color variance), surrounds that border using an ellipse, and fits it to a standard size.

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I think this makes the sentence very clear, thanks! –  Ivan Jun 27 '13 at 16:07
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I'm not sure I agree with you, JacobM. While there is more than one way to stuff a turkey, to my way of thinking, the sentence could just as easily be worded as follows: "The X algorithm, by using color variance, attempts to find a border in the image, surround that border using an ellipse, and fit it to a standard size." –  rhetorician Jun 27 '13 at 16:42
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But doesn't that suggest that it's using color variance to do the surrounding and fitting? It's not -- it's only using the color variance to do the border finding. –  Jacob Mattison Jun 27 '13 at 17:36
    
Well, you are right. However, run-on on sentences are not particularly relished by readers, especially in technical writing. –  Kris Jun 28 '13 at 7:17

There are several ways to read this, but you would have to change a few things to clarify this sentence either way. Upon reading this for the first time, I thought of this option:

"The X algorithm uses color variance to attempt to find a border in the image, to surround that border using an ellipse, and to fit it to a standard size."

Here, the X algorithm uses color variance to do three things: 1) to attempt to find a border in the image, 2) to surround that border using an ellipse, and 3) to fit it to a standard size.

Again, I maybe be reading this incorrectly, but that's the first option that came to mind.

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That is how I understood the sentences. The writer is explaining the purposes of the X algorithm, hence the use of the infinitive form. –  Mari-Lou A Jun 27 '13 at 16:52

I think the second one sounds more natural, but it seems like that's not what you're trying to say.

Assuming the intended subject is X algorithm, and the X algorithm uses, surrounds, and fits, I'd break it into two sentences:

The X algorithm uses color variance to attempt to find a border in the image. The algorithm then surrounds that border using an ellipse, and fits it to a standard size.

This eliminates the cause of confusion in the original sentence; namely, that surrounds and fits don't have the same tense as find.

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The single actor in the sentence is the algorithm, not the color variance. Color variance is one of the several objects in the sentence, and its predicate is "uses". Here are the subsentences:

  • algorithm uses color variance
  • algorithm attempts to find border
  • algorithm surrounds border
  • algorithm fits ellipse

At no time does the color variance do anything; it is done to.

As the actor is singular, the verb forms take the singular ending, which of course ends in -s, except for the one occasion where it uses the infinitive form ("to find"). Your friend is incorrect. Your first sentence is just fine. I would suggest replacing "using" with "with" and "fit" with "set", however. It seems to sound better to my ear, although I cannot explain why.

The X algorithm uses color variance to attempt to find a border in the image, surrounds that border with an ellipse, and sets it to a standard size.

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