Keep your Thoughts Together

rogersgeorge on April 26th, 2017

English is a relatively uninflected language, so word order is important. In declarative sentences, for example, we put the subject first most of the time, and the verb after it. It can get tricky when we insert modifiers. The rule is to put modifiers as close to what they modify as possible. Here’s an example of breaking this rule:

After President George W. Bush announced a plan to return to the Moon and move on to Mars in 2004, NASA began to consider how best to carry out that vision. ​

We moved to Mars in 2004? What is this, science fiction? I suppose the likelihood that most readers would know that we’re not on Mars yet would make them think a bit to figure out what did happen that year. But as a writer you want the information to flow into your readers’ brains effortlessly. So put that date where it goes, at the beginning:

In 2004, after President George W. Bush announced a plan to return to the Moon and move on to Mars, NASA began to consider how best to carry out that vision.

Now the readers can tell exactly what the writer means without having to interrupt themselves to figure out what’s going on.

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In which I criticize my own writng

rogersgeorge on October 31st, 2011

This post fits into the category “the hard part of writing.”

Perhaps the most important rule in good writing is to proofread your work. I wrote an article about proofreading a while back, but almost nobody reads it. I think the title isn’t catchy enough. Anyway, I re-read my previous post, and I found something to fix.

Here’s the passage that needs work:

I think maybe, perhaps, the use of “born” instead of “hatched” fits rather well, even in an article that later gives the scientific name of antibiotic-resistant fecal bacteria, especially if you read the entire article.

Think about that last clause, starting with “especially. ” It doesn’t quite fit. The sentence says that the article gives that scientific name especially if you read the entire article. That’s nonsense. The meaning I intended is that you can tell that “born” instead of “hatched” fits rather well if you read etc. So we should move that “especially…” clause closer to the front of the sentence, perhaps after “rather well.” But if you do that, the reference to the scientific name is too far away. I caused the problem by going for a chatty effect (by using “maybe, perhaps) and leaving out the important phrase, “you can tell” after “I think.”

Fecal bacteria are boring little rod shapes. I figured this picture would gross you out more—after all, today is Halloween.

I see two respectable ways to fix this bad sentence.

  • Put in “you can tell” and put the “especially…” clause after “tell.”
  • Make two sentences: “Read the entire article. I think maybe, perhaps, etc.”
  • Leave off that final clause altogether. You probably went and read the entire article already anyway.

(Oops, that’s three. Don’t say I never gave you nuthin.’)

What do you think? Maybe you have a fourth rewrite. Post a comment.

Watch where you put things!

rogersgeorge on July 20th, 2011

The rule of thumb in English is that modifiers go next to what they modify. Try not to put anything in between. Here’s an example of doing it wrong:

President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, lauding his “extraordinary heroism” during a solemn White House ceremony Tuesday that marked just the second time since Vietnam that the honor was bestowed to a living recipient.

This is from a recent news article in the Los Angeles Times. Let’s follow our rule. When did this soldier’s extraordinary heroism take place? The sentence says it took place during a White House ceremony! (Insert presidential political joke here.) Let’s rewrite the sentence so it doesn’t cause unintended humor:

President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry during a solemn White House ceremony Tuesday, lauding his “extraordinary heroism”  that marked just the second time since Vietnam that the honor was bestowed to a living recipient.

It’s still not quite right. What does that final clause, about being the second time, go with? It goes with the awarding, way up at the front of the sentence. There’s no graceful way to put this clause up there, So we make a new sentence. Rule of thumb number two: It’s okay to use two simple sentences instead of one long, complicated, ungraceful one.

President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to Sgt. 1st Class Leroy Petry, lauding his “extraordinary heroism” during a solemn White House ceremony Tuesday. The award marked just the second time since Vietnam that the honor was bestowed to a living recipient.

photo copyright (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)

There. Sentences that befit a sitting president and a war hero, regardless of your politics.