Point of Order

What do we do when we revise, on a sentence level? The list of tasks to be performed is relatively short:

  1. Fine-tune the language so it is precise and clear and says what you want to say.
  2. Omit Strunkian needless words: unhelpful redundancies, extraneities, throat-clearing, and arm-waving.
  3. Impart, to the extent you can, elegance and grace, whether in the form of a fresh figure of speech, eliminating word repetition, substituting a simple word for a long one, inserting an unusual but apt word, or improving the rhythm.
  4. Then police the area, as it were, cleaning up errors of punctuation, spelling, or syntax.

One particular job, which relates to Numbers 1 and 3, comes up a lot more than is commonly recognized; it might just be the most important revision tool of all. I speak of the order in which the sentence’s elements appear. First drafts often have an awkward rhythm or ambiguous meaning, or both, and the first step in addressing the issue is looking at the sequence of the sentence’s elements.

The matter occurred to me the other day as I was composing an e-mail to students at my university.

Here’s what I wrote:

I’m going to be teaching a University of Delaware course in London this summer on the British Press.

(And this is as good a time as any to say that the program is open to students of all universities, runs July 21-August 12, has an application deadline of November 20, and will be great! More info here.)

The first half (up to course) is fine, but then the sentence stumbles to its conclusion on a trail of qualifiers. Two of them are prepositional phrases (PPs), and I find that one of the most common order problems happens when these are stacked together. It’s usually not too difficult to detach one or more, extract them, and move them to another part of the sentence, usually the opening. So:

This summer, I’m going to be teaching a University of Delaware course in London this summer on the British Press.

A little better, but still, two PPs at the end, and one is usually all a sentence can bear. So I ended up with:

This summer, I’ll be in London, I’m going to be teaching a University of Delaware course in London this summer on the British Press.

Just this morning, I was e-mailing my daughter about plans to meet her in New York City this weekend. There’s something we need to do on a website, and I wrote, “Maybe we can find a place with wi-fi before dinner.” Pretty bad sentence: Not only does it end with two PPs but it almost sounds like there’s a special kind of wi-fi that only works before the evening meal. I actually didn’t change it because it was in the family, but if it were going out to a bigger audience, I would make it something like, “Maybe before dinner we can find a place with wi-fi.”

As noted, sometimes poorly chosen order leads to ambiguity or, worse, unintended meaning. Once, working on an essay, I typed the line, “I leave the question of why these things are desirable to greater minds than mine.” It sounds like I’m saying that the things are desirable to greater minds, which obviously wasn’t my intention. Again, a fix is pretty easy. One tack that often works to de-awkwardize a sentence is to divide it in two. In this case: “Why are these things desirable? I leave the question to greater minds than mine.” (I’m aware the second sentence ends with two PPs. To me, it’s not a problem — the two of them work well together.)

Messing around with the order of words and phrases is kind of fun, like playing with toy soldiers or rearranging a playlist. It won’t always fix your sentences’ problems, but if you do it skillfully, it can offer maximum return on minimum effort if you do it skillfully.


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