Forging Sentence Ties That Bind



Strong writing—writing that moves, directs, and connects people—conveys thoughts and ideas with clarity and efficiency. Badly placed words create vagueness and confusion; well-placed ones achieve logic and unity.

Careful writers join elements that are related in thought and separate those that are not. Consider the following sentence:

He noticed a glass on the table that was right in the middle.

Was the glass in the middle of the table, or was the table in the middle of others? Right now we can’t be sure. Let’s return to the sentence and revise it:

He noticed a glass that was right in the middle of the table.

Better-placed and -related elements give us greater understanding.

In writing for precision, we’ll want to monitor where we are locating our modifiers. We should order them to express correct and clear relations.

Questionable Logic: You can take the train and save twenty minutes in traffic en route to the Madonna concert for just three dollars. (Is the Madonna concert really three dollars?)
Better: For just three dollars, you can take the train and save twenty minutes in traffic en route to the Madonna concert. (Moving the prepositional phrase establishes a more plausible scenario.)

Questionable Logic: It was fun to see the marine life in the 500-gallon tank that the fishers had captured. (Did the fishers capture a 500-gallon tank?)
Better: It was fun to see the 500-gallon tank of marine life that the fishers had captured(Moving the identified elements makes a well-wed modifying relationship.)

Questionable Clarity: I want to discuss the edit to the blueprint, which is delaying the timeline. (What is now delaying the timeline—the edit or the blueprint?)
Better: I want to discuss the blueprint edit, which is delaying the timeline. (Adjusting the identified element better relates it to the sentence modifier starting with which, leaving little doubt about the cause of the delay.)

Questionable Clarity: She is Nutella d’Angelica, the niece of Cruella de Vil bathing the Dalmatian. (Who is bathing the Dalmatian—Nutella or Cruella? And is there another Cruella de Vil besides this one?)
Better: She is Cruella de Vil’s nieceNutella d’Angelicawho is bathing the Dalmatian(Apposition of niece and changing the participial phrase to a non-restrictive relative clause ensure the reader thinks once instead of twice.)

We also want to watch how we order words in sentences that depend on what we wish to express.

Examples
All of the team members were not there. (Or do we mean Not all of the team members were there?)
Latissa only spotted two typos. (Or do we mean Latissa spotted only two typos?)
The executives gave their donations to the charity at the event. (Or do we mean At the event, the executives gave their donations to the charity? We might also write The executives at the event gave their donations to the charity.)

Our goal as grammatical writers is to make statements and impressions that glide to and through readers’ minds. By keeping related items together and placing them precisely in sentences, we make logic and unity persuasive partners in our mission to communicate.

Posted on Tuesday, May 28, 2019, at 11:00 pm

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4 Comments on Forging Sentence Ties That Bind

4 responses to “Forging Sentence Ties That Bind”

  1. Anna Benassi says:

    The example at the bottom actually suggests a questionable correction:

    “The executives gave their donations to the charity at the event. (Or do we mean At the event, the executives gave their donations to the charity? We might also write The executives at the event gave their donations to the charity.) ”

    The correction suggested – The executives at the event gave their donations to the charity. – tends to imply that ALL of the executives at the event gave their donations to the charity. Depending on context, this may not be so. In a scenario where, say, a dozen executives were in attendance and six of them gave their donations to the charity while at the event, the suggested correction would not work.

    That said, thanks for the newsletters! I enjoy them.

    • We appreciate that you’ve given thought to the article and to the examples that demonstrate the importance of joining related elements together to avoid confusion. Following your scenario, the sentence could be rewritten as
      Some of the executives at the event gave donations to the charity.

  2. Joe Bradfield says:

    Oh, the patience you folks have with commenters! I get so frustrated (just another word meaning “angry,” I guess, with folks who instantly argue with your answers based on their own reasoning or vague memory of what their fifth grade teacher correctly/incorrectly taught them.

    Sometimes I wonder if every single answer you give should start with a disclaimer: “You can follow any rules you like, so long as you’re not writing to a prescribed style. We favor CMOS, but publishers all have their own style.”

    An excellent example is the variety of styles among the branches of the U.S. military. When they write public press releases, they follow Associated Press to the tee. But in-house, their styles are only *based* on AP Style, with a couple pages of exceptions in a style sheet. And each of them is a distinct style. The Air Force abbreviates Lieutenant Colonel as Lt. Col. in public relases and Lt Col in-house (no periods). The Army — from which the Air Force was created — abbreviates it LTC. For Major, it’s “Maj.”, “Maj”, and MAJ.

    “Correct” abbreviations depend on which style one is following.

    I am senior editor for a communications firm. I know not to hyphenate between the value and the unit of measurement’s abbreviation or symbol. But there are magazines whose style requires exactly that: 15-kg (a value and an SI symbol). On the very same page in a magazine, the body of an article follows one style, a spec chart in a side table graphic follows another style, and the ad copy has a style of its own. Confusing? Not if it’s what one does all day, every day, as their job. But an engineer asked one time to submit something to a magazine can feel overwhelmed.

    That’s why they have me! I am the person who guarantees all usages follow the appropriate set of preferred conventions from cover to cover.

    Sometimes these “quarrels” take place needlessly, I tell our clients. They assert they’ve “always been taught that…” such and such is the proper way to do something. And when I ask them, “What style was that?” they hush.

    The *editor* of the magazine is going to settle the matter for them. It’s out of the submitter’s hands. Each of our own magazines follows *our* style, and that’s how it must be set in print.

    If they are asking because *they* are the editor or have been assigned oversight of printed matter, then they need to put in a little more legwork than asking you for all the answers. They are going to have pay for an online subscription to the style or buy the book.

    I think most of the comments that make me grind my teeth are from those with no dog in the fight. They aren’t the original poster, just someone with an unjustifiable sense of superiority and time on their hands.

    I could not do what you are doing. And so… admire might not be the right word… maybe I’m just fascinated at how you can stand your ground so gracefully. That’s my greatest takeaway when I read through these columns — I am edified by your professional decorum in your answers (though there was one response you gave to a heckler that, I swear, I could just faintly hear your teeth cracking).

    Yeah, admire is the right word.

    Your admirer,
    Joe Bradfield

    • Thank you for the kind words regarding the task of responding to comments. There is no doubt that we sometimes feel like we are working our way through a minefield. Most of the time, however, we are pleased and honored to be responding to the questions that arrive here from around the world.

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