Writing Tip: Word Order Creates Meaning

in writing, keep your DUCKS IN A ROWI am going to let you in on a well-guarded secret. Grammar was not invented to give your Grade 10 English teacher a chance to make your life miserable. It was created to ensure sentences say what we mean them to. And word order is one of the basic tools.

Here’s a rule you can bank on to solve 95% of your problems in this area. Sentence elements with relationships are closer to each other. Stands to reason. If a guy and a girl spend the whole party at opposite ends of the house, chances are they aren’t in a relationship. (Well, maybe a strange one…)

So if we take this sentence:

“When Jay saw the rabbit, he was driving into the city.”

We can be fairly confident, because “he” comes right after “rabbit,” that the “he” that was driving into the city was, in fact, the rabbit. Other clues, such as context, might tell another story, but the fact remains…

I’m sure you’re laughing and passing this off as a joke. But take a sentence that reads:

“When Jay saw Peter, he was driving into the city.”

This is a different story. Who is driving? Given no other clues, most readers will assume that Peter was doing the driving, because “he” comes right after “Peter.” If that’s not what you mean, then re-order the sentence.

Misplaced Modifiers

These are rather obvious, and most writers are able to avoid them.

“He ate the dish with great smacking and slurping.”

This is probably not the kind of dish you’d take to Aunt Mabel’s for tea. Once again, we depend on context to get the meaning across, while ignoring the word order, which is a more basic rule. Yes, most people would figure out the meaning, but look at this one,

“The terrorist attacked a soldier with an AK-47.” Either one could have the gun. Why depend on a further explanation? The sentence could be made clearer by moving “with an AK-47” closer to the terrorist.

Dangling Modifiers

One of the worst abuses of this rule is the old “dangling modifier.” This is a word or phrase, usually at the beginning of the sentence, that relates to… what?

“Flying to Inuvik, the snowstorm caught him.”

Just who, or what, was flying to Inuvik? Remembering the rule, “the snowstorm” comes right after Inuvik, so it is the snowstorm that is flying.

I know. Context and general knowledge saves the ungrammatical writer here, but try this one,

“Dancing sexily, George fell under her spell.”

If you want further examples, check out Self Teaching Unit:
Avoiding Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers courtesy of Towson University’s Online Writing Support.

In my recent editing and reviewing experience, I have found a growing number of writers who are unaware of the dangling modifier problem. If you want to go all grammatical, it’s called a participle phrase, but we’re trying to keep this simple. If a sentence starts with this kind of phrase (usually using –ing, sometimes –ed), the phrase is meant to describe the first noun or pronoun that follows.

“Glued to his cell phone, a car hit him as he crossed the street.”

Sure, I know most people can figure out who is using the cell phone, but every time you jumble a sentence like that, some of your readers say, “Huh? What?” and go back and read it again, thus throwing them out of connection with the story, and making them aware that there is a writer (and maybe not a good one) interfering with their enjoyment.

And this one, from the promo material a self-help author who also advertises, “publish 8 books in 24 days.”

“As a new author we can take this journey together.”

Maybe this writer should cut down on the number of books and spend more time on editing.

Don’t depend on context or the reader’s knowledge to bail you out. Sloppy writing is just that: sloppy. Take pride in making your sentences mean exactly what you want them to. You don’t have to be the grammar police to keep your words marching in proper order.

Author: Gordon Long

Gordon A. Long is a writer, editor, publisher, playwright, director and teacher. 
Learn more about Gordon and his writing from his blog and his Author Central page.

7 thoughts on “Writing Tip: Word Order Creates Meaning”

  1. Good post, Gordon. I often flag these things for my editing clients. Some are very subtle and not readily noticeable; sometimes I’ll read a sentence and just feel it’s not right, so then I have to read it more attentively to figure out what’s out of whack. It’s easy to write stuff like this when we’re writing our first draft, just getting the story down, without regard to the reader, but on the second pass, we need to read as a reader so we can catch stuff that’s ambiguous.

    1. I heard a very reputable news commentator use one of the above mistakes in her report the other day, and I almost shot my TV. Well, if I had a gun I might have. I don’t mind the English language growing and changing, but when it’s shrinking and twisting, I have to speak up 🙂

  2. Hi Gordon,

    Nice, simple, straightforward. It reminded me of an example my mother (who was a teacher) used to tell me from her own childhood:

    1. The old lady with a Roman nose was sewing.
    2. The old lady was sewing with a Roman nose.
    3. With a Roman nose, the old lady was sewing.

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