Location, location, location!
It’s not just about real estate. For writers it’s also about where you place the words, phrases, and clauses that make up your sentence.
English is wonderfully flexible in oh so many ways. Sentences don’t have to follow the same subject-verb-object pattern. The same word can change the meaning of a sentence depending on where it’s placed. Here’s a simple example, using “only”:
Only she would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast.
She would eat only coffee ice cream for breakfast.
She would eat coffee ice cream only for breakfast.
Phrases and clauses can mean different things depending on where they’re placed in a sentence. I do much of my copyediting for trade and university presses. The authors of the manuscripts I edit are a generally experienced, accomplished lot. They know what they’re doing. When a sentence brings me screeching to a halt, it’s often because a phrase or a clause either creates ambiguity or gives the wrong impression altogether. The phrase or clause itself is fine: it’s just in the wrong place.
Recently I copyedited a biography whose author had a penchant for dropping short phrases in between subjects and their verbs. An example: “Smith, at times, tried to relax.”
Mind you, this isn’t wrong. Sometimes sticking a phrase between subject and verb yields exactly the shading and cadence you want. In general, though, proximity strengthens the connection between two parts of a sentence, and usually we want our subjects clearly and closely connected to their verbs. More to the point, this particular author was splitting up subjects and verbs so often that I suspected a literary tic — one of those habits writers get into without realizing it. So I made it “At times, Smith tried to relax.”
If you deal in dialogue or quoted material, where you place the attribution — whatever you’re using to identify the speaker — can make a big difference in how readers read/hear the text. “He said,” “she said,” and all the rest function like punctuation. They can create a pause or emphasize a phrase or group a string of phrases together. Here’s a random example from my novel in progress. Matthew is a four-year-old being bratty in the back seat.
“That’s enough, Matthew,” said their mother, not turning around. Matthew looked surprised. “When we get home,” she promised, “I’ll put water in the play pool and you can play in it while I work in the garden.”
That last sentence could be arranged in several ways. “She promised” could come at the end, or after “play pool.” The “when” clause could come in the middle or at the end. For now I like it the way it is. (I beginning to suspect, however, that the mid-October weather is too chilly for the play pool and that Mom isn’t much of a gardener.)
Here’s a nonfiction example, adapted from the biography mentioned above:
“The big issue of the campaign,” stated Williams, “will be security.”
Coming upon this sentence, my immediate reaction was that putting the attribution in the middle weakened the connection between the subject and the object — when “big issue = security” is the whole point of the statement. So I moved it to the beginning:
Stated Williams, “The big issue of the campaign will be security.”
Again, the original isn’t wrong, but the edited version is stronger. (The author liked it better too.)
The lovely flexibility of English makes it possible to construct sentences that are perfectly grammatical but that either don’t say what the writer meant to say or make it unclear what the writer did mean to say. Here’s an example. The author is writing about the New Deal.
The Republican resurgence in the elections of 1938 and 1942 spawned a congressional counterattack against FDR’s domestic agenda which saw such agencies as the National Youth Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps vanish amidst the exigencies of war.
Huh? thought I. FDR’s domestic agenda killed the NYA and CCC? On second reading, I realized that no, it was the congressional counterattack that helped do the agencies in. The “exigencies of war” evidently had something to do with it, but “amidst” was vague about what. And was the congressional counterattack just sitting on the sidelines watching all this happen?
As a writer, I know that ambiguity can be intentional, but in a history book it’s generally not a plus. I didn’t see a way to move the “which” clause closer to “counterattack” without making a big snarly mess, so I broke the sentence in two:
The Republican resurgence in the elections of 1938 and 1942 spawned a congressional counterattack against FDR’s domestic agenda. That, along with the exigencies of war, caused the demise of such agencies as the National Youth Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps.
Because the original was somewhat ambiguous and because my edit made the cause-and-effect relationship more explicit, I flagged it with a query to the author: “OK?” It was.
Finally, here’s an instance where a very capable writer didn’t realize that the words weren’t saying quite what he meant to say. The question was whether Jones (not his real name) was “the right man for the job in China, which required more diplomatic finesse and fewer prejudices than he was capable of.”
Jones was fairly riddled with prejudices, and being capable of more wouldn’t have made him the right man for the job. The writer knew that; the problem was the word order. The fix was easy: I swapped “diplomatic finesse” and “fewer prejudices” and voilà, the question now was whether Jones was “the right man for the job in China, which required fewer prejudices and more diplomatic finesse than he was capable of.”