O Is for Order

One of the marvels of English is its flexibility about word order. Subject-verb-object is standard, but multiple variations are possible. However, the further you stray from the standard, the more important it is to pay attention to what the words may be doing behind your back. When I copyedit the work of competent writers, many of my edits are due to the ambiguity, confusion, or even outright hilarity created by a misplaced modifier.

Here’s a simple example of how the placement of a single word can change the meaning of a sentence. In this case it’s “only,” a handy four-letter word whose very versatility can cause trouble. Note that when it comes to placing adjectives and adverbs, proximity matters. We generally associate adjectives with the nearest noun or pronoun, adverbs with the nearest verb or adjective.

Only she would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast.
No one else would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast.

She would eat only coffee ice cream for breakfast.
Cereal and scrambled eggs wouldn’t do. It had to be coffee ice cream.

She would eat coffee ice cream only for breakfast.
She wouldn’t eat coffee ice cream for lunch or supper or any other meal.

In oral communication, a speaker’s intonation — emphasizing she or coffee, for example — will often make the meaning clear, no matter where the “only” goes — “She would only eat coffee ice cream for breakfast” or “Only she would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast” — but readers of a printed text can’t hear what the writer intended. It’s tempting to rely on italics or boldface or ALL CAPS to signal emphasis, but such devices lose their impact with overuse. With experience we learn to let the placement of the words and phrases do most of the work.

This includes, I should add, paying attention not only the proximity of modifiers to the words they modify but also to the rhythm of the language, including where the stresses fall in multisyllabic words. Poets do this. Prose writers should too, and good ones do, consciously or by “feel.” I’ll sometimes choose one synonym over another because it sounds better. I urge writers to read sentences aloud while they’re working, even at the first-draft stage. This is too big a subject to be covered here, but here’s a crash course if you’re interested.

Google “misplaced modifier” and you’ll find plenty of examples, along the lines of “He served cake to the children on paper plates.” Were the children really on paper plates? No: it was the cake. Make it “He served the children cake on paper plates.” Misplaced modifiers are easier to catch in other people’s writing. Knowing what you meant to say makes it harder to see that this isn’t what the words say, or that the words could be taken in more than one way. This happens even to those of us who are editors as well as writers. I’m best at catching my own goofs if I let a day, or at least a few hours, go by before I revisit something I’ve just finished.

Where you place a dialogue tag — said or asked or one of their many alternatives — can help convey how your character is saying whatever s/he’s saying and where s/he pauses to breathe or think. Like punctuation marks, dialogue tags shape the way your sentences are read. I went into this in some detail a few years back. If you want to read more, check out “‘Tag!’ She Scowled.”

And while we’re at it, I blogged about word order even longer ago, in “Location!” Check that out too if you like.

The more attention you pay to the order and placement of words and phrases, the more possibilities you’ll discover in the language you use. And, as I never get tired of saying, do read your writing out loud when you’re working on it. Some things are easier to hear than to see. In my writers’ group, some members occasionally ask other members to read their work aloud. If you have the opportunity to do this, take advantage of it!