5 Sentences That Should Save the Best Until Last

By Mark Nichol

English is a flexible enough language that a set of words can be ordered in any of several ways to communicate the same idea. However, in writing — as in many other human endeavors — just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Here are five sentences rendered more effective by positioning the most important information at the end.

1. “He had told her that his illegal drugs were actually vitamins for months.”
This sentence, like many others that include a misplaced modifier, suffers because it reads as if the perpetrator had told someone that the illegal drugs in his possession were vitamins intended as nutritional supplements for the periods of days known as months, after which they were not so intended. This is a “You know what I meant” mistake, which is still a mistake. A better rendition — one that appropriately positions the modifier directly after the verb it modifies — places the key detail in the final position: “He had told her for months that his illegal drugs were actually vitamins.”

2. “Outdoor illicit drug markets are free of the stuff and crime bosses say they get the credit, not the government.”
What is it about drugs and clumsy sentences? The latter part of the sentence implies that crime bosses say that they get one thing (the credit) and not the other (the government). What the sentence means is that crime bosses are taking credit for the absence of a substance from illicit drug markets; they, not the government, they claim, are responsible for the beneficial result. Placing the two contenders for credit in contrasting parallel, as I did in the previous sentence (and inserting a helpful comma between the two independent clauses), improves the sentence structure and clarifies the meaning: “Outdoor illicit drug markets are free of the stuff, and crime bosses say they, not the government, should get the credit.”

3. “He was a member of the team during that series but did not play due to a concussion.”
“He . . . did not play due to a concussion” invites the question “Why did he play?” But the concussion is the cause of his nonparticipation in the series. The intended meaning becomes clear if the phrase “due to a concussion” is inserted as an interjection before the key fact (“he . . . did not play”), rather than confusingly appended to it: “He was a member of the team during that series but, due to a concussion, did not play.”

4. “It’s not just losing in the regular season that strengthens your core, but losing in the playoffs as well.”
The correction to this sentence may seem to contradict the point of this post. Isn’t “losing in the playoffs,” rather than “losing in the regular season,” the point of the statement? Actually, as demonstrated in the previous sentence, contrasting phrases are best positioned together in the midst of a sentence. The key detail is what the two types of losing have in common: “It’s not just losing in the regular season, but losing in the playoffs as well, that strengthens your core.”

5. “The longer she stayed, the more interesting and meaningful the experience became, despite the hardships involved.”
The false key, however, isn’t always best relegated to the midst of the sentence. Sometimes it’s best to get it out of the way at the beginning: “Despite the hardships involved, the longer she stayed, the more interesting and meaningful the experience became.”

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13 Responses to “5 Sentences That Should Save the Best Until Last”

  • Ankush

    Fractured sentences always make for such an amusing reading. Long live careless writers and speakers!

  • Brian

    I definitely prefer the meat of this post to the previous days’ ten-of-this and fifteen-of-that posts.

  • Curtis

    “Losing . . . strengthens your core.”??

    Am I missing something here, or has sports terminology begun borrowing from the Newspeak dictionary?

  • thebluebird11

    Wow, those sentences are bulky and disorganized, tripping all over themselves. Ewww.
    IMHO:
    1. To preserve congruency with the stated goal of this post, I would revise the first example as follows: “For months, what he had been telling her were vitamins were actually illegal drugs.”
    2. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought we had all agreed not to use “due to” unless we were talking about something actually being owed (e.g. money). So I would revise the third example to something like, “Although he was a member of the team during that series, he was unable to play because of a concussion.”
    OK, gotta run…BFN!

  • Mark Nichol

    thebluebird11:

    Your change to the first example preserves the misapprehension that the illegal drugs were only temporarily so before reverting to vitamin form.

    Also, I regret to inform you that “due to” has not been banished, and though I usually employ “because of” in its place, I have no problem with its widespread usage. But how about this: “He was a member of the team during that series but, because of a concussion, did not play.”

  • Mary

    I was told years ago that “due to” should be used only when it’s an object: “His absence from the game was due to a concussion.” Am I mistaken? Or has “due to” used that way become acceptable through constant use? I would have changed that sentence to something like this: “He was a member of the team during that series but, because of a concussion, did not play.” Or “on account of,” or “because of,” or “owing to.”

    Cheers!

  • Chris the Grammar Nut

    @Mark Nichols, re#3, in general I agree that ‘because’ is better than ‘due to’. However, the correct phrase in the example sentence should actually be ‘owing to’. Most people either don’t understand or no longer care about the technical differences between ‘due to’ and ‘owing to’: I’ve seen lots of articles on the BBC news site where they are wrongly used. If such a respected organization as the Beeb can’t get it right, I don’t think the rest of us need worry undu(e)ly 😉

  • Mark Nichol

    Brian:

    Thanks for your note. I produce posts in a variety of formats for two reasons: I’d run out of material if I wrote articles only of this type, and I’m endeavoring to create an array of types of content that appeals to a diverse audience.

  • thebluebird11

    @Mark and Chris: I think “due to” and “owing to” are about the same (at least on this side of the pond). And the point is, there is nothing actually “owed” or “due.” One situation is the cause of another; an event is a consequence of a preceding event. I prefer “because of,” or (maybe a bit more formal), “secondary to.” So, “He was a member of the team during the season, but, secondary to a concussion, did not play.”
    @Mark: Hmmm, I see what you mean about the confusion with those >bleeping< illegal drugs. I suppose you could switch things around a bit (although making the sentence a little klunkier): "What for months he had been telling her were vitamins, were actually illegal drugs." I should mention that the word "actually" should probably precede the "illegal drugs," since the pills were ACTUALLY illegal drugs (not vitamins).

  • Curtis

    In the “due to” discussion, you can also consider ‘consequent’ and ‘subsequent’ and their variations. Maybe ‘ramifications,’ too.

    Might be the topic of another column for you, Mark — if you haven’t already covered it.

  • Mark Nichol

    thebluebird11:

    “What for months he had been telling her were vitamins were actually illegal drugs” is a good solution. (But note the omission of the comma after vitamins.)

  • Jenna Humphrey

    What about cadence and persuasion? These sentences should flow better and possess more strategy if you want them to work.

    How about:

    “He had told her for months that his drugs were vitamins.”

    –The meaning of “drugs” being implied in its contrast to “vitamins” and easily contextualized by anyone who isn’t autistic.

    Or if you want to be exact and add richness, say what the drugs were.

    “He had told her for months that his illegally-acquired prescription narcotics were vitamins.”

    I am not even going to touch on that second sentence because it’s ineffectual to the point of worthlessness.

    As for the third sentence, saying that he sat the season out implies that he was a member of the team. You would not miss a season of a team you were not on in the first place. So let just simplify.

    “He did not play that season because of a concussion.”

    Sentence #4 is an excruciatingly obvious statement. Why would anyone think that, while losing during the season “strengthens your core,” playoff games are somehow exempt from being character-building? I would be more interested in a genuine insight about how losing during the playoffs is particularly tough. Also, I don’t know what “strengthening to the core” means, exactly. Does this refer to an emotional core, a strengthening of technique, or what? Off the bat (haha), I would say something to the like of:

    “While losing during the regular season is challenging in its own right, a loss in the playoffs can prove particularly crushing.”

    See how much stronger that feels?

    As for this sentence:

    “The longer she stayed, the more interesting and meaningful the experience became, despite the hardships involved.”

    …”Despite the hardship involved” could be a lot more impacting if you said something that isn’t so clunky and abstract. I would personally angle it as:

    “The longer she stayed, the more interesting and meaningful the experience became–even though it was hard.”

    The point I am getting at is that grammar should riff off of effect…unless you are writing for robots. I do like the technical insights, but try to eat your own dog food a little bit.

  • thebluebird11

    @Jenna: I like your style and directness. Your revisions definitely make for sentences with more clarity and impact. As far as what may be “obvious” to a reader, however, it could be a bit difficult to say without knowing the context of the sentence and/or how familiar the reader is with the particular topic. Still, the case presented in this post is definitely stating the obvious. I find that to be very common in sports-related writings, because they seem to have stock answers and phrases that they use no matter what questions they’re asked. “We’re just going to go out there and try to do our best…” ad nauseam.

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