7 Tactical Fixes for Syntactical Impact

By Mark Nichol

Writers often miss opportunities to push home a point or spotlight an interesting observation by ignoring or not attending to the effect of cadence and syntax on written communication. Such incidents are like a standup comedian placing a punch line in the middle of a joke. Here are some examples of slight adjustments of sentence construction for maximum impact:

1. “He argued that the court is hardly a legal entity, for a variety of reasons.”

The point of the sentence is buried in its midsection, after which a modifier is tacked on, causing the sentence to stagger to a weak ending. Revise as follows: “He argued that the court, for a variety of reasons, is hardly a legal entity.”

2. “The Chinese were growing lettuce by the fifth century BC, where it represented good luck.”

Because “the fifth century BC” could be treated grammatically as a location, the second clause could be misunderstood to refer to the time, not the place, which is furthermore only weakly implied by “the Chinese.” Strongly link the superstition to the people, rather than the country: “The Chinese, who considered lettuce a symbol of good luck, were growing it by the fifth century BC.”

3. “More than 600 schools or school districts nationwide have blocked the Web site, according to cofounder John Doe. Doe, who started the site . . .”

“According to” attributions are often stronger at the head of a sentence. This revision also avoids the clumsy repetition of Doe’s name at the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next: “According to cofounder John Doe, more than 600 schools or school districts nationwide have blocked the Web site. Doe, who started the site . . .”

4. “Asquith recognized that the majority of his party wanted to steer clear of the approaching conflict—and, more to the point, a majority of his Cabinet.”

Wait — the majority of his party wanted to steer clear of a majority of his Cabinet? Huh? Well, that’s what it says. But that’s not what it means. Here’s what it means: “Asquith recognized that the majority of his party—and, more to the point, a majority of his Cabinet—wanted to steer clear of the approaching conflict.” So write it that way.

5. “Yo-yos were first used as deadly weapons, not as toys.”

The mildly startling fact about the toy’s origins is best held back until the end of the sentence: “Yo-yos were first used not as toys, but as deadly weapons.”

6. “The model takes the social systems surrounding the alcoholic as crucial, most often the family.”

The specification of the primary social system should immediately follow “the alcoholic,” the focus of the sentence, rather than being buffered and weakened by the additional phrase “as crucial”: “The model takes the social systems surrounding the alcoholic, most often the family, as crucial.”

7. “There, it’s become fashionable to hate Jews, as they are the proxies for Americans in the Middle East, some say puppets.”

As the sentence is written, the last phrase seems a muttered aside, rather than a key component of the statement. Inserting it, enclosed in em dashes, in the middle of the sentence gives it the prominence it needs: “There, it’s become fashionable to hate Jews, as they are the proxies — some say puppets — for Americans in the Middle East.”

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3 Responses to “7 Tactical Fixes for Syntactical Impact”

  • Rob

    Have to disagree on #3, where the original takes advantage of the known-new contract for coherence and linking of one sentence to the next. Some redundancy has come to be used as a connective device and not unilaterally shunned as needless repetition.

  • Steve

    Re: #3. I agree with moving “According to” to the front of the first sentence. However, with respect to the second, we’ve already established that Doe started the site—unless there’s a meaning of “co-founder” of which I’m unaware. To me, “…who started the site…” is unnecessary repetition, and it makes me want to go back to the first sentence to see if I misread it.

  • Steve

    Now that I reread both my initial comment and the original, perhaps the second sentence omits some critical context, such as “Doe, who started the site to present an alternative viewpoint…” in which case there really isn’t any redundancy.

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