A Quiz About Tactical Syntactical Revision

By Mark Nichol

Most writers understand that whole subject-verb-predicate thing, but there’s more to crafting sentences than making sure they include those basic ingredients (but not necessarily in that order — and, then again, a sentence doesn’t really require any of those elements).

The following sample sentences suffer from poor organization (and, as a result, their readers suffer, too). Although the information in them is present in fundamentally correct grammatical components, the syntax — the arrangement of these building blocks — is clumsily ineffectual. Redistribute the parts of these sentences for optimum impact, and then compare your solutions with mine, provided and annotated below each example. (This is a new format for quiz-type posts here — let me know whether you like this format or prefer that my revisions be collected together at the bottom of the page.)

1. “He says he doesn’t think a prominent breast cancer charity should continue giving grants to Planned Parenthood because it provides abortion services.”

The location of the “because . . .” phrase at the end of the sentence can confuse readers into assuming that there is a reason other than the one stated that the paraphrased speaker supports the grants. But the sentence means that the stated policy is the reason the person does not support them. This ambiguity is resolved by inserting the “because . . .” phrase at the head of the sentence: “Because Planned Parenthood provides abortion services, he says, he doesn’t think a prominent breast cancer charity should continue giving grants to the organization.”

2. “Passengers who refuse to complete the screening process cannot be granted access to the secure area in order to ensure the safety of others traveling.”

The problem in this sentence is similar to that of that in the first example. A reader might assume that the intention of the passengers is to ensure the safety of other travelers, but that they will be granted access for another reason. Other misreadings are also likely. This confusion is eliminated by placing the concluding modifying phrase at the head of the sentence: “In order to ensure the safety of others traveling, passengers who refuse to complete the screening process cannot be granted access to the secure area.”

3. “America should rely on the entrepreneurship and goodness of its citizens to be a great society, not on the well-intentioned but ineffective policies of government agencies.”

This sentence is not incorrect, but it is weakly constructed, spoiling the conclusion by placing it near the head of the sentence and trailing off with the alternative. Sentences intended to persuade are most effective when they first dismiss an obverse point of view and are anchored with the point of argument. (The sentence preceding this parenthesis has a similar effect.) Also, the stated goal is stronger when located at the head of the sentence than at the tail: “To be a great society, America should rely not on the well-intentioned but ineffective policies of government agencies, but on the entrepreneurship and goodness of its citizens.”

4. “Every year, colleges inject a stream of impassioned, idealistic new leaders into our nation, eager to take on our country’s toughest challenges.”

The modifying phrase “into our nation,” and especially the comma following it, retard the momentum of this sentence. By placing the phrase earlier in the sentence, the writer solidifies the “inject . . . nation” imagery and omits the obstructive comma, thereby streamlining the statement: “Every year, colleges inject into our nation a stream of impassioned, idealistic new leaders eager to take on our country’s toughest challenges.”

5. “The fact is, evangelicals have progressed a long way in a very short time when it comes to relations with Catholics.”

The explanatory modifier about the target segment of Christians for the evangelicals is best located earlier in the sentence, which is strengthened by placing the accomplishment at its end: “The fact is, when it comes to relations with Catholics, evangelicals have progressed a long way in a very short time.”

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10 Responses to “A Quiz About Tactical Syntactical Revision”

  • Keith

    “In order to ensure the safety of others traveling, passengers who refuse to complete the screening process cannot be granted access to the secure area.”

    Also, remove the fluffy filler phrase “In order” — it adds nothing.

    “To ensure the safety of others traveling, passengers who refuse to complete the screening process cannot be granted access to the secure area.”

  • Demosthenes

    I like the new format.

    This quiz would be a good exercise for a rhet & comp class. Send the students off to look at almost any news source, and have them find examples that commit these sins.

  • thebluebird11

    Mark, I like the quiz format…but I almost want to find out the answers the next day, like the daily crossword puzzle!
    However, for those of the philosophy that instant gratification takes too long, I realize that the answers need to be there for immediate perusal. I guess if you’re going to do that, IMHO placing each revision immediately following the question is a good way to do it.
    You do a great job and a great service!

  • Rory

    ‘Subject-verb-predicate’…

    The predicate includes the verb, does it not?

  • ken

    I like the new style.

  • RobinC

    I like the new format. Much easier to track.

  • Stefano

    This format for quiz-type post does a better job in enticing the reader to the test. It is somewhat smarter since the answers and the questions are in the same context.

  • thebluebird11

    Unfortunately, there is a great need for tactical syntactical revision. Here is a sentence I came across today: “The staff may become desensitized to the frequency with which alarms are sounded and become complacent, delaying needed action.”
    It sounds as if the alarms become complacent, doesn’t it? One revision could be, “Because of the frequency with which alarms are sounded, staff may become desensitized and complacent, and as a result, necessary action may be delayed.”
    This seems kind of wordy, though; do you have a better revision?
    (You see, although I like the quiz format, I also like the idea of interaction!) 🙂

  • Donal

    I prefer the old format.

    Though as this is my favourite blog, I’m happy either way. 🙂

  • Uma

    I think the new format’s easier if you’re looking to read up on a topic/ concept, but the old format is certainly the preferred topic if its more of a quiz.
    So I guess it really depends on what you intend the article to be more of – a brush-up article or a quiz.

    Loving your work.

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