Proper Word Order to Enable Parallel Structure

By Mark Nichol

Sometimes, word order in a sentence does not interfere significantly with comprehension of the sentence, but it does produce an awkward obstacle to clean reading. Here are several flawed sentences that require only a simple transposition of words to become syntactically valid. Each is followed by a discussion and a revision.

1. Foods on the list below should either go into the compost bin or the trash.

When either precedes the operative verb go, the implication is that the counterpoint will lead from a second, distinct verb or verb phrase, such as in the version “Foods on the list below should either go into either the compost bin or be tossed into the trash.” (At the least, the original sentence should repeat into before “the trash.”) But if go is to apply to both choices, either should follow the verb: “Foods on the list below should go into either the compost bin or the trash.”

2. This publication is neither intended to be a legal analysis nor a detailed cookbook of steps to take in every situation.

The same idea applies to use of either’s antonym, neither, which should follow, not precede, the verb “to be”: “This publication is intended to be neither a legal analysis nor a detailed cookbook of steps to take in every situation.” An alternative is to revise as follows, in which case not can come before “to be”: “This publication is not intended to be a legal analysis or a detailed cookbook of steps to take in every situation.”

3. They may not only give insight into what to expect, but also how to handle situations that may arise.

Because give applies to both the point and the counterpoint, it should precede both components of the sentence, and into should be repeated: “They may give insight not only into what to expect but also into how to handle situations that may arise.” (Note, too, that the comma between the components is extraneous.)

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