From The ABC Of Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

Putting words in their proper places is all-important in a language which, except in some of its pronouns, does not have different forms for the subjective and objective cases. With those pronouns arrangement is not so vital. Neither "he outlived her" nor "her he outlived" leaves any doubt which outlived the other. But with nouns the meaning depends rigidly on the order. "Husband outlived wife" means one thing and "wife outlived husband" the opposite. Reverse the order of the words and you reverse the meaning.

If all you want to say is a simple thing like that, there is no difficulty. But that is rarely so. You probably want to write a more complicated sentence telling not only the central event but also its how, why, and where. The Americans have a useful word, modifier, by which they mean "words or groups of words that restrict, limit, or make more exact the meaning of other words". The `modifiers' bring the trouble.

The rule is easy enough to state. It is, in the words of an old grammarian, "that the words or members most nearly related should be placed in the sentence as near to each other as possible, so as to make their mutual relation clearly appear ". But it is not so easy to keep. We do not always remember that what is clear to us may be far from clear to our readers. Sometimes it is not clear even to us which "words or members" are "most nearly related", and if there are many `modifiers' we may be confronted with difficulties of the jig-saw type.

Here are some typical examples of faulty arrangement. Their offence is that they obscure the writer's meaning, if only momentarily:

It is doubtful whether this small gas company would wish to accept responsibility for supplying this large area with all its difficulties.

"With all its difficulties" should be put in parenthetic commas after "responsibility".

Sir W. S. has cut short the tour that he has been making for the last month in the middle east because of illness.

"Because of illness" should begin the sentence instead of ending it.

Faulty arrangement of this sort is not unknown even in model regulations issued by government departments to show local authorities how things ought to be done:

No child shall be employed on any weekday when the school is not open for a longer period than four hours.

"For a longer period than four hours" qualifies employed, not open, and should come immediately after employed.

And in departmental regulations themselves:

Every woman by whom . . . a claim for maternity benefit is made shall furnish evidence that she has been, or that it is to be expected that she will be, confined by means of a certificate given in accordance with the rules. . . .

The next example is of a slightly different sort of error :

The operation is carried out in an endeavour to return to its rightful place, 20 acres of soil underlying 18 ins. of dredging from an adjacent dyke.

Here the writer, puzzled where to put "to its rightful place" without creating an ambiguity, has welded it into an impossibly clumsy verb with return ("return-to-its-rightful-place") and has tried to help things out with an impossible comma. The sentence needs recasting, e.g. "The operation is carried out in an endeavour to return 20 acres of soil to its rightful place it is now under 18 inches,..".

On the practice of trying to remedy faulty arrangement by commas, see COMMA.

In the next example the writer has lumbered ponderously along without looking where he was going and arrived at the object (officers) of the verb are employing with a disconcerting bump:

One or two of the largest Local Authorities are at present employing on their staff as certifying officers and as advisers to the Mental Deficiency Act Committees officers having special qualification or experience in mental deficiency.

He would have given himself little more trouble, and would have saved his reader some, if he had turned the sentence round and written:

Officers having special qualification or experience in mental deficiency are at present being employed on the staff of one or two of the largest Local Authorities as certifying officers and as advisers to the Mental Deficiency Act Committees.

Other common errors of arrangement which are likely to give the reader unnecessary trouble, if they do not actually bewilder him, are letting the relative get a long way from its antecedent and the auxiliary a long way from the main verb. Examples:

(Of relative separated from antecedent.)

Arrangements have been made for the clerk of the Executive Committee to forward a supply of special forms, to whom applications for supplies of such forms should normally be made.

This would have been clearer if the writer had said:

The clerk to the Executive Committee has been asked to send you a supply of special forms, and you should ask him for more when you want them.

(Of verb separated from auxiliary.)

The Executive Council should, in the case of approved institutions employing one doctor, get into touch with the committee.

The Council should accordingly, after considering whether they wish to suggest any modifications in the model scheme, consult with the committee. . . .

It is a bad habit to put all sorts of things between the auxiliary and the verb in this way ; it leads to unwieldy sentences and irritated readers.

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