Troubles In Arrangement
From The Handling Of Words a chapter in The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers (1954)

Of these three — grammar, syntax and idiom — it is syntax, in its strict sense of "orderly arrangement", that is of the greatest practical importance. The quotation that heads this chapter says that proper words in proper places make the true definition of style. But something more than " style" depends on putting words in their proper places. In a language like ours, which, except in some of its pronouns, has got rid of its different forms for the subjective and objective cases, your very meaning may depend on your arrangement of words. In Latin, the subject of the verb will have a form that shows it is " in the nominative", and the object one that shows it is " in the accusative"; you may arrange them as you like, and the meaning will remain the same. But English is different. In the two sentences "Cain killed Abel" and "Abel killed Cain" the words are the same, but when they are reversed the meaning is reversed too.

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.

The simplest type of faulty arrangement, and the easiest to fall into, is illustrated by the following examples. Their offence is that they obscure the writer's meaning, if only momentarily, and usually make him appear to be guilty of an absurdity.

There was a discussion yesterday on the worrying of sheep by dogs in the Minister's room.
The official statement on the marriage of German prisoners with girls made in the House of Commons....
It is doubtful whether this small gas company would wish to accept responsibility for supplying this large area with all its difficulties.
Whatever her thoughts, they were interrupted as the hotel lobby door opened and a young woman carrying a baby and her husband entered.
— (Quoted by The New Yorker from a novel.)

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.

It is not surprising that a Department which sets this example should receive letters like this:

In accordance with your instructions I have given birth to twins in the enclosed envelope.

I shall have something more to say on this subject in pointing out the danger of supposing that disorderly sentences can be set right by vagrant commas. But one cause of the separation of " words or members most nearly related" is so common that, although I have already touched on it, an examination of some more examples may be useful. That is the separation of the subject from the verb by intervening clauses, usually defining the subject.

  1. Officers appointed to permanent commissions who do not possess the qualifications for voluntary insurance explained in the preceding paragraphs and officers appointed to emergency commissions direct from civil life who were not already ensured at the date of appointment (and who, as explained in para. 3, are therefore not required to be insured during service) may be eligible.
  2. The cases where a change in the circumstances affecting the fire prevention arrangements at the premises is such that, if the number of hours stated in the certificate were recalculated, there would be a reduction (or an increase) in the number of hours of fireguard duty which the members concerned would be liable to perform for the local authority in whose area they reside, stand, however, in an entirely different position.

In these examples the reader is kept waiting an unconscionable time for the verb. The simplest way of correcting this will generally be to change the order of the words or to convert relative clauses into conditional, or both. For instance:

  1. Officers appointed to permanent commissions may be eligible though they do not possess the qualifications for voluntary insurance explained in the preceding paragraph. So may officers appointed to emergency commissions direct from civil life who ... etc..
  2. The circumstances affecting the fire prevention arrangements at the premises may, however, so change that, if the number of hours stated in the certificate were recalculated, there would be a reduction, or an increase, in the number of hours of fireguard duty which the members concerned would be liable to perform for the local authority in whose area they reside. These cases stand in an entirely different position.

Sometimes the object allows itself to he driven a confusing distance from the verb. A poet can plead the exigencies of rhyme for separating his object from his verb and say, as Calverley did,

O be careful that thou changest
On returning home thy boots.

But the official has no such excuse. He must invert the order and say

"It is of paramount importance" — for that may be the expression he will he tempted to use — "that young ladies after standing in wet grass should change their boots on returning home".

In the following 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 hump:

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 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.)
Enquiries are received from time to time in connection with requests for the grant of leave of absence to school children during term time for various reasons, which give rise to questions as to the power to grant such leave.

What is the antecedent of which? Enquiries, requests or reasons? Probably enquiries, hut it is a long way off. In this sentence it matters little, but in other sentences similarly constructed it might be important for the antecedent to be unmistakable. The surest way of avoiding ambiguity, when you have started a sentence like this, is to put a full stop after reasons, and begin the next sentence These enquiries, or these requests or these reasons, whichever is meant.

( 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.

Adverbs sometimes get awkwardly separated from the words they qualify. "They should be so placed in a sentence as to make it impossible to doubt which word or words they are intended to affect." If they affect an adjective or past participle or another adverb their place is immediately in front of it (accurately placed, perfectly clear). If they affect another part of a verb, or a phrase, they may be in front or behind. It is usually a matter of emphasis: he came soon emphasises his promptitude; he soon came emphasises his coming.

The commonest causes of adverbs going wrong are the fear, real or imaginary, of splitting an infinitive and the waywardness of the adverbs only and even. Only is a capricious word. It is much given to deserting its post and taking its place next the verb, regardless of what it qualifies. It is more natural to say "he only spoke for ten minutes" than "he spoke for only ten minutes". The sport of pillorying misplaced onlys has a great fascination for some people, and only-snooping seems to have become as popular a sport with some purists as split-infinitive-snooping was a generation ago. A recent book, devoted to the exposing of errors of diction in contemporary writers, contained several examples such as:

He had only been in England for six weeks since the beginning of the war.
This only makes a war lawful: that it is a struggle for law against force.
We can only analyse the facts we all have before us.

These incur the author's censure. By the same reasoning be would condemn Sir Winston Churchill for writing in The Gathering Storm:

Statesmen are not called upon only to settle easy questions.

Fowler took a different view. Of a critic who protested against "he only died a week ago" instead of "he died only a week ago," Fowler wrote:

There speaks one of those friends from whom the English language may well pray to be saved, one of the modern precisians who have more zeal than discretion...

But it cannot be denied that the irresponsible behaviour of only does sometimes create real ambiguity. Take such a sentence as:

His disease can only be alleviated by a surgical operation.

We cannot tell what this means, and must rewrite it either:

Only a surgical operation can alleviate his disease (it cannot be alleviated in any other way),


A surgical operation can only alleviate his disease (it cannot cure it).


In your second paragraph you point out that carpet-yarn only can be obtained from India, and this is quite correct.

The writer must have meant "can be obtained only from India", and ought to have so written, or, at the least, "can only be obtained from India". What he did write, if not actually ambiguous (for it can hardly be supposed that carpet-yarn is India's only product), is unnatural, and sets the reader puzzling for a moment.

So do not take the only-snoopers too seriously. But be on the alert. It will generally be safe to put only in what the plain man feels to be its natural place. Sometimes that will be its logical position, sometimes not. When the qualification is more important than the positive statement, to bring in the only as soon as possible is an aid to being understood it prevents the reader from being put on a wrong scent. In the sentence "The temperature will rise above 35 degrees only in the south-west of England", only is carefully put in its right logical place. But the listener would have grasped more quickly the picture of an almost universally cold England if the announcer had said, "the temperature will only rise above 35 degrees in the south-west of England". What is even better in such cases is to avoid only by making the main statement a negative: "the temperature will not rise above 35 degrees, except in the south-west of England".

Even has a similar habit of getting into the wrong place. The importance of putting it in the right one is aptly illustrated in the A.B.C. of English Usage thus:

Sentence: "I am not disturbed by your threats".
  1. Even I am not disturbed by your threats (let alone anybody else).
  2. I am not even disturbed by your threats (let alone hurt, annoyed, injured, alarmed).
  3. I am not disturbed even by your threats (even modifies the phrase, the emphasis being on the threats).
It is also possible, though perhaps rather awkward, to put even immediately before your, and so give your the emphasis (your threats, let alone anybody else's).