Ordering your clauses

It’s writing guidance time again, and I want to talk about order–word and clause order. We often write like we think, tacking on clauses in whatever order, because we know what we mean. The reader may not, or s/he may be able to decode the meaning but doesn’t want to have to.

I’m going to show you some sentences, and why the order of clauses matters. I guess technically they may not be defined as clauses, but it’s easier to say that than ‘pieces of speech one may switch around,’ and I can live without looking for the definition of that.

“Ronda Rousey made her first major public appearance since she was knocked out by Holly Holm on Saturday Night Live.” [Yahoo Sports, reporting on a January 23 airing.] The writing is unclear, even misleading, because it implies that Holm knocked Rousey out on the TV show. Better: “On Saturday Night Live, Ronda Rousey made her first major public appearance since Holly Holm knocked her out.” Clarifies that the knockout was prior to the show, doing away with passive voice into the bargain.

A better sentence yet would add the date of the knockout to the end, but the original’s biggest problem is that it forces the reader to stop and sort the words back into the correct order. The writer who thinks readers enjoy having to do that is a clod, and should change his or her thinking. It’s not that the reader can’t figure out your meaning with effort; it’s that this is a poor reason to force him or her to do so.

“2016 commit Van Soderberg finished his last high school class on Friday and will enroll at UW for the Spring quarter in March.” [UW Dawg Pound, January 31, 2016] Awkward, because it implies that there could be multiple Spring quarters, some of which do not occur in March, and we know that’s not possible. Better: “2016 commit Van Soderberg finished his last high school class on Friday and will enroll at UW in March for the Spring quarter.”

Better still, leave off “the Spring quarter.” What other quarter or semester would begin in March?

“As you can see, each service thinks Petersen’s classes at Washington have improved each year, and while the 2016 class is a smaller one due to a small graduating class, it’s the best on a per recruit basis of his three classes.” [UW Dawg Pound, February 3, 2016] The word order jolts the flow near the end. This is a sentence that sounds all right when spoken, but does not read as well in print. To write like one talks is not an asset, because people do not read like they listen. Better: “…it’s the best of his three classes on a per-recruit basis.”

Better still: “…recruit for recruit, it’s the best of Petersen’s three classes.”

Get it? If you think about the clauses relate to one another, it will not be difficult to arrive at the clearest possible sequence.


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