A story recently in one of the major newspapers online included a sentence like this: The White House announced that an adviser to the president caught the virus in a tweet this afternoon. The seriousness of what the writer intended to say will not allow us to grin too long at the absurdity of the statement, but what is causing things to go awry, the misplacement of elements, is itself a matter of concern in our effort to write clearly. Vigilance is required here too.
Word order is tied very closely to meaning in English: the dog bit the boy and the boy bit the dog mean quite different things, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the individual words; it’s where those words are placed that changes the meaning of the two statements. Likewise in the sentence we began with, the trouble is caused by placing the phrase in a tweet this afternoon too far from the word it actually has something to do with. This adverbial phrase answers the question how—how did the White House announce this news?—but it has been appended at the last moment as the sentence comes to an end, rather than being brought alongside the verb it works for, announced. One of two simple rearrangements will correct the problem: The White House announced in a tweet this afternoon that an adviser to the president caught the virus or In a tweet this afternoon, the White House announced that an adviser to the president caught the virus. (And in these revisions it would now be better to change the simple past tense caught to the present perfect has caught, since the event is recent and the eventualities remain unknown. For more on this point, see an earlier post Time and Tense.)
All of this is an object lesson in how practically important it can be to understand sentence structure. The original sentence comprises 18 words, and that is enough to make revising it a prickly bramble to prune. Those 18 words can first be cut where the subject joins the predicate, House | announced, and from there we can see more easily that the subject comprises one element, The White House, and the predicate, for our practical purposes, comprises four: an adviser, to the president, caught the virus, and in a tweet this afternoon. With this simple analysis, we are now in a position to deal with only five grammatical elements, not 18 individual words. And from here we can begin to certify that each element is assuming its rightful place: the phrase to the president sits properly next to adviser because it is an adjective to that noun, and the phrase caught the virus sits appropriately next to this subject phrase. But then we come to in a tweet this afternoon, and what is next to it has nothing logically to do with it. Therein lies the problem, of course, which our structural division of the sentence has allowed us more efficiently to identify.
The truth of the matter, then, is that without being able to understand the structure of a sentence, we are taking the long way home to its revision. Without analysis and the grammatical theory on which it is based, we are left with our opinions and assertions that what a sentence means is what I understand it to mean. Until we come to a sentence like the guard stood next to the warden watching us, which certainly means—and can only mean—that the warden was watching us, because in the absence of a comma, the participle watching is attached directly to warden. Whether the guard was watching too cannot be known from this sentence, no matter how much we might want it to have been the truth. And had it been in fact the case that the guard was watching us (and the warden’s attention now in doubt), we could have simply rearranged the elements to communicate that truth: Watching us, the guard stood next to the warden.
What positions elements assume and the punctuation that is employed are decisive matters for clear writing and the plain thinking that accounts for it. Testing and trying what we write with a few questions of grammar and sentence structure will assure us we are closer to saying exactly what we mean and rule out of court protestations against the truth.