Getting Thoughts in the Right Place

If writing well means writing precisely, then where we place our words is just as important as the words we choose in composing a sentence. That’s because English relies heavily on word order to communicate meaning, and simple changes can turn a sentence around—or over.

Take, for example, this short sentence: I thought of what you said last night. Most of us understand that statement, and rightly so, to mean that you said something last night, and I thought about it later. The adverbial phrase last night sits immediately adjacent to the verb said, and that proximity is enough to explain how we interpret the sentence, and all the more so given the fact that the writer chose the simple past tense said instead of the logically stricter past perfect had said (stricter because your saying something occurred before I thought about it). If word order is important to a language, then proximity is its method to display meaning as a sentence unfolds. It’s typical, too, in English to place temporal adverbs, elements that express time, at the end of a clause, which only strengthens here our first interpretation of the sentence.

But chances are we could very well have written that same sentence and meant this: I thought last night about what you said. Notice that this very different meaning depends on where the same adverbial phrase last night has been placed: it now sits immediately adjacent to a different verb, thought instead of said, and that makes all the difference in what the statement means. Slips like this are called miscues, and they are common in our rough drafts, where we are transcribing the many thoughts we first have as we turn our attention to a subject. Our thoughts often don’t arrive in order, neatly coifed and arranged. They come as they’re dressed, and revision is the work of making them presentable for the occasion. That includes getting them to stand where they need to be as we block out the scene of a sentence—as we compose a sentence, that is, to mean what we mean to express.

One of these difficult actors came to my rehearsal the other day. The first draft of a recent post entitled Precise Changes included these two sentences: But to write well means to write precisely. And because that is difficult to achieve all at once, we should expect to spend a lot of time detecting abstractions and unearthing the images they hide when we’re revising a draft. Look closely at the concluding subordinate clause of the second sentence, when we’re revising a draft. That subordinate clause is adverbial, and as an adverb, it wants to modify the verb hide, the verb adjacent to it. But did I mean to say that the images we are searching for hide when we revise? I meant instead that images make our writing precise, and that these images are often hidden in our rough draft—to be found later when we revise. I misplaced this adverbial subordinate clause and ended up about to say something I didn’t exactly mean.

Now the ever-present temptation is to say, “Well, you know what I mean.” But that is to shift the burden of thinking from me to you, the reader, and that’s just not in the original agreement of writing well. So after a couple of rereadings (and because we know what we want to say, it can often take a few readings to see what we’ve inadvertently said), I caught the misstatement and revised it like this: And because that is difficult to achieve all at once, we should expect to spend a lot of time when we’re revising a draft, detecting abstractions and unearthing the images they hide. Here, the same subordinate clause is now an adjective modifying the noun time, with one of the participial phrases after it carrying the idea of hidden images and attaching that unearthing to the subject we.

The observation? Precision includes placement, and a grammatical element does not always find its best place at first in a rough draft. The close work of revising (and revising again) is often necessary to find a miscue.


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