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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

More about location

Emphasis isn't the only reason to be concerned about where something goes in a sentence. Here's an example that illustrates how important location is. It comes from an article I was editing yesterday.

"Remember to drink plenty of water each day, to eat foods high in fiber, and to exercise to prevent constipation."

Technically there's nothing wrong with the sentence -- except the meaning is not clear. Are all three items in the series -- drinking water, eating, and exercising -- related to preventing constipation? Or is it just exercise that prevents it? The sentence could be read either way, and a reader most likely isn't going to stop to work it out. So even if two out of every three readers understand the sentence correctly, the writer is still going to leave one third of the audience in the dark. This problem can be avoided by moving "to prevent constipation" ahead of the series rather than at the end of it.

"To prevent constipation, you need to drink plenty of water each day, eat foods high in fiber, and exercise."

(The "remember to" didn't really add anything to the meaning of the sentence.) Now, preventing constipation has provided context for all three actions in the series, something that's best accomplished at the beginning of a sentence. If the context is left until the end, a reader needs to go back and apply it to what he or she has just read. The effect is like tripping over a crack in the sidewalk.


  1. Thanks for that lesson - I love these and I find them very helpful!

  2. Thanks, Lilly. I'm glad you find them useful. I'm also really glad you're reading my blog.

  3. The desired effect for the reader and sufferer is to just have everything run smoothly. :)

    Peace - Rene

  4. Ouch, Rene. That pun was so good it hurt.

  5. I love the subject matter of your sentence! Ha ha.

  6. Subject matter is just one of the perks of working in health communications. ;)