During the late fall and winter months of this year, I’m going to write several columns on improving one’s prose. We’ll follow two main paths. One will display tips on how to make livelier sentences by knowing the tricks of sentence re-arrangement. The later, second path will give advice about how word use may transform tired sentences into vivid ones.
Today we begin by showing how altering just the word order in a sentence can re-awaken tired prose and freshen a stale sentence. Refreshed sentences are printed in italics.
Take this dull thought: There’s a lot to be gained by careful preparation. Yawn. Heard that old saying before, haven’t you? “A lot to be gained” is weak and overused, a true cliché. How about starting our verbal reclamation project by using a zesty alternative for the noun gain, some synonyms with zip and zap!
You might have written:
Bags of swag await careful prep!
A more staid phrasing may be suitable:
Diligent planning reaps the reward of bounty.
Make the statement sound vaguely scientific or based on economic facts:
The intake of benefit is in direct proportion to time spent planning.
Make up a saying that sounds like a wise old maxim: Preparation is the mother of abundance. Or: Solid groundwork supports the house of benefit.
You might be playful with your expression of the basic thought: The barn of bounty bulges with before-brooding.
Your good taste might allow you to discard that last sentence as too clumsy.
When you have to write a few paragraphs of English is your resultant prose flabby, gray, lifeless English stuffed with old ways of saying things? Is there a cure for flat and banal expression? Yes! Take merely a few extra seconds to think about what you have written or, more generally, how you write, your usual mode of discourse.
Are you a lazy writer? Is this your writing motto? Whatever I jot down is good enough. I got no time to fancy up my words. Really? Then maybe, as a reader, I have no time to waste reading unimaginative, hackneyed copy that you tossed off in a few seconds?
Routine prose is like warmed-over slop that’s been cooked too many times so that no flavour remains. The ancient Romans called it “reboiled cabbage.” Yuck!
So simple a solution as rearrangement awaits.
Tip # 1
Start action sentences with the preposition.
Up popped the toast. In staggered hung-over Dad wondering where breakfast was.
Down the hill we tobogganed, slick as metal on ice.
Astride a chestnut mare named Star of the Wind, Ben galloped off on his morning ride.
Through the woods, to grandmother’s house, slowly, hesitantly, we trudged.
The order above is livelier and has not the same effect on eye and ear as the more familiar word order: We trudged slowly and hesitantly through the woods to grandmother’s house. Yawn.
Alongside the broken dock, our canoe bumped nervously.
Pending his return to common sense, there is little we can do to correct Fred’s screw-up.
Where the sense seems to allow it, try putting the preposition first in an action sentence.
Up they sprang.
On they came, the memories.
Over they flew, sleek clouds westering by dint of high wind.
You might even choose to wax poetic in the midst of a rather prosaic enumeration of how a girl and a boy ruined their relationship:
Under that weight they succumbed, under the burdensome dumpsters of the cheated heart.
Tip # 2
Placing object clauses first is useful in paragraphs that began as summaries or lists of related facts. Place object clauses first in sentence, in front of the main subject and verb:
How they won that battle, all men know.
You might combine this with another style trick: place opposite thoughts close together and in parallel structure:
How they won that battle, all men cherish, and all women regret.
Syntax is the way we put a sentence together, the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language.
The normal word order of a simple English sentence is subject-verb-object. For example: The dog ate the Milkbone greedily.
To bring variety into the word order of a sentence, put an important adverb at the start of a sentence.
Greedily the dog ate the Milkbone.
The writer may invert normal word order, which is subject-verb-adverb-adjective (or subjective completion after a copula verb like to be).
Always I was polite.
Always was I polite.
Never was I rude.
Never were devotion and uphill struggle against doubts of success more bitterly repaid.
Caution: Sometimes an adverb used in a sentence position different from normal may change the meaning of the sentence. Make sure this does not happen when you invert adverbial position or alter its place. You seek to enliven the sentence, not change its meaning.
In glum prose, sentence after weary sentence bears the same word order: subject-verb-object. So vary the word order when the sense of the sentence will permit such a transposition.
Never had any pupil so devoted, persistent, lavish and brilliant a guide as Professor Klein.
Or you might decide putting the object of a verb first makes for a more interesting word order.
Women and children the soldiers killed first.
Joy and abundance the villagers celebrated, chief benefits of the harvest festival.
More tips on freshening a stale sentence shall I present here soon.
Bill Casselman, October 21, 2017
My text Copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman
At the Wording Desk
Increase your ability writing English by learning about inverted word order.