Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Ordering Your Words

I've been noticing something lately. It makes a difference in clarity, sound, and rhythm—depending on what order you put your words when you have a list of things or a pair of items.

Example 1 
A. Lanai went shopping and brought home boxes of cereal, lettuce, and red radishes.
The main problem with this sentence is CLARITY. If you're not careful with constructions like this, it'll sound like Lanai brought home boxes of all three things: cereal, lettuce, and red radishes. Watch out when you use prepositional phrase structures like this (of cereal, in his hair, on the fence, etc). It's best to put those phrases at the END of a sentence:
B. Lanai went shopping and brought home lettuce, red radishes, and boxes of cereal.
Notice I didn't put the red radishes first—because that might cause the same problem as above. The adjective "red" might be erroneously applied to the lettuce and the boxes of cereal (red radishes, red lettuce, and red boxes of cereal).

The second version is also better, in my opinion, for RHYTHM. I've been noticing lately that things in series often sound better when the items are ordered from simple to complex, and also fewer syllables to more syllables. Even when clarity is not an issue:

Example 2
A. The last time I hung out at the club, I danced with Bertoldo, John, and Marty.
B. The last time I hung out at the club, I danced with John, Marty, and Bertoldo.

--Is it just me, or does the B sentence flow better here? That line starts with the shorter name and progresses to the multi-syllable one. Simple to complex, a natural build-up. Although it might make a difference what the consonants are in each word; things may not flow as well. Another good reason to read your manuscript ALOUD

Example 3
A. She stretched out her arms, twirling madly and closing her eyes and laughing.
B. She stretched out her arms, laughing and closing her eyes and twirling madly.
C. She stretched out her arms, laughing and twirling madly and closing her eyes.

--What about these lines? To me, the A and B ones sound okay, but not as flowing. 
--The C line seems to flow the best to me, which meshes with the simple-to-complex theory I've been experimenting with.

Example 4
A. I couldn't figure out which sweater to wear, the burgundy or the purple.
B. I couldn't figure out which sweater to wear, the purple or the burgundy.

Example 5
A. With the dye, he turned his hair frizzy and black.
B. With the dye, he turned his hair black and frizzy.
C. With the dye, he turned his hair ink-black and frizzy.

Example 6
A. The only things he forgot to bring were xylophones, grapes, and scissors.
B. The only things he forgot to bring were grapes, scissors, and xylophones.

--In Example 4, the B sentence flows better to me (unless I read them over too many times in a row and they ALL start sounding weird/fine, ha!)
--Example 5 flies in the face of my simple-to-complex theory, because I actually think I prefer the A or C sentences. Perhaps it's the consonants, the overall sound of the words?
--I can't decide on Example 6. The B line sounds smooth, but I have to admit A has a certain rhythmic charm all its own. 

I'm sure there are other exceptions to my general theories here.

At any rate, the point is to consider what you're writing—don't just plop those words down in a series or list of things and be done with them. When you're done with your first draft and wearing your editing hat, contemplate your words. Listen to the sounds! Practice your "poetic" ear. Tweaking the order might improve the flow of your sentences.

And at the very least, check for CLARITY in your series or lists of things.

Have you ever thought about the order of your words in a list or series?
Do you agree with my "ear," or do other lines sound better to you in these examples?
Which line sounds better to you in Example 6, A or B?


  1. This is exactly why I have an editor. I'm great at the conceptualizing something into words. But I do need help from an editor as I won't remember things like this. Great post though!

  2. Logical order is a fun thing for me. I like finding and fixing them when asked to edit. Neat stuff, I think.

    Cheers and boogie boogie.

  3. Wow. That's a thought. Totally true too--simple to complex, even with syllables. I'm totally going to be looking for that now in my writing. Thanks for the tip, Carol!

  4. Great examples. Some of them really sound better in one version vs. another.

  5. I loved this. I sometimes fiddle with sentences when this is what I was doing. This is something to think about for better flow.

  6. Great post. It makes you think about the flow of words.

  7. I personally love the flow of words, and you've described it beautifully here.

  8. I do pay attention to these things when I read my stuff out loud, but these rules will save me time applying them ahead of time. :D

  9. This is definitely something important to remember for the flow of the words!

  10. I like how you listen too for a better sounding sentence. When I read something out loud, I hear that. I did have to watch for clarity when I wrote my second novel and a kind editor pointed it out to me! LOL Still watching.

  11. I've accidentally made the same mistake in the first example a couple of times. It's not something I normally pick up on, only because logically the boxes only goes with cereal, at least to me :) But, I still try to catch it and I definitely agree that certain lists are better done by ear!

  12. Great post! Those orders do matter but often I don't change them until I've read them a few times. :P

  13. Fun post Carol!

    I agree with you on #1

    I think B works better in #2 and #4 and #6 for the same reason - the more complicated name and unexpected feature (xylophone!) should come at the end. Otherwise the reader trips over the different item and maybe ignores the other two.

    B works best for me in #3, I think because in this case I'm picturing the action as it happens, and it seems to me she wouldn't close her eyes last. She'd start laughing, close her eyes, and start to twirl, still laughing and with eyes closed.

    The only one I'd disagree on is #5; I think B works best there. Because of this:


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