Rearranging elements of a sentence “from short to long, from simple to compound, increases the ability of the reader to understand them,” says Bruce Ross-Larson in Edit Yourself: A Manual for everyone who works with words, one of my favorite editing books.
Ross-Larson has three related rules.
- First, count the syllables. This will let you identify shorter words to put first.
- Then, “if the number of syllables is the same, count the letters.” That can be a tie-breaker.
- Finally, “Put the compound elements last.” As an example, he suggests that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” reads better than “liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and life.” I guess that’s why the Declaration of Independence uses the suggested order.
Of course, these three rules don’t always apply. As Ross-Larson says, don’t follow the rules if that’ll:
- Put elements out of chronological or sequential order
- Create unintended modifiers
- Upset a familiar or explicit order, such as “the birds and the bees” or going in order from more conservative to less conservative asset classes
Small changes like this can make your writing easier to read. That means you’re likely to convey your message more effectively.
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