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Arrangement of Words in a Sentence

Of course in simple sentences the natural order of arrangement is subject—verb—object. In many cases no other form is possible. Thus in the sentence "The cat has caught a mouse," we cannot reverse it and say "The mouse has caught a cat" without destroying the meaning, and in any other form of arrangement, such as "A mouse, the cat has caught," we feel that while it is intelligible, it is a poor way of expressing the fact and one which jars upon us more or less.

In longer sentences, however, when there are more words than what are barely necessary for subject, verb and object, we have greater freedom of arrangement and can so place the words as to give the best effect. The proper placing of words depends upon perspicuity and precision. These two combined give style to the structure.

Most people are familiar with Gray's line in the immortal Elegy—"The ploughman homeward plods his weary way." This line can be paraphrased to read 18 different ways. Here are a few variations:

      Homeward the ploughman plods his weary way.       The ploughman plods his weary way homeward.       Plods homeward the ploughman his weary way.       His weary way the ploughman homeward plods.       Homeward his weary way plods the ploughman.       Plods the ploughman his weary way homeward.       His weary way the ploughman plods homeward.       His weary way homeward the ploughman plods.       The ploughman plods homeward his weary way.       The ploughman his weary way plods homeward. 

and so on. It is doubtful if any of the other forms are superior to the one used by the poet. Of course his arrangement was made to comply with the rhythm and rhyme of the verse. Most of the variations depend upon the emphasis we wish to place upon the different words.

In arranging the words in an ordinary sentence we should not lose sight of the fact that the beginning and end are the important places for catching the attention of the reader. Words in these places have greater emphasis than elsewhere.

In Gray's line the general meaning conveyed is that a weary ploughman is plodding his way homeward, but according to the arrangement a very slight difference is effected in the idea. Some of the variations make us think more of the ploughman, others more of the plodding, and still others more of the weariness.

As the beginning and end of a sentence are the most important places, it naturally follows that small or insignificant words should be kept from these positions. Of the two places the end one is the more important, therefore, it really calls for the most important word in the sentence. Never commence a sentence with And, But, Since, Because, and other similar weak words and never end it with prepositions, small, weak adverbs or pronouns.

The parts of a sentence which are most closely connected with one another in meaning should be closely connected in order also. By ignoring this principle many sentences are made, if not nonsensical, really ridiculous and ludicrous. For instance: "Ten dollars reward is offered for information of any person injuring this property by order of the owner." "This monument was erected to the memory of John Jones, who was shot by his affectionate brother."

In the construction of all sentences the grammatical rules must be inviolably observed. The laws of concord, that is, the agreement of certain words, must be obeyed.

  1. The verb agrees with its subject in person and number. "I have," "Thou hast," (the pronoun thou is here used to illustrate the verb form, though it is almost obsolete), "He has," show the variation of the verb to agree with the subject. A singular subject calls for a singular verb, a plural subject demands a verb in the plural; as, "The boy writes," "The boys write."

    The agreement of a verb and its subject is often destroyed by confusing (1) collective and common nouns; (2) foreign and English nouns; (3) compound and simple subjects; (4) real and apparent subjects.

    (1) A collective noun is a number of individuals or things regarded as a whole; as, class regiment. When the individuals or things are prominently brought forward, use a plural verb; as The class were distinguished for ability. When the idea of the whole as a unit is under consideration employ a singular verb; as The regiment was in camp. (2) It is sometimes hard for the ordinary individual to distinguish the plural from the singular in foreign nouns, therefore, he should be careful in the selection of the verb. He should look up the word and be guided accordingly. "He was an alumnus of Harvard." "They were alumni of Harvard." (3) When a sentence with one verb has two or more subjects denoting different things, connected by and, the verb should be plural; as, "Snow and rain are disagreeable." When the subjects denote the same thing and are connected by or the verb should be singular; as, "The man or the woman is to blame." (4) When the same verb has more than one subject of different persons or numbers, it agrees with the most prominent in thought; as, "He, and not you, is wrong." "Whether he or I am to be blamed."

  2. Never use the past participle for the past tense nor vice versa. This mistake is a very common one. At every turn we hear "He done it" for "He did it." "The jar was broke" instead of broken. "He would have went" for "He would have gone," etc.

  3. The use of the verbs shall and will is a rock upon which even the best speakers come to wreck. They are interchanged recklessly. Their significance changes according as they are used with the first, second or third person. With the first person shall is used in direct statement to express a simple future action; as, "I shall go to the city to-morrow." With the second and third persons shall is used to express a determination; as, "You shall go to the city to-morrow," "He shall go to the city to-morrow."

    With the first person will is used in direct statement to express determination, as, "I will go to the city to-morrow." With the second and third persons will is used to express simple future action; as, "You will go to the city to-morrow," "He will go to the city to-morrow."

    A very old rule regarding the uses of shall and will is thus expressed in rhyme:

          In the first person simply shall foretells,       In will a threat or else a promise dwells. Shall in the second and third does threat, Will simply then foretells the future feat.  
  4. Take special care to distinguish between the nominative and objective case. The pronouns are the only words which retain the ancient distinctive case ending for the objective. Remember that the objective case follows transitive verbs and prepositions. Don't say "The boy who I sent to see you," but "The boy whom I sent to see you." Whom is here the object of the transitive verb sent. Don't say "She bowed to him and I" but "She bowed to him and me" since me is the objective case following the preposition to understood. "Between you and I" is a very common expression. It should be "Between you and me" since between is a preposition calling for the objective case.

  5. Be careful in the use of the relative pronouns who, which and that. Who refers only to persons; which only to things; as, "The boy who was drowned," "The umbrella which I lost." The relative that may refer to both persons and things; as, "The man that I saw." "The hat that I bought."

  6. Don't use the superlative degree of the adjective for the comparative; as "He is the richest of the two" for "He is the richer of the two." Other mistakes often made in this connection are (1) Using the double comparative and superlative; as, "These apples are much more preferable." "The most universal motive to business is gain." (2) Comparing objects which belong to dissimilar classes; as "There is no nicer life than a teacher." (3) Including objects in class to which they do not belong; as, "The fairest of her daughters, Eve." (4) Excluding an object from a class to which it does belong; as, "Caesar was braver than any ancient warrior."

  7. Don't use an adjective for an adverb or an adverb for an adjective. Don't say, "He acted nice towards me" but "He acted nicely toward me," and instead of saying "She looked beautifully" say "She looked beautiful."

  8. Place the adverb as near as possible to the word it modifies. Instead of saying, "He walked to the door quickly," say "He walked quickly to the door."

  9. Not alone be careful to distinguish between the nominative and objective cases of the pronouns, but try to avoid ambiguity in their use.

    The amusing effect of disregarding the reference of pronouns is well illustrated by Burton in the following story of Billy Williams, a comic actor who thus narrates his experience in riding a horse owned by Hamblin, the manager:

    "So down I goes to the stable with Tom Flynn, and told the man to put the saddle on him."

    "On Tom Flynn?"

    "No, on the horse. So after talking with Tom Flynn awhile I mounted him."

    "What! mounted Tom Flynn?"

    "No, the horse; and then I shook hands with him and rode off."

    "Shook hands with the horse, Billy?"

    "No, with Tom Flynn; and then I rode off up the Bowery, and who should I meet but Tom Hamblin; so I got off and told the boy to hold him by the head."

    "What! hold Hamblin by the head?"

    "No, the horse; and then we went and had a drink together."

    "What! you and the horse?"

    "No, me and Hamblin; and after that I mounted him again and went out of town."

    "What! mounted Hamblin again?"

    "No, the horse; and when I got to Burnham, who should be there but Tom Flynn,—he'd taken another horse and rode out ahead of me; so I told the hostler to tie him up."

    "Tie Tom Flynn up?"

    "No, the horse; and we had a drink there."

    "What! you and the horse?"

    "No, me and Tom Flynn."

    Finding his auditors by this time in a horse laugh, Billy wound up with: "Now, look here, —every time I say horse, you say Hamblin, and every time I say Hamblin you say horse: I'll be hanged if I tell you any more about it."