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Author Topic: The appropriate way to position subordinate clauses and phrases  (Read 10054 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: October 17, 2010, 01:15:35 PM »

The serious student of writing in English soon discovers that formal expository writing and newspaper journalism differ profoundly in their approach to subordination and word order. Formal exposition like the essay uses the “upright pyramid” mode, meaning that it starts with contextual or foundation ideas first and builds up to the conclusion—an approach that has the effect of having the more important information presented later instead of earlier at the sentence level and in the composition as a whole. In contrast, newswriting uses the so-called “inverted pyramid” mode of presenting information—it generally tells the reader the conclusion first, follows it with the most important supporting information, then continues the story by giving aspects of its background in an order of diminishing importance. This different approach to subordination and word order normally confuses a lot of beginning writers, and their inability to recognize the difference often results in badly constructed sentences and confusing compositions as well.

It was for this reason that I wrote a two-part essay, “Subordination and word order in English,” for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in February 2009. By discussing the differences between expository writing and news writing, I hoped to help writers in general and entry-level journalists in particular routinely avoid the often serious problems in grammar, semantics, and logic that they sometimes unknowingly commit in their day-to-day writing. This time, for the benefit of Forum members and guests, I have combined the two-part essay into just one for posting in this week’s edition of the Forum. (October 16, 2010)

Subordination and word order in English

We all know that in English, the main clause of a sentence is generally more important than a subordinate clause or phrase, but many of you must have wondered which position is most appropriate for a subordinate clause or phrase—up front, at the tail end, or elsewhere in the sentence?

Consider this sentence from an Agence France-Presse news dispatch, for instance: “Resource-hungry nations are snapping up huge tracts of agricultural land in poor Asian nations, in what activists say is a ‘land grab’ that will worsen poverty and malnutrition.”

Here, of course, it’s obvious that the main clause is “resource-hungry nations are snapping up huge tracts of agricultural land in poor Asian nations,” and that the subordinate element is “in what activists say is a ‘land grab’ that will worsen poverty and malnutrition.”

But what about positioning that subordinate element up front instead? The construction seems to read just as well: “In what activists say is a ‘land grab’ that will worsen poverty and malnutrition, resource-hungry nations are snapping up huge tracts of agricultural land in poor Asian nations.” And the meaning also stays perfectly intact if the subordinate element is placed neatly within the main clause: “Resource-hungry nations, in what activists say is a ‘land grab’ that will worsen poverty and malnutrition, are snapping up huge tracts of agricultural land in poor Asian nations.”

So, we might as well ask once and for all, what’s the definitive rule for positioning subordinate clauses and phrases?

There are two general grammatical principles for conveying the relative importance of ideas in a sentence. The first, which I have already invoked above, is that ideas expressed in main clauses are generally more important than those in subordinate ones. This rule is, of course, so self-evident that it doesn’t merit further discussion. But the second rule is likely to throw many newspaper reporters and newspaper readers off balance, for it says so counterintuitively that an idea or information given later in a sentence is usually more important than those given earlier.

Indeed, following this second rule, it would seem that by being back-shifted in the sentence I have given as an example, the subordinate element “in what activists say is a ‘land grab’ that will worsen poverty and malnutrition” assumes more importance than the main clause, “resource-hungry nations are snapping up huge tracts of agricultural land in poor Asian nations.”

But this clearly contradicts the first rule, which says that ideas expressed in main clauses are generally more important than those in subordinate clauses and phrases. If we were to scrupulously follow the two rules, in fact, the optimal position of the subordinate clause in that sentence would be up front: “In what activists say is a ‘land grab’ that will worsen poverty and malnutrition, resource-hungry nations are snapping up huge tracts of agricultural land in poor Asian nations.”

So why then does the Agence France-Presse lead sentence seemingly violate the twin rules on subordination and word order?

The reason is this: newspaper journalism differs profoundly from formal exposition when it comes to indicating the relative importance of ideas in a sentence. As we all know, the typical news story uses the so-called “inverted pyramid” mode of presenting information. This approach to storytelling tells the reader the conclusion first, follows it with the most important supporting information, then continues the story by giving aspects of its background in an order of diminishing importance.

In contrast, formal exposition uses the “upright pyramid” mode, meaning that it starts with contextual or foundation ideas first and builds up to the conclusion. It is therefore not surprising that in formal expository writing, the more important information in a sentence—and in the exposition as a whole for that matter—tends to be presented later instead of earlier.

This front-shifting, of course, follows the general rule in English subordination and word order that information given later in a sentence is usually more important than that given earlier. Thus, in formal exposition, the subordinate element in that sentence given as an example above normally gets front-shifted as follows: “In what activists say is a ‘land grab’ that will worsen poverty and malnutrition, resource-hungry nations are snapping up huge tracts of agricultural land in poor Asian nations.”

As a stand-alone construction, the above sentence that front-shifts the subordinate element is semantically equivalent to the earlier sentence that back-shifts that same subordinate element. There’s hardly any difference in their meaning. However, when writers back-shift subordinate clauses and phrases indiscriminately, as so often happens in straight-news reporting, very serious problems in semantics and logic can arise.

Indeed, injudicious back-shifting often produces misplaced modifiers, those improperly positioned words, phrases, or clauses that make sentences sound awkward, confusing, or downright absurd and illogical.

Consider the following three problematic lead sentences from recent news stories:

(1) “Half of Metro Manila may have to wait a while longer before enjoying the benefits of having a wastewater treatment facility after regulators deferred the increase in rates.”

Here, the back-shifting of the subordinate clause “after regulators deferred the increase in rates” makes it nonsensically modify the phrase “having a wastewater treatment facility.” The correct, logical position of that subordinate clause is, of course, up front in that sentence, where it can modify the whole main clause instead: “After regulators deferred the increase in water rates, half of Metro Manila may have to wait a while longer before it can enjoy the benefits of having a wastewater treatment facility.”

(2) “The spokesman did not disclose the details of the operation to ensure the safety of the hostages.”

Here, the backshifting of the prepositional phrase “to ensure the safety of the hostages” makes it wrongly modify the noun “operation,” giving the sentence a cockeyed, absurd sense. The intended sense clearly emerges when that prepositional phrase is front-shifted: “To ensure the safety of the hostages, the spokesman did not disclose the details of the operation.”

(3) “Around 190 solons are expected to support and petition for the immediate passage of a measure seeking to rehabilitate and utilize the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant when Congress resumes session on Monday.”

Here, the back-shifting of the subordinate clause “when Congress resumes session on Monday” makes it wrongly modify the prepositional phrase “to rehabilitate and utilize the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant,” thus muddling up the time frame for the actions described in the sentence. The correct sense emerges when that subordinate clause is front-shifted so it can relate to the whole main clause instead: “When Congress resumes session on Monday, around 190 solons are expected to support and petition for the immediate passage of a measure seeking to rehabilitate and utilize the mothballed Bataan Nuclear Power Plant.”

It should be clear by now that when done indiscriminately, back-shifting subordinate clauses and phrases can be extremely hazardous to our writing. We thus need to be more judicious in constructing our sentences to ensure that our expositions are semantically and logically flawless at all times.

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From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in
The Manila Times, February 7 and 14, 2009, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
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