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Touching words


Sentences are like those puzzles with numbered tiles. You have to slide the words around to get the right ones next to each other.

Here are some places where you might want your words to meet up.

Meet me at the comma

Consider this gem of a botched sentence (found in certain pre-gender-neutralized editions of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style).

As a mother of five, with another on the way, my ironing board is always up.

The poor mother modifies the far-away board. This pairing calls to mind a pregnant ironing board and five little ironing boards running around. The glitch in this sentence is caused, at least in part, by the separation of the key words. If we slide the modifier and the modified together, mentally placing mother of five and my ironing board side by side, the mismatch glares.

As an expectant mother of five, my ironing board is always up.

Moving these key phrases together helps expose the sentence’s grammatical flaw: mother of five is a dangling modifier (a word or group of words that’s intended to describe a noun or pronoun that isn’t there). Now that we’ve scootched the mismatched phrases smack up against each other, we can’t help but see the need for the true subject: I.

As an expectant mother of five, am always at my ironing board.

In this corrected sentence (which you might find more laughable than the original), it’s no accident that modifier and modified meet at a comma. If you want to win the word-order game, use the comma as a meeting place. Think of it as a curved version of that slim space between numbered tiles.

If you use the comma this way, you’ll avoid both the notoriously dangling modifier and the less colorfully named but equally incorrect misplaced modifier (a word or group of words whose position makes it seem to describe the wrong noun or pronoun).

Notice how word-matching at a comma fixes the following misplaced modifiers.

As a nature lover, I’m sure you would agree that this land is worth preserving.
As a nature lover, you would surely agree that this land is worth preserving.

Wrapped in foil, Bob ate the hamburger.
Wrapped in foil, the hamburger was delicious.

This morning I shot an elephant wearing my pajamas. (Groucho Marx.)
This morning, while wearing my pajamas, I shot an elephant.

Tile 1, Tile 2.

Meet me at the colon

Similarly, proximity breeds readability at another punctuation mark: the colon. At its best, this double-dot symbol, this squished equal sign, serves, in fact, as a meeting place for equivalent items. The word touching the colon on the left ideally matches whatever touches it on the right.

Take the following two sentences. The only difference between them is word position. Two phrases have swapped places like a couple of tiles.

Sal skimmed these bestsellers while at the library: Unbroken, Freedom, and Words Fail Me.
While at the library, Sal skimmed these bestsellers: Unbroken, Freedom, and Words Fail Me.

No one would misread the first sentence. You could get away with it. But the second sentence glides more smoothly into your mind. The words that are snugged up against the colon on the right (the book titles) follow from the left-side word (bestsellers) with the logic and ease of sequential digits.

More examples:

There are three choices in this life: be good, get good, or give up. (Dr. House, House, M.D.)
In this life there are three choices: be good, get good, or give up.

These are the four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so. (Gore Vidal)
In our common language, these are the four most beautiful words: I told you so.

A boy can learn many things from a dog: obedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down. (Robert Benchley)

A dog can teach a boy many thingsobedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down.

Tile 3: Tile 4.

Meet me at the verb

Sometimes the would-be-touching words are the subject and verb. If you get the intervening words out of the way (with the help of a hyphen, for example) and enable the subject and verb to sidle up to each other, you create a friendlier sentence.

The coins that are covered with dust have just as much value as the shiny new ones.
The dust-covered coins have just as much value as the shiny new ones.

The plan for doing the marketing via the company’s website is coming together beautifully.
The company’s website-marketing plan is coming together beautifully.

Some fans of romance novels consider Valentine’s Day the biggest holiday of the year.
Some romance-novel fans consider Valentine’s Day the biggest holiday of the year.

Tile 5 and Tile 6, click.

Meet me at the pronoun

How else can you recognize wanna-be adjacents? Check your pronouns. Wherever you use he, she, they, it, or any other noun stand-in, bring the antecedent within whispering distance. Example:

Frank picked up a discarded pizza box. The party had gone on for hours, and he was tired. All of his roommates had gone to bed. What he wanted more than anything was to hit the sack himself. But Frank was neat. It made the apartment look messy.

The party had gone on for hours, and Frank was tired. All of his roommates had gone to bed. What he wanted more than anything was to hit the sack himself. But Frank was neat. He picked up a discarded pizza box. It made the apartment look messy.

Tap go Tiles 7 and 8.

Meet me at… the end

Want your words to reach out and touch people? Get the right words to touch each other. When are you done? When every word is in the right place.

(Thanks, Wendy, for the initial prompt and the feedback that resulted in this post.)

The only thing that these signs have in common

Only one hint: It’s something that you don’t want to get caught doing.

Okay, I’m giving more than one hint, only I’m not telling about the others.

To confirm the answer — only after you’ve figured it out — see the comments for this post.

The last word

Plants are fueled by a simple sugar that results from a magic combination of sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide: glucose. To borrow from Dylan Thomas, glucose is “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” When this sweet power source runs low, a plant experiences a chlorophyll shortage, which triggers it to do something remarkable. A plant that’s running on empty favors (that is, stimulates extra growth in) the latent buds at its branch tips. Gardeners call this phenomenon “terminal dominance.”

Did you notice that, like sugar-deprived plants, the sentences in the previous paragraph all push their energy to the terminus? In sentence after sentence, the most important word appears just before the period. Any of these sentences could serve as an example under the Strunk & White “Elements of Style” principle, “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.”

But beware. Periodic sentences, if you take them too far, become tedious. When you use this approach relentlessly, especially when you front-load your sentences with phrases that delay gratification, your readers, who, if you’re lucky, want to find out what you’re getting at, will begin to focus not on what you’re saying but on your… syntax.

So, by all means, avoid overuse of this suspense-building technique, of which many writers from Cicero to Tolstoy have been masters. Reserve your power.

Then, when you’re ready to make The Big Point, when you’ve reached the climax of your argument, when you’ve come to the main thing that you want readers to remember — whether you’re writing a brochure, a blog entry, an essay, a letter of recommendation, a technical explanation, a white paper, a scholarly article, a poem, or anything else that requires development — when your most powerful word has worked its way down to your fingertips and is practically bursting, you know where to put it: Here.