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As the arrangement of letters change the meaning of a word, the order of words in a sentence either aid or hinder readers’ ability to interpret the signs and feel secure in where the story is taking them. Since the English language is read from left to right and top to bottom, the information in your story needs to flow forward in the same direction. When the signs make sense, readers can be comfortable in their journey.

  • Watch for Misplaced Prepositional Phases.

Place each phrase so it correctly modifies the information preceding it. When out of place, a phrase can be the source of unintended humor, which interrupts the scene and damages the story.

  1. The man motioned for us to stand up with the barrel of his gun for us to stand up. (The man wasn’t expecting people to stand with his gun.)
  2. Ben had made up his mind to find a wife when the storm moved in. When the storm moved in, Ben had already made up his mind to find a wife. (Why would he wait for a storm to look for a wife?)
  3. Sam sold his dune buggy with chrome wheels to a neighbor with chrome wheels. (If the neighbor had chrome wheels, why did he need a dune buggy?)
  4. John said on Tuesday he would finish the project on Tuesday. (Did he make the statement on Tuesday or commit to finishing the project by Tuesday?)
  5. Please take time with your wife to discuss the proposal that is attached with your wife. (How personal was this attachment?)
  • Do Readers Know Who Is Talking?

Readers don’t want to read a lengthy dialogue before finding out who is speaking. Introduce an unfamiliar speaker at or near the beginning of the paragraph.

  1. “I’m just here to work.” Jason never smiled. “I’m just here to work. But I’ll keep that in mind.”
  2. Rufus Spiers puffed a cigarette, looking irritated. “I’ve been working this job for twenty-five years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. You can’t imagine what it’s like to assume the responsibilities of three people.” Rufus Spiers puffed a cigarette, looking irritated.
  3. “Clifton Smith,” Sally said. it’s “It’s about time you learned to pick up after yourself. I’m not your mother,.Sally said.
  • Place Actions Where They Precede the Results.

Misplaced actions are like watching a movie when the sound and video are out of sync.

  1. “You have a tree outside your window,” she said, opening the curtains. She opened the curtains. “You have a tree outside your window.” (She sees the tree after she opens the curtains, not before.)
  2. She added two tomato slices to give the plate some color and took his plate of food to him, and she had added a couple of slices of tomato to give the plate some color. (Avoid telling what had already been done. Make it a current action.)
  3. Bill motioned toward the empty chair. “Is this seat taken?” Bill motioned toward the empty chair. (The motion should come first, then the dialogue.)
  • Adjectives and Adverbs Go Next to the Words They Modify.

You know what you mean, but readers can understand only what you write, so watch to be sure the word order isn’t misleading or technically incorrect.

  1. Daphne looked in the mirror and only saw only her imperfections. (She only saw them, she didn’t pay any attention to them? No, we want to say that’s all she saw—her sole focus, so only needs to precede what it modifies, not the verb but the object of the verb.)
  2. At the store, Jane bought a gray man’s gray suit for her husband. (The suit was gray, not the man.)
  3. William gulped a steaming cup of steaming coffee before leaving for work. (Which was hot, the cup or the coffee?)
  4. Washed and waxed, Jim proudly drove his new car, washed and waxed. (Was Jim washed and waxed?)