Sending the Wrong Message: Why Subordination Matters

Many readers, myself among them, experience something I’m going to call “wrong message” when reading a book or article. By wrong message I mean that the writer has written a sentence, paragraph, or scene in such a way that the reader logically leaps to the conclusion that This. Is. Important!

And so, having inferred that This Is Important, the reader keeps expecting the subject matter of the sentence (or paragraph, or scene) to come up again in the book. The reader anticipates that what is taking place is foreshadowing: that the writer is providing information that will later be relevant.

But in many cases . . . this never happens. The information that seemed to signal its own importance simply disappears from the book. And the reader is left a bit disappointed, a bit annoyed. Even a bit puzzled, wondering how she could have misinterpreted the writing.

So, by dwelling on something that isn’t really important to the plot and theme and character development of the book, a writer is indeed sending the reader a wrong message. The writer seems to be saying: Pay attention, this will come up later.

But then it doesn’t, and reader dissatisfaction grows.

Sentences and paragraphs have their own logic (a logic that the reader absorbs without even thinking about it). Unless a writer understands and employs this logic, she is going to be sending wrong messages to the reader.

An example of [subconscious] paragraph logic is that the first sentence is by far the most important sentence in the paragraph. This sentence sends out super-strong signals to the reader: Heads up! Comin’ at ya! After all, the writer ended the previous paragraph and started a new one specifically to break with the previous thought and to signal what the new thought/action is.

So. Imagine that you are reading a book that contains the following paragraph:

Justin parked the powerful riding mower in the garage. He entered the kitchen and immediately keyed his code into the security screen. Then he pulled the notebook out of his pocket and sketched the maze he had just mowed through the tall grass.

As it’s written, this paragraph signals that Justin parking the powerful riding mower in the garage is important. This simple sentence occupies the prime spot of importance in the paragraph. And, writers who write like this (more about that soon) tend to write many such paragraphs in which an object they are using for, say, texture or realism, occupies the primary spot in the paragraph. Often it is the same object that they use over and over: a lawn mower; a purse; a skateboard; an opal ring.

So, in such a book, the reader would encounter many paragraphs in which information about Justin and the riding mower is related in the first sentence of the paragraph, as a simple (S-V-O) sentence. Justin brushed the grass off the seat of the riding mower. Or, Justin kicked the dried grass off the wheels of the rusty riding mower. Or, Justin noticed that the riding mower needed cleaning. And so on.

The reader is going to be thinking: Aha! There’s something important about that riding mower! But in reality, that’s not the case. The writer is merely trying to add some texture to the book by painting a picture of concrete objects. 

Despite what the writer is trying to do, she is sending the wrong message to the reader, and that’s because she is placing her unimportant-to-the-plot texture in the most important spot of the paragraph. And because the simple declarative sentence shouts: Important!

Such wrong messages can be corrected by moving the texture information to somewhere else in the paragraph. Sometimes in trying to move the information, the writer realizes that it looks strange anywhere else in the paragraph. This could be a sign that the information maybe doesn’t really have anything to do with the content of the paragraph. In the case of Justin and the riding mower, it’s difficult to figure out a way to move the information into another spot in the paragraph.

But wait. 

There is a tried-and-true way to handle this problem, and that is to subordinate the not-important information to what is important. Please note that I’m not talking about a subordinate clause, which is a dependent clause containing a subordinate conjunction such as while, whereas, if, until, and so on. I’m talking about a dependent clause — one that cannot stand alone. Because it cannot stand alone, it’s “subordinate” to the main part of the sentence. The information that is not that important should be presented as a dependent clause, and the main information as an independent clause. Here’s an example:

Parking the powerful riding mower in the garage, Justin entered the kitchen and immediately keyed his code into the security screen. Then he pulled the notebook out of his pocket and sketched the maze he had just mowed through the tall grass.

Voila! Because it’s in a dependent clause, the information about Justin parking the riding mower no longer screams This. Is. Important. The way it’s now written, as a dependent clause, the information definitely adds a bit of visual information — but that information is clearly nowhere as important as what follows in the independent clause. And a reader will instantly assimilate this: a reader will understand that parking the riding mower is just throw-away information. 

Earlier I said that I would try to explain why writers end up giving the reader the wrong message. It is, I think, because the writer is so intent on the story, maybe racing ahead at full speed, that he doesn’t see the relationship between the sentences that constitute a paragraph. And, we have a habit of writing things in the same way, so if a writer has inadvertently fallen into the pattern of presenting trivial texture information at the beginning of each paragraph, you can see why the reader would be confused — everything the writer has done by placing such information into a simple sentence at the very beginning of the paragraph screams out “Pay attention!”

Sending the wrong message is a definite problem in writing, particularly among beginning writers. But it is a problem easily corrected once the writer understands the importance of the paragraph’s first sentence and the importance of subordinating less important information.

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Barbara Gregorich does not park riding mowers anywhere, but she does discuss aspects of writing well in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.              

Sentences: Position of Modifiers

To write good sentences, writers must understand what it is that their sentence says. Sentences have a life of their own — they say what the words and word order say, not what the writer might intend them to say, not what the writer might expect everybody to understand as her intent. If a writer is careless or indifferent to sentence structure, her sentences may create confusion. Or ridicule. 

Below are two examples of sentences that say what the words and word order say. The first causes confusion due to its ambiguous pronoun reference. The second sentence says that a book wrote a book: this one may arouse laughter due to the misplaced modifier. I’ve rewritten each sentence so that there’s no ambiguity in the first and no dangling modifier in the second.

Lisa’s sister told her she had to add more paprika to the spice mix.
“If you don’t add more paprika to that spice mix,” Claire told her sister Lisa, “I won’t eat your insipid stew!”
Lisa’s sister added more paprika to the spice mix, just as she had warned Lisa she would.

An accomplished, best-selling writer of Texas thrillers, Rangers is the author’s best book to date.
The author is an accomplished, best-selling writer of Texas thrillers, and Rangers is his best book to date.
An accomplished, best-selling writer of Texas thrillers, Joe Borders has written his best book to date: Rangers.

I sometimes think that well more than half of all incorrectly written English sentences are victims of misplaced modifiers. That’s what’s wrong with the second of the above examples — the first part of the sentence is meant to modify the author himself. It is not meant to modify his book: the book is not an accomplished, best-selling writer. Yet the writer of that sentence has unthinkingly placed the modifier where it doesn’t belong, possibly thinking that the words on the page say what’s in his/her head. They don’t. They say what the words and word order say — that Rangers is a best-selling writer. Rangers is not a best-selling writer. Rangers is the book written by the best-selling writer.

To understand what is wrong about misplaced modifiers, it helps to know that English, which evolved from several other languages (Latin, French, Norse, German, Anglo-Saxon), evolved in a revolutionary way. These other languages depended on word endings to tell the listener or reader what the sentence meant. Words could appear in a sentence pretty much in any order: it wasn’t the order, but the word ending, that told who did what to whom in what manner and when.

English changed that. English made position the factor that determines meaning. “The bear chased Gretchen” means something entirely different from “Gretchen chased the bear.”

In English, words and phrases should be placed as close as possible to the word or phrase that they modify — not in a willy-nilly order as the writer may think of them.  When the writer does not follow this logical pattern, sentences may unintentionally misinform or say ludicrous things — as in the three sentences featured below.

• A costumed person raced past me, leading a dachshund in a wizard’s robe.
• I wrote the song while traveling on the back of a menu.
• Screeching around the corner on two wheels, the house was on fire.

Just a few days ago I stood in front of a sign which read: Stand behind the pink line until called to ensure the privacy of other patients. My immediate reaction (with a touch of panic) was that I would be called upon to ensure the privacy of other patients.

Then I realized that the sign couldn’t possibly mean what I thought, so I had to spend a few seconds figuring out what the sign was trying to say. It was trying to say:  In order to ensure the privacy of other patients, please stand behind the pink line until called. This puts the phrase that explains “why” closer to stand than to called — the phrase belongs as close as possible to the verb it actually modifies, else it will seem to modify the other verb! The phrase explains why one is required to stand behind the pink line; it does not explain why one will be called.

To write clear sentences, avoid misplacing your modifying phrases. 

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In Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, Barbara Gregorich discusses the topic of writing well.

Mixing It Up: Four Sentence Types

SOUNDPROOF-CoverThe sentence is the basic unit of communication. Not the word. Not the paragraph. Not the chapter. It’s the sentence that expresses meaning. Some meanings are simple, others complex. If you want to express different relationships and different levels of meaning, you need to use more than one type of sentence.

If you want to write well — to have readers enjoy the content, cadence, and meaning of what you’re saying — you will most likely end up using each of the sentence types, as circumstances require.

Here are the four types of sentences in English, with an example of each. The first example is from my mystery novel, Sound Proof, which is written in the first-person point of view. After the first example I have fun with the original sentence in order to create other types.

Simple Sentence — Single subject and single predicate. The two sentences below are each simple sentences. Richard is a 600-pound pet pig who plays a role in the mystery. The speaker is my detective hero, Frank Dragovic. He’s speaking to music-festival owner Mary Ployd, who also happens to own Richard.

“I’ve seen Richard. He could destroy an entire building.”

Compound Sentence — Two or more independent clauses (usually joined by and, but, or, nor). The first sentence below contains three independent clauses. The second sentence contains two independent clauses.

I saw Richard, I heard his grunts, and I smelled his sty. Mary asked me to repair the missing boards, but entering the sty and doing so would make me indistinguishable from Richard, smell-wise.

UnknownComplex Sentence — One independent clause and one or more dependent clauses. Each sentence below contains one independent clause and one dependent clause. In the first sentence the dependent clause starts with the word “after,” and with the word “which” in the second sentence.

After I caught a whiff of Richard’s sty, I realized how unpleasant my carpentry job was becoming. Carpentry work was keeping me from investigating the instrument thefts, which could be deliberate on Mary’s part.

Compound-Complex Sentence — Compound sentence with one or more dependent clauses. The sentence below contains two independent clauses (the “compound” part of the compound-complex) and it contains two dependent clauses, the first starting with “which,” the second starting with “unless.”

Carpentry work was keeping me from investigating the instrument thefts, which could be deliberate on Mary’s part, but I thought she wanted the thefts solved and the thief barred from the festival . . . unless she herself had stolen the guitar and the mountain dulcimer.

If you want to write clear prose that is also interesting prose, know your sentence types and use the type that the situation requires.

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Barbara Gregorich explores both pigs and sentence types in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.