The English language on word order depends.
If that sentence doesn’t convince you, try this:
He said, “I love you.” (Nice thought.)
Only he said, “I love you.” (No one else said it.)
He only said, “I love you.” (He said nothing else.)
He said, “Only I love you.” (No one else does.)
He said, “I only love you.” (Don’t like you much, though.)
He said, “I love only you.” (He doesn’t love any one else.)
He said, “I love you only.” (His love is exclusive.)
In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White advise that “Modifiers should come, if possible, next to the work they modify.” When modifiers are misplaced, the result is ambiguity – and often downright hilarity. Consider this Classified Ad: “Piano for sale by lady with carved legs.”
Because English depends on word order, “with carved legs” describes the lady, not the piano. The prepositional phrase needs to be placed in proximity to what it describes.
Here’s an example from The Harbrace College Handbook. “The doctor said that there was nothing seriously wrong with a smile.” I used Harbrace when I taught Freshman Composition nearly thirty years ago. Surely there have been advances in medicine since my college teaching days, but smiles have always been terrific, especially when it’s the doctor who’s smiling while delivering the good news. “The doctor said with a smile that there was nothing seriously wrong.”
Here’s another example from Harbrace: “A garish poster attracts the visitor’s eye on the east wall.” Kinda gross, really, to hang an eye on the wall. But a poster hung on the east wall will attract a visitor’s eye, and not inspire unintentional images of body parts nailed up for display.
These examples demonstrate the importance of word order at the most basic level. Word order can also be used for emphasis. It is generally accepted usage to put the most important word in a series or a sentence last. “Urban life is unhealthy, morally corrupt, and fundamentally inhuman” (Rene Dubos).
Word order can also lend depth and complexity to prose –while maintaining clarity. “To be French is to be like no one else; to be American is to be like everyone else” (Peter Ustinov).
The craft of writing begins with diction. Words are the raw material of prose, the building blocks of sentences. Successful architecture depends on the order and care with which the raw materials are wrought.
Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning novel, Into The Wilderness, “a fiercely intelligent love story” set in Vermont in 1964. She is a regular Commentator on Vermont Public Radio and teaches for the Vermont Humanities Council. Learn more at her website: www.deborahleeluskin.com