Feng Shui for Words

I often think of sentence structure as a kind of feng shui for words.

Feng shui (fung shway) is the ancient art of arranging objects to create harmony in one’s life. I’ve never studied it formally, but I have often suspected that rooms “want” to be arranged in a certain way; after several attempts at changing and rearranging, I feel the room settle into a kind of serenity when I finally hit the right setup.

Or maybe it’s just exhaustion.

Everything in Its Place

Sentences give me that same falling-into-place satisfaction when I finally get them arranged so their message is clear and direct.

This isn’t always a simple matter of ordering as subject – verb – object. Take this:

We are traveling to our grandmother’s house to have Thanksgiving dinner in our car.

“Driving to our grandmother’s house to have Thanksgiving dinner” seems like it ought to stay together as one thought, doesn’t it? But not with “in our car” at the end — unless you do plan to have dinner in the car.

Change it to “We are driving in our car to our grandmother’s house to have Thanksgiving dinner” and it falls into place.

(Or you could simply employ my “When in doubt, weasel out” rule, and eliminate the unnecessary “in our car.” )

Or, take this:

The goal of the committee is to keep the lines of communication between merchants and city officials open.

You might think that the verb here, “to keep,” properly belongs between the subject — “the goal of the committee” — and the objectival phrase, “the lines of communication between merchants and city officials.” After all, “Let’s keep it open” is correct, right?

Yes. But you’ve put far too much distance between “to keep” and “open.” With such a long objectival phrase, the reader can lose track of the whole point by the time she reaches the end.

And so we rewrite:

The goal of the committee is to keep open the lines of communication between merchants and city officials.

Now, doesn’t that feel better?

Watch Your Words

Bad structure, by the way, doesn’t just wear out the reader. It can communicate something entirely different from what you intend. Compare these two sentences:

She enjoys relaxing in her PJs with her fiance.

She enjoys relaxing with her fiance in her PJs.

Takeaway Tip for Good Sentence Structure

▪   Carefully read complex sentences to be sure they’re communicating what you wish to say. Try different arrangements until it all falls into place.

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