Keep related words, as a rule, together

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Whee! I think I'm the first to post using the swanky new system, which has a wisywig interface and everything! First!

Nodding to the giant posts of yesteryear, I return to the Language Log classic of finding howlers in that horrid little book.

I hadn't looked at the thing since freshman composition, remembering it vaguely only through the scientific and unbiased reminders provided by Language Log posts. But a talk I attended last Friday referred to a S&W rule, purportedly about avoiding ambiguity: "Keep related words together".

I was curious about how Strunk and White would formulate the notion of 'related words', so I went to check it out. And, I kid you not, this is the formulation of the rule:

"The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning."

I was afraid someone was playing a joke on me. But no, that's really it!

I was so amazed, of course, because the statement of the rule violates itself. In the sentence, the verb be is the 'principal verb'. The parenthetical as a rule could be transferred to the beginning. The subject of the sentence is the NP The subject of the sentence and the principal verb. So the rule breaks itself; to be true of itself, it should say, As a rule, the subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.

This amusing little property of this rule has been noted before, particularly in this list of deliberately self-refuting grammatical rules that circulated a while ago (and some of which are indirectly credited to Safire). I doubt that S&W intended this one, though.

Indeed, in this single section on keeping related words together, the S&W-authored prose (not the examples) consists of eleven sentences. Three of them directly violate the rule, including the rule itself; the other flagrant one is:

The writer must therefore, so far as possible, bring together the words, and groups of words, that are related in thought, and keep apart those which are not so related.

Here, the parenthetical so far as possible comes between the subject The writer and the principal verb bring when it would have been perfectly possible to put it at the front of the sentence.

The other is

This objection, however, does not usually hold when the order is interrupted only by a relative clause or by an expression in apposition.

(Of course, S&W had firm opinions about the placement of however — it couldn't, in their view, come at the beginning of the sentence—so perhaps this one isn't a violation within their own crazy little code, though since the however rule is itself insane, I still think this is a violation of the parenthetical placement rule.)

Two others of the eleven sentences violate the spirit of the rule, if not its letter, by interposing parentheticals which would have been fine at the beginning, albeit not directly before the principal verb—in these cases, directly after it:

The relative pronoun should come, as a rule, immediately after its antecedent.

Modifiers should come, if possible, next to the word they modify.

So out of eleven sentences about keeping related words together, in which one key tip is to keep any parentheticals which can be sentence-initial in sentence-initial position, five of them counterexemplify the point. That's got to be a record, no? Even given Hartman's/McKean's/Skitt's Law.


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