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Event Review: The Secrets of Syntax by Frances Peck

Written by Eva van Emden; copy edited by Rebecca A. Coates

On April 22, a roomful of editors got together to talk about syntax—the order of words in a sentence. This may seem like an obscure topic to spend a day thinking about, but consider how many memorable sayings stick in your mind because of a magic combination of word order, rhythm, and repetition. Would we be able to quote the sentence “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” if it didn’t use rhythm and repetition—syntactic elements—so effectively?

Of course, Frances acknowledges, we don’t have the luxury of polishing the syntax of every single sentence. So focus on the places it has the most impact: a marketing slogan, a book title, a story’s first sentence. Also, consider the purpose of the document. Is it written purely to inform? Don’t get too arty with the community recycling schedule. Is it written to persuade and entertain? Then readers will be more immersed in the writing and willing to follow more imaginatively structured language. That said, understanding how to manipulate syntax will help you make your sentences flow better and signal clearly what is important—goals that are central to the readability of any text.

Throughout the workshop, we tried a number of exercises, reworking sentences with various goals in mind and comparing our results. It was striking how many different ways we found to solve the same problems and achieve the same goals. One of the tools I’ll be applying often in my work is the echo word, a key word near the beginning of a sentence that refers back to the previous sentence—a helpful device when you’re breaking apart too-long sentences. I’ll also be thinking further about the techniques we discussed for varying sentence structure to keep the text from droning. Another key takeaway was how syntactic subordination versus coordination creates expectations about the relative importance of the parts of a sentence. This finally explains a particular problem that I’ve never been able to articulate beyond the sentence sounding “off” or flat.

This seminar originated with a request from an editor: What is it that we’re doing when we fiddle with a sentence and flip it around to make it work better? Can you teach us how to do that? The resulting workshop, with Frances’s lucid explanations and carefully chosen examples, will help writers and editors in their work, whether it’s poetry or technical manuals.


Eva van Emden has been a freelance editor for seven years, editing a variety of material including science, technical, fiction, and sport. She is certified as a copy editor and proofreader with Editors Canada. Although her blog is at blog.vancouvereditor.com, Eva now lives in Squamish, BC, where she enjoys rock climbing and hiking.

Rebecca A. Coates is a freelance writer and copy editor who dies a little inside every time she sees “all right” spelled as one word. She has lived in Ontario, California, and Oregon, but Vancouver is her home, mostly because too much sunshine makes her burst into flames. She blogs about grammar—as well as aliens, werewolves, and pirates—at grammarlandia.com.

Images by Shutterstock.

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