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Matter, word order does

| March 30, 2021 1:00 AM

A rather obvious lesson rapped this columnist on her hasty knuckles, apropos of upcoming Math Awareness Month: With words as with numbers, order matters.

Just ask My Dear Aunt Sally, sayeth algebra teachers. When one performs operations in the wrong order, one achieves the wrong result. Grade F.

Thursday’s column about D.C. statehood misstated Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution (Sin! Shame!). The district therein described is limited not to “10 square miles” but rather, to “10 miles square.” As reader V.N. noticed, reversing the order of “square” and “miles” shrunk an area potentially encompassing 100 miles (10 by 10) down to an area totaling a mere 10.

Mea culpa. Face blushes crimson.

Changing word order can, however, be a useful and prosaic writing tool.

The simplest illustration lies in the declarative vs. interrogative. Should I continue? I should continue.

Sometimes with more than two words, order does change meaning. I had edited my work. I had my work edited. (If only …)

Switching the order of words and phrases can also be a useful tool for emphasis. What appears first tends to set the mood. Never have I seen such dreadful work. I’ve never seen such dreadful work. Such dreadful work I have never seen.

It can also imply what’s left unsaid. Kittens play with yarn (dogs are less enthralled). Yarn (as opposed to Frisbees) is what kittens play with.

Shakespeare loved to flip subjects and objects that way, renowned not only for adding so many new words to English, but also for reordering them in new ways. He often switched the usual subject-verb-object (SVO) pattern to S-O-V or O-S-V, adding rhythm and rhyme to the actors’ delivery on stage:

(Lady Montague): “O where is Romeo, saw you him today? Right glad I am he was not at this fray.”

That flows a lot better than, a bit loosely translated, “Where is Romeo, did you see him today? I’m so glad he wasn’t at this fight.”

Consider how “Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung” — from Midsummer Night’s Dream — first evokes the romantic night scene as a backdrop against the action. Had he simply written, “You sang at her window by moonlight” the image of singing would be more dominant than the moonlit ambiance Shakespeare created. His way is more poetic.

And that’s not just ancient history. As well every Star Wars fan does know, this O-S-V thing Master Yoda did embrace. Forgiven her grammatical transgression, he has.


A columnist for the Hagadone News Network, Sholeh Patrick is. Sholeh@cdapress.com can one email.