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New Writers Ask: Why is Sentence Structure So Darned Important?

He bore his teeth to her.

I  often field questions from new writers asking why sentence structure, including grammar and its cousin, syntax, are so important to the craft of writing. 

I’m sure many readers are familiar with the old joke that begins with the straight man saying, “I once knew a man with a wooden leg named Smith.” “Really?” says his companion. “What was the name of his other leg?”

This particular jest spotlights the importance of word order, for even a comma would not have saved this sentence from becoming a throwaway joke in Mary Poppins. In this case the misplaced “with” is the culprit, and although the sentence is smoother with the mirth-inducing placement, it distorts the meaning.

I’m willing to bet that the originator of that line built it for the punch line, but those new writers I mentioned sometimes unintentionally produce sentences that say something they did not intend whether through mangling of grammar, syntax, or word usage.

Consider this sentence: Touted as one of the city’s most prestigious, entitled, and over-hyped neighborhoods, Beth had remained happily unfamiliar with the Idyllwild area until that day.

Please note that this sentence does not say that Idyllwild was a prestigious, entitled, over-hyped neighborhood; it says the character, Beth, is. 

Her eyes

Here’s another: Beth’s eyes volleyed from the road ahead and the car in her side mirrors, while considering what to do.

Here, the culprit is mostly word choice. For example, the word “from” only captures half of the painful path Beth’s eyes take. Since the manuscript I was editing did have a hefty number of sentences like this one, and the client had told me they really wanted to work on their craft, I did bring it to their attention, making these points.

  1. A volley doesn’t refer to the back and forth of a tennis or ping-pong rally, say, but to the velocity and number of projectiles being sent at a target. Think of a volley as a barrage aimed at a single object or place. 
  2. This sentence, then, says that Beth’s eyes barraged an unidentified third object from the road ahead and from the car she could see in her side mirrors.
  3. It also says her eyes did all of this while they considered what to do. 

What’s really happening is that her gaze is moving back and forth between two targets—the road and the car she sees following her. In this case, I’d edit the sentence to read: Her gaze skittered between the road ahead and the car in her side mirrors as she worked out what she should do.

He bore his teeth to her.My favorite of all the word misuses I’ve caught in manuscripts is one that occurred because the writer chronically confused the verb to bear (meaning, to carry) with to bare (meaning to expose). They gave me this brief but memorable description of a preening lackey kowtowing to his boss while baring his teeth in a broad, disdainful grin. 

With a succinctness that had me laughing through tears, the client wrote: “He bore his teeth to her.” 

Just imagine that.


Check out my BVC bookshelf and do look for THE ANTIQUITIES HUNTER online or at a bookstore near you. It’s available in hardback, trade paper and eBook.



1 thought on “New Writers Ask: Why is Sentence Structure So Darned Important?”

  1. The wooden leg example reminds me irresistibly of Virginia Hall, the WW2 Resistance heroine who had a wooden leg named Cuthbert.

    If you’ve never heard of her, she’s well worth looking up.

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