Monday, February 5, 2018

Long and short

I borrowed Bruce Ross-Larson’s Edit Yourself: A Manual for Everyone Who Works with Words (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982) from the library after seeing the writer’s name in a tweet from Bryan Garner. Seventeen pages in, I have already found a useful bit of advice:

The elements of pairs, series, and compound subjects and predicates usually appear they come out of the writer’s mind — haphazardly or alphabetically. Rearranging those elements from short to long, from simple to compound, increases the ability of the reader to understand them.
Ross-Larson’s specifics:

~ Count syllables. If words have the same number of syllables, count letters.

~ Count words.

~ Place compound elements last.

~ Ignore the first three principles to honor sequence or familiar phrasing or to avoid unintended modifiers. Not “lunch, dinner, and breakfast” but “breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” Not “cream and peaches” but “peaches and cream.” Not “trade and money-market rates” but “money-market rates and trade.”

I had Ross-Larson in mind when I wrote and revised a sentence in a post yesterday. My first impulse was to proceed alphabetically:
No-name documentaries, television shows, more television shows, years-old movies announced as “new”: Netflix (streaming) resembles a crummy video store.
And then it occurred to me to see the sentence as Ross-Larson might:
Television shows, more television shows, no-name documentaries, years-old movies announced as “new”: Netflix (streaming) resembles a crummy video store.
Better his way, no?

[The three pairs of phrases are among the examples in Edit Yourself. One more, avoiding an unintended modifier: not “the remarkable Divine and Tab Hunter” but “Tab Hunter and the remarkable Divine,” a nod to John Waters’s film Polyester.]

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