Category Archives: Reading

Word Order Matters

“The burial site is in a gated plot surrounded by trees and near a creek where the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia in 1953, is buried.”

Did you just do a double-take? You should have.

This quote came from an Associated Press story, “G.H.W. Bush greets mourners honoring wife,” about the funeral and final resting place of former first lady Barbara Bush, who died on April 17, 2018.

Because I proofread for a living, I tend to absorb material word for word. When I read here that the Bushes buried Robin in a creek, I backtracked several times.

Nope, that’s exactly what it says.

Then I showed it to someone else, who said, “Well, yeah, but they obviously didn’t mean she’s in the creek.”

Indeed.

It’s an excellent example of why word order and punctuation matter. You shouldn’t make readers back up multiple times to figure out what you meant to say, but didn’t.

We have several options to write this more clearly. We could add punctuation:

“The burial site, in a gated plot surrounded by trees and near a creek, is where the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia in 1953, is buried.”

Does that feel like trying to squeeze in too much information?

The simplest solution is to separate the two topics:

“The burial site is in a gated plot surrounded by trees and near a creek. The couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia in 1953, is buried there.”

Keeping the sentence whole, it could read:

“Mrs. Bush will be buried beside the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia in 1953, in a gated plot surrounded by trees and near a creek.”

The fourth and cleanest option places Mrs. Bush and her gravesite together. The fact about her daughter is separate:

“Mrs. Bush will be buried in a gated plot surrounded by trees and near a creek. The couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia in 1953, is buried there.”

In the heat of creation, it’s easy to get the words out of order. The fix is to let the writing cool at least overnight, then reread it slowly as if for the first time. Errors like this should jump out.

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