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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Criminal Sentence 643: Memories of Good Grammar

From a book I'm reading:

"Memories came flooding back of school days long ago."

Does this sentence sound odd to you? It does to me, especially "back of." Funny sounding or not, this sentence violates Strunk and White's Principle of Composition 20: "Keep related words together." The prepositional phrase "of school days long ago" goes with "memories," but the two are quite far away from one another.

Let's bring them back together:

"Memories of school days long ago came flooding back."


Warsaw Will said...

Sorry, but I prefer the first one, and I think the reason is that in English we don't generally like long subjects and prefer the important information at the end of the sentence - end weighting. And there's a second reason for me: the first has a poetic balance - "Memories came flooding back" and "of schooldays long ago" have an equality - both have six syllables. This is lost in the amended version.

Westley said...

You say that we generally don't like long subjects? Wow. In that case I have a few things to discuss with a few writers that I've been proofing. :-)

Although you do have a good point. I can see where your comment about the balance could be helpful, but the proximity of the words "back of" may still causes some readers to pause in the wrong place (and that's a bad thing). If you were attempting to wax poetic (and I do like that idea), then it might be helpful to guide the reader to pause in the right place. To slow the reader and make the sentence feel more like someone's relaxed, casual thought, I would probably put an ellipsis right in the middle: "Memories came flooding back...of school days long ago."

That takes care of both issues. Now "back of" isn't going to cause a problem, and not only is the sentence still balanced, but now it also has a fulcrum! :-)

(On a side point, I've heard some folks pronounce 'memories' with either two or three syllables.)