Using Grammar in the Art of Editing

grammar for editing sentencesCorrect English sentences are formed of some basic rules that start simple but allow a lot room for manoeuvre. Especially true of more complex, longer sentences, we have many options to rearrange what has been written, and to explore varieties in word order. This is useful if you want to restate something, to add some variety, or to add emphasis to particular points – all options when you want to present the same information, just a little…different. I decided to produce an article exploring basic word order in a more advanced way, originally aimed at foreign learners – but I think this has a place here, too, to show how a solid grasp of the fundamentals of English word order can offer a lot of room for creativity. So, here I’ve demonstrated how a single example sentence can be deconstructed and reconstructed. Over and over again…


Basic Word Order in English

English sentences typically follow a standard order of ideas, which is taught to be grammatically correct. This example sentence shows a typical sequence for different components:

The men delivered the sandwiches to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

The sentence contains Subject (The men) Verb (delivered) Direct Object (the sandwiches) Prepositional Phrases (to everyone at the shop) Time (before lunchtime). Ordinarily, this is the accepted structure – but when you take a closer look at each component it becomes possible to introduce a number of flexible changes.


Altering Verbs

The obvious starting point for rewriting a sentence, which can add various depths to meaning, is to edit the verb – which could be a matter of using a different form (such as a slightly changed tense) or introducing a different verb with a similar meaning:

The men made a delivery of sandwiches to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

In this example, the original verb becomes an object, which could change everything, structurally – but the meaning is essentially the same. Where it’s possible to make changes like this depends on your starting sentence. It will not always be possible, sometimes, and sometimes the verb could offer a huge range of possibilities (for instance when dealing with future simple sentences).

To make text seem neutral or less direct, in cases where the subject is not important, we can also use the passive tense, as an example of other options available. By making the Object the Subject and adding a to be + past participle structure, this produces something quite different:

The sandwiches were delivered to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

Here we have become more interested in what happened than who did it.

Altering verb can have a number of options which could also be combined, such as changing the verb and adding a passive structure:

A delivery of sandwiches was made to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.


Position of the Time

Times in English, whether a single word or a whole clause, typically come at the end of a sentence, but they can also be moved to the beginning. It adds emphasis to the time to place it at the start, providing a frame to the sentence instead of a final detail.

Before lunchtime, the men delivered the sandwiches to everyone at the shop.

It is also possible to insert the time after the Subject or Object, between commas, though this becomes trickier to do fluently. As a rare option, this technique adds emphasis to the time in a particular position in the sentence, which can be used to show especial surprise or focus:

The men delivered the sandwiches, before lunchtime, to everyone at the shop.

This really highlights when the delivery was made, taking focus away from who the delivery was for. If we were to put the time after the Subject (The men, before lunchtime, delivered…) it would be even more emphatic, but sound quite strange – which is exactly why it’s useful as a signalling technique.

This playing with time is, in more general terms, playing with the idea of moving prepositional phrases in general. Our options with times are quite clear, from a structure point of view, so it gives a useful initial example of how we can start to change sentences. Moving into more general prepositional phrases, there are many more complexities for rewriting sentences.


The Wonders of Prepositional Phrases

Any additional information in a sentence more complex than describing words will likely come in the form of prepositional phrases, hence this is where most of our opportunity for rearranging a sentence comes from. Our example sentence has two additional prepositional phrases other than time: to everyone and at the shop.

In the first phrase, to gives a direction and an idea of purpose. The second phrase, at the shop shows location (which can, incidentally, define either the of the delivery or the object – everyone – delivered to).

With the reasons for the prepositional phrases broken down in this way, we have many different options for rewriting the sentence. A simple change would be to replace prepositions with similar meanings.

The men delivered the sandwiches for everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

The men delivered the sandwiches to everyone in the shop before lunchtime.

Though it creates slight differences, these changes are unlikely to affect the general understanding of the sentence. They also add little variety, though, and run the danger of changing the meaning. For example, the first sentence could imply that everyone requested the delivery (hence it was made because they asked), rather than that it was delivered to them (though it would usually be safe to assume the latter). Alternative changes may make this different meaning clearer:

The men delivered the sandwiches for the people of the shop before lunchtime.

The people are no longer given a location, here, but the phrase is used as a defining characteristic (their relationship to the shop), so the delivery has a purpose but no specific destination.

As the sandwiches were sent to someone, though, the sense of purpose gives us options other than simply changing prepositions. In this case we can use possessives, or possessive pronouns, instead of a prepositional phrase:

The men delivered everyone’s sandwiches to the shop before lunchtime.

The men delivered everyone their sandwiches at the shop before lunchtime.

The effectiveness of this technique depends on the relationships between the different components of your sentence. It may also lead to different considerations for verbs, as seen here because deliver sounds a little odd with an Indirect Object. A different verb could work better:

The men gave everyone their sandwiches at the shop before lunchtime.

Using pronouns (when the object is already understood) makes our structure more flexible, though:

The men delivered them their sandwiches at the shop before lunchtime.

Changing one prepositional phrase can, naturally, have an effect on others. Our original sentence made it quite clear that everyone was at the shop. As either their location and where they belong, it is not important if it defines the group or the delivery. But if we separate everyone and at the shop, the meaning can become more ambiguous. The men delivered everyone their sandwiches at the shop could be inferred as the shop being the location of the delivery, but not necessarily that the shop defines the group (everyone might have come from somewhere else). If that point isn’t clear, consider how much more complicated this idea becomes with extra information:

The men delivered everyone from the boat trip their sandwiches at the bait shop.

Separating prepositional phrases won’t necessarily lead to confusion, but as you can see it can quickly become less clear. This makes it very important to pay attention to the relationship between objects and how moving phrases could blur the lines between that relationship. Consider how a more specific preposition affects this flexibility:

The men delivered the sandwiches to everyone outside the shop.

The men delivered everyone their sandwiches outside the shop.

The group, everyone, is defined by the location in the first example (who is everyone? the people outside the shop). The group is not specifically defined in the second example, however; outside the shop is solely a description of where they received the sandwiches.

Unravelling and maintaining such relationships between different sentence components is crucial in rewriting sentences. And rearranging the location phrase needs the same considerations. We can move the location more freely if it does not define another object:

At the shop, the men delivered the sandwiches to everyone before lunchtime.

Similar to with time clauses, this becomes a frame for the sentence. But in order to define the group of people with the location, we cannot separate the prepositional phrases in this way. Keeping the two phrases together, preserving that meaning, brings other issues – as it frames the sentence differently:

For everyone at the shop, the men delivered the sandwiches before lunchtime.

Now, a grand sense of purpose  has emerged. And we have put more emphasis on the time, as the additional information no longer separates it from the action – so it seems like the men made the delivery at that time especially.

This is merely an introduction to the many options we have with prepositional phrases, sometimes adjusting meaning and sometimes simply adding variety. Different prepositional phrases add hosts of different options to consider.


Beyond Changing Word Order

There is, naturally, much more that can be done rewriting sentences, with a flexible vocabulary. When you use different words with similar meanings, you can not only create variety in language but also provide different grammatical constructions. For example, when we changed to everyone to everyone’s, it led to a different structure. More elaborately, when we changed the verb to a more complicated idea, we introduced a new object to the sentence:

The men made a delivery of sandwiches to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

The additional sentence component opens the door to more changes:

Consisting of sandwiches, a delivery came the shop for everyone before lunchtime.

This might not sound as natural, but it is still acceptable English, and if we aim for variety, or different ways to restate the same idea, it works.

As you look at different sentences, you’ll find countless other ways to rearrange the component parts – these examples come from just one sentence. The point is to think in these terms to give you the options needed to produce rewrites and the understanding necessary to preserve meaning. More complex sentences give more opportunities, but even with shifting whole clauses around the basic principles stand. And when it is all broken down simply, and understood at a fundamental level, you can safely produce new sentences with the same meaning but an entirely different structure:

The men delivered the sandwiches to everyone at the shop before lunchtime.

Before lunchtime, everyone at the shop’s sandwiches were delivered by the men.

To really drive these points home, and because I want this learning spread across different the sectors of writing, this whole article is available in altered forms on three of my sites – here, on my business English site, and on my language learning portal. Each article presents the same sentences, with the same explanations. Yet every sentence in each article is different. To see, in practice, how English sentences can be written in a large variety of ways, consider scanning the alternative versions here and here. You may find there’s a lot more to it than this introduction shows.

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