Skip to main content

TIP 5. Keep Related Words Together

Keep related words together. Subjects should be close to their verbs, and modifiers close to the words they modify.


DANGLING PARTICIPLES: A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.

Incorrect: Lying on a stretcher, they carried the patient out of the room.
Correct: Lying on a stretcher, the patient was carried out of the room.
["Lying" is the participial form of the verb "to lie." The true subject of the participle "lying" is not "they", as in sentence 1, but the "patient," as in sentence 2.]

OTHER MISPLACED MODIFIERS: To avoid confusion, place modifiers near the words they modify.

Incorrect: George came over while I was writing my paper with a six pack of beer.

Correct: George came over with a six pack of beer while I was writing my paper.

Incorrect: I tried calling to tell you about the grant announcement five times.
I called five times to tell you about the grant announcement.

Note on TIP 5: Keeping related words together is critical in the construction of complex sentences, where the presence of many parts can easily lead to confusion about what belongs with what. It can be challenging to find the ideal word order; sometimes one must predict what confusion is most likely to occur in a reader's mind, and avoid that source of confusion at the risk of creating other ambiguities. Under these circumstances, splitting the sentence may be the best solution.

EXAMPLE 14. It has also been shown that, on falling asleep, the transdiaphragmatic pressure rises in adults.

Rev 14a (correct). When falling asleep, adults experience a rise in transdiaphragmatic pressure.

Rev 14b (better). When adults fall asleep, their transdiaphragmatic pressure rises.

Note on Example 14: The subject of "falling" is not "transdiaphragmatic pressure," but "adults."

EXAMPLE 15. By using PET, it may allow identification of patients who achieved pathologic complete response to radiation therapy before surgery.

Rev 15. Using PET, clinicians may be able to identify patients who have responded completely to radiation therapy and may not require surgery.

Note on Example 15: This sentence combines two often co-occurring problems. It has a dangling participle ("using") and the subject is obscure. "It" is not using PET; in fact, those using PET are not even present in this sentence. If we substitute an active subject and an active verb, the result is an unambiguous sentence.

EXAMPLE 16. We have previously shown that unbound bilirubin (also referred to as non-albumin bound or free bilirubin) is a more sensitive and specific predictor than total serum bilirubin or the Bilirubin:Albumin (B:A) molar ratio of auditory dysfunction as evaluated by auditory brainstem evoked response (ABR) in premature infants.

Rev 16. We have previously shown that, in premature infants, unbound bilirubin (also referred to as non-albumin bound or free bilirubin), in comparison with total serum bilirubin or the bilirubin:albumin (B:A) molar ratio, is a more sensitive and specific predictor of auditory dysfunction, as evaluated by auditory brainstem evoked response (ABR).

Note on Example 16: This sentence makes the reader work to sort out its parts: that is, its structure is inadequate to carry clear meaning. In the revision, we have 1) moved "premature infants" to the beginning so we know who is being studied, 2) then listed the two measures to be compared, 3) then reported the result, and finally 4) identified the methodology used. It is still a difficult sentence because there are two names for each measure. One might decide to define the two measures in a first sentence, and then this sentence could be further simplified.

EXAMPLE 17. This series of patients revealed potential long term benefits of hydroxyurea containing regimens that were unexpected.

Rev 17. (Results from the study of) this series of patients revealed a potential for unexpected, long term benefits of hydroxyurea-containing regimens.

Note on Example 17: It is very hard to read this sentence without thinking that the regimens were unexpected, rather than the benefits. The problem was solved by moving the adjective "unexpected" closer to the noun "benefits."

EXAMPLE 18. Whether these differences can be exploited for the development of anti-parasite drug therapies would require the questions related to vital dependence of protosoans on GPI-anchored molecules, functional properties of the enzymes involved in biosynthesis and attachment of GPIs in trypanosomes and mammalian cells to be addressed.

Rev 18. Before these differences can be exploited for the development of anti-parasite drug therapies, further studies need to address three questions: 1) are protosoans critically dependent on GPI-anchored molecules, 2) what are the functional properties of the enzymes involved in biosynthesis, and 3) how are GPIs attached in trypanosomes and mammalian cells?

Note on Example 18: This sentence is nearly impossible to read out loud, a sure indicator of need for revision. The critical words "the questions" and "to be addressed" cannot be separated by a long and complex list. Lists like this should be placed at the end of a sentence to avoid garbling of the syntax. Moreover, all lists should be preceded by a label that tells what the list is (here, "three questions"). Don't place that descriptor after the list, or the reader must go back and reread to capture the full meaning. (Most won't bother!) Lists can be structured in several ways. Here, the revision uses a prominent structure, i.e., items are preceded by a colon and separated by numbers and commas. Numbers help to make the items more memorable. Simple lists work fine with just commas to separate items. The more complex the list, the more prominent the structure should be.