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How to Write Clear Descriptions

To write clear descriptions, think about real estate. Location, location, location! That’s what real estate agents say matters, and it’s also what grammarians declare. Learn to avoid placing descriptions in the hot spot located between two actions. A descriptive word there may confuse your reader. Take a look at the following example:

The teacher that Roger annoyed often assigned detention to him.

What does the sentence mean? Did Roger often annoy the teacher? (Perhaps Roger's a frequent burper . . . but back to grammar.) Perhaps the teacher often assigned detention to Roger. (Yup. Sounds like something Roger's teacher would do.)

Do you see the problem with the sample sentence? It has two distinct, possible meanings. Because often is between annoying and assigning, it may be linked to either of those two actions. The sentence violates a basic rule of description: All descriptions must be clear. You should never place a description where it may have two possible meanings.

How do you fix the sentence? You move often so that it is closer to one of the verbs, thus showing the reader which of two words only describes. Here are two correct versions, each with a different meaning:

The teacher that Roger often annoyed assigned detention to him.

In this sentence often is closer to annoyed. Thus, often describes annoyed. The sentence communicates to the reader that after 514 burps, the teacher finally flipped and assigned detention to Roger.

Here’s a second possibility:

The teacher that Roger annoyed assigned detention to him often.

Now often is closer to assigned. The reader understands that often describes assigned. The sentence tells the reader that the teacher vowed “not to take anything from that little brat” and assigned detention to Roger every day of the school year, including winter break and Presidents’ Day.

Correct or incorrect? You decide.

The pig chewing on pig chow happily burped and made us all run for gas masks.

Answer: Incorrect. You don’t know if the pig is chewing happily or burping happily. Here’s how to correct the sentence:

The pig chewing happily on pig chow burped and made us all run for gas masks.

or

The pig chewing on pig chow burped happily and made us all run for gas masks.

One other correction is possible here: the addition of a set of commas. If you set off the description with commas, the reader connects the description to the right verb. Therefore, these two sentences are also okay:

The pig, chewing on pig chow happily, burped and made us all run for gas masks.
The pig, chewing on pig chow, happily burped and made us all run for gas masks.

You can’t always throw in a comma and fix a problem. In fact, sometimes you create an addition mistake by adding a comma!

You may be tempted to fix a description by tucking it inside an infinitive:

Betsy’s song is strange enough to intensely captivate creative musicians.

Technically, you shouldn’t split an infinitive (to + verb — to captivate in this sentence).

Right: to captivate intensely
Wrong: to intensely captivate

This rule is often ignored and probably on the way out of the grammar rule books. But if you’re writing for a super-strict reader, be careful of split infinitives.

The most commonly misplaced descriptions are single words: only, just, almost, and even.

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