Owl Editing

Owl Editing

Tips for writers

Effective Writing: Sort Out Your Ideas (3)

Sometimes ideas will sort themselves out logically, or could do so, if we would only let them. The discovery of the burning house in the example given earlier should arrange itself immediately into,

At ten o’clock, immediately after Miss Jones had finished her solo, they found the house on fire.

Surely the fact that the house is on fire is of first importance in the sentence.

While we are on this topic, consider this sentence taken from a story in a Canadian newspaper, and changed only with respect to the river’s name.

A well-drilling rig was leaving town yesterday afternoon when it crashed through the South River bridge, seriously injuring two men.

Here we probably have a new record for illogical subordination. Put to use your hours of work in clausal analysis. A well-drilling rig was leaving town yesterday afternoon is the principal clause, the main idea. When it crashed through the South River bridge is a subordinate clause, logically containing a less important idea than that of the principal clause. But does it? Seriously injuring two men is a phrase, logically expressing an even less important idea than that of the subordinate clause. But does it?


Two men were seriously injured yesterday afternoon when a well-drilling rig, on its way out of town, crashed through the South River bridge.

Illogical subordination, pushing important ideas into the background by putting them into subordinate clauses and phrases and expressing minor ideas in principal clauses, bemuses the reader, makes him think his grip on reality is slackening. At last, of course, he decides that the writer, not he, is crazy, and turns on the television set. He may be exchanging bad for worse; nevertheless, you may be sure that he will not read illogically subordinated material.

Proper subordination of ideas in a sentence is often difficult. Its achievement, however, to the degree that sentences become clear, is necessary for the effective use of English.


Summary of Step 3

  • sort out important ideas in your writing and express them in principal clauses
  • put subordinate ideas in subordinate clauses and phrases


Robinson, Berton. 1963. 12 Steps to Effective Writing. Chapter 3.