A definition is where you say what something means. Or is it?
Is where. What an unuseful, unsatisfying phrase. I’m talking about definitions like these:
- A gravy train is where someone makes lots of money without doing much for it.
- A retweet is where you forward a tweet.
- Horticulture is where people grow plants.
If you wanted to understand gravy trains, retweets, and horticulture, these half-clarifications would leave you wondering what types of things these things are. Surely a gravy train has nothing to do with gravy or trains, does it? What exactly is a retweet before it gets forwarded? If horticulture is where people grow plants, does that make it a plot of ground? You might reread the definitions, suspecting that you missed something. You might feel vaguely cheated, left behind with the most basic of questions unanswered.
Is where. What a great big abandoner.
Updated May 11, 2012
Are you reading this on a Droid? On an iPhone? On some other diminutive device being introduced even as I write this? Knowing that you could be gives me pause. The smartphone has become a primary reading device. So, unless you write nothing but lost-cat posters destined for telephone poles, or other print pieces that no one will ever upload to the Web, you have little choice but to join me in grappling with this question: what must writers do differently to accommodate the small screen?
The answer, I believe, is … nothing.
Quick! What kind of word is from?
Bet you said, “Ha! Must be a trap. Better not say preposition.”
We all learned it in grade school: from is a preposition. When I sat down to draft this post, I never intended to overturn this teaching. I set out to write a brief notice that, yes, sentences can end with prepositions. I ended up unlearning some “facts”—laboriously, by way of confusion and resistance—and expanding my perspective. I came to see that prepositions are not necessarily prepositions, that easy labels—who knew?—can obscure deeper truths.
Before: I didn’t plan to write about run-on sentences, a much-hyped book by a respected author shocked me into it, run-on sentences, the kind formed by comma splices, litter the pages, it ain’t pretty.
After: I didn’t plan to write about run-on sentences[;] a much-hyped book by a respected author shocked me into it[.] Run-on sentences, the kind formed by comma splices, litter the pages[—]it ain’t pretty.
When a piece I’m writing needs a little more … something, I call to mind these three powerful words: explore and heighten. I owe this incantation to playwright Alan Gross, who practically chanted it during a workshop that I attended one summer during my college years. Whatever I’m writing, this phrase invariably nudges the content that oh-so-helpful extra bit further.
For example, while working on a project for Nike, I find out that my desk phone is made of material from recycled NFL helmets. Too perfect. Got to tell friends about this. I draft a message:
Check it out—my Nike phone is made of old football helmets.
Then those magic words come to me as if the playwright himself is whispering them in my ear. Explore and heighten.
Sentences are like those puzzles with numbered tiles. You have to slide the words around to get the right ones next to each other.
Here are some places where you might want your words to meet up.
Meet me at the comma
Consider this gem of a botched sentence (found in certain pre-gender-neutralized editions of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style).
As a mother of five, with another on the way, my ironing board is always up.
The poor mother modifies the far-away board. This pairing calls to mind a pregnant ironing board and five little ironing boards running around. The glitch in this sentence is caused, at least in part, by the separation of the key words. If we slide the modifier and the modified together, mentally placing mother of five and my ironing board side by side, the mismatch glares.
As an expectant mother of five, my ironing board is always up.
Moving these key phrases together helps expose the sentence’s grammatical flaw: mother of five is a dangling modifier (a word or group of words that’s intended to describe a noun or pronoun that isn’t there). Now that we’ve scootched the mismatched phrases smack up against each other, we can’t help but see the need for the true subject: I.
As an expectant mother of five, I am always at my ironing board.
In this corrected sentence (which you might find more laughable than the original), it’s no accident that modifier and modified meet at a comma. If you want to win the word-order game, use the comma as a meeting place. Think of it as a curved version of that slim space between numbered tiles.
If you use the comma this way, you’ll avoid both the notoriously dangling modifier and the less colorfully named but equally incorrect misplaced modifier (a word or group of words whose position makes it seem to describe the wrong noun or pronoun).
Notice how word-matching at a comma fixes the following misplaced modifiers.
As a nature lover, I’m sure you would agree that this land is worth preserving.
As a nature lover, you would surely agree that this land is worth preserving.
Wrapped in foil, Bob ate the hamburger.
Wrapped in foil, the hamburger was delicious.
This morning I shot an elephant wearing my pajamas. (Groucho Marx.)
This morning, while wearing my pajamas, I shot an elephant.
Tile 1, Tile 2.
Meet me at the colon
Similarly, proximity breeds readability at another punctuation mark: the colon. At its best, this double-dot symbol, this squished equal sign, serves, in fact, as a meeting place for equivalent items. The word touching the colon on the left ideally matches whatever touches it on the right.
Take the following two sentences. The only difference between them is word position. Two phrases have swapped places like a couple of tiles.
Sal skimmed these bestsellers while at the library: Unbroken, Freedom, and Words Fail Me.
While at the library, Sal skimmed these bestsellers: Unbroken, Freedom, and Words Fail Me.
No one would misread the first sentence. You could get away with it. But the second sentence glides more smoothly into your mind. The words that are snugged up against the colon on the right (the book titles) follow from the left-side word (bestsellers) with the logic and ease of sequential digits.
There are three choices in this life: be good, get good, or give up. (Dr. House, House, M.D.)
In this life there are three choices: be good, get good, or give up.
These are the four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so. (Gore Vidal)
In our common language, these are the four most beautiful words: I told you so.
A boy can learn many things from a dog: obedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down. (Robert Benchley)
A dog can teach a boy many things: obedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down.
Tile 3: Tile 4.
Meet me at the verb
Sometimes the would-be-touching words are the subject and verb. If you get the intervening words out of the way (with the help of a hyphen, for example) and enable the subject and verb to sidle up to each other, you create a friendlier sentence.
The coins that are covered with dust have just as much value as the shiny new ones.
The dust-covered coins have just as much value as the shiny new ones.
The plan for doing the marketing via the company’s website is coming together beautifully.
The company’s website-marketing plan is coming together beautifully.
Some fans of romance novels consider Valentine’s Day the biggest holiday of the year.
Some romance-novel fans consider Valentine’s Day the biggest holiday of the year.
Tile 5 and Tile 6, click.
Meet me at the pronoun
How else can you recognize wanna-be adjacents? Check your pronouns. Wherever you use he, she, they, it, or any other noun stand-in, bring the antecedent within whispering distance. Example:
Frank picked up a discarded pizza box. The party had gone on for hours, and he was tired. All of his roommates had gone to bed. What he wanted more than anything was to hit the sack himself. But Frank was neat. It made the apartment look messy.
The party had gone on for hours, and Frank was tired. All of his roommates had gone to bed. What he wanted more than anything was to hit the sack himself. But Frank was neat. He picked up a discarded pizza box. It made the apartment look messy.
Tap go Tiles 7 and 8.
Meet me at… the end
Want your words to reach out and touch people? Get the right words to touch each other. When are you done? When every word is in the right place.
(Thanks, Wendy, for the initial prompt and the feedback that resulted in this post.)
Designer Jan White asks (about magazines), “What makes pages interesting? Why do people pay attention? Because they sense something there that they are curious about – the subject matter. But presenting the subject in a take-it-or-leave-it way is not good enough.” 
What technique, according to White, turns magazine “lookers into readers”?
The same technique that White uses to delight the eye, composer Franz Von Suppé uses to delight the ear. His Pique Dame Overture begins with a series of whisper-soft, gently-paced notes that tip-toe from measure to measure until suddenly the orchestra explodes. The first time I heard this opening, I laughed. 
If the Pique Dame Overture were text, the first few measures would look like this:
Deet. Deet. Deedle-deedle-deet deet. Deet. Deet. Deedle-deedle-deet deet.
Deet. Deet. Deedle-deedle-deet deet. Deet. Deet-deet-deet. Deet-deet…
Deet. Deet. Deedle-deedle-deet deet. Deet. Deet. Deedle-deedle-deet deet.
Deet. Deet. Deedle-deedle-deet deet. Deet. Deet-deet-deet…
How can writers get in on the fun? For starters, vary these two things:
- sentence length
- paragraph length
Just look at the Pique Dame “sentences” and “paragraphs” above.
As for sentence length, to achieve the kind of contrast that makes for the liveliest, most enticing writing, you might have to fight a tendency to write sentences that all have about the same number of words. Be bold. If you’re going to contrast, CONTRAST. When you have a long sentence that’s full of lots and lots and lots of words, like this one, put a shorter sentence – even a fragment – next to it. Like this.
Same goes for paragraphs: Go for dramatic variety in length. Of course, paragraphs still need to hang together based on their content. You still need transitions, topic sentences, examples, logical progression of ideas — all the basics that you learned in high school. What our English teachers never taught us, though, was to use paragraphs as pigment. When you squint at your page, do you see a stack of same-sized grey rectangles as enticing as a cinder-block wall?
When it comes to deciding what goes in those eye-catchingly short paragraphs, follow Jan White’s advice, and “make the important elements stand out.” Use the spotlight of white space. All but your truest fans skim your long paragraphs. But everyone reads your short paragraphs.
Make them count.
 A sample of Pique Dame, as conducted brilliantly by Zubin Mehta (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00138IMZI/ref=dm_mu_dp_trk5)