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Example:

As agreed, we met at Shangai Train Station the next morning. Even though it was just seven, the place was terribly crowded; people were running and lining, jostling and shoving. A sign that the Mid-Autumn Festival was approaching.

As agreed, we met the next morning at Shangai Train Station. Even though it was just seven, the place was terribly crowded; people were running and lining, jostling and shoving. A sign that the Mid-Autumn Festival was approaching.

Are there rule to use for these situations? Should short phrases always go on the front, or something like that?

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Here are the things I consider.

Clarity. Moving a phrase can make the sentence more clear or less clear. For example, moving a modifier further away from the thing it modifies sometimes makes makes the relationship harder to see. But not always. I'm not sure how to give rules about that, but if you consciously check how the ordering affects the clarity of the sentence, you'll do okay.

For me, clarity trumps all of the following considerations.

Burden. The order of phrases can can affect how much information readers have to hold in their heads as they read. In general, I want to make it easier to read my sentences.

Emphasis. In his brilliant book Style, Joseph M. Williams says that the end of a sentence is the stress position. Readers tend to give more emphasis to the information they find at the ends of sentences.

So I try to arrange phrases so to take advantage of that. Move the most important information, or the most interesting information, or the most surprising information to the end of the sentence. (That previous sentence is a counter-example. Moving the interesting stuff to the end made the sentence less clear.)

I think about emphasis a lot when I write non-fiction, and sometimes when I write fiction.

Flow Changing the order of phases can enhance or hinder how well this sentence follows from the one before it, or leads the reader into the one that comes after.

In fiction especially, I want to hold the reader deeply in the story. So I work hard to make sure that when the reader ends one sentence, they are perfectly primed for the beginning of the next.

Mea Culpa. I apologize for not providing examples of these things. I am pressed for time at the moment. I will add examples as I think of them.

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There aren't rules. As previously mentioned, it's a matter of opinion. But, things to remember include:

  • Brains like patterns. So, if you use similar phrases several times in a row, you might consider putting them in the same place to add emphasis. That said, if you don't do that carefully, you can sound repetitive or uncreative. I received a pretty good example of using the phrasing to add emphasis and humor in an email once:

There were multiple failures. For the first, a required step in the directions was missing. For the second, we found an error. Additionally, step one is no longer required, per Jeff. Step one is required, per Fred. The whole company might be confused as to what step one requires, per the usual.

  • Flow counts. Ask yourself, does this sound awkward here?
  • Your opinion counts the most. Regardless what you do, some people will disagree. Do what you think sounds best. But, don't be resistant to advice.
  • Some people dislike prepositional phrases at the end of a sentence. I like this guide: Prepositional Phrases
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This is a matter of opinion, especially since the meaning is the same. There is no hard and fast rule, but rhythm is very important in sentence structure. Ordering the words so that they roll off the tongue in many instances makes them more pleasing to the eye. In this case I think the first example just sounds better.

  • It is definitely a matter of opinion. The only real 'rule' you have to adhere to is which way sounds better to you, though there are some excellent guidelines below (do be wary of repetition). And to prove that it is a matter of opinion, I believe the second method sounds better. But that's just my opinion. ;) – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Mar 24 '15 at 17:35
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I prefer the first example, the "where-and-when" one.

If you think about it, humans tend to (at least in my experience) ask the question "where and when?" when asked if they would like to meet; rarely have I heard anybody ask "when and where?"

Example:

Bob: "David, would you like to meet for lunch?"

David: "Sure, where and when?"

Now consider the converse:

Bob: "David, would you like to meet for lunch?"

David: "Sure, when and where?"

It just rolls off of the tongue nicer and sounds better to me. Furthermore, ensure that you continue the pattern throughout your entire work and do not interchange them as it can disrupt the flow.

  • That was a very good observation. Thanks! – Alexandro Chen Mar 25 '15 at 15:22
  • You're welcome. Glad to have been of assistance! – M.Y. David Mar 25 '15 at 20:13

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