Competitive Communication: A Rhetoric for Modern Business

By Barry Eckhouse | Go to book overview
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10
MANAGING ETHOS
Syntax

Meaning . . . involves an analysis of the developing responses of the reader in relation to the words as they succeed one another in time. . . . A reader's response to the fifth word in a line or sentence is to a large extent the product of his responses to words one, two, three, and four.

-- Stanley Fish, Self-Consuming Artifacts

Writers who have edited for conciseness and word choice will have determined which words to leave out and roughly what to do with the words that remain. They can now turn their attention to casting these concise and well-chosen words into the best possible order. This is important because the order or syntax of words can help the writer compete for the reader's attention just as much as the choice, punctuation, or grammar of words. 1Syntax will also communicate information about the writer's ethos by creating the impression of someone who is in control of the material and whose meaning may be grasped without unreasonable effort. Writers who produce sentences in which the words are poorly ordered run the risk of appearing confused themselves. As we shall see, poor word order also has a way of producing unintended meanings, and thus the implications of a sentence might be comic and at the writer's expense. Neither confusion nor comic implication will inspire confidence in a reader who is being asked to accept a writer's controversial ideas.

Unfortunately, writers do not think as seriously about word order as they do about other matters of effective writing. One reason for this is that writers form their own impressions of meaning, and these impressions will overpower the meaning produced by the order of words. As a consequence, they leave their readers either puzzled or forced to recast their words into an order that makes better sense in context. A good example of this is the following sentence:

The survey confirmed that the landlords have established a firm practice of requiring renters to paint and refurbish the unit upon departure.

Unless the writer is talking about a mobile home, the unit cannot be moving. Of course, the writer never intended to suggest that the unit is moving, and that's the point

-171-

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