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I have recently finished writing an academic thesis. During proofreading, my supervisor and I had quite a number of discussions related to the placement of dependent subclauses (I think that's the English term) in sentences. Here is an example of a sentence in the form that I would usually write it:

The above discussion points toward a need, in a complete assessment of A, to take B into account.

My supervisor would typically want to change this into:

The above discussion points toward a need to take B into account in a complete assessment of A.

I prefer the first form since the subclause "in a complete assessment of A" is there placed close to that which it adds information to (i.e. it elaborates on "a need"). My supervisor think that this is a Swedish grammatical habit (I'm Swedish by the way) and is not suitable in English.

Would you agree with him, is the second form preferable? If so, how strongly do you feel that way?

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3 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

First of all, I'm afraid dependent subclauses isn't the right term. Subclauses are clauses contained in other clauses, rather than, as I think you intended, constituents of clauses. Clauses contain verbs (other constituents are called Phrases), and there's no verb in in a complete assessment of A. In fact, this is a prepositional phrase.

Second, while it's true that that phrase is closer to what it modifies in this position, it's also complicating the processing of the sentence, which is now split into three parts, separated by comma intonations, and lacking any markers on how they should be connected. By the time we get to take B into account, we are likely to have forgotten why we might want to do so. Whether this is a clause or not, it is subordinate -- i.e, it's not the most important information in the sentence. That's why the normal position for such a locative prepositional phrase would be at the end of the sentence.

Third, if you move a constituent from its normal position in a sentence, you call attention to it, because the listener or reader has to load a parser and actually do some work to understand it, and is entitled to expect some extra significance in payment for the effort. This makes the phrase seem prominent, and that also helps depress the perceived importance of taking B into account.

Executive summary: Your boss is probably right, unless you have some reason to want to emphasize the completeness of the assessment.

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I agree that the second form is preferable to the first, not as a matter of grammar but of readability. But considering, for example,

The above discussion suggests that a complete assessment of A must take B into account.

(or any complete rather than a complete) illustrates that the sentence can be rewritten for readability while retaining the order you preferred. (Comment: For rewriting suggestions, post questions in writers.stackexchange.)

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They are certainly allowed. I wouldn't want to comment further without reading part, if not all, of the thesis.

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