The principle would be something like: Avoid a long modifying clause that creates distance between your subject and verb

For example, according to this guideline, the sentence

One of his uncles who had made millions of dollars in the oil industry in the sixties by inventing a new kind of pump left John a giant inheritance.

should be rewritten as follows:

One of his uncles had made millions of dollars in the oil industry in the sixties by inventing a new kind of pump. This man left John a giant inheritance.

Does this principle or guideline have a name? Bonus points for references to any books or websites that discuss it.

EDIT - A related link

This article discusses using noun phrases instead of clauses as a way to improve writing. While more focused than the principle above (and still without a name), I thought it was a good guideline, and it's the closest thing I've found so far.

  • 1
    It's the essence of Orwell's Sixth: Break any ... rule sooner than say anything outright barbarous. The original Sixth is Break any of these [first 5] rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. You'll find them at grammar.about.com/od/writersonwriting/a/OrwellRules.htm . Jan 26, 2013 at 15:53
  • I don't see how this applies, even if you meant it as a joke.
    – Jonah
    Jan 26, 2013 at 16:03
  • 2
    @BillFranke, Neither of the sentences was being offered up as an example of stellar writing. I just needed a quick example so that I could ask my question. I agree your rewrite is better, but it does not illustrate the principle I am asking about. My question is not about how to rewrite a particular sentence in the best way. I just want to know if the principle has a name. If you don't like my example sentences, feel free to edit with better ones that illustrate the principle.
    – Jonah
    Jan 26, 2013 at 16:54
  • 1
    I think Edwin's comment points to a good guideline (and presumably the reason why Orwell broke his fourth "rule" more often than the average writer, in that essay as a whole), but isn't appropriate here. It would be appropriate if Jonah decided after the re-write to go back to the first sentence.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 26, 2013 at 17:14
  • 1
    @Jonah: I think realistically if we're going to suppose there might actually be a specialised term relevant to this issue, it would more likely be something meaning the words/distance between subject and verb. (Or perhaps if we can temporarily just neologise that as the incertum, something meaning excessive incertum! :) Jan 26, 2013 at 23:12

1 Answer 1


Well, it's not a rule, it's a guideline. Your first sentence is after all grammatically correct. If we used commas to make the part from who to pump a parenthetical clause as thus:

One of his uncles, who had made millions of dollars in the oil industry in the sixties by inventing a new kind of pump, left John a giant inheritance.

Then it isn't even a difficult sentence to parse.

The reason for the guideline is threefold:

  1. With a greater distance between subject and verb there comes a greater chance of introducing an error or ambiguity by e.g. having a noun in the piece between the subject and verb that could be mistaken for the subject. (So while it's not a rule, following it makes us less likely to break a rule by mistake).

  2. It tends to make for snappier and more easily understood sentences.

  3. It tends to make for shorter sentences, which in turn tends to make for snappier and more easily understood sentences. (Favouring short sentences is a guideline in itself).

It's very important to stress the difference between a guideline and a rule. Knowing the rules let's us write English that is correct. Knowing the guidelines can help us write English that is not only correct, but good.

At the same time, breaking the guidelines is often the best approach to a given sentence, paragraph, etc. that results in stronger writing than if it was followed. Breaking the rules is in the "don't try this at home" territory; there are times that it can be done, but they are rarer, require more skill to carry off, and even the greats can sometimes produce questionable results.

Also, the way we might debate rules and guidelines differs too. If someone were to say (as some have done) that there is a rule against splitting an infinitive, then it can be debunked by showing that it is commonly done and produces a clearly understandable expression. If someone were to say (as others have done) that while there is no such rule, there is a guideline to avoid it, then to argue against one must show that the product of ignoring it is as good, or better, than of following it—and that will be subjective at the best of times.

In terms of your question, this distinction is relevant. The rules of grammar are studied not just by those of us who wish to follow them well, but by those of us who want to understand how language works; to know the explanation for why "the cars is parked outside" is not something we would say (that being an example of agreement, specifically agreement in grammatical number because cars is plural and is is singular).

The guidelines are more given to disagreements of personal opinion (can you imagine if Philip Roth were forced to follow the guideline of avoiding long sentences or Ernest Hemmingway forced to abstain from sentence fragments?), often vague in definition (how large a distance between subject and verb do we need before we consider your guideline broken?), often contradictory (the guideline against long sentences conflicts with that of using longer sentences in the middle of a paragraph than at the beginning or end), and harder to detect (how to judge a conscious effort to keep subject near verb from simply not having much to add between them?).

These features in themselves make them less likely to have name, and less likely again to have names that are universal. I personally think of "proximity" when I'm wondering if I have stretched words too far from their companions, but that would certainly not be a good name since "proximity principle" is term for a grammatical rule.*

The stylistic principles we do have names for tend not to be those that help writing be clear and understandable, as those which are used for specific effects. Often these go against the first set of principles, as diacope, anaphora and epistrophe along with many others go against the general guideline of avoiding repetition.

Between it not being a firm rule and it being vague, I think the odds of finding a fully agreed on name are slim. No doubt some people have names for things, as we're all given to naming things and those of us who worry about distance between subject and verb particularly so, but I'd be more surprised if they are widely accepted and used by others.

*Not an uncontroversial one. The proximity principle has us write "more than one bystander was hurt" rather than "more than one bystander were hurt", because we have was/were agree with bystander which is singular, rather than the whole phrase more than one bystander which is plural. However, some would disagree with this one, and some who would agree would disagree in other cases that some people use it. The proximity principle is perhaps more useful in speaking descriptively of what people do write, than prescriptively about what you think people should write.

  • Jon, thanks for taking the time to write such a long and thoughtful response. In my defense, I made a point of saying "rule OR principle" (intending principle as a synonym for guideline as you are using it) to avoid getting sidetracked by the issue of exactly how hard (or loose) this guideline is. I really was just curious if it has a name. I did edit the OP to remove the word "rule" so that others wouldn't be distracted by this point either.
    – Jonah
    Jan 26, 2013 at 17:14
  • Indeed, I noticed that edit part way through. My main point though is not just to point out that it's a guideline rather than a rule, but that as a guideline, the greater degree of subjectivity, vagueness, openness to debate and lack of universal applicability is precisely a reason why they are less likely to have a name that is widely used. All that said, I think this guideline is a good one; I wouldn't say all sentences should be re-written to follow it, but I would say that sentences that break it are sentences where considering a rewrite would be profitable.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 26, 2013 at 17:25
  • Agreed on all points. And I wasn't terribly optimistic of getting an answer for the reasons you mention, but I figured there was some chance someone has named this principle. If no one else comes in with a definitive answer, I'll accept yours.
    – Jonah
    Jan 26, 2013 at 17:28
  • Yes, I do hope I'm wrong. It's always good to learn a new word, or a new sense for a known word.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 26, 2013 at 17:35
  • 2
    There's also a syntactic source for this guideline; I'm working on it. But this is good stylistic advice for English. +1. Jan 26, 2013 at 17:56

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.