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I edit reports at work and often feel that sentences end up structured backwards, for lack of a better term. For example, this sentence:

We designed a water diversion that also acts as a fish barrier to protect and prevent fish from entering an irrigation storage pond.

I think it sounds clearer to switch it around to

To protect and prevent fish from entering an irrigation storage pond, we designed a water diversion that also acts as a fish barrier.

Is that correct, and is there a grammatical explanation/term for that fix, or is it simply a question of style?

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  • Adverbial clauses, like adverbs, may occur in many places; the beginning and ending of sentences are prime locations. Today we hail a new chief ~ We hail today a new chief ~ We hail a new chief today. The infinitive clause to protect and prevent ... is in fact an adverb purpose clause, so it can niche at the beginning, too. Commented Mar 12, 2014 at 17:47
  • Is it protecting fish in some other way that is unlcear? If not I would say "To protect fish by preventing them from entering..." Commented Mar 12, 2014 at 17:54
  • @DigitalChris: I think(?) I understand what you're getting at. Would this wording be clearer than the current reading (though not necessarily better than your wording, which I like)?: "To prevent, and thereby protect, fish from entering an irrigation storage pond, we designed . . .." Commented Mar 12, 2014 at 18:20
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    What is/are being protected? The fish, or the storage pond? Commented Mar 12, 2014 at 21:10

5 Answers 5

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Both are perfectly grammatical. The difference is just style.

You've just reversed the order of two clauses in the sentence.

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The sentence in the question could be diagrammed as follows:

enter image description here

The main clause is a transitive clause with a "heavy" (i.e., long because it contains a relative clause) noun phrase as object. There is also a clausal adjunct expressing purpose. The canonical position of the adjunct is after the object, but canonical placement leads to processing difficulties (human on-line memory limitations). That's why it's stylistically preferred to front the adjunct, so that the sentence is easier to process for the listener.

See the Wikipedia article on Shifting for more info.

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  • Thank you! Looking at that diagram clarifies why this is slightly painful for me - and also why I wouldn't change the sentence around if it read "We designed a water diversion to prevent fish from entering . . ." (because that would remove the "heavy" noun phrase as object issue)
    – Chelsey
    Commented Mar 12, 2014 at 19:04
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Both have selfsame meanings. And since English is so flexible, one may choose between them, without distorting meaning.

However, I would stress the latter's length.

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Changing the order changes the object. Is this about "saving fish" or about "diverting water"?

"We designed a water diversion that also acts as a fish barrier to protect and prevent fish from entering an irrigation storage pond." -> We diverted the water, and, incidentally, saved fish

To protect and prevent fish from entering an irrigation storage pond, we designed a water diversion that also acts as a fish barrier. -> We saved fish by designing a spectial water diverter

I would question "... protect and prevent ..."; are you not "... protecting fish by preventing ..."? or are there other, unspecified protections for the fish that weren't detailed?

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If the audience is educated on the topic and what occurred, the former is fine. However, if the audience does not know about diversion and fish and so on, the latter would be better. Writing is communication, and clear communication, meaning that which hits the mark is the goal. So, you have a good instinct. I write just about all of my sentences and paragraphs backwards. E.g., the final sentence could better have started the paragraph in order to connect with you, the reader. I also bump old threads and that's just how it is, deal with it. If I had the need to google "I write sentence structure backward," in 2014 I would have. Deal. ;)

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