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Is there a specific rule of grammar or which makes the title "visitors to London grouped by mode of travel" better than "visitors by mode of travel to London"?

The context for this question is a label for a chart/table which shows the mode of travel used by visitors to London.

I'm trying to convince a colleague of mine that the former is preferable to the latter. My feeling is that if we're talking about visitors to London who are grouped by their mode of travel, it doesn't make sense to split "visitors" from "London" in the title.

I'm not a pedantic follower of grammar rules but I'd like to be able to point to something specific to bolster my argument. Can anyone help?

P.S. I have actually suggested we go with the alternative title "Mode of travel used by visitors to London" which I think works better but I want to be able to point out why "visitors by mode of travel to London" doesn't work.

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    It depends: are you speaking of the modes by which they traveled to London or those by which they traveled in London after their arrival? – StoneyB on hiatus May 13 '14 at 2:39
  • I think both "visitors to London grouped by mode of travel" or "visitors grouped by mode of travel to London" are perfectly fine. But "visitors by mode of travel to London" is disconcerting because you've left out the "grouped", and there's no such thing as a "visitor by mode". – Peter Shor May 13 '14 at 9:26
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You are comparing:

  1. Visitors to London grouped by mode of travel
  2. Visitors by mode of travel to London

How does London fit in: In the first, the London is the place being visited. In the second, it is ambiguous what the role of London is, whether it is being visited or perhaps just the subject of a mode of travel (perhaps multiple places are being visited).

Separation and proximity of related concepts: In the first, you connect visitors and London directly together, whereas in the second, they must be connected by the reader through a separate statement about mode of travel.

Grouped by: the data will be grouped by mode of travel, and the fact that it's the mode of travel to London is irrelevant, unless there is some mode of travel to London being used which could not be used to travel to some other destination.

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Both your query sentences are grammatical -- in other words, both of them make sense in terms of their formal structure (and they can both be parsed in such a way as to infer the same meaning). So in that sense your colleague's version does work in a formal sense.

However, that is not always the ultimate test of acceptability; in this case, it seems to me that your co-worker's sentence is particularly lacking in clarity. This is because one of the semantic units, {visitors to London}, has been unnecessarily split up so that its constituent parts are separated by the other semantic units, {grouped by} and {mode of travel}. In fact, by doing this he or she has introduced an element of doubt as to what is meant by juxtaposing some of the elements so that a different set of semantic units can be inferred (however illogically):

{visitors} {by mode of} {travel to London}.

However, as StoneyB has implied in his comment, there is actually a possibility that your own initial suggestion of "visitors to London grouped by mode of travel" could be miscontrued (though your postscript did -- I think -- make your intended meaning clear).

It would therefore be better to state explicitly whether you mean "travel to London" or "travel in London". For instance:

Visitors to London grouped by mode of travel to destination.

Visitors to London grouped by mode of travel used at destination.

Meanwhile, it would seem perverse for your colleague to force readers to have to reread the caption in order to be sure they had properly understood the underlying intent, rather than construct it in such a way that the scope for ambiguity or opaqueness is minimized.

After all, unlike with poetry, where creative ambiguity is often sought, when writing graph captions most people would presumably aim for clarity. As I have shown, there is scope for improving the clarity of all the wordings you have presented. :-)

  • This distinction is why I find the second phrase clearer. It is explicitly the mode of travel to London. "Grouped by" is very frequently shortened to just "by" in charts and diagrams, so for me, the addition of "grouped" is redundant and in the context of an annotated diagram, less text is generally better. – Steve May 15 '14 at 12:48
  • @Steve - You're right. 'Grouped by' is redundant here. Sometimes one fails to see the wood for the trees. :-) – Erik Kowal May 15 '14 at 18:33

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