Clause order

Is it “In 1972, the company was founded” or “The company was founded in 1972”? Both sentences are valid, with the better choice depending on what you’re trying to emphasize, but with the default for Dutch writers often being the less obvious one.

It can be difficult to put a finger on, but it’s worth putting the effort into when writing. (There can be good reasons for using the first form, of course, for instance when it’s the year that matters or for linguistic variation so that you don’t start five sentences in a row with “the company”.) But did you really want to emphasize the first part of the sentence? A fairly good rule of thumb is that if you end up with fewer commas when the sentence is rewritten, then that form is the better choice.

  • In 1972, the company was founded => OK if emphasizing the year in a timeline, for instance. Otherwise rewrite the other way round:
    The company was founded in 1972.
  • Within two weeks, this medicine will have an effect => OK if emphasizing the interval (” …and everything will be hunky dory again within four weeks”). Otherwise rewrite the other way round:
    This medicine will have an effect within two weeks.
  • In longer sentences, several modifications may be possible: During consultations with patients who have poor health literacy in the palliative phase of their disease, the communication skills of healthcare providers are important => you don’t want it to read as if their health literacy was fine before the palliative phase (which it says now!) and we’re primarily talking about the skills:
    Healthcare providers’ communication skills are important during consultations in the palliative phase with patients who have poor health literacy.

A long post, but for a reason: it’s a biggie, a major source of clunky writing. It’s one of the most annoying things as an editor too, because it’s not just a change of a word or two or a punctuation mark here and there: it’s a complete rewrite of the sentence!

Prevalence: very high. Appears throughout the spectrum: all kinds of texts, all kinds of audiences, all kinds of authors. In fact, this is one of the key things that will make your English sound more natural.
Frequency: very high. Usually turns up a number of times in a document in slightly different guises.
Native: no. That’s rather the point with this one. But you’ll certainly see a lot of it in MT (machine translation) and hasty native translations.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

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