Get the order right when you write

Putting one word in the wrong place in a sentence can dramatically alter its meaning.

This sentence appeared in the warning and safety instructions for a domestic oven.

The appliance can only be used by people with reduced physical, sensory or mental capabilities, or lack of experience and knowledge, if they are supervised whilst using it, or have been shown how to use it in a safe way and understand the hazards involved.

To the unwary reader the sentence seems to be saying that the oven is only to be used by disabled users. That is not what the manufacturer or writer intended.

But because the writer uses the word only and gets the sentence in the wrong order, the meaning they are trying to get across is totally obscured.

How can we improve it?

The quick fix is to delete the word only:

The appliance can be used by people with reduced physical, sensory or mental capabilities, or lack of experience and knowledge, if they are supervised whilst using it, or have been shown how to use it in a safe way and understand the hazards involved.

That helps, but doesn’t solve the real problem – which is that the sentence is in the wrong order. People with disabilities are really the subject of this sentence, so get them first. Then the reader understands immediately what the writer is talking about.

People with reduced physical, sensory or mental capabilities or lack of experience and knowledge can use the appliance if they are supervised or have been shown how to use it in a safe way and understand the hazards involved.

I’ve lost a few words and a comma to make it an easier read but the main thing here is the order. Whether you are writing an article, a paragraph or a sentence, order really matters. Work out what is most important and get that first.

3 thoughts on “Get the order right when you write

  1. Your edit makes it a lot clearer but does alter the logic in an important way. What the original was trying to say was that disabled users may use the appliance but ONLY if they are supervised. I.e. without supervision, they MUST NOT use it.
    That’s an important distinction to emphasise – especially if somone hurts themselves and you end up at litigation.

  2. margaret@contentetc says:

    Interesting point. Part of the problem with this, as with all unclear writing, is that it is difficult to know precisely what the writer intended.

    We can reinstate only, but in a different place:

    People with reduced physical, sensory or mental capabilities or lack of experience and knowledge can use the appliance only if they are supervised or have been shown how to use it in a safe way and understand the hazards involved.

  3. It certainly can be hard to know precisely what the actual intention was. And if you haven’t got access to the writer, then a more conservative approach can be prudent.
    But in this case, the original text did use the word “only”, so its seems safe to interpret that as intention of the restriction I mentioned above.
    Your latest edit was what I envisaged, too :).

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