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>Word order

>The Boston Globe’s thumbnail review for Captain America says the movie “packs a powerful, but predictable, patriotic punch.” How is that different from saying that it “packs a predictable, but powerful, patriotic punch?”

I’m curious about which construction you all think is the more positive, because this is a trick reviewers use all the time, choosing between

a powerful, but predictable, patriotic punch
a predictable, but powerful, patriotic punch
a powerful but predictable patriotic punch
a predictable but powerful patriotic punch
a powerful–but predictable–patriotic punch
a predictable–but powerful–patriotic punch

to hedge an opinion or (more frequently in our circles) to “say something nice” even when you don’t feel particularly enthusiastic. But I’m not sure readers agree about which placement does what. I think that the second adjective generally has more of an impact than the first, but you could argue that the phrase set off by commas will be read more parenthetically and thus more readily dismissed. And if you don’t use the commas, do the adjectives become equal?

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Nancy Werlin says:

    >The first adjective has more weight than the second.

  2. Martha Brockenbrough says:

    >I tend to agree that the second adjective, particularly if set off by em-dashes, carries the bigger punch. It's the qualifier that gives the initial claim its boundaries.

    You could also swap in "if" for "but" and further diminish the hedge word.

    Either way, the advertisements will simply say "…POWERFUL…– The Horn Book."

  3. Diandra Mae says:

    >I think the second adjective has more power. We tend to remember the last of what we read/hear, and so the strength of "powerful" is undone by the qualifier of "but predictable."

    To me it's no different than "We LOVE your work, but it's just not right for us right now." Which of those facts is going to be remembered by the artist? The fact that the work was well liked or the fact that the work was rejected?

  4. GraceAnne LadyHawk says:

    >a powerful but predictable patriotic punch

    Eliminating the commas to me makes the whole phrase more of a whole and more of a positive.

  5. Roger Sutton says:

    >Martha, I once totally trashed a YA novel, ending with " . . . but melodramatic teens will love it." The ad quote? "Teens will love it."

  6. Maia Cheli-Colando says:

    >Perhaps it's not only the word order, but the words themselves, and what we are used to subbing in from previously heard cadences?

    E.g. A powerful, but predictable teases in my mind the more common phrase A powerful, if predictable… which suggests that it indeed carried a punch, even if you expected said punch.

    A predictable, but powerful punch reads differently to me ~ my interior voice doesn't sub in what I've heard before… and so there I think the predictable has more weight than in the reverse order. I think both predictable and powerful carry oomph in the phrase.

    However, removing of commas removes the time to think, and in those cases it becomes a bit mushy — it's a punch, yes, punchily delivered… a bit of a blur.

    Dashes deliver something in between the mushiness of no commas and the specificity of commas present?

  7. Emily P. says:

    >To me, the word "but" is key. It makes the second adjective the qualifier of the first. In "A powerful but predictable patriotic punch" (commas, em-dashes or not,) the "but" is saying "This is powerful, however it is also predictable." Turn it around: "A predictable but powerful…" and you're saying "Yes, it's predictable, however it's got this powerful thing going for it. So the second seems more positive to me than the first.

  8. Genevieve says:

    >The second has more weight to me, and I think Emily's analysis is why.

  9. Anonymous says:

    >I think the alliteration makes a thicket around the words, so that it's more difficult to know what the reviewer wanted most to say. To me, the alliterative flourishes suggest that the reviewer wasn't taking the movie seriously, so the dismissive "predictable" becomes stronger than the affirmative "powerful". Perhaps the reviewer's real intention was to be even-handed–to acknowledge both the movie's power and its predictability–but the alliteration puts the thumb on the scales.

  10. Melinda says:

    >My eyes kind of glazed over at seeing three P-words in a row, actually! *wimp*

  11. Melinda says:

    >ETA: Five.

  12. Roger Sutton says:

    >I always have to watch out for alliteration–my ear loves it but it is too often the easy way out.

  13. Lydia Schultz says:

    >Of the examples you listed, I think that the final example is both most powerful and most positive. And I have to say that I like the alliteration.

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