When closely-connected words are written with other words in between them, the connection can be obscured
DEFINITION OF AN INTERRUPTED STRUCTURE
Interrupted (“discontinuous”) structures are words with a close grammatical link that are separated by other words. For example, the words larger than have a close grammatical link (the –er ending needs or implies than and vice versa), and a word interrupting this two-word group might be usually in the phrase larger usually than. Sometimes the interrupting words are surrounded by a pair of bracket-like commas (see 50. Right and Wrong Comma Places), like this:
(a) Fit athletes should complete a marathon in, at the very most, three hours.
The problem for reading is that the separation of the closely-linked words, especially without commas, can stop the reader seeing the link.
There are various types of structure that can be interrupted. Here are some important ones:
1. Preposition Phrases
All prepositions have a partner noun, usually placed just after them (see 84. Seven Things to Know About Prepositions). The combination is often called a “preposition phrase”. Such phrases are most easily interrupted just after the preposition. This is the case in sentence (a) above.
2. Verb Phrases
Verb phrases are combinations of two or more verbs. They might be a main verb with one or more preceding auxiliaries (BE, HAVE, DO, “modals” like WILL), as in should be working, or one with following ordinary verbs in the participle or infinitive form, as in wants to be seen. Interrupting words are likely to be adverbs (see 120. Six Things to Know About Adverbs):
(b) Fit athletes SHOULD ideally COMPLETE a marathon in three hours.
3. Nouns with their Describing Words
The meaning of a noun can be made more exact (“modified”) by words added directly before or after it. Words before will mostly be the/a (or their substitutes) and/or adjectives and/or adjective-like nouns. Words after may be preposition phrases, “relative” expressions with who, which, that etc, participles, same-meaning nouns or the conjunction that with its partner words.
Here is an example of how the last of these can be separated from its preceding noun by an interrupting phrase; it is analysed in detail in the Guinlist post 68. How Computers Get Grammar Wrong 1:
(c) Learner motivation may occur because of the possibility mentioned above that learners can enjoy reading aloud.
4. Verbs and Adjectives with a Dependent Preposition
Some verbs and adjectives need a particular preposition to express a particular meaning (see 111. Words with a Typical Preposition). Examples of verbs like this include LEAD TO, COPE WITH and LOOK FORWARD TO (for more, see 44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs and 123. Prepositional Verbs Containing a Noun). Illustrative adjectives are content with, averse to and conscious of. Interrupting words can go before the preposition:
(d) The government have proposed some painful measures for families.
More on this use of adjectives is in the post 109. Adjective Positioning.
ANALYSIS OF A PROBLEM-CAUSING INTERRUPTED STRUCTURE
Not all interrupted structures are a problem in reading; but some are because I have observed their presence in extracts that learners of English have reported as difficult (see the technical article entitled What can learners tell us about their reading problems?). The length of the interruption may well be significant. Consider the following:
(b) This issue (of a journal) examines the courses and causes of fertility decline through history and the industrialization/food security conundrum in China, the world’s most populous country.
The interruption here is between the underlined article the and the noun it modifies. What exactly is this noun: industrialization, food, security or conundrum? In fact, there is a fairly easy rule that can help to show which: any article placed before closely-combined nouns like these goes with the last of them (see 38. Nouns Used Like Adjectives). So the here goes with conundrum (which means “puzzle” or “difficult choice”). The words industrialization and security are being used before it like adjectives to show what the difficult choice is between, and food is also being used like an adjective, saying what kind of security is meant.
Thus, the phrase the industrialization/food security conundrum in China means “the difficult choice in China between industrialisation and food security”. In other words, according to this writer more industrialisation in China means less food security, and more food security means less industrialisation, so that China has a difficult choice to make.
PRACTICE IN HANDLING INTERRUPTED STRUCTURES
Here are some more interrupted structures that students have reported as difficult. How easily can you understand them? What is the interruption in each (answers below)?
1. One new product in the grocery trade out of seven survives to the third year.
2. Marketing is a philosophy of running a business that should dominate every major decision.
3. Of equal … importance is the broader issue of the effects of what the information media communicate on individuals and on society.
4. How we relate to them depends to a great extent on their momentary requirements.
5. Part III addresses some of the sorts of reasons advanced for violating the law.
1. The interrupted phrase is One … out of seven, which expresses the idea of 1/7.
2. a philosophy … that … . The relative pronoun that goes with faraway philosophy, not the immediately preceding business (see 28. Pronoun Errors for more about this difficulty with relative pronouns).
3. effects of … on … . It is easy to decide that on goes with communicate, whereas in fact it goes with effects, there being many other words in between. You have to know that effects can accompany a cause after of and the thing changed by that cause after on (see 10. Words with Unexpected Grammar and 49. Prepositions after Action Nouns 2). The cause is what the information media communicate, which means “the things communicated by the information media”.
4. depends … on … . The words to a great extent (which themselves go closely together – see 164. Fixed Preposition Phrases) have separated this prepositional verb from its usual preposition.
5. reasons … for … . Advanced is a verb in the participle form, meaning “which have been advanced”. Like many lone participles, it can come after a noun as well as before it (see 175. Tricky Word Contrasts 6, #3). Its presence after the noun here separates the noun from its normal directly-following preposition.