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Sentence structure for writers: understanding weight and clarity [extract]

Some sentences just sound awkward. In order to ensure clarity, writers need to consider more than just grammar: weight is equally important.

In the following extract from Making Sense, acclaimed linguist David Crystal shows how sentence length (and weight) affects writing quality.

Say the following two sentences aloud. Which of them is more natural and easier to understand?

It was nice of John and Mary to come and visit us the other day.

For John and Mary to come and visit us the other day was nice.

I’ve tested sentence pairs like this many times and never come across anyone who prefers the second sentence. People say things like it’s ‘awkward’ and ‘clumsy’; ‘ending the sentence with was nice sounds abrupt’; ‘putting all that information at the beginning stops me getting to the point’; and ‘the first one’s much clearer’.

Here’s another example. Which of these two sentences sounds more natural?

The trouble began suddenly on the thirty-first of October 1998.

The trouble began on the thirty-first of October 1998 suddenly.

Again, the first is judged to be the better alternative. The second sentence doesn’t break any grammatical rules, and could easily turn up in a novel, but few people like it, and some teachers would correct it.

What both these examples show is the importance of length, or weight. The first pair illustrates how English speakers like to place the ‘heavier’ part of a sentence towards the end rather than at the beginning. The second pair shows a preference for a longer time adverbial to come after a shorter one. Both illustrate the principle of end-weight. It was a principle that the prescriptive grammarians recognized too. In his appendix on ‘perspicuity’, Lindley Murray states several rules for promoting what he calls the ‘strength’ of sentences. His fourth rule is: ‘when our sentence consists of two members, the longer should, generally, be the concluding one’.

Children learn this principle early in their third year of life. Suzie, for example, knew the phrase red car, and around age two started to use it in bigger sentences. But she would say such things as see red car long before she said things like red car gone. In grammatical terms: she expanded her object before she expanded her subject.

It will be that way throughout her life. Adults too in their conversational speech keep their subjects short and put the bulk of the information after the verb. Three-quarters of the clauses we use in everyday conversation begin with just a pronoun or a very short noun phrase:

I know what you’re thinking.

We went to the show by taxi.

The rain was coming down in buckets.

Only as speech becomes more formal and subject matter more intricate do we encounter long subjects:

All the critical remarks that have been made about his conduct amount to very little.

Taking in such a sentence, we feel the extra demand being made on our memory. We have to keep those eleven words in mind before we learn what the speaker or writer is going to do to them.

Longer subjects, of course, are common in written English, as in this science report:

The products of the decomposition of diaryl peroxides in various solvents have been extensively studied by Smith (1992).

A really long subject, especially one containing difficult words or concepts, may make such a demand on our working memory that we have to go back and read the sentence again, as in this tax-return instruction from the 1960s:

Particulars of the date of sale and sale price of a car used only for the purposes of your office or employment (or the date of cessation of use and open market price of that date) should be furnished on a separate sheet.

This is the kind of sentence up with which the Plain English Campaign did not put. And indeed, as a result of that campaign, tax returns and other documents for public use have had a serious linguistic makeover in recent years.

In speech, if a subject goes on for too long, listener frustration starts to build up, as it’s difficult to retain all the information without knowing what’s going to be done with it:

My supporters in the party, who have been behind me from the very outset of this campaign, and who know very well that the country is also behind me …

We urgently need a verb! It’s a problem that can present itself in writing too, as when we read a slowly scrolling news headline on our television screen that begins like this:

The writer and broadcaster John Jones, author of the best-selling series of children’s books on elephants, and well-known presenter of natural history programmes on BBC2…

…Has won a prize? Has died? Has joined Real Madrid? Once, the scrolling subject went on for so long that I had forgotten the name of the person by the time the sentence came to an end, announcing his death.

Long subjects can be a problem for children in their early reading. The sooner they get to the verb, the sooner they will get a sense of what the sentence is about. So a sentence such as this one presents an immediate processing difficulty:

A big red jug full of warm milk was on the table.

Eight words to hold in mind before we get to the point. The end-weight principle suggests it would be easier to read as:

On the table was a big red jug full of warm milk.

Featured image credit: “coffee-school-homework-coffee-shop” by ejlindstrom. CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Jason Dunn

    Hyphenating the subject mitigates length?

    A big red jug — full of warm milk — was on the table.

    I think so.

  2. Martin T

    So why does German put the (meaning-carrying) participle last, other than faciltate the twist at the end of a good joke?

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