Saturday, March 13, 2010

Are the last words of a sentence really the most emphatic?

In his original 1918 edition of The Elements of Style (that was long before E. B. White came up with a chapter on style that made him a co-author of the book), William Strunk, Jr. came up with this perplexing prescription in his discussion of the principles of exposition:

“The proper place for the word, or group of words, which the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end of the sentence…The word or group of words entitled to this position of prominence is usually the logical predicate, that is, the new element in the sentence…”

Strunk gave the following example to illustrate his point:

The modifying phrase at the tail-end of the sentence: “This steel is principally used for making razors, because of its hardness.”

The logical predicate at the tail-end of the sentence: “Because of its hardness, this steel is principally used in making razors.”

To writers steeped heavily in the journalistic writing tradition, this prescription obviously seems counterintuitive at the outset. Almost to a man or woman, they would say that to give the most prominence to a word or group or words, it should be positioned right at the beginning of the sentence—like a good news lead should, as in this example from a recent front-page lead story of the Philippine Inquirer:

“President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has declared a state of calamity in Mindanao, a move that will allow cities, towns and provinces on the island to release 5 percent of their budgets so they can quickly procure generators to address the acute power shortage.”

Few would hazard submitting to their editor that same lead sentence constructed this way:

“A state of calamity in Mindanao has been declared by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a move that will allow cities, towns and provinces on the island to release 5 percent of their budgets so they can quickly procure generators to address the acute power shortage.”

In his book, Strunk conceded that a subject coming first in its sentence may be emphatic—as in the case of the noun form “President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo” in the sentence above—but hardly by virtue of its position in the sentence alone. Indeed, apart from the journalistic tradition of preferring the active voice to the passive voice, the newsworthiness of the noun form (the subject or the doer of the action) normally merits its placement up front in the sentence over and above other factors in composition.

So far, so good.

But then Strunk made the surprising corollary that “any element in the sentence, other than the subject, becomes emphatic when placed first.” He gave the following inverted sentence to prove his point:

Deceit or treachery he could never forgive.”

On close inspection, we find that this construction indeed gives strong emphasis to the “deceit or treachery,” as opposed to this normal sentence order for that statement:

“He could never forgive deceit or treachery.”

But Strunk then emphasized that as a rule, the subject of a sentence must take the position of the predicate to receive special emphasis. He offered the following sentence as an example:

“Through the middle of the valley flowed a winding stream.”

The normal construction for that sentence is, of course, this:

A winding stream flowed through the middle of the valley.”

The first version of the statement, which puts “a winding stream” at the tail-end of the sentence, is evidently more emphatic than the second, which puts “a winding stream” at the front of the sentence.

For his final words on the subject, however, Strunk made the following provocative—and as I already said, perplexing—prescription:

“The principle that the proper place for what is to be made most prominent is the end applies equally to the words of a sentence, to the sentences of a paragraph, and to the paragraphs of a composition.”

Now that’s really a harder proposition to fathom.

At about this time in 2004, I wrote an essay in my column in The Manila Times in an attempt to make sense of this puzzling prescription by Strunk. I’m sure that this prescription still perplexes many serious students of English composition, so I am now posting that essay in the Forum in slightly modified form to help clarify the matter.

I am aware, though, that some of the points discussed in my essay remain debatable or controversial, so I would welcome all comments for and against the positions I have taken.

Which words pack the most wallop

One basic principle in writing more powerful sentences, as prescribed by William Strunk, Jr. in his book The Elements of Style, is this: the last words of the sentence are the most emphatic. In keeping with this prescription, I think that one way to give the strongest emphasis to our most important idea is to maneuver it toward the tail end of the sentence. In this manner, we can assure our main ideas of a prime position where they can get remembered best.

Take a look at this sentence that violates that rule: “One characteristic that I detest in Candidate X is his irritating presumption that we can read his mind by not speaking at all even if he absolutely has to.”

Although we can perfectly understand that sentence, we can see that it’s a bit mixed up in its construction. And notice that eight words into the sentence, the opening phrase “one characteristic that I detest in Candidate X” has not yet formed a complete idea; worse, the ending phrase “even if he absolutely has to” trails off into a dangle. The result? The most important idea has been shunted into the phrase “his irritating presumption that we can read his mind by not speaking at all,” which in turn got buried between a strong but insubstantial phrase and a dangling phrase.

In contrast, we can easily unleash the main ideas of that sentence by putting them in prime positions—namely at or near its beginning or, best of all, at or near the end: “Candidate X remains silent even when he absolutely must speak out, irritatingly presuming that we can read his mind; this is something I really detest in the guy.” This version immediately zeroes on the subject, clearly pinpoints his weakness, then demolishes him with a powerful clause—“this is something I really detest in the guy”—at the strategic end-position of the sentence. The ideas at the front and end flanks of the sentence—at the end flank most of all—now command our undivided attention. And this construction yields still another bonus: it gives the sentence the natural flow and rhythm of speech.

It should be obvious by now that the final building blocks for emphatic sentences are the words we use to end them. Aside from ensuring that they are in prime positions in the sentence, however, we must also be conscious of the kind of the words we are using. Indeed, to choose those words wisely, we first need a clear appreciation of the relative semantic strengths of the various parts of speech in the English language. Their hierarchy of strength, from the weakest to the strongest, is as follows: prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs, adjectives, verbs, and nouns.

That the prepositions and conjunctions are low on the semantic totem pole is evident in our day-to-day experience; newspaper headlines, for instance, routinely eliminate prepositions and conjunctions and yet are able to retain the core message of the full statements. To be sure, prepositions and conjunctions smoothen the linkages between ideas and make language more elegant, but when push comes to shove they are actually dispensable.

This is why it’s not a very good idea to end sentences with a preposition or conjunction, as our previous sample sentence did when it ended itself with the preposition “to”: “One characteristic that I detest in Candidate X is his irritating presumption that we can read his mind by not speaking at all even if he absolutely has to.” Remember that old caveat against dangling prepositions? It doubtless took root from the fact that prepositions like “to” and “with” are such weak words for ending sentences.

Adverbs, in turn, are generally unhealthy to prose when they are used to end sentences; this is particularly true with “the bad, old adverbs” ending in –ly, like “ecstatically” and “fantastically.” Worse, sentences that end with them are often not only emasculated but embarrassing: “They embraced and kissed each other genuinely and affectionately.” Adjectives as endings fare much better than adverbs, but are still rather icky: “Their embrace and kiss were genuine and affectionate.”

In contrast, verbs as endings are a vast improvement over prepositions, conjunctions, and adverbs, as we can see in this sentence: “With genuine affection, they embraced and kissed.” But nouns as endings are the most emphatic and most euphonic of them all: “They embraced and kissed with genuine affection.”

Also, we normally condemn the nominalization of verbs because they often rob verbs of their strength and sinew. From the stylistic standpoint, however, verbs-turned-into-nouns often make the best sentence endings, laden as they are with the valuable tagging information that resides in nouns and the action of the verbs that congealed in them. Compare the following two sentences, the first ending with verb phrases and the second with those same verbs turned into nouns:

Ending with verbs: “When all is said and done, our prime objective is to totally control and dominate the seas.”

Ending with nouns: “When all is said and done, our prime objective is to exercise total control and dominion over the seas.”

There should be little doubt as to which of the two sentences packs the stronger wallop.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 10, 2004, © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. Revised and updated March 12, 2010. All rights reserved.


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