Friday, April 23, 2010

The three basic word-positioning principles for emphasizing ideas

In an essay I posted in the Forum last March 13, 2010, “Which words pack the most wallop,” I discussed at length this basic prescription by William Strunk, Jr. in his book The Elements of Style—the last words of the sentence are the most emphatic. In keeping with this prescription, I suggested 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.

That essay, which I wrote for my column in the March 10, 2004 issue of The Manila Times, was actually the second part of my essay, “Where words pack the most wallop,” that was published in my column the day before. This earlier essay had been missing from my files for a long time, however, and it was only a few days ago that I found it among some old compressed files in my computer. The essay takes a broader look at how to give maximum emphasis to our ideas and recommends three basic word-positioning principles to achieve this in writing.

I am posting that first part of the essay here for a more rounded discussion of word positioning for emphasis, and to give a comprehensive closure to the exposition, I am providing a link to the second part of the essay that was earlier posted here.

Where words pack the most wallop

In spoken English, we can emphasize the ideas we want to emphasize by giving them a stronger stress, leveling off our voice when enunciating minor or neutral ones, and downplaying the points that simply don’t support our contention. In writing, however, the process is rarely that simple. We can achieve emphasis only with our choice of words and how we array them into word clusters, into clauses and phrases, and ultimately into sentences and paragraphs. Mechanical devices exist that help, of course, like underlining, boldface type, italics, headlines and subheadlines, and—in today’s savvy word-processing routines—even colors, clip-arts, and emoticons. But as the aspiring writer soon discovers, much of the emphasis we seek has to be built into the very contours of the individual words as they unfold on the page.

There are three basic word-positioning principles we must know for maximum emphasis in writing English sentences: first, the initial and terminal positions of sentences are by nature more emphatic than their middles; second, when we construct a complex sentence, the main clause gets more emphasis than subordinate clauses; and third, when everything is written and done, the last words of the sentence are normally the most emphatic of all. These are structurally inherent in the English language itself, as we will see more clearly when we study them in closer detail.

The initial and terminal positions of sentences are prime. This principle is perhaps difficult to understand, particularly among those deeply hooked to the idea that the active voice, or the regular subject-verb-predicate pattern, is optimal for language, and that the passive voice should be taboo. On the contrary, the most desirable sentence construction is that which emphasizes the very words or ideas we want to emphasize, regardless of whether they are the doers of the action, the receivers of the action (as direct or indirect objects), or the action itself.

Take this basic active-voice sentence: “We wanted full representation in the board to fiscalize for minority stockholders.” Here, the subject “we” and the action “wanted full representation” in the main clause get the strongest emphasis, followed in degree by the subordinate infinitive phrase “to fiscalize for minority stockholders” at the tailend. We can’t quibble with the construction if this is precisely the desired order of emphasis. But what if “we” are just passive observers expressing a wish on behalf of the minority stockholders? Then the sentence should more properly take, say, this form: “Full representation in the board is what the minority stockholders need.” The object at the tailend of the infinitive phrase, “minority stockholders,” is now out front as the subject.

Alternatively, if we are speaking for the minority stockholders themselves, here’s a construction that better states their case: “Minority stockholders need full-time representation in the board to fiscalize for them.” The sentence can be reshuffled in several more ways to emphasize other aspects, but the point is made: we should position words in sentences for the emphasis we want, not on the basis of an arbitrary structure that does not suit our purposes and fails to carry out our intent.

The main clause gets more emphasis than subordinate clauses. When we construct complex sentences, we should avoid burying our main idea in subordinate clauses. As a corollary to the first principle, main ideas positioned at or near the front or at the tail end of the main clause get more emphasis. Consider this sentence: “They were of the opinion that in the ultimate analysis, inkjet printers are more cost-effective than either the dot-matrix or laser printer.” The most important idea here, of course, is not who gave the opinion, but the opinion itself. So we are well-advised to dig up that opinion and put it in the main clause where it can shine: “Inkjet printers, in their opinion, are in the ultimate analysis more cost-effective than either the dot-matrix or laser printer.” The front- and end-focus now is in a main clause stating the comparative merits of the three printers; credit for the opinion is relegated to the status of a simple interrupting qualifier, which semantically is really all it deserves.

The last words of the sentence are normally the most emphatic. A seemingly paradoxical aspect of written English sentences is that their last words normally get the strongest emphasis; most people would think that the first words would get this emphasis instead, but this simply does not happen in actual practice. Thus, if we want to give the strongest emphasis to what we think is our most important idea, we must literally maneuver it right to the tail end of the sentence, where it can get the strongest stress. Not only that. We must also make sure of ending our sentences with heavyweight rather than lightweight words. (March 9, 2004)

Click this link to “Which Words Pack the Most Wallop,” the second part of this essay that discusses this principle more fully.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, March 9, 2004 © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


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