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The secrets of syntax (Part 2)

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 6, Number 3, 2009, page 14)

In the last Language Update I presented some ways of playing with the basic subject + verb + object syntax of the English sentence to build anticipation and emphasis. In this issue we will look at how rearranging syntax can make written material, whether a report or a newsletter or a Web site, more readable by boosting rhythm and adding variety.

1. Rhythm

Why think about rhythm?

A writer’s pursuit of stylistic fluency is not complete without attention to the music created by words and sentences—to the rhythm of language.
—Doug Babington and Don LePan, Broadview Guide to Writing

Rhythm is by no means the sole province of poets and musicians. Anyone who has encountered a prose passage that pleases the ear as well as the mind knows the satisfaction that comes from the rhythm of words. With the possible exception of user manuals and other instructions, writing that has a spring in its step (to mangle a metaphor) stands a far greater chance of being read than prose that plods doggedly along.

Rhythm and syllabic stresses

Rhythm in writing comes largely from alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. Strict rhythm that follows a definable meter may be overkill in some workplace writing, but in the right situation—opening or closing sentences, headings, tag lines, speeches—it can be the secret to crafting a memorable sentence.

I remember several years ago having to write a promotional blurb for an upcoming punctuation workshop. Most of the description was finished, but I was struggling with the opening line. Here’s what I had:

As the old saying goes, God is in the details.

For reasons I couldn’t articulate, I wasn’t happy with the sentence. As a lead-in meant to capture readers’ attention, it seemed flat, and through no fault of the content, not quite right. I tinkered, then tinkered some more, then came up with this:

God is in the details, the old saying goes.

Suddenly, the sentence came alive. It had rhythm. Specifically, it had trochee, a pattern that switches between stressed and unstressed syllables (think of pick-up hock-ey). Trochee is an easy rhythm to overuse—too much of it and your report will sound like something from Mother Goose—but for this one important sentence, it did the trick.

Below is another example of how tighter rhythm can lift a sentence to a new level.

A few were lucky enough to escape the fire.

A lucky few escaped the fire.

The second sentence relies on iamb, a pattern that, in a reversal of trochee, alternates unstressed and stressed syllables (in-tense re-lief). The sentence, as brief as it is, has music in it.

Rhythm and intonation

Rhythm in writing also comes from intonation, the way the voice naturally rises and falls as it moves through a sentence. The easiest way to create rhythm through intonation is to repeat a series of parallel phrases or clauses, a technique delightfully wielded by novelist Tom Wolfe:

He loved all those board meetings too much, loved being up on the dais at all those banquets too much, loved all those tributes to Inman Armholster the great philanthropist, all those junkets to the north of Italy, the south of France, and God knew where else on Armaxco’s Falcon 900, all those minions jumping every time he so much as crooked his little finger.
—Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full

2. Variety

Why think about variety?

This writing is boring. Boring!
—Nearly every reader (even you) at one time or another

No one, no matter how disciplined or earnest or technically minded or scholarly, really wants a steady diet of monotonous sentences. And monotony is exactly what we get with an unending cascade of subject + verb + object sentences. Take note of the length and structure of your sentences and don’t be afraid to mix it up from time to time, even in formal, businesslike writing. The only risk you run is that readers might find the material (heaven forbid) appealing.

Variety and sentence length

Sentences all the same length? That’s a recipe for monotony. Most types of writing benefit from a framework of medium-length sentences with some longer and shorter ones hammered on for good measure. It can be especially effective to follow a long sentence with a short one. Doing so highlights the short sentence.

Many scientists hail Dr. Spudnik’s research as groundbreaking, stressing its relevance to both the practice and study of agriculture. We disagree.

Variety and sentence type

Most writing relies on the declarative sentence (statement). To shake things up, try an occasional interrogative (question) or imperative (command). Besides injecting variety, the change adds emphasis and speaks directly to the reader.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the world consumes roughly 3.5 billion cubic metres of wood each year. How much wood is that?

Coal-burning plants undoubtedly harm the environment in various ways, one of which is contributing to acid rain. But consider the alternatives.

Another way to liven up prose is to mix cumulative and periodic sentences. If your response to that advice is "Huh?" you’re not alone. These sentence types aren’t well known outside the world of grammar and rhetoric.

The cumulative sentence, also known as the "loose" sentence, is the more common type in English. A cumulative sentence begins with the main idea in an independent clause, then tacks on elaborating details. The cumulative sentence to some extent mirrors how we speak: we usually first articulate the idea on our mind, then add caveats, embellishments and so forth. This similarity gives cumulative sentences a more conversational feel.

One company that has readied itself for climate change is Trees ’R’ Us, a medium-sized, family-owned forest products company with a long history in western Canada.

Perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California).
—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

The periodic sentence, on the other hand, builds up to the independent clause, which occurs at the end. Because periodic sentences delay the main message, they seem more carefully composed, less likely to have hurried off the tongue. Their more ordered, "writerly" flavour provides a nice counterpoint to cumulative sentences. They are also the perfect structure when your main message is striking or surprising.

Thanks to the combined efforts of government and industry, and with funding from the largest research unit in eastern Canada, the 3G (Garbage Going Green) program has developed dozens of new uses for recycled material.

Early one morning, under the arc of a lamp, carefully, silently, in smock and leather gloves, old Doctor Manza grafted a cat’s head onto a chicken’s trunk.
—Dylan Thomas, "The Lemon"

Variety and sentence openings

Finally, if all sentences in a document begin the same way (for example, with the subject), the reader will soon be hypnotized, and not in a good way. Vary sentence openings to break the pattern.

Transitional words and phrases

The boy’s elders told him that young warriors build strength and wisdom by making mistakes, by learning from failure. Yet what did they know about fighting dragons?

She barely escaped being swept away in the icy mountain stream. After that, her outlook on adventure changed drastically.

Adjectives and adverbs

Weak but elated, the climbers hoisted themselves onto the rocky peak.

Surprisingly, no one disputed Leo’s self-proclaimed title of Gyroscope Guru.

Phrases and dependent clauses

Sitting in the window and surveying the lavender fields below her, Aimee felt happy and lucky to be alive.

To qualify for flight training, you must be in good physical condition and pass a written test.

As the soothsayer had foretold, the crops wilted and a pestilence settled upon the livestock.