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Controlling Emphasis: Coordination and Subordination

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 6, Number 1, 2009, page 15)

You know the old joke about putting the em-PHA-sis on the wrong syl-LA-ble. Well, correct emphasis is just as important for the written word as it is for the spoken.

Deciding which ideas to play up and which to play down is a big part of effective writing. When properly applied, emphasis highlights key messages, giving readers a way to gauge which details should be front and centre, and which, by default, should take a back seat.

Stressing a syllable in spoken English is easy: draw it out a tad, give it more breath, and presto. But controlling stress in the written language is an arcane skill, one that comes down to two little-known—and dauntingly named—methods of grammatical connection: coordination and subordination.

Big words, big impact

For all that they sound like complicated (not to mention yawn-provoking) rhetorical constructs, coordination and subordination are actually simple and fascinating techniques. Here’s how they work.

Coordination: technique of joining ideas using coordinating conjunctions

(FANBOYS: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So)

Use: to give different ideas equal emphasis

Example: Bill went through the mall’s administrative offices to the retail area and browsed around for a while; then he continued to the food court and spotted his long-lost twin at Serious Sushi.

Coordinating conjunctions create parallelism between ideas, bringing them into balance and conveying the impression that they are on an equal footing. When we read the sample sentence above, which relies on and as a connector, we don’t come away thinking that any one idea is more (or less) important than the others.

Subordination: technique of putting main idea in an independent (grammatically complete) structure and secondary idea(s) in a subordinate (grammatically incomplete) structure

Use: to give different ideas different emphasis

Example: After going through the mall’s administrative offices to the retail area and browsing around for a while, Bill spotted his long-lost twin at Serious Sushi.

This example, though worded much like the previous one, has a far different feel. "Bill spotted his long-lost twin at Serious Sushi" strikes us as the main idea; in fact, we’d expect to see it picked up in the next sentence. That’s because this idea is written as an independent clause, or complete thought. In contrast, "After going through . . . and browsing around for a while" is a grammatically subordinate, or incomplete, structure. The whole time we’re reading it, we’re thinking "After all that stuff, what happened?" That’s why the first part of the sentence comes across as a less important lead-in.

It’s important to realize that the different emphasis in the second example comes not from the order of the ideas (it’s not because the main idea occurs last) but from the grammatical structures. Independent structures carry emphasis; dependent ones don’t. And that’s coordination and subordination in a nutshell.

Pros and cons of coordination

Coordination is the technique of choice when the ideas you want to join truly carry equal weight:

You can run, but you can’t hide.

At the end of medical school, Glenda faced a difficult decision: either specialize in internal medicine or switch over to spiritual healing.

The main pitfall of coordination is that you can have too much of it. Some balance is great, but too many ideas yoked together equally, without being assigned relative importance, result in run-on sentences and unsophisticated writing:

Excessive coordination

I worked hard and I turned out a first-rate manuscript, but I missed my deadline and my publisher was angry.

It’s difficult, in such a loose freight train of a sentence, to know what the writer is driving at. Is the main point the hard work and great manuscript, the missed deadline or the angry publisher? With some judicious subordination, the relationships fall into place:

Effective subordination

Even though I worked hard and turned out a first-rate manuscript, my publisher was angry because I missed my deadline.

The revision above stresses the idea that the publisher was angry—the independent clause—while slightly sidelining the information about working hard and turning out a first-rate manuscript.

Pros and cons of subordination

As we’ve seen, subordination helps readers decipher, on an almost unconscious level, what matters more in a sentence and what matters less. This makes subordination a powerful technique, one that can radically change the overall effect of a sentence. Consider this alternative to the previous example:

Effective subordination

Even though my publisher was angry because I missed my deadline, I had worked hard and turned out a first-rate manuscript.

This sentence centres on a different topic entirely: instead of being about an angry publisher, it’s about a hard worker.

Two sentences, two different focuses . . . yet the words are the same. Could there be more convincing proof of the power of subordination?

That power is the very thing that will work against you if you apply subordination carelessly. Improper subordination stresses the wrong information, leading the reader to linger over supporting details and miss the point. It can especially skew analytical writing, as in this passage:

Improper subordination

Investigators of the train derailment assessed the condition of the personnel on board. The operating crew, who were qualified for their positions and met all fitness and rest standards, consisted of two locomotive engineers.

Because the investigators’ findings (that the crew members were qualified and met the required standards) appear in a subordinate structure, they are minimized. Yet those findings are critical to the investigation, and certainly outweigh the information that both were engineers.

Here’s one way of conveying the right emphasis by adjusting the subordination:

Effective subordination

Investigators of the train derailment assessed the condition of the personnel on board. The operating crew, consisting of two locomotive engineers, were qualified for their positions and met all fitness and rest standards.

Notice how coordination fits into this last example as well. The two sets of findings, concerning qualifications and standards respectively, are joined by and, signalling that they are equally important in the analysis.

In the end, what you stress in a sentence is a subjective matter, depending on your meaning and perspective. But how you stress it is anything but subjective. It’s all about grammar . . . and two high-toned terms that will impress anyone you try them out on.