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Controlling Emphasis: Coordination and Subordination


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

Deciding which ideas to play up and which to tone down is a big part of effective writing. When properly applied, emphasis highlights key messages, giving readers a way to gauge which details stand front and centre, and which, by default, stay in the background.

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 a more difficult 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-inducing) rhetorical constructs, coordination and subordination are actually simple and fascinating techniques. Here’s how they work.

Coordination: Involves joining ideas with coordinating conjunctions (FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). Gives different ideas equal emphasis.

  • Fabien 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 sense 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: Involves putting the main idea in an independent (grammatically complete) structure and secondary idea(s) in a subordinate (grammatically incomplete) structure. Gives different ideas different emphasis.

  • After going through the mall’s administrative offices to the retail area and browsing around for a while, Fabien spotted his long-lost twin in the food court, at Serious Sushi.

This example, though worded much like the previous one, has a far different feel. "Fabien spotted his long-lost twin in the food court, 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 the idea forms an independent clause, or complete thought. In contrast, "After going through . . . and browsing around for a while" is a grammatically subordinate, or incomplete, structure. As we read 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 at the end) 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 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 yoking too many ideas together equally, without assigning them relative importance, results in run-on sentences and unsophisticated writing:

  • I worked hard and I turned out a first-rate video, but I missed my deadline and my producer was angry. (excessive coordination)

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 video, the missed deadline or the angry producer? With some judicious subordination, the relationships fall into place:

  • Even though I worked hard and turned out a first-rate video, my producer was angry because I missed my deadline. (effective subordination)

This revision stresses the idea that the producer was angry—the independent clause—while slightly sidelining the information about working hard and turning out a first-rate video.

Pros and cons of subordination

As we’ve seen, subordination helps readers decipher, almost unconsciously, what matters more in a sentence and what matters less. This makes subordination a powerful technique, one that can radically change a sentence’s impact. Consider this alternative to the previous example:

  • Even though my producer was angry because I missed my deadline, I had worked hard and turned out a first-rate video. (effective subordination)

This sentence puts forth a different message entirely: instead of being about an angry producer, 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 what 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:

  • Investigators of the train derailment assessed the condition of the personnel on board. They found that the operating crew, who were qualified for their positions and met all fitness and rest standards, consisted of two locomotive engineers. (misleading subordination)

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 are the details that are critical to the investigation; they certainly outweigh the information that both were engineers. Adjusting the subordination shifts the emphasis:

  • Investigators of the train derailment assessed the condition of the personnel on board. They found that the operating crew, consisting of two locomotive engineers, were qualified for their positions and met all fitness and rest standards. (effective subordination)

Notice how coordination fits into this 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, the content of your sentence is up to you; it depends on your meaning, perspective and vocabulary. But the emphasis of your sentence is anything but subjective. It all comes down to grammar, and two high-toned terms that will impress anyone you try them out on.

Test yourself