Public Services and Procurement Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Important notice

This version of Peck's English Pointers has been archived and won't be updated before it is permanently deleted.

Please consult the revamped version of Peck's English Pointers for the most up-to-date content, and don't forget to update your bookmarks!


More Secrets of Syntax


Some Secrets of Syntax introduced ways of playing with the basic subject + verb + object syntax of the English sentence to build anticipation and emphasis. This article looks at how rearranging syntax can make a document, be it a report, newsletter or website, more readable by boosting rhythm and adding variety.


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 encounters 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

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

I remember several years ago writing a promotional blurb for my 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 satisfied with the sentence. As a lead-in 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 a Mother Goose tale—but for this one important sentence, it did the trick.

Here 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). As brief as it is, this second sentence has music in it.

Rhythm and intonation

Rhythm also comes from intonation, the way the voice naturally rises and falls as it moves through a sentence. The easiest way to create this kind of rhythm is to repeat a series of parallel phrases or clauses, a technique Tom Wolfe masterfully wields in his novel A Man in Full:

  • "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."


Why think about variety?

"This writing is boring. Boring!" (Or so nearly every reader—even you—may think 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 them 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

Are your sentences all the same length? That’s one recipe for monotony. Most writing benefits 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 so as to highlight the short sentence:

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

Variety and sentence type

Most writing relies on the declarative sentence (statement). To change it up, try an occasional interrogative (question) or imperative (command). Besides adding variety, the switch changes the 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 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 are virtual strangers outside the world of grammar and rhetoric.

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

  • One company that has readied itself for climate change is Trees & Such, a 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)

The periodic sentence, on the other hand, builds up to the independent clause, which appears at the end. Because periodic sentences delay the main message, they seem carefully composed, unlikely to have hurried off the tongue. Their ordered, writerly flavour makes 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 materials.
  • "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)

Variety and sentence openings

If all your sentences begin the same way (with the subject, for instance), readers soon become hypnotized, and not in a good way. Snap them out of it by varying your sentence openings.

Transitional words and phrases
  • The boy’s elders said 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 withered and a pestilence struck the livestock.

Reading these sentences, did you notice their beat? The minute you diversify sentence structure, you also diversify rhythm. And that’s the beauty of paying attention to syntax. A small shift here and there creates a ripple through the document, and the reader is buoyed pleasantly along.