Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, your sentences need to be clear to a reader. One way to assure this is to employ the End-Weight Principle, a little-taught guide to better writing.
The End-Weight Principle
“There is a preferred distribution of elements in the clause in accordance with their weight, called the principle of end-weight: the tendency for long and complex elements to be placed toward the end of a clause.” ~Biber et al, 1999, 898
In plain English, the idea is to put the more complex part of a sentence or clause (i.e., the “weightier” parts) toward the end. There are two very sound reasons for this: 1) If heavier parts are put first, the sentence may sound awkward; and 2) Readers are forced to keep a lot of information from the first part in short-term memory before they get to the end of the sentence. In fact, if they have to go back to re-read the opening, the sentence is usually ineffective.
The weight of a sentence or clause element is defined in terms of: a) its length (e.g., number of syllables) or b) its grammatical complexity (e.g., number of nouns, pronouns, modifiers).
Following are several examples:
a) That you contact the client to make an appointment and let them know a little something of your offerings is important.
b) It’s important that you contact the client to make an appointment and let them know a little something of your offerings.
Which sentence is more difficult to read and understand? If you said (a), you’d be in agreement with most everyone. The reason is that sentence is structurally unbalanced.
Now read these:
a) For Dick and Jane to come visit us yesterday was great.
b) It was great that Dick and Jane came to visit us yesterday.
Most people find that the first sentence sounds awkward or clumsy. The second one emphasizes the main point: that something ” was great”, and it’s much more readable.
The End-Weight Rule
What these examples demonstrate is the importance of end-weight. The general rule is:
When a sentence consists of two elements, 1) make the first element (e.g., the subject of the sentence or a short clause) as short as possible, and 2) put the longer element (e.g., the object of the sentence or complimentary material) at the end.
Many legal and government documents tend to violate this rule, making their sentences especially difficult to read—maybe the intent. A number of recent reforms have simplified the language and structure, making these documents clearer and easier to read.
It’s likely that most people have never heard of the End-Weight Principle. It can be a major grammatical factor in creating clarity in writing and should be part of the English educational curriculum.
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