Style Watch: How to Construct Effective Sentences

Part I: Emphasis
(Part II next week: Conciseness)CaptureHave you ever read something, and then had to go back and read it again because you couldn’t understand what the writer was trying to communicate? Has an instructor ever written, “confusingly worded” or “reword” on your papers? Ever wonder exactly what makes up an effective sentence?

Effective sentences basically have two main characteristics, according to Andrea Lunsford, editor of The St. Martin’s Handbook:
#1: They emphasize ideas clearly.
#2: They do so as concisely as possible.

Simple, right?

If sentences are clear but the arrangement of word order prevents important information from taking center stage, it’s a problem of emphasis. In addition, many college students falsely believe they must use academic jargon and wordy, complicated sentence structure to sound, well, academic. Doing so only hinders the writing, the message getting lost in complicated construction and five-dollar words. This is an issue of conciseness.  This week we’ll discuss how to improve emphasis.

Positions of Emphasis

What do you remember when you read a sentence? Usually you’ll remember the end of the sentence. Consider this sentence:

Effective sentences basically have two main characteristics.

I wanted to emphasize the “two main characteristics,” so I placed that phrase at the end position.

Slightly less dominant but still a principal position, is the opening of the sentence.

Effective sentences basically have two main characteristics.

The secondary importance of this sentence but still important is “effective sentences.”

Let’s look at another example, with two different word orders:

The couple gave $100,000 to the zoo fundraising drive last night.

What is the most important information in the above sentence? If you said the amount of the donation, $100,000, you’re right. If the final position of the sentence emphasizes the words in that spot, when the donation was given – “last night,” is emphasized, and not the donation, which is significant and important. Let’s rearrange the word order to emphasize the amount, and not the time.

Last night, the couple gave the zoo fundraising drive $100,000.

In this revised example, the amount is now emphasized, creating a more dramatic structure.

Climactic Order

When you present ideas in climactic order, the most important ideas or items of a series are in the final position, placing force behind the words for dramatic effect.

Kristy’s behavior annoyed her classmates, angered her instructor, and enraged her boyfriend.

The protesters risked family rejection, brutal imprisonment, and almost certain death.

Saving the most dramatic item for the last position communicates a more powerful message.

Look at the following example that is not in climactic order, and consider how you might revise it for the most dramatic emphasis:

Video games damage our eyes, destroy our brains, and harm our ears.

Consider this:

Video games hurt our ears, damage our eyes, and destroy our brains.

Placing “destroy our brains” in the final position creates a greater emotional impact.

In your final editing stages, spend time critically thinking about sentence structure.  Your writing be more clear and fluid, and pack a more powerful emotional punch.  Now you try!

For Fun

Which of the following sentences in each group correctly highlight the most important items in the sentence?

1.

At the 1994 Winter Olympics, Nancy Kerrigan went on to receive the silver medal in figure skating despite the preceding media circus.

Despite the media circus preceding the 1994 Winter Olympics, Nancy Kerrigan went on to receive the silver medal in figure skating.

Nancy Kerrigan went on to receive the silver medal in figure skating at the 1994 Winter Olympics, despite the preceding media circus.

2.

The presence of the Indian in these movies always conjures up destructive stereotypes of bloodthirsty war parties, horse theft, and drunkenness.

The presence of the Indian in these movies always conjures up destructive stereotypes of drunkenness, horse theft, and bloodthirsty war parties.

Destructive stereotypes of bloodthirsty war parties, horse theft, and drunkenness always are conjured up by the presence of the Indian in these movies.

3.

Victorian women were warned that if they smoked, they would become sterile, grow a mustache, die young, or contract tuberculosis.

Victorian women were warned of the side effects of smoking: they would become sterile, grow a mustache, die young, or contract tuberculosis.

Victorian women were warned that smoking would cause them to grow a mustache, contract tuberculosis, become sterile, or die young.

4.

A crowd gathered, the stranded whale wriggled off the sandy beach, and a chorus of seagulls cried shrilly.

A crowd gathered, a chorus of seagulls cried shrilly, and the stranded whale wriggled off the sandy beach.

The stranded whale wriggled off the sandy beach after a crowd had gathered and while a chorus of seagulls cried shrilly.

5.

In 1998, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire both shattered the old home run record while their respective teams did poorly.

Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire both shattered the old home run record while their respective teams did poorly in 1998.

In 1998, while their respective teams did poorly, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire both shattered the old home run record.

(Examples above from Bedford St. Martin’s Exercise Central)

 

Next Week – Part II Style Watch: Conciseness

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