I’ve been reading a lot of student essays recently that introduce their topics well, provide great sources, consider their audience, but then fall flat at the end. It isn’t a problem with failing to offer a restatement of thesis or offering a call to action. It’s more a problem of last-line syntax.
Syntax refers to the arrangement of words in a sentence, or the grammatical structure of a sentence. A particular sentence might have a variety of ways one could order the words and still derive the same meaning. Beginning writers (and even some experienced) sometimes give little thought to word order, and in body of paragraphs, it might not make a great deal of difference for a reader. However, a concluding line needs punch. The conclusion should not only leave a strong message for the audience, but also communicate that message in a way to create the most emotional impact right down to the final word.
Look at the similar sentences below:
1) There is no more important issue than this.
2) There is no more important or more urgent issue.
At first glance, both seem okay. Both say about the same thing. But the second is better. Why? Because the final words, “urgent issue” leaves the reader with a more vivid image than the first example, which ends with a vague phrase. In example 1, the concluding word, “this,” a pronoun, leaves no strong image for the reader. The phrase, “There is no more important issue. . .” is placed in the slightly weaker position at the beginning of the sentence, so it offers less impact. We remember best what we read last.
The second example also utilizes parallel structure, “more important or more urgent . . .,” which works to reinforce the writer’s message by the use of repetition.
In the classic style book, The Elements of Style, Strunk and White say that “The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end.” Let’s take a look at two examples:
1) Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways.
2) Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.
The second example has a greater emotional impact by concluding with the words, “advanced in fortitude.” These are considered emphatic words, or words that should require prominence in the sentence. The first example’s final phrase, “though it has advanced in many other ways,” is a bit vague, the words imprecise, which weaken the message.
Also notice the cadence of each example. Cadence refers to the musicality of language, the rhythm imparted on language which is influenced by how words are arranged in a sentence. In the first example above, “Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways,” has a falling rhythm. The ending of the sentence has no emphatic punch. It just kind of trails off.
In the second example, the rhythm has built to a crescendo as we approach the end of the sentence; this is done by placing a short dependent clause in the beginning position (“Since that time”), followed by an independent clause (humanity has advanced in many ways), concluding with a flurry of repetitive, hard consonants, or alliteration, which creates a strong punchy conclusion. The rhythm of this syntax slows the reader down and places emphasis on the final words. Read the sentence again, but this time, read it aloud so you can hear:
Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.
Do you hear the power at the end of the sentence? How does it sound different than the first example?
Readers read with their eyes, but we still hear what we read. That’s why all writers should read their work aloud. Even though we read in our head, we don’t get the full effect until we hear the words aloud.
Tips and Tricks
When you are trying to create a powerful concluding line, some words are better left for positions in their respective sentence other than the end. Pronouns and prepositions often weaken a sentence when placed in the final position. One of the most common pronouns that has no place in the final or power position of a concluding line is “it” – probably the most overused pronoun in student papers.
Think about what idea or image you want to leave the reader with and structure the final sentence accordingly. It’s often simply a matter of putting more thought into your sentence structure. Play around with word order, and read our earlier post on absolute phrases, which explains the different ways phrases can be arranged in a sentence.
Below are some concluding lines from great literature. Consider why the authors made the choices they did, and how changing the word order might hurt – or enhance – the final lines.
All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.” –Voltaire, Candide
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” –Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
It’s old light, and there’s not much of it. But it’s enough to see by. –Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye
It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
–Toni Morrison, Sula
He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance. –Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.
–Willa Cather, My Ántonia