The elements in an English sentence have a standard or canonical position. Writers should understand this order of elements because choosing to adhere to it or break it will draw readers’ attention to different elements of a sentence. The canonical order of elements in an English sentence is:
|Subject||Verb||Other elements (indirect and direct objects, adverbials, etc.)|
|The teacher||offered||the students a solution to the problem during class.|
Generally, the subject is the doer or the main character, and the verb expresses the action, state, or description. Other elements may include people or things affected by the action, adverbials (references to time, place, manner, etc), and so on.
While it is true that English writing favors elements in the canonical order, this does not mean you should only write in this order. It means that this sequence should only be broken when there is a clear reason for doing so (adding emphasis, placing old information first, etc.). The canonical order is a principle and not an absolute rule of writing.
Rewrite the sentences below and redistribute sentence elements according to the cannonical order. Hint: You should start new sentences with the italicized elements.
- Finally, in a very apologetic tone, the director spoke to us.
- After running for two hours and exercising for another two at the gym last night, Rachel collapsed.
- With words of encouragement after a long and difficult year, the teacher addressed the students.
The following lessons will help you determine how to shift the order of sentence elements to write cohesive sentences and add emphasis when needed.
Characters and Actions
When your writing highlights important sentence elements, such as characters and actions, your sentences become clear to your readers and naturally draw their attention. Characters are sentence elements that trigger actions or events. They can be concrete (a person, animal, or thing) or abstract (an issue, a concept, etc.). Characters are usually nouns or pronouns. Actions describe what characters do or what events they trigger. Actions are expressed by verbs. These concepts are illustrated in the examples below:
Example 1 - Jack’s refusal to leave the worksite resulted in his boss’s decision to call security.
Example 2 - Because Jack refused to leave the worksite, his boss decided to call security.
Consider the following differences between the sentences in Example 1 and Example 2.
- The characters of Example 1, Jack and his boss, are part of the subject, but they do not receive the main focus in the sentence. The foci lie in the words refusal and decision.
- The characters of Example 2, Jack and his boss, receive focus in the subject of each respective clause, and their actions are expressed by the verbs refused and decided, instead of in the nouns refusal and decision. Example 2 characters are aligned with their actions.
Notice that Example 1 draws readers’ attention to the abstract nouns refusal and decision. Even though it is possible to use abstract nouns as characters when you write about abstract issues, this example shows that it can be a bad decision when you use them in lieu of clear characters and their actions.
The alignment between characters and their actions makes sentences like Example 1 more powerful. It is easy to turn type-1 sentences into type-2 ones. All you need is to play a simple game of verbs and nouns, as shown in the table below.
- The following table contains pairs of nouns and verbs. Complete it with the missing elements. This table will be also useful when we discuss nominalization (Lesson 9).
Noun Verb Noun Verb decision decide explain express explanation Verb analysis conclusion
- Diagnose the sentences below and identify their characters and actions. Then rewrite them and replace the italicized nouns with the corresponding verbs from the above table:
The mayor’s analysis of the issue did not convince journalists.
Bob’s explanation of why he was late frustrated his wife.
The documentary’s description of the accident shocked viewers.
The conclusion the scientists reached was that the problem had no solution.
Points to Consider
- When sentences emphasize clear characters and actions, what difference does it make to readers?
- How can you tell if the characters and actions in your sentences have been properly emphasized?
The Old-before-New principle guides how writers should sequence information in a sentence. Acccording to this principle, they should use the information readers already know to introduce information they do not know yet. This principle helps direct readers from familiar or old information to new information. Analyze this first set of examples.
Example 1 - The science teacher spoke about environmental challenges yesterday, and she mentioned five big environmental problems the United States will face in the upcoming decade. Carbon-dioxide concentration levels in the atmosphere are increasing rapidly (new information), and this was the first problem she described (old information).
Example 2 - The science teacher spoke about environmental challenges yesterday, and she mentioned five big environmental problems the United States will face in the upcoming decade. She first talked about (old information) the increasing concentration levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (new information).
The sentence in Example 2 gradually guides the writer from old to new information. Since information is logically displayed in the sentence, readers are not only able to understand it better, but they will also remember it more easily.
Example 3 - Yesterday, Congress finally approved a bill that introduces new rules and regulations to financial markets in the United States. The increase of the regulatory powers of the Federal Reserve Bank (new information) was by far the most controversial of the new measures (new information).
Example 4 - Yesterday, Congress finally approved a bill that introduces new rules and regulations to financial markets in the Unites States. The most controversial measure by far (old information) was the increase of the regulatory powers of the Federal Reserve Bank (new information).
Rewrite the sentences below and apply the old-before-new principle to make them more cohesive:
- The class planner the teacher gave students yesterday did not include dates for turning in papers or for taking exams. Although all assignments were described in detail, as well as the content for each test, the planner did not include when they were due.
- When the principal spoke to our class, she emphasized that new attendance rules would be in place. She also told us that teachers have found it difficult to maintain lines at the cafeteria during recess, after saying the school would start notifying parents immediately every time a teacher declared a student absent.
Points to Consider
- How does the old-before-new principle help readers?
- How does this principle help connect ideas and sentences to one another?
The short-to-long principle applies to how writers coordinate elements in a sentence (see Chapter 13, Lesson 1 for coordinating conjunctions). It suggests you list coordinated elements from short to long, as the sentences below illustrate:
Example 1 - Participants in the study noticed no differences between the first slide scientists projected on the white wall (long element) and the real painting (short element).
Example 2 - Participants in the study noticed no differences between the real painting (short element) and the first slide scientists projected on the white wall (long element).
The short-to-long principle helps you write sentences that are fluid and easy to read.
Check the sentences below that illustrate a good use of the short-to-long principle:
- ( ) A group of five students resolved the test without any assistance, quickly, and accurately.
- ( ) A group of five students resolved the test quickly, accurately, and without any assistance.
- ( ) The upset teacher decided to punish all the students who were late. She did not distinguish between the students who had completed the assignment and the ones who had not turned the assignment on the due date.
- ( ) The upset teacher decided to punish all the students who were late. He did not distinguish between the students who had not turned in the assignment on the due date and the ones who had completed the assignment.
- ( ) Parents have not been attending the evening meetings because some work late and others cannot come to school three nights in a row.
- ( ) Parents have not been attending the evening meetings because some cannot come to school three nights in a row and others work late.