Joseph Williams explains why sentences should start with the “old” and end with the “new”

Joseph Williams on starting sentences with known information and ending with new:

Put at the beginning of a sentence those ideas that you have already mentioned, referred to, or implied, or concepts that you can reasonably assume your reader is already familiar with, and will readily recognize.

Put at the end of your sentence the newest, the most surprising, the most significant information: information that you want to stress–perhaps the information that you will expand on in your next sentence.

All of us recognize this principle when a good teacher tries to teach us something new. That teacher will always try to connect something we already know to whatever new we are trying to learn. Sentences work in the same way. Each sentence should teach your reader something new. To lead your reader to whatever will seem new to that reader, you have to begin that sentence with something that you can reasonably assume that reader already knows. How you begin sentences, then, is crucial to how easily your readers will understand them, not individually, but as they constitute a whole passage. But in designing sentences in this way, you must have some sense of what your reader already knows about your subject.

Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Willliams with two chapters coauthored by Gregory G. Colomb. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Boiled down

Start your sentences with:

  • Content you have already mentioned (especially content you’ve mentioned in the preceding sentence), or
  • Content you haven’t already mentioned but are sure you reader already knows.

End your sentences with:

  • The most important content in that sentence.

Good sentences work the same way good teaching works: a good teacher tries to connect new content to something students already know and understand.

Finally, starting with known information and moving to new information is especially important across whole paragraphs and papers. A reader can deal with one or two sentences that begin with new information, but an entire paragraph of sentences that begin with new information becomes extremely difficult to read.

Start your sentences with known information.

End with new information.

C.M. brings up an important issue

In class on Friday, we used the the known-new contract (which I’ve been calling old-to-new) to revise a two-sentence passage:

Psychologists believe that color conveys emotional messages. Advertisers routinely manipulate consumers using color psychology.
– Martha Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar

People wrote some terrific versions of Kolln’s sentences, but before I post them, I want to mention an observation C.M. made.

C.M. was having trouble revising the sentences, he said, because they made sense as they were. Since he didn’t see a problem, he didn’t see a solution.

Good point!

If a passage makes sense, does it need revising?

For me, the answer is usually ‘yes,’ but C.M. has raised an important issue. 

Even if you believe that any sentence can be improved, it’s harder to improve a good sentence than a bad one.

And, by the same token, it can be harder to improve a sentence that already makes sense than one that doesn’t.

This brings me to the reason it’s so difficult for novice *writers to revise their own prose.  Novice writers have trouble seeing what needs to be revised because they know what they were trying to say. Their writing makes sense—to them. 

Unfortunately, our readers don’t have this advantage; they don’t know what was inside our minds as we wrote. They have only our printed words to go on. As a direct result, it can be easier for them to see problems in our writing than it is for us. 

That’s the trouble.

If we can’t see the problem, we can’t see the solution, either.

* “Novice” means “beginner.”

Are danglers wrong?

The answer is: not really.

These two posts at Language Log explain:

Danglers aren’t grammatically wrong the way a sentence like “I bacon the ate” is grammatically wrong. Lots of native speakers of English use danglers, as do lots of native writers. 

That said, danglers can be bad writing, which is reason enough to know what they are and how to fix them.

Danglers aren’t always bad writing, either–or, at least, some danglers sound a lot better than others. Unfortunately, I lack the linguistic expertise to explain the difference between a good dangler and a bad one, so there the matter stands. For the time being. *

I post danglers on English 109 because I like finding them; they tend to jump off the page at me. 

I also post them because I’m fairly certain that looking for the dangler in a sentence helps students see syntax.

“Seeing” the syntax of a sentence isn’t easy if you were never taught formal grammar. I’m in that category myself. Before teaching English 109, I had learned most of what little I knew about grammar in Spanish class. I wrote “by ear.”

When I began to learn the formal categories of grammar and linguistics, I was thrilled to discover what the sentences I had been writing for all these years were actually made of.

Find the dangler

* Sentence fragment intentional.

Pop quiz: Winston Churchill uses passive voice

The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world except in the abodes of the guilty goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unweakened by their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of world war by their prowess and their devotion.

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. (Prolonged cheers.)

Winston Churchill 1940

Active voice: People owed gratitude. (many owed so much…)
Passive voice: Gratitude was owed by people. (so much was owed…)

Revised sentence, using active voice:

Never in the field of human conflict did so many owe so much to so few.

Question: Why did Churchill choose the passive voice in this sentence?