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.

Martha Kolln explains cohesion in writing

Martha Kolln‘s  three methods of achieving paragraph cohesion:

  1. The subject of all or most sentences in the paragraph is the same.
  2. In each two-sentence pair, information included in the predicate of the 1st sentence becomes the subject of the 2nd sentence. In other words, something in the end of Sentence 1 becomes the beginning of Sentence 2.
  3. In paragraphs of description, a list of details follows the topic sentence. In such paragraphs, you don’t need to use explicit transitions, although you certainly may if you wish. SEE: SM’s cohesive paragraph.

Note that in all three cases, “old” information comes before new information: sentences begin with something we ‘know’ (or have already read about, usually in the preceding sentence), then introduce something new in the predicate. This old-to-new principle is true with the paragraph of descriptive details because the reader knows the situation each detail refers to. The paragraph topic is old; each sentence in the list is new (see the example below).


1. Same subject – same subject

Despite the immense racial gulf separating them, Lincoln and Douglass had a lot in common. They were the two pre-eminent self-made men of their era. Lincoln was born dirt poor, had less than a year of formal schooling and became one of the nation’s greatest Presidents. Douglass spent the first 20 years of his life as a slave, had no formal schooling–in fact, his masters forbade him to read or write–and became one of the nation’s greatest writers and activists. Though nine years younger, Douglass overshadowed Lincoln as a public figure during the 15 years before the Civil War. He published two best-selling autobiographies before the age of 40, edited his own newspaper beginning in 1847 and was a brilliant orator–even better than Lincoln–at a time when public speaking was a major source of entertainment and power.

2. Predicate becomes Subject

Thunderstorms can be categorized as single cell or multicell.

Basically, a single-cell thunderstorm is the lone thunderstorm that forms on a hot humid day. The heat and humidity of the day is the only trigger for the storm. This type of storm forms in an environment with little difference in the wind speed and direction—or wind shear—between the surface and cloud level.
– Joe Murgo (Centre Daily Times)

3. List of details in paragraph of description

Our trip to Florida for spring break turned out to be a disaster. The hotel room we rented was miserable—shabby and stuffy and downright depressing. The food we could afford made our dining hall remembrances from campus seem positively gourmet. The daily transportation to the beach we had been promised showed up only once and even then was an hour late.

Source: Kolln, Martha J. Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. 5th ed.  New York: Longman 2006. 69. Print.

Sentence Cohesion — excerpt from Rhetorical Grammar
Coherent paragraphs & the bride on her wedding day

Coherent paragraphs & the bride on her wedding day

Excellent advice from the Dartmouth Writing Program:

While coherence is a complicated and difficult matter to address, we do have a couple of tricks for you that will help your sentences to “flow.” Silly as it sounds, you should “dress” your sentences the way a bride might – wearing, as the saying goes, something old and something new. In other words, each sentence you write should begin with the old – that is, with something that looks back to the previous sentence. Then your sentence should move on to telling the reader something new. If you do this, your line of reasoning will be easier for your reader to follow.

While this advice sounds simple enough, it is in fact not always easy to follow.

Read the rest…(scroll down to page 3)

3 methods of creating a cohesive paragraph