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Main question

There is a claim that I heard from a few persons (none of which were native speakers of English), which goes as follows:

In English non-fictional writing, the most important aspects of a sentence should preferably be placed in front.

Is this statement correct, and if yes, to what extent? I prefer credible sources to back this up but this may be difficult in the case of refuting the statement, so if you have read bazillions of writing guides and never found something along the lines of this, that would be a helpful answer for me.

Details on the claim

  • Example 1: Consider the following two sentences:

    Even with a discombobulator, we failed to transmogrify bananas in a frombolastic environment.

    In a frombolastic environment, we failed to transmogrify bananas even with a discombobulator.

    The claim says that if discombobulators are more relevant to your writing, the first order of sentence components is preferrable (and vice versa). In particular, this is claimed to hold even if the previous sentence was about frombolastic environments and you could use the second word order to make a bridge between the sentences and improve the text flow, e.g.:

    In such an environment, we failed to transmogrify bananas even with a discombobulator.

  • Example 2: Consider the following two sentences:

    Possible explanations include comtorsognation, palamnesis, and sample impurities due to an uneven opularseny of the Earth’s magnetic field.

    Possible explanations include sample impurities due to an uneven opularseny of the Earth’s magnetic field, comtorsognation, and palamnesis.

    (Assume that it is clear to every reader that comtorsognation and palamnesis cannot arise from an uneven opularseny of the Earth’s magnetic field.)

    If the impurities are the most plausible explanation, the claim is that the second sentence is preferrable, even if though this sentence is much harder to parse.

  • This is not about obtaining emphasis by deviating from the default grammatical word order (inversion).

  • In case it matters, I am primarily concerned with academic writing.

7
+50

No. The familiar information should be placed first, and the important new information should be placed last. These two positions are the most prominent places in a sentence. And placing familiar information first creates a connection from one sentence to another that greatly improves the readability of prose.

This article, The Science of Scientific Writing by Gopen and Swan, shows how to take impenetrable scientific prose and, using a few guidelines like the one I give above, make it much more readable. I quote from the article:

It is a linguistic commonplace that readers naturally emphasize the material that arrives at the end of a sentence. We refer to that location as a "stress position."

There are several good reasons that you usually don't want to put the important information in the other prominent position, at the beginning of the sentence. One reason given by the article:

Beginning with the exciting material and ending with a lack of luster often leaves us disappointed and destroys our sense of momentum.

The authors call the start of a sentence the topic position:

The information that begins a sentence establishes for the reader a perspective for viewing the sentence as a unit: Readers expect a unit of discourse to be a story about whoever shows up first.

And here is their advice about what should be in these two positions:

Put in the topic position the old information that links backward; put in the stress position the new information you want the reader to emphasize.

So the new, important information in a sentence should be at the end.

However, if the sentence ends with a list, the "stress position" would start at the beginning of the list, and my intuition says the start of a list is the most prominent place in it. So your second sentence with "sample impurities due to an uneven opularseny of the Earth’s magnetic field, comtorsognation, and palamnesis" may be preferable. But the best way to phrase that sentence might be to add words that move the stress position to the end of the list:

Possible explanations include comtorsognation, palamnesis and, in the authors' opinions the most plausible, sample impurities due to an uneven opularseny of the Earth’s magnetic field.

  • You might want to add the following quote from the cited article: “Beginning with the exciting material and ending with a lack of luster often leaves us disappointed and destroys our sense of momentum.” – Wrzlprmft Jan 1 '16 at 16:24
  • 1
    Good point. I will, although I'm not sure I totally agree with that sentiment. There are some occasions when you want to start sentences with the exciting material. – Peter Shor Jan 1 '16 at 16:28
2

No, that's not a valid rule. Real life is more complicated than that.

Sometimes we deliberately leave the most important element in the sentence until the end to build tension. Like the classic style of line in a mystery novel, "And so, the murderers is the man who had the most to gain by the victim's death, the only man who could have entered the room that night without raising suspicion, the man with the brown shoes, the man with the fake British accent, that man is ... you, Fred Jones!" If we started the sentence with, "The murderer is Fred Jones", the rest would all be boring side notes rather than building tension.

Of course it doesn't have to be as dramatic as revealing the name of the killer. Even in a technical paper you might write, "We tried three approaches and only the last one worked: radiometrics, stratigraphy, and seriation". Even if the final revelation is not surprising in the sense of open-mouthed astonishment, you create a little build up.

In many sentences, when there is flexibility in the word order in a grammatical sense, i.e. the sentence would still be grammatically correct with several different possible orderings, we still choose the order based on real-world logic. For example, we often express ideas in chronological order. If I said, "Today I had breakfast, got a haircut, went to the grocery store, and took a nap", listeners would generally assume that I did them in that order, barring some reason to believe otherwise.

Often we start with the information that provides the background to what follows. Like I might say, "There are three routes to Detroit from here: You can go through Toledo, Chicago, or Montreal. We decided to go via Chicago." I'd be less likely to say, "We decided to travel via Chicago. It is one of three routes to get where we were going, the others being through Toledo and Montreal. We were headed to Detroit." The second paragraph is confusing because it's not clear where you're going -- geographically or linguistically -- until you get to the end. The first is more logical.

Et cetera. There are lots of considerations. Give the sentence a logical flow rather than worrying about some arbitrary rule like "put the most important thing first".

  • “Sometimes we deliberately leave the most important element in the sentence until the end” could be read to imply that the default is something else, or with other words that, if no further considerations apply, the most important thing should be put first. Is this intended, and if yes, can you back this up in any way? – Wrzlprmft Dec 26 '15 at 7:19
  • @Wrzlprmft Not really. If we don't put the most important thing last, it doesn't follow that we must put it first. We could put it second or third or fourth, etc. – Jay Dec 27 '15 at 7:17
  • Okay, then replace first with not last. in my above comment. – Wrzlprmft Dec 27 '15 at 7:20
  • Erm...the question, which may have been edited, says "in non-fictional writing?" – rolfedh Jan 17 '16 at 14:19
  • @rolfedh Umm, so? Are you saying that my using an example from fiction is invalid because the question specifically asked about non-fiction? If so, I was trying to make a point by using an extreme case. If you read the next paragraph, I then said how this applies to less dramatic examples like are more commonly found in non-fiction. Or maybe I'm just missing your point. – Jay Jan 18 '16 at 5:16
1

I would say it's dependent on context. There are times when you cannot "bury the lede," to borrow a term from journalism (and that is the correct spelling), and there are times when it's okay to put certain items later in the sentence for the sake of readability.

For your example 2, you could arrange those items in any order. If item 3 is your most important, it could go first (in a straightforward reading) or at the end (if you were going for humor or silly emphasis).

  • If I understand correctly, burying the lede rather refers to the ordering of paragrapsh rather than sentence parts and does not apply to academic writing anyway. Do you have any other support for this claim? – Wrzlprmft Dec 25 '15 at 14:32
  • Your advice for the second paragraph is contradictory: If I could put them in any order, why can I put item 3 only in the first place in straightforward reading? – Wrzlprmft Dec 25 '15 at 14:34
  • @Wrzlprmft 1) I was being loose in my usage of "burying the lede" and applying to sentence order. 2) There are times in humorous writing when you might want to put an important item last. "He was arrested for littering, jaywalking, and arson." In serious writing, you would of course put arson first, but if you're trying to be funny, you can put it last. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Dec 26 '15 at 18:58

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