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It's safe to say I've become a bit of a grammar nerd since I started writing my first novel. Three years after my first words landed on the page, I'm only now coming to the end of my final round of edits. However, I've still got no shortage of questions, one of which concerns the 'given-before-new' principle.

If you aren't familiar with this concept, it effectively states that old information should precede new information in each sentence. (Here's an article for those wanting to read a more comprehensive account.) Many of us will do this intuitively, but there are instances where we might write something jumbled or actively choose to break the rules, to be stylistic.

That's what I want to ask about.

In most of the books I've read, the subject of consecutive sentences bounces around. We go from one character to another, then to a description of the scenery; it's all quite random, yet it seems fitting for fiction novels.

My question relates to style and grammar equally, so a bit of knowledge in both these areas will be helpful if you decide to write an answer. Since we are writing about different characters sharing the same scenes, which we also want to highlight, is it appropriate to transition abruptly between subjects?

Take this example I've quickly written (we'll say James is the story's focal character, and David is a secondary, established character):

James sat in his favourite chair, pondering the nature of his existence. Shadows darkened his features. After a short while, David entered the room with a discourteous thud.

This isn't intended to be anywhere near my best work, only to highlight the point. Each sentence begins with a new subject, not already established in the scene. Is this appropriate given the understanding that 'Shadows' are generic things, known to the reader, and 'David' was introduced earlier in the novel, even if it wasn't in this scene? Or should we shift the subject like this revised example below?

James sat in his favourite chair, pondering the nature of his existence. His face was darkened by shadows. After a short while, he watched David enter the room with a discourteous thud.

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  • To demonstrate an example of a published author not following the 'given-before-new' principle, here's a small extract from a paragraph in Scott Lynch's The Republic of Thieves in which he changes the subject without prior set-up three separate times to add to the reader's image of the scene: 'Soft orange alchemical globes cast the fixtures and finery in an inviting light. Gulls cried somewhere nearby, and the world creaked gently around him.'
    – MJ Ada
    Nov 3, 2023 at 13:16
  • A further comment: looking at Chapter 11 (Information Structuring) of Bas Aarts's Oxford Modern English Grammar, we can see that on page 325, there is a broader perception of what constitutes 'given' information. First, personal pronouns: '... a personal pronoun ... conveys given information because the person referred to is identifiable by the addressee.' Second, known information: in 'We need to give the restaurant a ring,' the 'restaurant' is said to be 'known to the addressee,' which makes it 'given' information, whether mentioned in a previous sentence or not.
    – MJ Ada
    Nov 3, 2023 at 17:47
  • In Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style, a book recommended in one of the below answers, pages 131–138 (in Chapter 4: The Web, the Tree, and the String) directly address the principle of 'given before new.' Pinker argues that converting passive sentences to active sentences can cause confusion and increase the amount of mental strain on the reader, especially when the active subject is also 'heavy.'
    – MJ Ada
    Nov 12, 2023 at 13:40

6 Answers 6

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The two examples you give aren't equivalent. They tell different stories.

In your first example, we look on the scene from outside. The narrator is a witness that observes what happens. In your second example, we experience the scene more from inside James. The narrator is (or almost is) the person who experiences the events.

Which version is better, depends on what effect you want to achieve.


The principle that old information should precede new information is mostly relevent for non-fiction. In non-fiction the reader seeks understanding and the text should strive to facilitate that.

In fiction, on the other hand, the reader seeks an experience. The text should therefore do whatever creates that experience for the reader. And that experience might not be ease of understanding.


I am of the opinion that your approach to understand writing (that is, the production of texts) with the help of linguistics (that is, the analysis of texts) doesn't work well. That is a constructive approach, where a text is built from syntactic elements following grammatical rules. The effect will be stiff and unnatural.

The knowledge required by writing is more like the knowledge that you acquire when you learn to ride a bike or swim. That is, a movement that you do not learn by explanation and understanding, but by emulation and feeling your body.

Writing is best learned in the same way: not consciously, but unconsiously, by reading a lot and writing a lot. And like swimming, it will eventually click, without you understanding or being able to explain exactly what you do that makes it work.

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  • I think you're correct in that I've dedicated much of my attention to linguistics. However, I try not to make this a limiting factor. I like it to underpin the logic behind my writing decisions rather than dictate them. I do like your answer, though; it makes sense that constricting principles are more applicable to non-fiction.
    – MJ Ada
    Oct 31, 2023 at 15:48
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James sat in his favourite chair, pondering the nature of his existence. Shadows darkened his features. After a short while, David entered the room with a discourteous thud.

As you write it, "shadows darkened his face" will not be taken literally by readers, but metaphorically; the reader will presume James is unhappy with the nature of his existence.

This is because the emphasis is on the leading word, shadows. Shadows is the focus of the phrase.

James sat in his favourite chair, pondering the nature of his existence. His face was darkened by shadows. After a short while, he watched David enter the room with a discourteous thud.

To me, this sounds more clinical and detached, more literal: "His face was darkened by shadows" -- the first subject is His face, and that becomes the focus, not the shadows. So this just becomes a description of reality.

Given-Before-New is not an issue at this level; you need to be careful about the implications you create by the order in which you deliver information.

In this case, the first construction is better than the later, because emotions are better represented.

That said, "After a short while" is unnecessary, and in the second sentence, I'm not sure how one enters "with discourteous thud."

I'd arrange this information differently, to focus on the atmosphere and emotions, with more specific imagery.

James relaxed in his brown plaid recliner, pondering the nature of his existence. Shadows darkened his features. A discourteous thud announced the arrival of David, interrupting his thoughts.

Given-Before-New is more of a rule of thumb, not a law. The point is clarity.

More important is that readers are trying to build up an image of the scene, and this may require "New" up front. "his favorite chair" is too generic to help the reader build an image.

The "discourteous thud" is a sound and more important than what made it (David). The "Shadows" are more important than what they shadow.

Our job as writers is to assist the reader in seeing and hearing and feeling the same movie in their head as the movie we are seeing in our head.

It won't be exact (not without being boring) so we must select certain concrete details to suggest the entire picture, and avoid generic inventory.

Sometimes we are telling them what to feel directly, but most of the time, we want our descriptions to do double duty; not just describe the scene, but the mood and emotions.

So here, "Shadows" is more important than what they shadow. The "discourteous thud" interruption is more important than what caused it.

And I chose "a brown plaid recliner" so the color would resonate with the shadows and James's mood -- A bright red wooden chair would be a poor fit here. It really does not matter if the recliner is David's favorite; and I think "favorite" works against the mood I presume you are aiming to imply.

Given-Before-New may be important, a checklist item to help spot confusing prose. But imagery is more important, and may require minor transgressions against the GBN rule. Consider it akin to the role of music as a mood setter in a film.

As long as you don't go more than a second or two without clarity, you are fine.

For example, In English, our adjectives usually precede our nouns -- We say "A worn brown plaid recliner", not "A recliner, upholstered in brown plaid, now worn by years of use."

Standard sentence construction does not adhere to GBN, simply for efficiency (fewer words). Similar short-term violations of GBN, within a paragraph instead of a sentence, are warranted for efficiency in conveying a scene and the emotional atmosphere you want the reader to feel.

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  • Thank you for your post. I very much agree about the need for specificity, and I would definitely expand on these descriptions in any work I put out (outside the scope of an illustrative example). It's interesting that you say the subject is the focus. The article I linked actually states the opposite: '... in English, the major emphasis often falls on the predicate complement (object) or whatever word or structure is at the end of the sentence ....' No doubt there's room for debate here, and I'd be interested to see what academic references say on this matter.
    – MJ Ada
    Nov 1, 2023 at 20:04
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    @MJAda I think, for fiction, our job is to assist imagination, and readers are building a visual scene as they read; adding in the pieces as they read. In "Shadows darkened his face", the subject is "Shadows". In "His face was darkened by shadows", His face is the subject (and it is in passive voice,not active). But the critical point is to push the mood and atmospheric elements early. Read the academics if you like, I'm a fan of academics. But I also know what reads well and sells well; I'm much more interested in what you will find in bestselling novels than in technical academic prowess.
    – Amadeus
    Nov 1, 2023 at 21:20
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We Shouldn't

"How should we implement the Given-Before-New Principle in Fiction?"

We shouldn't.

There are lots of rules of "proper English" that don't apply to Fiction. (e.g. sentence fragments are often necessary in Fiction, but are "wrong" in more formal settings)

In fact, if you are using a close narrator and you want to show the POV character is confused or surprised, "breaking" this rule is probably a great place to start.

I think the effort that's going into answer the question "Have all the subjects in this section been previously introduced?" would be better spent answering questions like "Am I using the best language to evoke the emotion I intend to?" or "Is the conflict clear?"

Several other answers have already pointed out that your examples evoke different emotions. That's what I would concentrate on. Which version causes the reader to feel what you want them to?

... Unless you Really Want to

My rule-of-thumb for breaking Rules of Fiction is: be intentional.

If strictly following Given-Before-New somehow ties into your theme - the same way that sometimes dropping all punctuation might fit into a theme - feel free to use it. Otherwise I think it's a distraction.

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My observation is that there is a form of given-before-new guideline when writing fiction. But it is not at the sentence level. It's kind a transposition of of Chekov's Gun -- if there is a gun in the first act, it should go off in the second act.

If a gun goes off in the second act, the existence of the gun should be revealed sometime before it. The more consequential the gun going off is to the story, then the early the existence of the gun should be established.

In your examples, I see the difference as active vs passive. Your first example is more active. Shadows fall. David is rude. James sat. Since these are short sharp sentences it works.

Your second example is passive; 'was' is the verb and doesn't have a strong imaginative action. We don't imagine things 'wasing.' We imaging people sitting, we can imagine shadows covering a face, etc.

Was-sentences can often be reworded as active sentences by identifying the better verb -> I was wearing a red shirt becomes I wore a red shirt. Not always, obviously. I was a geeky teenager doesn't lend itself to more active wording -- without taking a completely different approach.

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    I agree with you saying the principle likely isn't at sentence level, and 'given-before-new' definitely results in a lot of passive constructions. Something to be aware of, though: 'was darkened' is passive, yes, but not all sentences containing a form of the verb 'be' are passive. Your example of 'was wearing' is actually continuous, not passive. Passive constructions are formed with a form of 'be' and a past-participle verb. The past participle of 'wearing' is 'worn.'
    – MJ Ada
    Oct 31, 2023 at 23:05
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    @MJAda, Okay, sure. Not a grammarian here.
    – EDL
    Nov 1, 2023 at 2:47
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Some people favour strict adherence to every single rule that was ever put into Strunk and White and will definitely tick you off pompously if you should dare to split an intfinitive or have a dangling participle, because Up With That We Should Not Put! (Even when it flows better and when the meaning is clearer if we bend the rules a bit).

It is my impression that the question being asked here is not really related to the different ‘rules’ about point of view and passive voice, non fiction and fiction and ‘given before new’; it’s not very clearly posed but the gist is ‘when is it okay to jump around from one seemingly unconnected thought to another in consecutive sentences and how much do I need to smooth the reader’s path to understanding by putting ideas one in front of another so that the reader is never confused?’

Yes, sometimes it serves a purpose to give selective information to the reader, and sometimes it is actually a better idea to put your ideas together so that the reader’s immersion is total and they aren’t wondering about anything.

I think it’s probably a good idea to ease the reader’s path and prioritise flow of information over anything else unless you have a specific reason. Readability is underrated, and that means we need to know basically what’s going on in nice sentences that give us the information in the right order, so that it’s grammatically correct (for preference) but otherwise one should prioritise flow and meaning over strict rule adherence, and worry less about whether one is being linguistic or grammatical or whatever.

I highly recommend Steven Pinker’s book ‘A Sense of Style’ which is on this exact topic and is very useful in understanding it.

It also contains a much MUCH better explanation of the concept that you’ve called ‘Given-Before-New’ and, I think, misunderstood slightly (though I don’t blame you, because the article you linked is an earnest but almost comically confused attempt to explain the point).

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  • Could you explain how Pinker explains the principle and in which way you think OP misunderstood it?
    – Ben
    Nov 1, 2023 at 7:56
  • I'm interested to know where I've misunderstood the principle. It's quite possible I have, but I've read half a dozen different articles that all give similar examples to those on the linked webpage. Is it the scope of what is considered familiar information? I have wondered whether it's necessary to be so rigid if the subject of a new sentence is a familiar person or concept, even if there's no direct connection to what has come immediately before.
    – MJ Ada
    Nov 1, 2023 at 20:11
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MJ: I am adding this as a new answer for the purpose of clarifying and of answering the questions that people asked after my last answer. Following on from your comments on my answer: ‘I'm interested to know where I've misunderstood the principle. It's quite possible I have, but I've read half a dozen different articles that all give similar examples to those on the linked webpage. Is it the scope of what is considered familiar information? I have wondered whether it's necessary to be so rigid if the subject of a new sentence is a familiar person or concept, even if there's no direct connection to what has come immediately before. – MJ Ada’

Exactly! You are exactly right! You’ve totally understood the concept as it’s formulated. Sorry, I was unclear: it’s not you that’s the problem, it just seems like the concept is poorly formulated and this makes it confusing to someone who takes logic seriously as you obviously do. I think it ‘familiar information’ is a much better way of putting it. If I am correct in reading your question, you are wondering about what sort of logical relationship you need to have between each successive sentence or concept. ‘Given before new’ is imprecise for you because it’s sort of a good rule but it is only part of the story and only works if or helps you to better create meaning for the reader by only giving new meaning that you’ve already just given information about in the previous sentence. It doesn’t answer the questions that inevitably arise, such as (inter alia) whether your sentences have to have the same object and subject relationship and keep the narrative point of view congruent in order to convey the meaning and create the effect for the reader that you want to create. It also doesn’t help you if the sentences say things that seem unrelated at first but which you still want to say that build up the context of what’s happening for the reader in this paragraph.

Pinker does a much better job of explaining everything than I can, and he doesn’t waste words. I think his book will really help a logical mind like yours because he puts these rules into context and explains why they exist and how to use them properly. This is crucial because that’s the only real point of linguistic rules - that we can use them as tools for communication.

It is not a long book. Pinker is a logical and witty writer as well as being a Harvard professor of linguistics (I think). There are almost certainly videos on YouTube of him explaining what’s in the book.

Don’t get bogged down in what other people think is more important information that should come first (naming no Amadeuses). It’s baseless opinion because other people are not you, and don’t know anything about your context at all, or what you’re trying to say and why. You and I don’t have the magic insight of ‘knowing what reads well and sells well’ and therefore being able to confidently ignore ‘academic prowess’, and sometimes we have to do it all by ourselves with only our own wits. All we have is some guidelines picked up while we were faffing around uselessly being gratuitously academic all our lives.

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  • It is not ideal when you break up your argument over several answers like this. A new answer should only be given if it is completely separate and unrelated to your old answer. It would be better if you added this reply as an edit to your original answer so readers of your first answer will find it where they would be looking for it. You can notify a commenter by mentioning them in a comment with @ before the username (I think you can only notify one person per comment). If you do edit this reply into your original anwer, you can then delete this answer.
    – Ben
    Nov 2, 2023 at 7:33

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