And we do sing! When we greet each other in the morning we use such rhythm that it sounds like a song: Hiya, mooorrrning, he—lllo.
Think of music, of songs. You hear particular words or parts of words emphasised because of the natural rhythm of our speech.
The same should happen in written prose. Fortunately there are a number of patterns, of formats that can help a sentence sing by placing the emphasis on certain words.
Say this out loud: One of the most important …
Chances are you were barely aware of ‘one of the’ as it’s practically swallowed. Intonation patterns are described as peaks and valleys: loudest syllables are the peaks, the ‘swallowed’ parts of the sentence are the valleys. The main focus is on ‘important’: imPORTant
When those patterns, those peaks and valleys aren’t there, it becomes hard to understand a speaker. For example, those who have suffered a stroke or have Parkinson’s lose the ability to stress patterns in speech, which makes it hard for a listener to understand what is being said.
To write effectively at C2 level, and even as a native speaker, there are a number of approaches you can take – many remarkably easy and many making ample use of our least-favourite verb: ‘to be’.
First let’s look at Information Structure
Look at how we place information in an effective sentence (old—new, known–new, theme-rheme). Known information comes in the subject position, often at the beginning of the sentence, and is usually either a valley when it’s said — it’s quiet, maybe even swallowed, and completely without stress. If it’s lucky, there might be a very low peak (stress) where the key word appears.
Have a look here:
So, while oranges are good for vitamin C, APPLES taste better.
Notice how the focus appears at the end of the sentence (known as the ‘end focus’)
There is also focus achieved by the comma after ‘so’ and a couple of low peaks at both ‘oranges’ and ‘C’
Compare these two sentences to see how native-speakers take this pattern for granted:
Dennis told me that Barbara had an accident this morning on her way to work. But I think he got his facts wrong. She wrecked her motorcycle yesterday.
Dennis told me that Barbara had an accident this morning on her way to work. But I think he got his facts wrong. Yesterday she wrecked her motorcycle.
‘But’ and ‘wrong’ suggest there is going to be some challenge to the information, ‘but’, by not explaining immediately, builds a little tension: what will we learn? We question what is going to come next: She didn’t have an accident? It was at a different time? It was another person in the accident?
Adding ‘yesterday’ at the beginning of the sentence confuses the reader – this new info would be better placed and more clearly stressed at the end of the sentence.
We expect known information at the beginning of the sentence because we want to put emphasis on the new information at the end of the sentence. With NEW information at the beginning, the way we read or speak will mean we lose much of that information.
An effective use of the passive voice is to move that new information from the front of the sentence to the end of it, so that it gets the emphasis it needs.
Each year since 1901, scientists, artists and peacemakers from around the world have received the Nobel Prize for helping humanity. The creator of dynamite and other explosives, Alfred Nobel, founded this award.
Each year since 1901, scientists, artists and peacemakers from around the world have received the Nobel Prize for helping humanity. This award was founded by, Alfred Nobel, the creator of dynamite and other explosives.
The first approach is new information in the known-information at the front of the sentence, and so it confuses the reader by bringing apparently irrelevant information that we weren’t expecting.
The second approach is satisfying and clear.
While a speaker can place the emphasis on a word, writers need to be more aware of sentence patterns to place the emphasis where we want it. We need to control rhythm for our writing to be effective.
Dennis told me that Barbara had an accident this morning on her way to work. But I think he got his facts wrong. It was yesterday she wrecked her motorcycle.
The emphasis clearly lands on ‘yesterday’.
When you’re writing, keep an eye on where you want the emphasis to be. What is the most important part of your sentence and how will you get the emphasis on it?
Coming up next: Cleft sentences overview