Editing for impact #1 – Using sentence structure to increase emphasis

This post unpacks how sentence structure influences the emphasis on different parts of your message (and how you can use this information to get your point across most effectively).

Throughout this post, we will discuss as a situation where you are writing one sentence to convey two points: 1) That a new vaccine is generally safe and 2) some people will experience side-effects. Irrespective of your opinion on which point is most important. It would be disingenuous (i.e. wrong) to leave out the counter point. However, as I am sure you can appreciate, as a writer you might want to emphasise either one of those points over the other. This post is about the methods you can employ to help achieve that goal.

Before we get into the detail, pick your answer to the following poll.

In all of the options above, the “data” are the same, even the words are essentially the same. All we have changed are which pieces of information are in the primary vs the sub-ordinate clause and the location of the clauses within the sentence. These structural changes to the sentence influence how your readers read the sentence, how they place emphasis. They are just two of the ways in which we can attempt to control how our message is received.

The buttons above are a poll. As I am writing this, I don’t know how you will respond. What I anticipate is that not all respondents pick the same option (note, I have randomised the answer order to remove positional bias). This is the same in the other polls coming up below. These differences between respondents are important to remember; not all people will read the same way as you! You can’t ever 100% control how a sentence is interpreted, all you can do is try your hardest to use structure and word choice to maximise the probability will read it the way that you intend.

However, despite individual variability, my prediction is that the winner will be “Although there may be rare side effects, the vaccine is safe for most people“. Why this one? Well it ticks two of the main structural emphasis “rules*”:

  1. Greater emphasis is placed on the primary clause.
  2. Greater emphasis is placed on the clause at end of the sentence.

These two “rules” are the easiest ones to remember and the easiest to adopt with your writing. But can we do better? Well, yes (Otherwise the post would stop here)!

An obvious additional option to consider is length. In the sentences above, the two clauses were roughly equal in length. Let’s have a look at what happens if we take the same core sentence and extend either clause without substantively changing the meaning. Again, we’ll go with a poll. Pick the one you think works best.

Was it tough to choose? Keeping the same primary clause and order points us in the same overall direction; however, increasing the length of the primary clause has strengthened the message. For your readers, investing more time in that clause has increased its emphasis. Indeed, whereas in most writing you will be told to cut any bloat words, when you want emphasis is one time where a few extra words can actually strengthen your message.

Sounds simple enough, but is it really? Let’s try again but this time putting the primary clause in the alternative position and extending it:

Most likely here you will have said that the longer primary clause has now decreased the emphasis on that clause (don’t worry if you didn’t). Weird, eh? It’s the same change but now the effect of having the negative clausal order has intensified. This leads our third rule* of structural emphasis:

3. Clause length can intensify clausal order effects

Now, let’s look at some other things we can do.

In your writing classes, you probably learned that you should keep the “unit of action” of a sentence together. Let’s see what happens if we mess with that, tell me your thoughts on this pairing:

The reason we were taught to group our clauses into complete entities is that we subconsciously prioritise structure over content. Much less emphasis is placed on anything that breaks up the primary clause. Here, putting the side-effects sub-clause within the primary clause even further downplays the importance of the sub-clause compared with having it first. Most readers will skim over this middle clause, most of the time.

Once again, we’ve delivered the same data using the same words, but the structure has changed the way that its being read.

4. If you really want to downplay something, bury a point in a subordinate clause within the main clause

In case you missed it, there’s an important lesson here: don’t ever bury things in the middle of a clause if you want the reader to notice them! Also be aware that readers like you to follow the agreed upon structural rules. Therefore, if every sentence uses an internal sub-clause then your overall writing will be harder to read. Only ever use the nuclear “bury it” option when you really need it!

Can we go further? Of course, we can. I wouldn’t have asked another rhetorical question if the answer was no! Repetition increases emphasis. No surprises. But “surely we should avoid repetition” I hear you say. We get told this all the time. Well don’t be fooled by that notion, science writing is filled with repetition. Think about any scientific paper, it tells you the main point in the title, in the abstract, at the end of the introduction, in the results, in the discussion and again in the conclusion. This is no accident, it is important that your readers appreciate the main point of your paper. It needs repeating.

5. Increase emphasis with repetition

I don’t have an obvious way to add repetition to our sentence without simultaneously adding length, instead let’s just add some repetition to our favourite so far:

The vaccine has been rigorously tested in multiple studies and, while there may be rare side-effects, it is safe with no adverse reactions for most people.

Is this getting bloated? Perhaps, and that will always be a trade-off. If every sentence is bloated then your overall writing will be heavy and slow to absorb. Not a good thing. Try to be aware of this and use sparingly.

I would also argue in this case that the extra words in the sentence did more than merely repeat, they also added details to strengthen the claim. This leads us nicely into the next point: word choice.

Unsurprisingly, choosing more or less emphatic words to describe the different components of your sentence will help to emphasise the message in the way you choose.

The vaccine has been rigorously tested in multiple independent peer-reviewed studies, and although there are rare reports of mild or easily-managed side-effects, the vast majority of people have no adverse reactions at all.

Pretty obvious really. Upward modifiers for the bits you want, downward for the bits you don’t. Of course, the statements must still be true, but the power of word choice should not be forgotten.

6. Add emphasis with modifier words

However, you have to be careful here too. Changing the words without also considering the structure might mean that the effect is not what entirely as you anticipate:

The vaccine has been rigorously tested in multiple studies and is generally safe with no adverse reactions in most people, although it causes fatal side-effects.**

This sentence clearly emphasis the fatal side-effects. No doubt about that. Every reader will interpret that sentence the same way. So what’s the problem? Well the way the sentence has been structured says something about the writer. Whilst reading this sentence, your mind first absorbs the structure. Immediately, we recognise the early primary clause going in a very positive direction but once we reach “although” we anticipate that the secondary clause will present a counterpoint. Absorbing the length and the language of the primary clause makes it feel very positive and therefore we anticipate something minimal in the counterpoint. If the counter point is massive, we will judge the writer as they have chosen to try downplay that point. Oh dear. That’s not good!

The take home message

Emphasis Rules

  1. Greater emphasis is placed on the primary clause.
  2. Greater emphasis is placed on the clause at end of the sentence.
  3. Clause length can intensify clausal order effects
  4. If you really want to downplay something, bury a point in a subordinate clause within the main clause
  5. You can add extra emphasis with repetition
  6. Add emphasis with modifier words

Editing your work is a skill that takes practice. It is also something that takes time and is not something you should worry about in a first draft. Remember that you can never completely control how a reader will interpret your writing. However, I hope that by reading this post that you appreciate that editing isn’t all about choosing the most impactful words, getting the structure right can make a bigger difference. That is true at the sentence level but it is even more true at the paragraph and then whole document level. We’ll go into some tips in those areas in a later post.

Footnotes:

  • *There are no 100% rules in writing.
  • **relative risk is a difficult topic.

Like this page? You’ll probably like my book!

Also see the pages below for tips on how to construct the different sections of a scientific manuscript and lab quizzes.

cartoon about adding emphasis through sentence structure - one character asks why the other is using bright colours when there are better ways.

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