The Order of a Sentence

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Ce contenu est offert en anglais seulement.

Not all sentences make a single point—compound sentences, especially, may present several equally important pieces of information. However, most sentences contain a single argument, statement, question or command.

When writing, do not bury your main point in the middle of a sentence. Rather, put it in one of the positions of emphasis—that is, at the beginning or the end of the sentence.

The loose sentence

If the main point is at the beginning, it is a loose sentence:

Loose
I am willing to pay slightly higher taxes for the privilege of living in Canada, considering the free health care, the low tuition fees, the low crime rate, the comprehensive social programs and the wonderful winters.

The main point of this sentence is that the writer prefers to live in Canada. Note that the writer makes this point at the very beginning, and everything that follows is simply extra information. When they read about the free health care, the low tuition fees, the low crime rate, the comprehensive social programs and the wonderful winters, readers already know that these are reasons for living in Canada. As a result, they are more likely to understand the sentence on a first reading.

Loose sentences are the most natural for English speakers, who almost always use them when speaking. Even the most sophisticated English writers tend to use loose sentences much more often than periodic sentences. While a periodic sentence (i.e. the main point comes at the end) can be useful for making an important point or for special dramatic effect, it is also much more difficult to read. It often requires readers to go back and reread the sentence once they understand the main point.

Remember that you must structure a loose sentence carefully. It is very easy to lose control of a loose sentence so that by the end of it the reader has forgotten what the main point was.

The periodic sentence

If the main point is at the end, it is a periodic sentence:

Periodic
Considering the free health care, the low tuition fees, the low crime rate, the comprehensive social programs and the wonderful winters, I am willing to pay slightly higher taxes for the privilege of living in Canada.

The main point of this sentence is that the writer prefers to live in Canada. At the beginning of this sentence, the reader does not know what point the writer is going to make about the free health care, low tuition fees, low crime rate, comprehensive social programs and wonderful winters. The reader has to read all of this information without knowing what the conclusion will be.

The periodic sentence has become rare in formal English writing over the past 100 years and has never been common in spoken English. Still, it is a powerful rhetorical tool. An occasional periodic sentence is not only dramatic but persuasive: even if readers do not agree with the conclusion, they will read the evidence first with open minds. If you use a loose sentence with hostile readers, they will probably close their minds before considering any of the evidence.

Finally, remember that periodic sentences are like exclamatory sentences: used once or twice in a piece of writing, they can be very effective; used any more than that, they can make your writing dull and pompous.

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