Information Flow: Sentence structure & Importance

Last changed 6 March 2003


Introduction

There are many ways in which the same combination of facts can be 'packaged' in sentences. Pupils need to be aware of some of the main options for varying the structures within a sentence, for example by using subordinate clauses and passives. These options allow information to 'flow' through a sentence so that it is clear which parts are most important. They also improve the flow of information within the whole text, because they help the writer to integrate each sentence with those on either side of it.

Understanding the effects of different sentence structures on meaning is important for KS3 pupils not only as writers and speakers, but also as readers and listeners.

Two principles for showing relative importance in grammar

This unit is concerned with signalling the relative importance of different parts of the total message.

There are two general grammatical principles concerned with importance:

  • ideas expressed in main clauses are usually more important than those in subordinate clauses and phrases - importance is related to subordination.
  • information given later in a sentence is usually more important than that given earlier - importance is related to word order.

Importance and subordination

In general, the more like a complete sentence a structure is, the more importance it receives in the sentence.

  • Information in clauses is more important than information in phrases.
  • Information in main clauses is more important than that in subordinate clauses.
  • Information in finite subordinate clauses is more important than that in non-finite clauses.
  • Co-ordinated words, phrases or clauses are equally important.

For example, a simple message might consist of two facts:

  • she was working - the 'working fact'
  • she was feeling discouraged - the 'discouraged fact'.

The speaker or writer has three options:

  • give them equal importance by using co-ordination:

    She was working and she was feeling discouraged.

    She was working but she was feeling discouraged.

    She was feeling discouraged but she was working.

  • make one fact less important by expressing it in a subordinate clause or a prepositional phrase, and probably earlier in the sentence. The subordinated fact could be:
    • the discouraged fact:
  • Although she was feeling discouraged, she was working.

    Although feeling discouraged, she was working

  • In spite of the feeling of discouragement, she was working

    • the working fact:

    Although she was working she was feeling discouraged.

    Although working she was feeling discouraged.

    In spite of working, she was feeling discouraged

    While working, she was feeling discouraged.

The general principle is that sentence structure reflects importance.

Importance and word order

When we write, we try to establish links in the reader's mind as quickly as possible. So the context what the reader already has in mind determines the most effective word order.

For example, suppose the reader already knows that Mary had been hard at work for hours. In that case it would be natural to continue the story like this:

Mary had been working for hours. She was working in spite of feeling tired.

It would be odd, and unhelpful, to mention the tiredness first:

Mary had been working for hours. In spite of feeling tired she was working.

On the other hand if the tiredness is what the reader already knows, the reverse order is preferable:

Mary felt exhausted after a bad night. In spite of feeling tired she was working.

Mary felt exhausted after a bad night. She was working in spite of feeling tired.

This means that what comes first tends to be information that we know already, so it is less important than what comes later.

Some special patterns for reorganising clauses

Ordinary main clauses and subordinate clauses offer a convenient range of different solutions to the problems of signalling importance, but there is also a range of special patterns that expand the range of possibilities even further.

There:

There is a large cat in your garden.

There takes over the role of subject from the basic subject a large cat, so a large cat occurs later, and has greater importance than it would have in the sentence:

A large cat is in your garden.

Subject delay:

In your garden is a large cat.

In this pattern the basic subject is delayed till the end of the sentence where it can have greater importance. However another element has to move out of that position, so the two elements swap places.

Only a few verbs allow subject delay, with be by far the most common, so the other element is usually a complement of be. Here are two more examples:

Lying in the sunshine were two large cats.

At the end of the field stands a stately oak tree.

The position of the new first element also allows it to link easily to what has gone before, so it is often anaphoric:

At last I found the entrance. Lying on top of it was a large stone.

Front-shifting

Front shifting is best explained by an example:

Some things you forget. Other things you always remember.

The emphasis in this front shifted example is on forget, and remember. The effect of this word order is noticeably different from the more expected:

You forget some things. You always remember other things.

Front-shifting reduces the importance of the front-shifted element, which then provides a context for the rest of the clause and may link back to the preceding sentence.

It is very common with prepositional and adverbial phrases:

At the moment, Im hoping to get a bus back.

Later on, shes coming round.

Subordinate clauses can also be front-shifted to the same position at the front of the main clause. As with phrases, it is very common for an adverbial clause to be front-shifted:

Its also possible, though less common, if a noun clause is the object:

Passive

Our dog is being chased by your cat.

Passive verbs allow their basic object (our dog) to become their subject.

This change has several effects on the flow of information:

  • it puts the active object nearer to the preceding sentence; which allows it to link back more easily and reduces its importance;
  • it puts the active subject into a position of increased importance later in the clause;
  • alternatively it can have exactly the opposite effect, allowing the active subject to be omitted altogether:

    Our dog is being chased.

Passive verbs make the style 'impersonal' only in the latter case; if their active subjects are expressed they are no more impersonal than active verbs.