How do I know what I know?

Don’t worry. I’m not going all metaphysical on you. But I’ve recently begun to question one of my long-held beliefs about writing, and I feel conflicted.

Here’s how it came about: In my last newsletter, I wrote a review of Marcia Riefer Johnston’s new book Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs.

I had high praise for her book, but I did challenge her chapter, “The Last Word,” in which she quotes many revered writing experts who say that the writer’s most important point should be placed at the end of the sentence, paragraph, or document. This structure is also known as the “periodic style,” and Johnston recommends its use for “every genre, from oratory to poetry to memoir.” 

The periodic (left-branching) style is the complete antithesis of what I teach: I believe that the best sentence structure for technical and business writing is right-branching rather than left-branching (see my 2008 blog for more explanation).

To understand left-branching versus right-branching style, compare these two sentences:

  • The functional state of our mold, options for correction, and responsibility are the topics I would like to discuss. [Left-branching: You don’t know until the end of the sentence why the three items are presented at the beginning of the sentence or why they’re important.]
  • I would like to discuss the non-functional state of our mold, options for correction, and responsibility. [Right-branching and clearer because you know immediately why the three items are presented.]

And then I got to thinking about the origin of my faith in right-branching sentences: I had discovered the term in a course on building sentences that I took from The Teaching Company[1], but I have yet to find any evidence-based research that proves that readers process right-branching sentences faster or better than left-branching sentences or vice versa. (I will admit that my search has not been exhaustive. This reminds me of former presidential candidate Herman Cain, who was known to say: “I do not have facts to back this up…”)

Nevertheless, I do believe that right-branching sentences are easier to process and understand than periodic sentences. But I know that it’s not enough to cling to my belief without researching what others have found in the way of evidence, so I’m embarking upon a literature search promptly.

And here’s where you come in: Please help me by taking my brief survey on sentences, which will be a good start toward qualitative research. I’ll proceed from there to quantitative research. Thank you!

[1] Landon, Brooks, Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writers Craft, The Teaching Company, Chantilly, VA, 2008.

2 Responses to How do I know what I know?

  1. Excellent post, Bette.

    I was of the left-branching mind until I read this. I’m thinking there might be situations where one or the other is appropriate, but you make an excellent case for using the right-branching approach in your example above.


    • I agree, Rita, that there might be situations where one or the other is appropriate. Introductory phrases or clauses can be left-branching:

      Because I did not have time to write a short letter, I wrote a long one. [apologies to Mark Twain, who said this first]

      “Fronting” this clause calls attention to it, although the reader still pays attention to the last part of the sentence.

      Thanks for your post!

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