Left-branching doesn’t work!

Left-branching doesn’t work!

Please read this sentence:

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A group representing Washington County residents affected by the city’s plans for a city energy utility, a major mining concern, the University of Washington, and the city’s Chamber of Commerce are among the entities seeking to formally intervene in the city’s municipalization case before the Washington Public Utilities Commission. [I have disguised the names to protect the innocent…]

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Did you process that sentence quickly? I thought not. Not only does the sentence clock in at 49 words (at least double the recommended word count for sentences), it also doesn’t get around to presenting the verb for 30 words. This means that we have no idea why we are reading those initial 30 words that simply list groups.

The Text Doctor would diagnose this is a classic left-branching sentence, explained by Stephen Pinker in The Sense of Style (New York, Viking, 2014). It’s easier to explain if I tell you that a right-branching sentence starts with the subject, then follows it by the verb and then the object of the verb (if there is an object): “The man drove the car.” This structure is usually easier to understand because the reader knows from the beginning what the sentence is about (“the man”). Pinker points out that “English is predominantly a right-branching language (unlike, say, Japanese or Turkish)…” (p. 109).

Changing a left-branching sentence to right-branching

Several entities [subject] seek to formally intervene [verbs] in the city’s municipalization case before the Washington Public Utilities Commission. Among these entities are a group representing Washington County residents affected by the city’s plans for a city energy utility; a major mining concern; the University of Washington; and the city’s Chamber of Commerce.

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That’s four more words than the original, but the two shorter sentences are easier for any reader to process.

If you want your readers to read what you wrote, always opt for the shortest sentences possible and almost always revise your left-branching sentences into right-branching. As your editor, I would do this type of revision to make you look like a great writer!

And, as I did here, always explain your jargon: The terms “left- and right-branching sentences” are classic linguistic shorthand (jargon). Linguists have to explain the difference to the 99.9% of the world who are not linguists. And lest you think that only a linguist would care about left-branching, know that your readers do want to process sentences quickly.

 

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