Tag Archives: emphasis

The last shall be first

by Anna-Zoe Herr

Want to know a simple way to make your wording pop? Pay attention to where you put your words in each sentence! A simple rule is to put the words that carry the most meaning at the end of your sentences.

Roy Peter Clark explains why this works in Writing Tools,* where he advises us that “for any sentence, the period acts as a stop sign. That slight pause in reading magnifies the final word.” That means the last word in every sentence stands out because there is a mental pause right after it. When chosen carefully, the last word in a sentence can provide a bridge to the next sentence, emphasize meaning, and even create a liveliness of tone. Clark calls this “emphatic word order,” which is a small edit for a writer, but a huge improvement for the written piece.

There are two things necessary in order to use emphatic word order when you write:

  1. Be clear what exactly you are writing about in the whole text.
  2. Be clear exactly what each sentence is saying and doing as part of the whole.

If we are very clear about our subject or argument, we often do emphatic word order intuitively; but in many cases we need to go back, play with each sentence, see how it fits into the whole paragraph, and determine what the important words are. With that understanding, when we rewrite the sentence, it can do miracles!

Here is an example:

“Today, some areas of science seem to have claimed to declare truth and error, a status only religion used to have. Therefore, science is as controversial a topic as it gets, for in our age it started knocking on the doors of individuals on a quest for a more accurate truth and has fallen onto the slippery slope of political power-play.”

Using the principles of emphatic word order, I could revise like this:

“Today, some areas of science seem to have claimed a status that only religion used to have: the right to declare truth and error. Therefore, science is as controversial a topic as it gets, for in our age it has fallen onto the slippery slope of political power-play, as well as knocking on the doors of individuals in a quest for a more accurate truth.”

When you look at the last words in these sentences, you can see that they carry the most weight.

The words we choose to put at the end of a sentence can change how readers interpret our intent, but if we understand our intentions, then we can use rhetorical strategies like emphatic word order  to express them in each sentence.

Anna-Zoë is a double major in global perspectives and studio art. She has studied in a university in Germany prior to coming to Principia, where she also studied to be a writing tutor. Next semester, she will be going on the Prague abroad to continue with more writing.

*Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark (2008)