How to Write Better (in Any Language): The Universal Principles of Information Structure
Updated: Jul 11, 2022
Writing is not an exact science. However, there are certain universal processes that govern the ways we think and, therefore, communicate. One of such processes has to do with how we organize information we want to convey. Linguists call it the principle of information structure or information packaging.
Information structure relies on two simple principles: end-focus and end-weight. Knowing these simple guidelines and applying them in your writing will greatly improve your writing skills, not only in English but also in your native language.
Most languages in the world tend to arrange the communicated information by placing the new or the most important information at the end of a sentence. The sentence ending (as opposed to its beginning) is universally perceived as the stress position.
In contrast, the beginning of a sentence or clause typically contains information that has already been communicate and is already known (old) or assumed from the context (given).
Broadly speaking, the information flows by shifting from “old” to “new” to “old” to “new” positions or, specifically, from subject to predicate to subject to predicate and so on.
For example, my opening sentence starts with the subject (Most languages in the world) that presents information expected to be covered here—the given. The rest of the sentence—the predicate—presents the main point and the new information (tend to arrange ... at the end of a sentence). This information now becomes the subject (the old) of the second sentence (The sentence ending), with the predicate again presenting the next new piece of information and so on.
This reflects the fundamental property of the English language: English sentences present—package—information so that subjects represent given or old information, while predicates provide the new or most important information.
What's more, it would be safe to assume that languages with the default subject-before-predicate word order would also follow the given-before-new principle when constructing sentences.
It's All About Us
The common given information in our conversations tends to be ... us, which is also the most common subject as well as topic of our speech-clauses.
In English, when a sentence continues discussing a previously established topic, it is likely to use pronouns to refer to the topic. As topics are often the subjects, pronouns used to substitute them become an elegant and useful stylistic mechanism to keep our messages concise and cohesive.
Pronoun has become the language’s greatest invention. In English, the use of personal pronouns, along with the definite the-article, normally count as given or old information, since they refer to something already mentioned or understood.
In an opening sentence, the subject is likely to be a character or thing that we are already familiar with or an idea that has been under discussion. The subject may also have an anaphoric (backward-linking) element: e.g., a personal, possessive pronoun (my, our).
Consider how this works in these conversations:
A: How’s Steve?
B: Oh, he got married.
A: Married to whom?
B: He found a lovely girl.
(NOT: A lovely girl found him.)
A: I can’t find my keys.
B: Your keys are under my papers.
(NOT: My papers are on top of your keys.)
A: My father was bitten by a dog last week.
(NOT: A dog bit my father last week.)
A: Our dog bit the postman this morning, can you believe that?
(NOT: The postman was bitten by our dog this morning, can you believe that?)
Old vs. New = Topic vs. Focus
In linguistics, the OLD information is often referred to as TOPIC (or theme), and it is often the subject of the sentence.
On the other hand, the NEW information conveyed in a sentence is referred to as the FOCUS (rheme or comment) of the sentence, which naturally occurs on the last lexical item in the sentence.
This means that, in English, the major emphasis often falls on the predicate complement (object) or whatever word or structure is at the end of the sentence, giving added weight to what tends to be the most important information or the real news of the sentence.
For example, if we read a basic sentence in English without specific context, we would, by default, lightly stress the subject (topic) and more forcefully stress the last word (focus):
will arrive TOMORROW.
In other words, the focus is associated with the primary stress in the sentence, whereas the topic represents the secondary stress.
Roughly speaking, the topic (subject) often tells us what the clause is about, whereas the focus (predicate) generally makes a comment about the topic.
Likewise, while the topic provides linkage (looking backward) and context (looking forward), the focus brings closure or produces climax.
The topic position is where we often place anaphoric (backward-linking) reference connectives (therefore, first, second, in conclusion) and cataphoric (forward-linking) references (the following).
Information Flow Principle
This is what linguists call the information flow principle. The principle governs how we introduce a topic, shift the focus, transition from sentence to sentence or from paragraph to paragraph, or introduce a topic shift while providing a bridge to old information (at the start of a new paragraph).
Consider the topic and focus positions in the following paragraph (with the related positions shown in bold):
Theories of global warming have been challenged | by a small group of scientists. They claim | that the warming occurs at various times and then slacks off for even longer periods of time. To test this theory, | two scientists have mapped average climate temperature over several centuries.
Grammatical Subject vs. Logical Subject
Although the subject of a sentence is often its topic, the latter is a pragmatic (structural) concept and should be differentiated from the grammatical subject defined by syntax.
As for my WIFE,
WE are expecting her TOMORROW.
In the sentence above, the topic differs from the grammatical subject, and linguists call such a topic the logical (psychological) subject of the sentence.
End-Focus & End-Weight Principles
Typically, any clause has at least one point of focus, which receives prominence in the clause. The main focus-governing principles are end-focus and end-weight. These style-related guidelines can help you write better in English (or in any other language):
A sentence is generally more effective (especially in writing) if you start with the topic and end with your main point (the focus).
So, save the new or the most important piece of information to the end of your sentence, where we usually put stress when we speak.
Original: People with a high rate of intelligence | are generally employed by ABC. They must also have other skills | including: an unusual ability to …
Revised: ABC generally employs | people with a high rate of intelligence. They must also have | other skills, including an unusual ability to …
Original: Scientists don’t really understand | how tornadoes work. Many scientists are undertaking research | to learn more about them.
Revised: Scientists don’t really understand | how tornadoes work. To learn more about them, | many scientists are undertaking research.
Likewise, any information that appears to be old should be moved to the left. The new and more important information should be moved to the right.
Original: Moving the important information to the end of a sentence | is another way to manage the flow of ideas.
Revised: Another way to manage the flow of ideas | is to move the most important information to the end of the sentence.
Focus Fronting & Inversion
In English, shifting an object or an adverbial to the beginning of a sentence makes it stand out—the process linguists call (focus) fronting. Generally speaking, fronting refers to the placement of a core element before the subject, which, in English, is often associated with inversion (the reversal of subject and verb and the reversal of subject and operator).
Original: It was a staggering number for a routine checkup, | but the medical jargon on the bill that explained the visit | was just as confusing.
Revised: It was a staggering number for a routine checkup, | but just as confusing was | the medical jargon on the bill that explained the visit.
Inversion is rarely used in speech. However, it is an effective tool to make an expression prominent in journalism or fiction. Inversion is frequently employed to emphasize a parallelism between two related but contrasting parts of neighboring sentences:
Light fell through the colors of the stained glass beyond the altar. Through the windows ajar on the side aisle came the sweetness of blossom, of bruised grass, of river mud.
Robert Penn Warren, Flood
From the age of Britain’s greatest internal disorder stand out the life and work of John Milton. His life and work are, like the national setting, disjointed.
G. Wilson Knight, Chariot of Wrath
Keep It Chronological
When assessing which event is old or new, make sure to pay attention to the chronology of the events. Unless the context requires otherwise, ordering the events chronologically is more logical.
Original: The vegetables should be served with the main course | after they have been cooked.
Revised: After you have cooked the vegetables, | you can serve them with the main course.
Original: Anabolic steroids | were used to rebuild the body weight of concentration camp survivors | after they were developed in the 1930s | and gained recognition after World War II.
Revised: Developed in the 1930s, | anabolic steroids | gained recognition after World War II | when they were used to rebuild the body weight of concentration camp survivors.
English Structures That Trigger End-Focus
Delaying the Emphatic Reflexive Pronoun
In the spoken English, when a reflexive pronoun (myself, himself, themselves, etc.) is used for emphasis, it normally triggers primary stress (focus), indicated with intonation.
Therefore, in writing, a reflexive pronoun in apposition as part of the subject should be delayed for end-focus:
Original: The president | himself | gave the order.
Revised: The president | gave the order | himself.
The weightier (longer) part of a sentence should be placed towards the end. Otherwise, the sentence may sound awkward and unbalanced.
An element moved to the right is said to have been delayed (or postponed), and such a process is referred to as delaying (or postponing), as opposed to fronting.
This, however, should be done with account of the canonical word order.
Canonical (Neutral, Default) Word Order in English
English is known for its strict word order:
All these four elements constitute the CORE of an English sentence, with the objects functioning as the verb’s complements. For the CORE to make sense, these elements should go as close as possible to each other or not be separated at all.
(Read more about the importance of the CANONICAL word order in information structure.)
In canonical order, a direct object precedes an object complement or a final position adverbial. But if the object is long, it can be delayed to the end for end-weight:
Direct Object + Indirect Object
In sentences with direct objects that are “heavier” than instrumental indirect objects, it may be better to rewrite the sentence—either by fronting* the indirect object (if the context permits) or by adding a summative phrase and appropriate punctuation:
Canonical: We can associate | the high cost | with these values.
Original: We can associate | with these values | a high cost, higher overheads, a significant increase in man hours, and several other problems.
Revised 1: With these values, | we can associate | a high cost, higher overheads, a significant increase in man hours, and several other problems.
Revised 2: We can associate | several factors | with these values: | a high cost, higher overheads, a significant increase in man hours, and several other problems.
In a similar way, an indirect object can in effect be delayed, by converting it into a prepositional phrase:
Option 1: I used to tell | my mom | all my secrets.
Option 2: I used to tell | all my secrets | to my mom.
*Read more about fronting, i.e., the strategy of placing objects, complements, or adverbials in sentence-initial position to shift the emphasis or make the expression more conspicuous.
Direct Object + Object Complement
Now, if the choice is between a verb complement and an object complement, the longer one would go to the end of the sentence:
Canonical: The discovery has made | the treatment | possible.
Original: The discovery has made | new techniques for brain surgery | possible.
Revised: The discovery has made | possible | new techniques for brain surgery.
Direct Object + Adverbial
Canonical: No one can explain | why that happened | in a few words.
Original: No one can explain | why that first primeval super atom exploded and thereby created the universe | in a few words.
Revised: No one can explain | in a few words | why that first primeval super atom exploded and thereby created the universe.
Prepositional Verbs + Direct Object
Original: He gave | all his valuable possessions | away.
Revised: He gave | away | all his valuable possessions.
That-Clause or Wh-Clause (Object Clause) + Modifying Adverb
If a verb’s complement is an wh-clause or that-clause (object clause) and it's longer than its modifying adverb or another related adverbial, place the longer element after the shorter one to make it easier to read:
Original: She told him that calmly.
Original: She told him | what she thought of him | calmly.
Revised: She told him | calmly | what she thought of him.
Long Subjects: Delaying Post-Modifying Appositive Clauses
In sentences with subjects that have long post-modifiers, it is acceptable, and stylistically preferable, to separate the subject from its post-modifier and place it after the verb. Such post-modifiers are said to be in apposition in relation to their head noun, and if the post-modifier is a clause, it is called appositive clause.
Apply the end-weight principle if the post-modifier is:
-ing participial clause (reduced relative clause):
Option 1: A petition | asking for a longer lunch break | was circulated.
Option 2: A petition | was circulated | asking for a longer lunch break.
Option 1: A discovery | that will change the course of world history and the very foundations of our understanding of ourselves and our place in the scheme of things | is imminent.
Option 2: A discovery | is imminent | that will change the course of world history and the very foundations of our understanding of ourselves and our place in the scheme of things.
Option 1: The time | to leave our homes for ever | had arrived.
Option 2: The time | had arrived | to leave our homes for ever.
Option 1: The problem | of what to do with the money | arose.
Option 2: The problem | arose | of what to do with the money.
Option 1: We heard the story of how she was stranded for days without food from her own lips.
Option 2: We heard the story from her own lips of how she was stranded for days without food.
The end-weight principle also works in some idiomatic cases:
Original: What business | of yours | is it?
Revised: What business | is it | of yours?
Using Passives to Replace Long Subjects
A great mechanism for replacing a long subject with a short one and is to use the passive construction. Correct use of passives greatly improves cohesion and emphasis:
Original: During the first years of our nation, | a series of brilliant and virtuous presidents committed to a democratic republic yet confident in their own superior worth | conducted its administration.
Revised: During the first years of our nation, | its administration was conducted | by a series of brilliant and virtuous presidents committed to a democratic republic yet confident in their own superior worth.
Original: Astronomers, physicists, and a host of other researchers entirely familiar with the problems raised by quasars | have confirmed | these observations.
Revised: These observations | have been confirmed | by astronomers, physicists, and a host of other researchers entirely familiar with the problems raised by quasars.
You can readily use the passive for end-weight where the subject of the sentence is a clause:
Original: The time it took him to get dressed in the morning | astonished me.
Revised: I was astonished | at the time it took him to get dressed in the morning.
Delaying Comparative Clauses
A comparative clause or phrase can be separated, by delaying, from the preceding word it modifies.
Original: He showed | less pity than any other tyrant in history | to his victims.
Revised: He showed | less pity | to his victims | than any other tyrant in history.
Delaying Exception Phrases/Clauses
Original: All of them | except the gang leader himself | were arrested.
Revised: All of them | were arrested | except the gang leader himself.
Another way to “lighten” a subject is to use an anticipatory it-cleft structure, where the pronoun it functions as a dummy subject. The magical power of English pronouns is at work again!
The dummy it provides alternatives to the canonical order of words and involves the so-called extraposition—positioning something outside the main body of the sentence:
Original: That she hadn’t been in touch for so long | worried me.
Revised: It worried me | that she hadn’t been in touch for so long.
It-cleft structure is also used to establish the topic that is going to be elaborated (with the focus and topic positions switching their places):
Canonical: The weather spoilt the picnic.
Wh-structure: What spoilt the pictic was the weather.
It-structure: It was our picnic that the weather spoilt.
It was just about 90 years ago that Henry Ford gave us the weekend. On September 25, 1926, in a somewhat shocking move…
*Read more about how It-Cleft Sentences.
English Structures That Trigger End-Weight
Delaying Clauses of Amount/Degree after “Too,” “Enough,” and “So”
Too many people were there for the thief to escape unseen.
I’ve had enough trouble from those children to last me a lifetime.
I was so excited by the present that I forgot to thank you.
English Speakers Prefer Predicates That Are Longer Than Subjects
English speakers tend to avoid predicates consisting of just a single intransitive verb.
Instead, they prefer filling the object position with an abstract noun phrase using a general verb (have, take, give, do), which adds little information but helps to give more weight to the predicate:
She’s having a swim. Instead of: She's swimming.
He's taking a bath. Instead of: He's bathing.
The driver gave a shout. Instead of: The driver shouted.
She does very little work. Instead of: She works very little.
The sentences on the left are more idiomatic and natural than those on the right.
The principle of end-weight can explain why, in English, there is a strong stylistic preference for a predicate that is longer or grammatically more complex than the subject. So, try to avoid completing your sentences with just verbs. Rephrase your sentence, namely, your main verb in the sentence so that the sentence has a verb complement (an object) or an adverbial in the end.
In a similar way a transitive verb can be replaced by an indirect object construction with the verb give, pay, etc.:
I gave the door a kick. (= I kicked the door.)
I paid her a visit. (= I visited her.)
Main Clause vs. Dependent Clause
Nonfiction texts tend to have a higher number of adverbial clauses than fiction texts. So, if you need to decide how to arrange your information, you need to consider whether you can express your main point (focus) in terms of subordination. To figure out the focus (new information), try to formulate a question for which your sentence may work as an answer:
1. Establish a subordination link between the following clauses:
Clause: A little girl screamed...
Clause: A little girl saw a monster...
2. First, identify the proper chronology:
First: A little girl saw a monster
Then: A little girl screamed
3. Now, if your main point (focus) is to explain why the little girl screamed, then your sentence (answer) should be:
The little girl screamed when (because, after) she saw a monster.
4. If your main point (focus) is to describe how the little girl reacted, then your sentence (answer) is:
When (because, after) the little girl saw a monster, she screamed.
Notice the definite article (the little girl) in both sentences. In both cases, it is warranted by being the topic (old information) of the sentences, i.e., something that has already been mentioned.
In other words, put the most important information of the sentence—the answer to a question you may be answering—into the main clause.
The less important information—the information that provides the background details or tie together the ideas in a paragraph—should go into the dependent clause.
Using Given-Before-New Information Principle in Technical Writing
One of the most common types of sentences used in technical literature (user guides, operation manuals, quick start manuals, etc.) are cross-references for additional information. Cross-references are used to direct users to related information that might add to their understanding of a concept.
Such sentences are commonly structured according to the given-before-new information principle, as their purpose is to provide an extended discussion of the topic being covered. In such sentences, the information about why a cross-reference might be of interest should always precede the cross-reference itself.
For example (the linking words in the focus and topic positions are shown in bold):
For more information about modifying Visual Basic source code and installing Visual Basic forms, see Chapter 9, “Extending forms.”
When referring to mouse actions, use terms such as click, double-click, double-clicking, and point to. For more information, see Mouse terminology (Chapter 5).
A variation of this type of sentences is frequently used in websites and online content:
To find information about Microsoft, visit our website: www.microsoft.com.
Procedures, User Instructions, Warnings
Other common formats used in technical manuals, Knowledge Base articles and white papers are procedures, user instructions, cautions, and warnings about how to perform a task or how to avoid failure.
Such sentences are typically structured as complex sentences that start with a conditional adverbial clause, or an infinitival to-clause, or -ing participial clause of purpose type:
To avoid damaging files, always shut down your computer before you turn it off.
Choose colors to use on webpages. To make webpages easier to see, you can change the text, background, link, and hover colors in Internet Explorer.
When referring to pen computing, use the words tap and double-tap.
Click Options. In the expanded list of options, select the Reverse Print Order check box.
The information structure principles are especially beneficial for formulating user interface commands, which must be concise and clear.
This product key didn't work. Check it and try again.
The updates are installed, but Windows 8 Setup needs to restart for them to work. After it restarts, we’ll keep going from where we left off.
Something bad happened! Unable to locate downloaded files to create your bootable USB flash drive.
It’s time to enter the product key. It should be on the box that the Windows DVD came in or in an email that shows you bought Windows. When you connect to the internet, we’ll activate Windows for you.
Uploads are limited to 100 MB. Got something smaller?
The system was unable to install your device. Failed to create directory.
Sentences with Adverbial Cause-Effect Clauses vs. Compound Sentences
It is stylistically preferable to present a sentence of cause-effect type (cause, reason, purpose, or condition) as an adverbial complex sentence rather than a compound sentence. Subordinating conjunctions have more force (because, when, after) and clarity than the weaker coordinating conjunctions (so, and, yet, for). The part describing the result or effect (i.e., the newer event) should be the focus of the sentence.
Original: Jupiter has an enormous size and gravity, and so the Galileo probe steadily gained velocity as it approached the planet.
Revised: Because Jupiter has an enormous size and gravity, the Galileo probe steadily gained velocity as it approached the planet.
To write well in English or any other language, keep these simple guidelines in mind:
☛ A helpful strategy to follow when ordering phrases and clauses within a sentence is to place the familiar (and backward-linking) information at the beginning of the sentence and the newest (and forward-linking) information at the end.
☛ The beginning of a sentence is a designated topic position for any appropriate old information (already mentioned, referred to, or implied before, or assumed to be given).
☛ The the end of a sentence is a designated focus (stress) position for the new, the most surprising, or the most significant information—the information that you want to stress or expand on in your next sentence.
☛ Tendencies for the information structure phenomena are observed cross-linguistically. Prosodic (intonational) prominence of focus seems to be universal, and no language in the world seems to express focus by lowering the intonation or deemphasizing the stress.
☛ Another universal aspect of information structure seems to be the flow of information within a sentence from old to new, with the old serving as a platform to support the new.
☛ When it comes to English, you should keep the grammatical subject and its verb as close to each other as possible. Ending an English sentence with a verb is not considered a good style. Try to expand the predicate with objects (complements) or adverbials.
☛ In general, make sure to provide sufficient context for your reader before introducing any new information.
These stylistic guidelines are by no means rules. However, they seem to underscore some universal truths about how we think and communicate, and knowing them may help both English and non-English writers.