The Magic of Information Flow: Shifting Stress in Speech and Writing
Updated: Sep 8
Human languages are organized in ways that reflect the content and purpose of utterances. This organization is called information flow or information structure (packaging).
Information structure helps explain why people say things in the ways they do. Speakers constantly make choices about how to phrase their utterances. They choose between information that is given (previously known or discussed), and information that is new or important.
As it happens, universally, speakers tend to leave the new information for later, stating first what is known. The old or given information is called 🇹🇴🇵🇮🇨 and the new or highlighted information is called 🇫🇴🇨🇺🇸. These distinctions establish the information status of a word or referent in the discourse.
Information Flow (Structure)
Cross-linguistically, information flow (structure) has been found to be remarkably universal. Its main points are somewhat intuitive:
We find it easier to communicate by breaking our massages into individual pieces of information.
A piece of information can be defined as an intonation unit containing a stress. A single clause must have at least one intonation unit, but a longer clause may have more than one intonation unit.
Old vs. New Information (Topic vs. Focus)
Each piece of information we want to communicate, we tend to start with some old or given information and end with the new or the most important information.
Linguists refer to old/ given information as 🇹🇴🇵🇮🇨 and to new/ important information as 🇫🇴🇨🇺🇸.
In many languages, the basic structure of a clause requires that the subject be placed in the beginning, meaning that the subject and the 🇹🇴🇵🇮🇨 typically coincide. In contrast, the 🇫🇴🇨🇺🇸 typically occurs towards the end of a sentence.
Canonical Word Order & Neutral Stress
We use intonation, stress, and word order variations to distinguish old piece of information from new piece of information and to make certain elements prominent in the conversation.
Linguists have established that each language favors a specific word order, called canonical (basic, default). In English, it is Subject–Verb–Object (SVO).
They also discovered that the canonical word order is emphatically neutral, with no element particularly standing out or being stressed.
When we want to sound or appear neutral and objective, we tend to speak in proper (canonical) sentences. In such sentences, we use only neutral stress to distinguish between the topic or the old information (by applying a milder neutral topic-stress) and the focus or the new information (by applying a stronger neutral focus-stress).
Focus Stress in Canonical Sentences
In any given language, the canonical word order follows a certain characteristic natural stress pattern. Canonical sentences tend to emphasize its focus position, the position that expresses the new or the most important information.
As we move from the subject/ 🇹🇴🇵🇮🇨 to its predicate in a sentence, we shift from a milder topic-stress to the stronger focus-stress:
Subject ⟹ Verb ⟹ Object
TOPIC ⟹ FOCUS
Topic-Stress ⟹ Focus-Stress
In canonical sentences, the focus tends to be a predicate element: an object (verb complement), subject complement, object complement, adverbial, or adverbial complement.
In English, the focus-stress thus occurs post-verbally and falls on the last stressed word within a sentence:
My mother saw John AT THE MARKET.
Emphatic (Contrastive) Stress
In conversations, however, we get emotional. To produce different emotional meanings, we have to break the linear, neutral flow of canonical sentences by:
shifting words around
shifting the stress around
shifting both words and stress around
And here comes the magic of information structure!
As if by the law of physics, any friction in the stress’s movement adds to it an additional informative load, making it stronger: Any deviation from the linear, neutral flow of the canonical word order triggers a much stronger, emphatic stress—the so-called contrastive stress.
Stress shifting makes this an excellent strategy for making elements truly prominent. Vocally, we can change the meaning just by placing stress on any stressable words in a sentence. Since almost all words are stressable, save for function words (English particles), any sentence may have as many discursive meanings as the number of stressable words within it, depending on the focus-stress position.
To verify the focus position, linguists often apply a question & answer test, as shown below. It is often assumed that answers to specific questions are focused elements.
Here is an example of a canonical sentence and the focusing strategies used in speech and writing. Notice that, in speech, focus-stress can be vocally shifted just by changing the stress position, while in writing, focusing almost always requires rephrasing (the new focuses shown in 🇨🇦🇵🇸):
In speech, to emphasize something, we simply place the prosodic (sentence) stress on the position we want. Using intonation and stress, we are able to differentiate between structures with the same word order, as shown above.
In writing, however, our options are limited to word order variations and punctuation, which, among other things, have become effective supplementary tools for conveying our messages through information structure.
Punctuation as a Stressing Device
While in speech we use intonation, stress, and word order variations to communicate, in writing we have learned to manipulate the word order and punctuation to signal semantic and pragmatic differences between statements.
While no punctuation is allowed in a canonical or unmarked sentence between its main elements, regarded as the sentence's 𝐜𝐨𝐫𝐞, in a noncanonical sentence, punctuation signals its markedness, i.e., its disrupted word order.
Punctuation functions as a system of syntactic stressing strategies, mirroring semantic and pragmatic stresses in sentences, which in speech we can simply vocalize using intonation and pauses.
Such disruption of the word order typically results from the two main strategies:
👉 Fronting: Refers to moving a non-subject element in front before the subject to give it more prominence and to render it the sentence's 🇹🇴🇵🇮🇨 that connects to either old information discussed in the previous sentence(s) or given information assumed to be known (topicalization). If the fronted topic contrasts with another topic, it is called a contrastive 🇹🇴🇵🇮🇨. When an element that is normally focused in a sentence is moved in front, it shifts from neutral focus to a more emphatic contrastive focus (focusing).
👉 Postponing: Refers to adding an element to the end of a sentence as an additional comment. Postponing can create an effect of an afterthought.
In English, which has a very strict word order, these strategies are more common in speech than in writing.
Fronting & Postponing
Two main strategies for changing the word order are fronting and postponing.
By shifting a non-subject element to the sentence-initial position, before the subject, we make it prominent and the sentence marked. Such shifting results from fronting or topicalization. Through postponing, an element is shifted or added in the end of the sentence to create an effect of afterthought.
English Fronting & Introductory Comma
In English, fronting is often used to move a normally focused element to create a contrastive topic or contrastive focus (depending on the context). To signal the disruption in the normal word order, a comma is placed after the fronted element, right before the subject, which guides the reader towards the 🇨🇴🇷🇪 of the sentence.
The elements that can be fronted as 🇹🇴🇵🇮🇨s (by being moved from their canonical positions) are:
Here are a few examples, with the subjects underlined and 🇹🇴🇵🇮🇨 shown in bold:
Direct or indirect objects (verb complements):
Some things, you forget. Other things, you never do.
fronted contrastive direct objects
Nominal or adjectival predicatives (subject complements):
Skillful, he wasn't.
fronted subject predicative (adjective)
Prepositional phrases (object complements):
Of fourteen women, ten were highly critical of the proposal.
fronted prepositional phrase
Adverbs (verb modifier):
Slowly, he finished the dreadful task.
fronted adverb (adjective)
Comment that-clause, object wh-clause (complement clauses):
It’s a good idea, I think.
fronted direct object (that-clause)
Why he chose to do it that way, we will probably never know.
fronted direct object (wh-clause)
Adverbials (place, time, manner):
In legal documents, many words used are legalese jargon.
Infinitival clauses (reason, purpose):
To please her mother, Alan cleaned the table.
fronted infinitival purpose-clause
Adverbial clauses (place, time, purpose, reason, condition):
After we have studied all aspects of the complaint, we will make a recommendation.
fronted adverbial time-clause
Because she wasn't tired, Ellen skipped on her nap.
fronted adverbial reason-clause
If so, I will call you tomorrow.
fronted elliptical condition-clause
Participle or reduced participle clauses (-ing and -ed):
Established in 1905, our company takes great pride in its reputation.
fronted -ed participle clause
Seizing the opportunity, I presented an overview of our plans.
fronted -ing participle clause
Angry, the man sat down.
fronted reduced -ing clause
Dented, the old scooter still stood there.
fronted reduced -ed participle clause
Their heads in their hands, the defendants sat in the dock.
fronted absolute clause
English Postponing & Afterthought
In English, clause elements that are not normally or canonically closing may be postponed, often as an afterthought element, preceded by an afterthought-marking comma (dash):
I presented an overview of our plans, seizing the opportunity.
postponed -ing participle clause
The man sat down, angry.
postponed reduced -ing clause
The old scooter still stood there, dented.
postponed reduced -ed participle clause
Ten women were highly critical of the proposal—out of fourteen women.
postponed prepositional phrase
The defendants sat in the dock, their heads in their hands.
postponed absolute clause
In English, postponed elements may be joined asyndetically (without a conjunction) or syndetically (with a conjunction), with the effect of an afterthought:
Each boy’s parents pay $2,000 a term in fees, plus extras.
I was subjected to crippling fines, in addition to usurious interests on unpaid debts.
We don’t have anyone to captain the team, now that Tina has resigned—unless you’re interested, of course.
Postposing (Moving from the Mid Position to the Closing Position)
Syndetically added elements are often postposed (moved from mid position to the closing position) as a coordinated or new element—often for a contrastive effect:
They had found Kim but not Pat guilty of perjury.
They had found Kim guilty of perjury, but not Pat.
postposed as a contrastive element
I spoke to her only briefly.
I spoke to her, but only briefly.
postposed as a new contrastive element
Appositive Structures (Juxtaposed Nouns or Noun Phrases)
Apposition is a type of relation between two or more units (typically, nouns or noun phrases). Afterthought comments are often attached as appositive free modifiers that may depend on the same word, only in a fuller (summative) or more particularizing way (resumptive):
Hughie wanted to be a star, a footballer in the big league.
postponed summative modifier
He had been a fool, a presumptuous fool.
postponed resumptive modifier
Postponed elements should be marked off graphically by a comma or a dash, especially if they do not fit into the structure of the sentence:
There was only one road: the main road, the road that struck due east.
postponed resumptive modifier as part of an elaborative appositive structure
And we’ll talk it over, every bit of it.
postponed summative modifier
His daily trips were really very easy—about a mile and a half.
postponed summative modifier
Her face was very pale—a greyish pallor.
postponed summative modifier
Sentences may have fronted as well as postponed elements. The modifying part may also repeat the word the modifier depends on—usually for an emphatic effect:
In silence they stood, in mortal silence.
fronted adverbial and postponed resumptive modifier
English Introductory Comma = Topic/Subject-Marker
One can argue, for instance, that the so-called introductory comma essentially functions as a 🇹🇴🇵🇮🇨-marker in both English. As English 🇹🇴🇵🇮🇨 and subject often coincide, the introductory comma is also a subject-marker.
Unless it is very short, any introductory element in an English sentence, whether it’s a single word, a phrase, or an adverbial clause, is typically separated by a comma.
Placed right before the subject, an introductory comma essentially functions as both a topic-marker and a subject-marker in English noncanonical sentences.
In English, comma placed after an introductory element—known as an introductory comma—does three things:
👉 By separating the topic and the subject of the sentence, it draws attention to both of them.
👉 By creating a short pause after the topic and before the subject, it gives us time to process the disruption of the canonical word order (through fronting).
👉 In case of a fronted object or a noun phrase, a comma may also prevent confusion by keeping the object and the subject separate.
A Special Case of English Fronting: Subject-Verb Inversion
Not all fronting cases are the same. Some may trigger subject-verb inversion, which moves elements to the front of the sentence while simultaneously moving the subject after the verb. In some cases, inversion is inevitable, in others, it may be used to maintain a certain rhythm.
As no punctuation can separate the essential or 𝗰𝗼𝗿𝗲 elements of the English sentence, no introductory comma should be used in such sentences:
Across the plains, a mighty eagle flew its course.
fronted place adverbial
Across the plains flew a mighty eagle.
inversion changes the rhythm
Notice that in cases of English subject-verb inversion, NO introductory comma should interrupt the core linking between the subject and the verb of the sentence.
Sentences can be expressed with and without subject-verb inversion, the former being used for formal register:
Only after we have studied all aspects of the complaint, we will make a recommendation.
Only after we have studied all aspects of the complaint will we make a recommendation.