Saturday, June 30, 2012

Emphasis: Prosody or Grammar

Various devices can impart emphasis:

1. Emphatic and de-emphatic language
2. Specialized punctuation (dash and colon)
3. Short-sentence exceptions
4. Typography 
5. End (stress) position in sentence
6. Hierarchic grammatical relationship (supposedly)
Numbers 5 and 6 are this entry’s concern.
The end position in a sentence was dubbed the stress position by Joseph M. Williams, according to whom the two most important parts of a sentence are its beginning, where the reader expects the sentence’s topic grounded in old information, and its end, where the reader expects new information. Written language’s acknowledgement of the orally emphatic end position is a concession to prosody; sentence position rather than grammatical relationships determine written as well as spoken emphasis. Although grammar trumps prosody on punctuation, prosody trumps grammar on emphasis.
Joseph M. Williams best explains the connection between sentence position and emphasis, but he isn’t alone in concluding that the end position is emphatic. Citing six supporting authorities, Bryan Garner counsels, “To write forcefully, end your sentences with a punch.” (The Winning Brief, 36.)
To Garner I turn now for the view that subordination connotes de-emphasis. Garner replaces the meaningless demand to limit every sentence to a single idea with the formalistic one to limit them to a single main idea, which Garner equates with the sentence’s main clause—where Garner advocates putting important information. For Garner, subordination is de-emphasis:
As Trimble suggests, convert a “starveling”—a short sentence that says little—into a subordinate clause and merge it with another sentence. (The Winning Brief, 40.)
Elsewhere, Garner derogates subordinate clauses when he advises giving them separate sentences if they state important arguments.
One reason to question that grammatical relationship imparts emphasis is that its doing so conflicts with number 5, using the end position for emphasis, since that's where (supposedly de-emphasized) subordinate clauses usually occur. Garner’s four examples of combining sentences by subordination avoid the conflict by moving the subordinate clause to the beginning. But this surprising word order shouldn’t be routine.
Putting the main clause in the stress position, as in Garner’s rewrites, comports with Garner’s teaching that the main clause should contain information more important than the subordinate clause contains. But the following example shows that the subordinate clause can rightly be more informative, while Garner’s analysis, equating “subordinate” with “less important,” leads to putting it not in the most forceful position at the sentence’s end. Garner’s rewrites reveal the problem with Garner’s approach: a subordinate clause may properly contain a sentence’s most important information, and then it usually belongs at the sentence’s end. Consider one of Garner’s rewrites:
The original. Third, there are no extraordinary circumstances to support setting aside the court’s judgment. Consequently, there is no basis either to reconsider the Court’s decision or to grant Reynolds leave to amend his complaint.

Garner’s rewrite. Third, in the absence of extraordinary circumstances, the Court should not reconsider its decision or grant Reynolds leave to amend his complaint.

Garner misplaces the emphasis. Instead, stress-locate the subordinate structure:

My rewrite. Third, the Court should not reconsider its decision or grant Reynolds leave to amend his complaint in the absence of extraordinary circumstances.

Despite its subordinate grammatical status, “in the absence of extraordinary circumstances” receives the greatest emphasis. This seems right, since it’s a trivial move from no extraordinary circumstances to the lack of basis to reconsider.

Garner’s approach reveals the harm of equating subordination with lesser importance. If, like Garner, you also recognize that the final element is stressed, you’ll be reluctant to put subordinate elements at the end of sentences, with two adverse consequences: 1) you’ll overutilize a sentence pattern that doesn’t start with the subject, and 2) you’ll underutilize the stress position.

The language has good reason to accord emphasis to the stress position rather than to main clauses; grammatical hierarchy has another function, that of expressing factual and logical dependence. In the example above, “No exceptional circumstances” presents as a condition limiting a legal rule, and the rule belongs in the main clause because it's logically fundamental. But the condition, “no extraordinary circumstances,” is the argument’s real point, and it belongs in the stress position, despite being grammatically subordinate.

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