Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The new topic/stress principle: Topic is concrete, stress abstract

Recall the sequence (concrete to abstract, near to far):

conversation – informal prose – formal prose – poetry

Formal prose is a style of writing that evolved—primarily to serve abstract matters, where clarity is the central virtue—to exploit the specific virtues of written discourse. It is far-mode clarity that is most prized in this style; near-mode is essential but subordinate. To subordinate near to far, formal prose uses a characteristic device at various structural levels: new matter is introduced in far mode and developed in near mode.

At the sentence level, this is accomplished by an application of topic/stress segmentation: the stress—which introduces important new information—is abstract; the topic—which recapitulates old information—is concrete.

Definitions and principles

In formal prose (which includes the most effective legal-brief writing), the topic (usually the sentence subject) announces what the sentence is about, often through association with previous information. The stress position (I’ll continue using the term despite the technical misnomer) refers to the last word or words before a period, colon, semicolon, and sometimes a dash; it contains important new information. (We know this about topic and stress mainly due to the work of Joseph Williams and George Gopen.)

Construal-level theory links concreteness to psychological proximity and abstractness to psychological distance. In sentence processing, the topic’s position is near and the stress’s position is far, and formal prose not only honors the topic and stress positions, their contents are typically concrete and abstract respectively, to correspond with their near and far locations in the sentence. New information is first presented abstractly in the stress position and then developed concretely by being recapitulated in a more specific form in the topics of subsequent sentences.

A counter-example?

The reader expects the topic to be concrete and the stress abstract, and each receives greatest emphasis when they satisfy the expectation. This observation answers a counterexample offered by Wayne Schiess, purporting to show that the topic is more important than the stress:
To me, number one emphasizes President Bush more. 
(1) President Bush made mistakes.
(2) Mistakes were made by President Bush.
Addressing Wayne’s argument fills a lacuna in topic/stress theory: what determines the stress-position’s size? Although “President Bush” constitutes a terminal phrase in number two, that phrase—referencing a near-mode concrete particular rather than a far-mode disposition—isn’t well suited to receive stress. The reader expands the stress position to encompass a suitable abstraction, which it finds in the sentence’s predicate, “were made,” which the sentence emphasizes.

(Generalizations like this new topic/stress principle are often best used to sharpen intuition rather than to replace it. I don’t think it would have occurred to me that number two emphasizes the predicate without its aid, but once I’ve applied the principle, the intuition perseveres.)

Rewriting the “writing rules”

The new topic/stress principle grounds, consolidates, and corrects several established “writing rules.”

Avoid nominalization is one-sided over-reaction; nominalization creates far-mode abstractions, commonly suitable in the stress but not, such as to supplement an excessively abstract verb, in the topic’s vicinity.

Favor agents as subjects is a simplistic rendition of formal-prose’s preference for concrete topics.

Concrete examples should precede new abstractions describes a practice in the (informal, near-mode) plain style, unsuited for formal prose.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

“Stress position” is a misnomer: Explaining structural emphasis

The practice of locating important new information at the end of a proposition (the “stress position”) is undervalued and misunderstood by most writing authorities, and in actual legal writing, it is rare. The widespread ignorance of the “fundamental principle of advanced writing” is illustrated by a major legal-writing teacher’sremarkable comment: “This is surely subjective, and some will disagree, but I generally teach my students to use the beginnings of sentences (and of paragraphs and of entire documents) as stress positions.” Locating what belongs in the stress position at the beginning of a sentence (the “topic”) is the most common way the stress position is ignored in professional writing.

Why hasn’t topic/stress practice penetrated professional writing? One reason I’ve suggested is that its exponents haven’t provided a compelling explanation for why stress position is emphatic; the very term “stress position” is a misnomer insofar as it is based on the stress patterns of English phonology. The most obvious point to make against the phonological theory is that English declarative sentences, in fact, don’t end in rising pitch—questions do. More importantly, where in the sentence pitch rises and where it falls depends on phonological vagaries, and for previously mentioned reasons, as well, it’s implausible that one of the two principal structural means for creating emphasis in English (the other being brevity) depends on the language’s peculiarities.

A more promising explanation is provided by Thomas and Turner, who explain stress position as deriving from an intellectual schema modeling discourse on a journey where paramount, corresponding to the stress, is destination; and a second prominent point, corresponding to the topic, is the origin. (Clear and simple as the truth (2nd ed. 2011), at p. 64.) In the Thomas and Turner view, respect for the stress position is an aspect of formal prose. But as an explanation for the role of the stress position in formal writing, it’s insufficient: it doesn’t explain why formal writing pervasively uses a particular intellectual schema, that of a journey.

Thomas and Turner have it right that the explanation for the stress position should be found, not in the idiosyncrasies of specific languages, but in the logic of formal prose. Stress position is part of the formal-writing strategy, and it transcends specific languages. (Mystifyingly, Thomas and Turner describe the “stress position” as a phenomenon specific to English.) “Stress position” isn’t an outgrowth of phonological patterns in ordinary conversation, which predominantly relies for emphasis on body language and spontaneous modulation of pitch and rhythm.

Formal prose is a specific style, one accentuating far-mode; it is a style serving to evoke receptivity to abstraction, since formal prose serves discourse about abstractions. “Far-mode” is a construct in construal-level theory, which correlates perceived physical and logical distance with abstract conceptualization. Construal-level theory entails that readers construe the beginning of a sentence concretely and its end abstractly, since, at the point where they activate a schema for understanding the sentence, its beginning (the topic) is near and the end (the stress) is far. By locating it at the end, the writer fosters an abstract construal of important new information. As a byproduct of this technique for fostering abstraction, the formal writer also gains a structural signal for importance.