Not incessantly but at least occasionally, unobtrusively yet obviously—formal writing hovers on the edge of awkwardness. This is unremarked by the authorities, as is the explanation: formal writing’s proclivity to violate standard word order.
Standard word order in English
Contemporary English language is intermediate among languages in the rigidity of its word order, neither strictly obligatory like Latin nor absent like Chinese. (Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (1984).) Perhaps this averageness conceals the pragmatic importance of word order in English, but a hallmark of formal writing (“classic prose”) is that it sacrifices “Naturalness” for “Succinctness,” which is to say, cognitive fluency for cohesiveness and proportioned emphasis.
The standard English word order is:
Subject – Verb – Object – Adverbial modifiers
This standard word order is obeyed more consistently in informal writing because writing that takes conversation as its model is inspired by the ideal of spontaneity, an impression contrived word order subverts.
Here’s an example of a sentence written for proportioned emphasis and rewritten for conversationality.
California may be unique in unconstitutionally allowing its attorney guild to enforce its self-adjudicated costs as a judgment, but the universal state-bar practice of charging costs to respondents (regardless of how the state bars can collect them) derives from changes in the criminal law that, despite their legality, damage the system’s integrity: policies of victim restitution and social restitution.
California may be unique in unconstitutionally allowing its attorney guild to enforce its self-adjudicated costs as a judgment, but the universal state-bar practice of charging costs to respondents (regardless of how the state bars can collect them) derives from changes in the criminal law that damage the system’s integrity despite their legality: policies of victim restitution and social restitution.
In the formal or “classic prose” version, the adverbial modifier “despite their legality” is placed after the subject and before the verb of the subordinate that clause. In the conversational rendition, the modifier occurs in the stress position preceding the colon, the standard English word order. The classic-prose version is clearer because “damage the system’s integrity,” which occupies the stress position, adds the most important new information. But because breaching standard English word order is disfluent, the classic-prose version is slightly awkward.
Recouping fluency with the comma
Formal writing is awkward in the manner of poetry. One reason (not the only reason) poetry is harder to read than prose is that it takes liberties with the standard English word order. In its sacrifice of fluency for emphasis, formal writing is intermediate between oral conversation and poetry:
Oral conversation – Informal writing – Formal writing – Poetry
Offsetting its often novel word order, poetry has means of recouping some measure of cognitive fluency: verse and rhyme. Classic prose’s palliative is the lowly comma. In the classic-prose version, the displaced modifying phrase is set off by commas despite its restrictive character. Glimpses of this important use of the comma can be seen in rules concerning “interruptive phrases,” but in the conversational example, the despite phrase isn’t interruptive. It’s just out of order. Another partial application of the principle that violations of standard word order call for commas is the rule to set off a periodic sentence’s introductory modifiers.
Allowing the nature of contemporary English, occupying a middle ground between structured and unstructured language, it remains odd that the standard authorities have failed to notice this distinguishing difference between formal and informal writing, but some responsibility may fall to certain gaps in Joseph M. Williams and George D. Gapon’s topic/stress theory of sentence organization: 1) the stress position is said to be unique to English; and 2) it originated in conversation.
These two facts raise theoretical problems. If stress position is critically important for emphasis in English, do other languages each have their own idiosyncratic means of emphasis? This seems dubious: if language were inherently inclined to developing syntactic cues to emphasis, it’s unlikely that only English would have seized on stress position and topic/stress structure, whose congruence with general primacy/recency effects is unlikely to be coincidental. The other fact, the origin of stress position in oral communication, is in tension with the observation that formal writing accentuates use of the stress position: why was the limited usefulness of stress position in oral communication, which is aided immeasurably by nonverbal communication, sufficient to secure that position’s role?
I leave these issues for future treatment.