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. 

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