The Science Of Scientific Writing    Set D  Introduction   Multi-part Sentences   The End of the Sentence  Exercise 1   The Start of the Sentence  The Middle of the Sentence   Sentence, Paragraph compared   Mapping Multi-part Sentences   Exercise 2   Types of Sentence Part   Exercise X   Advanced Sentence Stories   Final Page   .

Course Home

OVERVIEW: The way to well-written science

How to do the Course


PART I: Paragraphs and Sentences

SET A: Paragraphs: The Maps Behind Them

SET B: Paragraphs: Using Maps to Meet Readers' Expectations

SET C: Paragraph Coherence and Cohesion

SET D: Sentences

SET E: Scientific Sections (including Methods)

SET F: Scientific Sections: The Discussion

SET G : Scientific Sections: The Introduction

SET H : The Paper as a Whole

Sentence Strategy #1: as with paragraphs, you can exploit the reader's expectation of where different types of information will be located

Part I: The End of the Sentence

If we want to direct our reader's attention to one part of a multi-part sentence, then the most powerful strategy, and the easiest to apply, is (as with paragraphs) to put that part in the location where readers expect important information. Many studies of how readers interpret English sentences (and those of most other languages), have shown that readers take most notice of information (both in one-part and multi-part sentences) that is located at the sentence's end. If we restrict the discussion to mult-part sentences for the moment, then the conclusion of a multi-part sentence will be its landmark part.

Examples of the impact of final location

The two near-identical sentences below differ only in the sequence of their two parts, but will they evoke identical reactions from a reader?

(a) Although Kumar beats his dog, he's a nice guy.

(b) Although Kumar's a nice guy, he beats his dog.

The answer is "no". With respect to Kumar's "niceness", most people decide that version (a) supports it but version (b) casts it into doubt. By putting the information about Kumar's dog-beating last, it becomes more likely to become the sentence's "take-home message", its landmark.

Likewise consider this sentence:

A most important factor in animal speciation is geographical isolation, and it can explain many divergences in the evolution of snakes.

Most readers will consider that the take-home message concerns the role of geographical isolation in snake evolution (rather than in animals generally).


The most important information (in the final sentence part) is typically also the newest and least familiar information

Shortly we will be looking at how readers tend to interpret information located in the initial and middle parts of a multi-part sentence. In explaining the details of that, there is a danger that you will end up "not seeing the forest for the trees". There is a simple principle that applies to the sequencing of all the parts of a multi-part sentence, and once you grasp that, the finer details will be much easier to understand.

We have already seen that the final part of sentence is interpreted as containing the most important content. In the sentences we find in a text such as a scientific report the "most important" content does not primarily correspond to "most scientifically important". Rather, it is the content most important for assisting in the gradual exposition of our argument, explanation or description. Basically it is in some way or another (in particular, logically or chronologically) a necessary stepping stone to the content that appears later, often in the very next sentence. We can see this feature in the three sentences below:

A most important factor in animal speciation is geographical isolation, and it can explain many divergences in the evolution of snakes. Specific divergences in snake evolution can often be linked directly to events such as continental separation and the development of a mountain range or river. For example, the appearance, 3 million years ago, of a large river between the two main peaks of the island of Picobar, coincides precisely with the speciation of the two tree snakes on the island, Ahaetulla picobaris and Ahaetulla novensis.

Each successive sentence uses the information provided at the end of the previous sentence as a stepping stone to ever-more advanced (or more specific and thus familiar) information.This is the guiding principle of exposition: use more familiar information as the basis for introducing less familiar information, and then that now-familiar information can be used to move one further step forward.

"Familiar First" does not come naturally to writers

There is a very good reason for emphasising the need to expose readers to familiar information before the less familiar: writers, who are typically overfamiliar with their material, are often most excited by the new, less familiar content. Thus they commonly either (1) omit the familiar information altogether or (2) rush to mention the more exciting content first, seemingly anxious that the readers will lose interest if they are not immediately provided with the "latest and greatest". This approach works well for a newpaper story, where the reporter must accommodate the minuscule attention span of the average reader, but it is not suited to scientific exposition.