Using placement and subordination to create emphasis.
A criminal trial has ended and you’re at the penalty phase. If you’re Terry Chima’s defense lawyer, which would you rather hear the judge say?
- Terry Chima, I believe that you are genuinely sorry and sincerely committed to being a productive member of society, but the crime you committed warrants a significant punishment.
- Terry Chima, the crime you committed warrants a significant punishment, but I believe that you are genuinely sorry and sincerely committed to being a productive member of society.
Most readers believe that example 2 is more favorable to the defense, inferring that it suggests a shorter, less drastic penalty, while example 2 implies a longer, harsher one. But why?
It’s because of placement.
Most writing experts believe that the end of a sentence is a place of emphasis. The concept stated at the end stays with the reader and receives extra punch. “End sentences with a bang, not a whimper,” according to Joe Glaser, the author of Understanding Style. And the writing expert David Lambuth says that “the end is emphatic because it makes the last impression. What we hear last is usually the most vivid to us.”
Ending placement is the key difference in examples 1 and 2. As the defense lawyer, when the sentence ends with “warrants significant punishment,” I get a bad feeling in my stomach. But if the statement ends with “sincerely committed to being a productive member of society,” my hopes for a lighter penalty rise.
Here’s another example. Which sentence suggests that the writer is more peeved with the judge?
3. Although the plaintiff’s lawyer lied about his client’s injuries, the judge did not sanction him.
4. Although the judge did not sanction the plaintiff’s lawyer, the plaintiff’s lawyer lied about his client’s injuries.
It’s subtle, but most readers perceive example 3 to be expressing frustration with the judge, and example 4 to be expressing frustration with the plaintiff’s lawyer. The difference arises from subordination. As Bryan Garner put it: “With subordination, the phrasing immediately shows that one clause is more important than the other. You’re amplifying the one and diminishing the other.”
As a sentence structure, subordination uses two clauses: a dependent clause that begins with a subordinating adverb, and a main clause. Some subordinating adverbs have to do with time—after, before, since, until, when, whenever, and while—but when used for emphasis, the most common subordinating adverbs are although, because, despite, even though, and though.
Although subordination can occur before or after the main clause, using subordination for emphasis typically arises from placing the idea to be de-emphasized in a beginning, subordinated clause, and the idea to be emphasized in an ending, main clause.
From example 3: The beginning subordinated clause is Although the plaintiff’s lawyer lied about his client’s injuries, and the ending main clause is the judge did not sanction him. Thus, the theory of emphasis through subordination goes like this: Typical readers give—
- reduced emphasis to beginning, subordinated clauses,
- extra emphasis to main clauses, and
- extra emphasis at the end of a sentence.
So when you have two ideas to express, and you’d like to emphasize one, the recommendation is to begin the sentence with a subordinated clause containing an idea you want to de-emphasize, and end the sentence with a main clause containing the idea you want to emphasize.
Even though subordination isn’t a magic trick, it can produce subtle emphasis in a sentence.
 Adapted from Patrick Barry, Good With Words: Writing and Editing 33 (2019).
 Joe Glaser, Understanding Style: Practical Ways to Improve Your Writing 190 (2010).
 David Lambuth, The Golden Book on Writing 26 (2d ed. 1983).
 Bryan A. Garner, LawProse Lesson #238: Are you coordinated or subordinated? (Nov. 2, 2019), http://www.lawprose.org/lawprose-lesson-238-are-you-coordinated-or-subordinated/