Thursday, September 25, 2008

The periodic sentence (1)

A periodic sentence is a sentence in which essential information comes at the end. In other words, the reader has to wait until the end of the sentence to understand the sentence. The opposite of a periodic sentence is a loose sentence. It is what we tend to think of as a normal sentence. In a loose sentence, all essential information comes at the beginning.

Grammatically speaking, the periodic sentence is perfectly acceptable. However, it often detracts from clear writing, because it makes the reader work harder. Here is an example of the damage that a periodic sentence can do.

Mark Logic Corporation, a software company, recently emailed the following advertisement to Publishers Weekly subscribers:

“From task-sensitive online content delivery applications that place your content in user workflows, to digital asset distribution systems that automate content delivery, from custom publishing applications that maximize content re-use and repurposing to content assembly solutions to integrate content, Mark Logic Server helps you create the new products and features that will keep you ahead of the competition.

“Mark Logic offers three Quick Start packages designed to accelerate your digital initiatives. These packages are a combination of software license, maintenance and services. Our customer solution experts will use our specific project methodology and toolset to deliver a fully-functional, turnkey application.”

This ad rates a Flesch Reading Ease score of 12: the average reader will find it unreadable or, at best, readable with great difficulty. It is packed with jargon.

The opening sentence of the ad uses 39 words before the main clause starts. It is an example of a very long periodic sentence.

Poets, novelists and public speakers often use periodic sentences to build suspense. That’s all very fine for them, because their readers/hearers are already engaged.

But the typical reader of an email ad is not engaged. If you don’t get to the point in a few seconds, he presses the Delete key and you communicate nothing. To begin your email ad with a periodic sentence is counterproductive. Reverse the syntax, placing the main clause first, and you will have a better chance of engaging the reader.

The Takeaway: The periodic sentence has its uses – especially in literature and formal speeches. In promotional, instructive or reference materials you should use periodic sentences sparingly, if at all.

Special thanks to Janice Lindsay, a writer and editor whose work I admire, for pointing out this example.

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