Which Way do your Sentences Branch?

Yellow mistletoe in the snowStyle and substance are too often looked at as separate matters in writing. However, the way in which we say something usually impacts its meaning or even changes it. The choice between a right-branching sentence and a left-branching sentence is one of many instances where our stylistic choices have a heavy impact on the meaning of our texts.

English is defined by linguists as a Subject-Verb-Object language. The cat sits on the couch; the woman makes coffee. We can think of this simple structure as the “trunk” of a sentence. When we add modifiers, they will branch out in one direction or another.

The right-branching sentence is a familiar friend to all speakers and writers of English. In a right-branching sentence, the modifiers are placed after the subject: The cat sits on the couch, watching whatever lies in the darkness behind her reflection. In this type of sentence, the natural emphasis is placed on the sentence’s main subject. The reader’s mind picks up the image of the cat in the beginning and carries it through to the end. Although this type of sentence is perhaps the most common type of sentence used in English, it should never be thought of as boring or ordinary. It provides writers with a simple, powerful tool for putting the sentence’s subject at the forefront of the reader’s mind.

The left-branching sentence is not as common, perhaps because it is easy to misuse. In this structure, we present the modifiers to the reader first and the subject of the sentence second: Squinting, stumbling, creaking at the knees, the woman makes coffee. Here, the mood is set by modifiers before the subject of the sentence comes onstage. The left-branching sentence gives us the opportunity to de-emphasize the subject in favor of the circumstances that surround the subject. Although writers should take care to keep these sentences coherent by limiting the number of pre-subject modifiers, this structure can be a useful tool for establishing mood and tone.

Paying attention to sentence structure yields much richer fruits than simple correctness. Proper, educated use of right-branching and left-branching sentences can improve your style and lead to more effective writing.