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The Science of Scientific Writing

If the reader is to grasp what the writer means, the writer must understand what the reader needs

George Gopen, Judith Swan

Subject-Verb Separation

Look again at the first sentence of the passage cited above. It is relatively long, 42 words; but that turns out not to be the main cause of its burdensome complexity. Long sentences need not be difficult to read; they are only difficult to write. We have seen sentences of over 100 words that flow easily and persuasively toward their clearly demarcated destination. Those well-wrought serpents all had something in common: Their structure presented information to readers in the order the readers needed and expected it.

Beginning with the exciting material and ending with a lack of luster often leaves us disappointed and destroys our sense of momentum.

The first sentence of our example passage does just the opposite: it burdens and obstructs the reader, because of an all-too-common structural defect. Note that the grammatical subject ("the smallest") is separated from its verb ("has been identified") by 23 words, more than half the sentence. Readers expect a grammatical subject to be followed immediately by the verb. Anything of length that intervenes between subject and verb is read as an interruption, and therefore as something of lesser importance.

The reader's expectation stems from a pressing need for syntactic resolution, fulfilled only by the arrival of the verb. Without the verb, we do not know what the subject is doing, or what the sentence is all about. As a result, the reader focuses attention on the arrival of the verb and resists recognizing anything in the interrupting material as being of primary importance. The longer the interruption lasts, the more likely it becomes that the "interruptive" material actually contains important information; but its structural location will continue to brand it as merely interruptive. Unfortunately, the reader will not discover its true value until too late—until the sentence has ended without having produced anything of much value outside of that subject-verb interruption.

In this first sentence of the paragraph, the relative importance of the intervening material is difficult to evaluate. The material might conceivably be quite significant, in which case the writer should have positioned it to reveal that importance. Here is one way to incorporate it into the sentence structure:

The smallest of the URF's is URFA6L, a 207-nucleotide (nt) reading frame overlapping out of phase the NH2-terminal portion of the adenosinetriphosphatase (ATPase) subunit 6 gene; it has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H+-ATPase subunit 8 gene.

On the other hand, the intervening material might be a mere aside that diverts attention from more important ideas; in that case the writer should have deleted it, allowing the prose to drive more directly toward its significant point:

The smallest of the URF's (URFA6L) has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H+-ATPase subunit 8 gene.

Only the author could tell us which of these revisions more accurately reflects his intentions.

These revisions lead us to a second set of reader expectations. Each unit of discourse, no matter what the size, is expected to serve a single function, to make a single point. In the case of a sentence, the point is expected to appear in a specific place reserved for emphasis.

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