2 Linguistics Concepts to Supercharge Your Revising and Editing

Image for postPhoto by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels

Linguists are scientists who seek to describe and then explain language phenomena, and so they are generally not in the business of telling people how to speak or write.

Nevertheless, there are certain concepts from linguistics that can aid the writing process. Below I explain two such concepts and show how you can use them to take your writing to the next level.

Information Structure

In linguistics, information structurehas to do with how sentences relate to what audiences already know or don’t know. In general, utterances can be broken up into two parts, one part linking the sentence to information that the audience already knows and one supplying something new. Depending on what theoretical framework they’re using, linguists use different names to refer to these two parts of the sentence— theme and rheme, topic and comment, background and focus, given and new. All of these terms connote the same general idea: Every utterance contains both Given and New information.

Let’s use an example to see how this works in practice. Take the very simple exchange between Ali and Bryce below:

ALI: Where is my phone?

BRYCE: Your phone is at the bottom of the sea.

Bryce’s utterance mentions two things: the phone and the location of the phone. The bold portion is the Given part of the sentence; it mentions the phone, which Ali had already brought up. The rest of Bryce’s utterance is the New portion; the location of the phone was unknown until now.

Let’s now look at a more sophisticated example. Below is the opening paragraph for the Wikipedia entry for Reuters. Let’s read it as a whole and then look at it one sentence at a time.

Reuters is an international news organization owned by Thomson Reuters. It employs some 2,500 journalists and 600 photojournalists in about 200 locations worldwide. Reuters is one of the largest news agencies in the world. The agency was established in London in 1851 by the German-born Paul Reuter.

Sentence one introduces our topic. Since Reuters is the subject of the Wikipedia entry, it is Given information. The rest is New, not necessarily because the reader doesn’t already know it, but because it is a comment on the Given portion. As above, the bold words make up the Given portion, and everything else is New.

Reuters is an international news organization owned by Thomson Reuters.

Sentence two is also about Reuters, this time appearing as the pronoun It, and then it provides New information.

It employs some 2,500 journalists and 600 photojournalists in about 200 locations worldwide.

The third sentence does something very similar.

Reuters is one of the largest news agencies in the world.

And finally the fourth sentence. Are you seeing a pattern?

The agency was established in London in 1851 by the German-born Paul Reuter.

Annotating the Given and New portions of these sentences makes a pattern clear: The Given part of the sentence tends to come first, the New part second.

A common writing tip is to avoid the passive voice. But this advice has exceptions, and sentence four in the Reuters paragraph above provides us with a good example. If the sentence were in active voice, it would read

The German-born Paul Reuter established the agency in London in 1851.

On its own, this sentence is fine. But in the context of the ongoing piece of writing, it is worse than the passive voice version. Why? It is because the passive voice sentence packages old information (The agency) before new information (was established in London in 1851 by German-born Paul Reuter). The active voice sentence has the Given and New portions in the reverse order, which violates a general principle and can cause confusion for readers.

Thus, we can see how knowing about information structure can help you revise and edit your own writing. Oftentimes sentences are confusing not due to word choice or lack of detail but simply because the information they contain is not structured in the most digestible form. Rewriting each sentence so that given information precedes new information will improve clarity.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you revise in order to structure the information in your writing optimally:

  • What do my readers already know?
  • What have I already told my readers about?
  • What do I want my readers to learn?
  • What information will come as the biggest surprise?

The answers to the first two questions above should precede the answers to the last two questions in your sentences and paragraphs.

Grammatical Efficiency

The linguist John Hawkins’ Performance-Grammar Correspondence Hypothesis (PGCH) claims that, in situations where there are multiple options about how to formulate a sentence, speakers will gravitate towards versions that are easier to process.

The sentences below communicate the same information using the same exact words in different order, but research shows that sentences structured like the first member of the pair are far more common.

The dog looked for its ball in the dark and derelict building.

The dog looked in the dark and derelict building for its ball.

The reason why the first sentence is easier to parse, and therefore more common, has to with the number of words a listener has to hear before they can mentally construct the structure of the sentence.

To understand how this works, let’s break these sentences down into their constituent parts. At the highest level, they each contain a noun phrase (the subject) and a verb phrase (the predicate). Let’s contain each of these within brackets.

[The dog] [looked for its ball in the dark and derelict building]

[The dog] [looked in the dark and derelict building for its ball]

Since the subject noun phrases are the same for both sentences, let’s leave that part aside and look at what remains, which is the verb phrase or VP. The VPs in our pair of sentences contain a verb (looked) and two prepositional phrases or PPs (for its ball and in the dark in derelict building), which appear in different orders.

[looked [for its ball] [in the dark and derelict building]]

[looked [in the dark and derelict building] [for its ball]]

Psycholinguistic research has established that listeners create a mental skeleton of the sentence they are hearing as it is being spoken. When a listener hears a verb, they start building a VP; when they hear a preposition, they build a PP; and when they hear an article, they build a noun phrase (NP). So for a person hearing our example sentences above to construct the VP and its two daughter PPs, they have to hear a verb (looked) and two prepositions (for and in).

In the first sentence of our pair above, the listener builds this structure after hearing the first five words of the VP — looked, for, its, ball, in. In the second sentence, it takes eight words before the VP structure is fully built — looked, in, the, dark, and, derelict, building, for.

This is fairly technical stuff. Let’s look at another example to see the same principle at work. Here is another pair of sentences:

Arlo gave the book to the distinguished chair of linguistics.

Arlo gave the distinguished chair of linguistics the book.

You will notice that the first sentence has one word more than the second. This is because of what linguists call the dative alternation, which says that the recipient of a direct object can either be in a prepositional phrase (usually beginning with to or for) or a bare noun phrase sandwiched between the verb and the direct object. Regardless, we once again have VPs with two daughter constituents.

Arlo [gave [the book] [to the distinguished chair of linguistics]]

Arlo [gave [the distinguished chair of linguistics] [the book]]

In the first sentence, you need to hear just four words of the VP in order to construct the VP and its daughters — gave,the, book, to. In the second sentence, you have to hear seven words of the VP to get the structure down — gave, the, distinguished, chair, of, linguistics, the.

There are some general observations we can pull out of these examples:

  • Sentences can be broken into parts like noun

Go to Source