How you begin a sentence matters.
And how you end a sentence, too.
What is in the middle, not so much.
We know this from some studies that flushed out a couple of effects you are probably familiar with.
The importance of primacy in how you begin a sentence
The first one is primacy, and it refers to our tendency to remember items at the beginning of a list. For example, read the following words:
Now, without looking at the list, how many of those words do you remember? Write them down if it helps.
More than likely you will only remember the first word. Maybe the second. Chances are you’ll also remember two or three words at the end of the list (which is known as the recency effect).
What you won’t remember are any of the words in the middle.
Furthermore, studies suggest you’ll always remember more words from the end of the list than from the beginning simply because those are the last words you read. Thus, recency.
In 1946, Solomon E. Asch upped the ante with studies that evaluated the impact the position of words had on people. He shared these results in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. The study we care about involves how we position adjectives to describe a person.
Read the following two sentences.
- “Steve is smart, diligent, critical, impulsive, and jealous.”
- “Steve is jealous, impulsive, critical, diligent, and smart.”
These two sentences contain the same information. However, when a group of participants were given the first sentence, they reported “Steve” in a positive light. The group given the second sentence? Yep. They reported “Steve” in a negative light.
The uses for this should be obvious (Frank Luntz anyone?)
Thirty years later William Crano decided to sharpen the distinction the impact order has on meaning. His studies uncovered additional effects, particularly with the use of adjectives:
- Change of meaning hypothesis: Early adjectives establish an expectation, which the reader then filters all the subsequent adjectives through.
- Inconsistency discounting: Adjectives presented later that don’t match earlier expectations are downgraded.
- Attention decrement hypothesis: Early adjectives wield considerable influence than later ones.
These conclusions are important when it comes to persuasive writing for several reasons.
For instance, we often bury critical information regarding instructions in the second or third sentence of a paragraph. Most people only read the first sentence of a paragraph. And of that first sentence, because of the unbreakable law of the web, most people only read the first half before moving on.
In such cases, primacy is more important. But there are times when recency is just as important. Take this long-winded sentence from Lisa Miller’s 2012 article “Listening to Xanax“:
Twenty years ago, just before Kurt Cobain blew off his head with a shotgun, it was cool for Kate Moss to haunt the city from the sides of buses with a visage like an empty store and for Wurtzel to confess in print that she entertained fantasies of winding up, like Plath or Sexton, a massive talent who died too soon, “young and sad, a corpse with her head in the oven.”
That it ends with “young and sad, a corpse with her head in the oven” is not an accident.
Decisions had to be made when crafting that sentence. Guaranteed it did not flow from Miller’s mind in the published form. It was a piecemeal affair, an experimentation with effect.
And this is the craft of writing. The creativity that can’t be rushed.