How Long Should the Subject Be in a Sentence?


In the following extract from “Making Sense,” acclaimed linguist David Crystal shows how sentence length and weight affect writing quality.

Say the following two sentences aloud. Which of them is more natural and easier to understand?

It was nice of John and Mary to come and visit us the other day. 

For John and Mary to come and visit us the other day was nice.

I’ve tested sentence pairs like this many times and never come across anyone who prefers the second sentence. People say things like it’s “awkward" and “clumsy"; “ending the sentence with ‘was nice’ sounds abrupt”; "putting all that information at the beginning stops me getting to the point"; and "the first one’s much clearer.”

Here’s another example. Which of these two sentences sounds more natural?

The trouble began suddenly on the thirty-first of October 1998.

The trouble began on the thirty-first of October 1998 suddenly.

Again, the first is judged to be the better alternative. The second sentence doesn’t break any grammatical rules, and could easily turn up in a novel, but few people like it, and some teachers would correct it.

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What both these examples show is the importance of length, or weight. The first pair illustrates how English speakers like to place the “heavier" part of a sentence toward the end rather than at the beginning. The second pair shows a preference for a longer time adverbial to come after a shorter one. Both illustrate the principle of end-weight. It was a principle that the prescriptive grammarians recognized too. In his appendix on “perspicuity,” Lindley Murray states several rules for promoting what he calls the “strength" of sentences. His fourth rule is: “when our sentence consists of two members, the longer should, generally, be the concluding one.”

Children learn this principle early in their third year of life. Suzie, for example, knew the phrase "red car,” and around age two started to use it in bigger sentences. But she would say such things as “see red car” long before she said things like “red car gone." In grammatical terms: she expanded her object before she expanded her subject.

It will be that way throughout her life. Adults too in their conversational speech keep their subjects short and put the bulk of the information after the verb. Three-quarters of the clauses we use in everyday conversation begin with just a pronoun or a very short noun phrase:

I know what you’re thinking.

We went to the show by taxi.

The rain was coming down in buckets.

Only as speech becomes more formal and subject matter more intricate do we encounter long subjects:

All the critical remarks that have been made about his conduct amount to very little.

Taking in such a sentence, we feel the extra demand being made on our memory. We have to keep those eleven words in mind before we learn what the speaker or writer is going to do to them.