End-focus in Sentence structure

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Author Dave Barry
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In English grammar, end-focus is the principle that the most important information in a clause or sentence is placed at the end. 

End-focus (also known as the Processibility Principle) is a normal characteristic of sentence structures in English.

Examples and Observations

  • "The single most important skill and most undervalued capacity for exercising adaptive leadership is diagnosis."
    (Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Martin Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Harvard Business School Publishing, 2009)
  • "The most surprising news coming out of the convention was not who received the presidential nomination or the terrible riot, but the vice presidential candidate: Governor Spiro Agnew, the 49-year-old Maryland governor."
    (Walter LaFeber, The Deadly Bet: LBJ, Vietnam, And The 1968 Election. Rowman & Littlefied, 2005)
  • "Cleft sentences have the effect not only of isolating the new information but also of putting the main focus towards the end of the sentence. "
    (Laurel J. Brinton and Donna M. Brinton, The Linguistic Structure of Modern English. John Benjamins, 2010)

Focusing the Audience's Attention

  • "[I]nformation placed at the end will facilitate the listener's task in focusing on what is considered interesting or newsworthy. In this brief comic exchange between Algernon and Lane from Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895/1981), the information about the quality of the champagne in married households receives greatest intonational stress as end-focused information:
    ALGERNON: Why is it that at a bachelor's establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne? I ask merely for information.
    LANE: I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of first-rate brand
    (p. 431). . . . [T]he dramatist deliberately uses a marked word order to focus attention [on] that part of the information that is comically most surprising."
    (Terence Murphy, "Exploring the Concept of Emergent Coherence in a Corpus of Korean ESL Texts." Learning Culture and Language Through ICTs: Methods for Enhanced Instruction, ed. by Maiga Chang. IGI Global, 2009)

A Place for New Information

"To be technically accurate, end focus is given to the last open-class item or proper noun in a clause (Quirk and Greenbaum 1973). . . . In the sentence, 'Sean Connery was born in Scotland,' the last open-class item is the noun 'Scotland.' By default, it is the focus, the new piece of information in this sentence. In contrast, 'Sean Connery' is the topic (​subject) of the sentence or the old piece of information on which the speaker makes some comment. Old information is generally placed in the subject, whereas new information is generally housed in the predicate."
(Michael H. Cohen, James P. Giangola, and Jennifer Balogh, Voice User Interface Design. Addison-Wesley, 2004)

  • End Focus and Intonation
    "[T]here are end-focusing processes that produce marked end focus. Consider:
    5 Someone parked a large furniture van last night right outside our front door
    6 It was parked right outside our front door last night, a large furniture van
    7 Parked right outside our front door last night it was, a large furniture van
    8 A large furniture van, right outside our front door last night, parked! Some of these end focuses are clearly more marked than others, as the reader can confirm by reading them aloud--they involve a successively more indignant intonation pattern!"
    (Keith Brown and Jim Miller, Syntax: A Linguistic Introduction to Sentence Structure, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2002)

End-Focus and Genitives (Possessive Forms)

"Quirk et al. (1985) argue that the choice between the s-genitive and the of-genitive is, among other things, determined by the principles of end-focus and end-weight. According to these principles, the more complex and communicatively more important constituents tend to be placed toward the end of the NP. Accordingly, the s-genitive should be preferred when the possessum is more important than the possessor, while the of-genitive should be favored if the possessor is the more communicatively important (and complex) element . . .."
(Anette Rosenbach, Genitive Variation in English: Conceptual Factors in Synchronic and Diachronic Studies. Mouton de Gruyter, 2002)

Reversed Wh-Clefts

"Reversed wh-clefts have the main focus at the beginning of the first unit, not at the end after be, as in regular wh-clefts. Some combinations (that's what/why/how/the way) are stereotyped, as are the thing is/the problem is, which can also be included here:

All you need is LOVE. (regular wh-cleft)
LOVE is all you need. (reversed wh-cleft)

What you should do is THIS. (regular wh-cleft)
THIS is what you should do. (reversed wh-cleft)

That's what I told you.
That's why we came.

The effect is to put the new information as end-focus, but to indicate its selectively New status very clearly."
(Angela Downing and Philip Locke, English Grammar: A University Course, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2006)

The Lighter Side: Dave Barry's Underpants Rule

"I learned to write humor almost entirely from Dave Barry . . .. Once, I impulsively asked Dave if there was any rhyme or reason to what he did, any writing rules that he followed. . . . Eventually, he decided yes, there was actually one modest principle that he'd adopted almost unconsciously: 'I try to put the funniest word at the end of the sentence.'

"He's so right. I stole that principle from him, and have shamelessly made it my own. When asked today whether there are any good rules for writing humor, I say, 'Always try to put the funniest word at the end of your sentence underpants.'"
(Gene Weingarten, The Fiddler in the Subway. Simon & Schuster, 2010)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "End-focus in Sentence structure." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/end-focus-sentence-structure-1690593. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). End-focus in Sentence structure. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/end-focus-sentence-structure-1690593 Nordquist, Richard. "End-focus in Sentence structure." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/end-focus-sentence-structure-1690593 (accessed May 30, 2023).