end weight (grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

The principle of end-weight, as summed up by Angela Downing and Philip Locke in English Grammar: A University Course (Routledge, 2006). See Examples and Observations, below.

Definition

In grammar, end-weight is the principle by which longer structures tend to occur later in a sentence than shorter structures.

Ron Cowan notes that placing a long noun phrase at the end of a sentence tends to "make the sentence easier to process (comprehend)" (The Teacher's Grammar of English, 2008).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

 

Examples and Observations

  • "A sentence is clumsy and more difficult to understand when the subject is considerably longer than the predicate. We can rephrase the sentence to shift the weight to the end:
    clumsy
    The rate at which the American people are using up the world's supply of irreplaceable fossil fuels and their refusal to admit that the supply is limited is the real problem.

    improved
    The real problem is the rate at which the American people are using up the world's supply of irreplaceable fossil fuels and their refusal to admit that the supply is limited.
    Similarly, if there is a considerable difference in length among the units that follow the verb, the longer or longest unit should come at the end:
    clumsy
    The discovery of a baby mammal in Siberia has provided biochemists, anthropologists, immunologists, zoologists, and paleontologists with ample material.

    improved
    The discovery of a baby mammal in Siberia has provided ample material for biochemists, anthropologists, immunologists, zoologists, and paleontologists.
    (Sidney Greenbaum and Gerald Nelson, An Introduction to English Grammar, 2nd ed. Pearson, 2002)
     
  • Lengthening Phrases in a Sentence by Bill Barich
    "The kitchen in the cottage was always too small. It had a linoleum floor, a fridge that hummed and snorted, and a sticky yellow fly strip dangling from the ceiling."
    (Bill Barich, "O'Neill Among the Weakfish." Traveling Light. Viking, 1984)
     
  • Lengthening Phrases in a Sentence by John Updike
    "Lifting his head and sniffing, Caldwell experiences a vivid urge to walk on faster, to canter right past Hummel's, to romp neighing through the front door and out the back door of any house in Olinger that stood in his way, to gallop up the brushy brown winter-burned flank of Shale Hill and on, on, over hills that grow smoother and bluer with distance, on and on on a southeast course cutting diagonally across highways and rivers frozen solid as highways until at last he drops, his head in death extended toward Baltimore."
    (John Updike, The Centaur, 1962)
     
  • Choosing Word Order
    "Where English grammar allows a choice of different word orders, end weight helps to explain the choice of one order rather than another. For example, we can vary the order of the particle and object in a phrasal verb construction such as put (something) off. When the object is a personal pronoun, the order object + particle is always preferred, as in They put it off. If the object is a longer noun phrase, for example the meeting, then both orders can be used:
    We'll have to put the meeting off ~ We'll have to put off the meeting.
    When the object is even longer and more complex, the position object + particle becomes increasingly unacceptable because of an increasing violation of the end-weight principle:
    (a) We'll have to put the next meeting of the General Assembly off.
    (b) We'll have to put off the next meeting of the General Assembly.
    The order of (b) is clearly much more acceptable than that of (a)."
    (Geoffrey N. Leech, A Glossary of English Grammar. Edinburgh University Press, 2006)