On the Papers: The Importance of Stress: Indicating the Most Important Words in a Sentence

Vol. 38 No. 1

The author is a professor of the practice of rhetoric at Duke University.

Have you heard the advice, “Write the way you speak”? It is bad advice.

When you speak—and especially when you speak in court—you have a number of ways you can demonstrate to your listeners which of your words you would like them to emphasize the most. You can wave your hands or use body language. You can pronounce a word at a higher decibel level than its neighbors. You can vary your sound—higher or lower, softer or louder, faster or slower. But on paper, all these indications of emphasis disappear. You are left only with word choice and word placement.

You, being the author, know what you wanted to say. You look at your sentence: It seems obvious to you how it should be “performed” by any reader. But an author is often the worst person in the world to estimate how others will read a sentence. It is insufficient for you to construct sentences that can be interpreted the way you want. You must construct them so a huge percentage of your readers will actually interpret them correctly. We all understand the importance of making the best possible decisions concerning word choice; but, surprising though it may seem, word location is a far more important tool to master. How can you manipulate the placement of words to signal to your readers when they should be reading a particular term with special emphasis?


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