How to Write Clearly: Right-branching Sentences

He replaced the receiver in its cradle without answering her, turned off the ringer, and pressed his face into the doorframe. 
– The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

This is a right-branching sentence, where the subject and the verb are at the beginning. Right-branching sentences are great for guiding a reader through an idea with clarity and narrative energy.  

Check out this 76-word sentence: 

He’d solved the problem of family Christmas gifts on the last possible mailing day, when, in a great rush, he’d pulled old bargains and remainders off his bookshelves and wrapped them in aluminum foil and tied them up with red ribbon and refused to imagine how his nine-year-old nephew Caleb, for example, might react to an Oxford annotated edition of Ivanhoe whose main qualification as a gift was that it was still in its original shrink-wrap. 
– The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (Amazon)

Because it began with the subject and verb, we were able to follow along through all the descriptions and details, without losing track of what the character was doing — solving the problem of family Christmas gifts. 

It’s common to keep the noun and verb separate. Many times, we’d begin by describing the subject and then moving to the verb much later on, but by separating subject and verb we increase the possibility of confusion. This delay in important information can be risky depending on the length and complexity of the sentence. 

However, you should not rely solely on right-branching sentences. By using a structure where the subject and verbs arrive at the end, aka a left-branching sentence, you create suspense. 

Here’s this one for example: 

Earlier in the day, while killing some hours by circling in blue ball-point ink over uppercase M in the front section of a month-old New York Times, Chip had concluded that he was behaving like a depressed person.
– The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen

Try putting your subject and verb in different spots in your sentence and see how that changes the clarity, tone, and pace of your writing. Feel free to share it in the comments below! 

This article was inspired by the tip from Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark (Amazon).

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