Cadence in the brain is also real
Our ability to make sense of a stream of syllables is remarkable, as you discover quickly when you toddle into the beginning stages of learning a second language. You get along swimmingly in forming sentences like Ou est le petit coin? which can give you the slangy sort of cachet you achieve as a non-native speaker of French the first time you ask for the john, rather than the toilet or that euphemistic American alternative, the rest room. Then you watch a Parisian police procedural, where every third word is ver- lan slang or listen to a French pop song and want to request the nearest petit coin - the slangy term for that little corner where the medieval peasants relieved themselves - so you can stick your head in the bog to drown your despair at ever making sense of French.
But, hell, you don’t even need to venture into a second language to encounter the cognitive strains of comprehending speech gone terribly wrong. Witness the mishearing of “Hark, the herald angels sing,” which a childhood friend insisted was “Dark the hair, old angels sing,” an interpretation that makes rather more sense than the original lyrics when you think about it. Or the coda in Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” which includes the line “mamako, mamasa, maka makossa.” Most of us probably equated those sounds with the Squeeze lyric in “If I Didn’t Love You”: “Cocoa mugs sit side by side.” A friend sang that line as though Squeeze had written scat with only vague aspirations toward sensible English, which is how most listeners interpreted the coda to “Wanna Be Starting’ Somethin’.” In fact, Jackson’s “mamako, mamasa, maka makossa” was Duala, not English at all, and handily borrowed from a 1970s Cameroonian dance hit. Predictably, because the borrowing involved an American with deep pockets, a lawsuit eventually ensued. But until 2009, few of us knew we were singing scraps of Duala.17 With their blending of musical and speech cadences in lyrics, songs remain the testing ground where even native speakers can realize the limits of their abilities to disambiguate one word from another.
Music also gives us two further clues about how deeply entangled cadence is in our ability to understand speech, both spoken and written. Damage to Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas have two striking impacts on our perception and production of cadence. Someone who has Broca’s aphasia speaks, if at all, with an absence of functional words or meaningful syntax.18 Yet, startlingly, people with Broca’s aphasia can sing with all the words correctly articulated if the stroke impacts the left hemisphere, where most of us (the right-handed among us, at any rate) process language after we learn to read.19 Reverse the location of the stroke and impact the right hemisphere, and the aphasia leaves patients able to speak normally but unable to sing, chant, or recite even daily prayers familiar from childhood onward.20 Furthermore, and perhaps more crucially for our perception of cadence and rhythm, Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas seem centrally involved in our ability to perceive tone and harmony in music. Patients with either Broca’s or Wernicke’s aphasia, depending on the hemisphere affected, have marked inabilities to perceive tones and harmonies in music easily perceived by others.21
The upshot: your reader will hear your writing. Always
Just practice the three cadence principles here, the fifth C, as
religiously as you will the other four Cs. The same mechanisms
that enable us to read, even silently and speedily, transmit the
sounds from the page and into our heads. ч_
Cadence Principle #3:
In a list, series of phrases, or entire sentence, place the item with the least number of words and syntactic complexity attached to it first, with the longest item, last
Ever feel like some sentences screech to a halt, like a beginning driver stomping on the brakes in Drivers’ Education? Or can you recall some lists that seemed to stumble to a conclusion, rather than winding down gracefully? Both sentences and lists with these characteristics suffer from poor cadence. In this instance, however, the problem is more widespread than a jarring rhythm in a sentence we expect to roll out smoothly. When you place the most complex items at the beginning of a list, you knock your reader’s sense of cadence off-kilter. Compare, for example:
We ended the day with a recall of the week’s events: the days spent digging ditches, swatting at plane-sized mosquitoes, squinting into driving rain, and work.
We ended the day with a recall of the week’s events: the work, the days spent digging ditches, squinting into driving rain, and swatting at plane-sized mosquitoes.
Example A’s off-kilter list strikes us as awkward for two reasons - and these two reasons leave aside the entire issue of the list’s disruptive, jarring cadence. First, the rhetoricians in ancient Greece were onto something when they insisted on using the principle of klimax or what Romans termed, less provocatively to our sensibility, s cala. In a well-turned scala, items proceed in order of importance (least-to-most), size (smallest-to-largest), or syntactic complexity (simplest-to-most complex).22 More important, when you shoehorn items into a series in any old order, you inflict significant cognitive burdens on your reader’s brain. Remember, way back with the first C, clarity, how readers needed to hold items in working memory until they reached the verb and object? The more detail you embed early in a list, the harder your readers’ brains must work to keep track of which word is playing which grammatical and syntactic roles.23
EXPERT TIP: If you don’t regularly read something well written, start. Now
Studies have demonstrated that reading exerts a stronger influence on writing than writing does on reading.24 Look carefully at the writing of your colleagues and superiors, and you can tell who’s been reading PowerPoint decks on YouTube videos and who’s been reading The International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. The lost soul who reads PowerPoint decks on YouTube for intellectual enrichment will avoid writing anything aside from emails and, when confronted with a writing task, will produce something that sounds wretchedly like the “My Dog Spike” essays school children labor over. In contrast, you can also easily spot the reader whose diet consists solely of academic journals - and nearly all of them read as woodenly as The International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health and many, far less comprehensibly. He or she will produce those apparently endless sentences, as well as paragraphs that straddle three pages, all rife with passive construction and cluttered with jargon.
In writing, as in speaking, we tend to adopt the style, vocabulary, and rhythms, however non-existent they may seem, of the things we read.25 On the other hand, readers tend to perceive our prose as more sophisticated when sentences contain rhythmic cadence and syntactic complexity, one hallmark of good writing on which most researchers agree.26 If the last book you read was a textbook, subscribe to one of the two notably well-written magazines in English, including The Economist, Atlantic Monthly, American Scholar, The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books, or New York Review of Books or dailies like the Guardian, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal. Get in the habit of at least reading the interesting bits over breakfast. And make a point of reading something well written before you write anything, where the language style matching James Pennebaker observed in conversations applies equally strongly with the word choices, sentence length and complexity, and overall cadence of our writing.27
We can even see the impact of mangled syntactic complexity in a sentence innocent of lists or anything faintly resembling a klimax. The original writer of Example A might have intended some snappy ending to a sentence after artfully creating tension via syntax, a sort of whodunit encapsulated in a sentence - even if the topic is genetic engineering described at its most prosaic level and not in a cloning-Dolly-the-Sheep sort of way.
Of the many areas of science important to our future, few are more promising than a new way of manipulating the elemental structural units of life itself, which are the genes and chromosomes that tell our cells how to reproduce to become the parts that constitute our bodies, or genetic engineering.
Of the many areas of science important to our future, few fields are more promising than genetic engineering, a new way of manipulating the elemental structural units of life, including the genes and chromosomes that both instruct our cells on reproduction and ultimately create our entire bodies.
Example A stumbles to its knees around the same time the reader’s brain does, figuratively speaking. After we reach few, we feverishly root around for the noun to anchor the tsunami of ap- positive, gerundial phrases and adjective clauses that pile up, then teeter, precariously, atop the minute noun, genetic engineering, that, unlike Atlas, fails to hold up the miniature world stacked above it. When you place the least complicated item first, genetic engineering, your reader’s brain no longer strains to hold the sentence open and keep syntactic complexity in place. In Example B, we can easily assign syntactic roles to the still-significant drifts of clauses and phrases after genetic engineering because we've already made sense of both the sentence's basic meaning and its sentence structure. We also have better recall of the modifiers that introduce us to the wonders of genetic engineering. And we're unlikely to need a second reading of Example B, in contrast to Example A. If the writer's lucky, a forgiving reader actually dives back into the pile to make sense of Example A. If she's unlucky, the reader decides the writing is unworthy of a close reading, skims the rest, or simply chucks the entire thing.
Takeaways for cadence: what you need to remember to make your writing rhythmic
- • Vary your sentence structure.
- • Use transitions at the beginnings of sentences to create variation in your sentence structure.
- • Vary the lengths of your sentences.
- • When introducing lists, put the simplest item first and the most complex item, last.
Remember, for all of us, rereading is a luxury and effort we spare only when stakes are high. We all face our queues of email waiting for replies and exponential increases in communication - spurred by how freely and quickly we can send out emails, entire books, proposals, pitches, memos, texts, and the ubiquitous social media updates. To hold our attention, you have to write well. The scarcity of both our time and attention demands nothing less.