Red, white, and blue around the holidays

Ever notice that when you are writing a series—usually of three—the shortest item goes first, the middle-sized item goes second, and the longest item goes last?

That’s not a coincidence.  It’s good writing.

Thomas Jefferson knew this when he wrote, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

So did whoever wrote the pledge “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Why does this way of saying a series—shortest item to longest item—work?

It has to do with our brains.  It’s easier to keep in mind a short-named item than it is to keep in mind a longer-named item.  (Prince William v. Prince William Arthur Philip Louis Mountbatten-Windsor) If you say a longer item first in a series, our short-term memory can’t easily process it while taking in other items, even if those other items are shorter.

This principle is sometimes called “light before heavy.”

Another way of thinking about this is to put the item you wish to emphasize last.  When an emcee introduces entertainer Taylor Swift, the emcee might say, “the singer, the composer, the winner of nine Grammy awards, Taylor Swift.”

Still another way of thinking about this is to put what is known before what is new information to the reader or listener.  “The Harvard drop-out, the co-founder of Microsoft, the donator of more than 30 billion dollars in grants to make the world a better place” might be a way to introduce Bill Gates.

We are so used to hearing a series listed from shorter to longer or from known to new or from light to heavy that any other way sounds wrong.  It sounds unbalanced to say “the first President of the United States, the general, the farmer, George Washington.”

By the time we are adults, we have learned what sounds right, but for children this is a new concept and must be taught.

What's your thinking on this topic?

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