Which sentence is easier to understand?
- Before I went to the movies, I ate dinner.
- After I ate dinner, I went to the movies.
Each sentence has the same number of words, nine. Each sentence uses common one- and two-syllable words. Each sentence starts with a dependent clause.
Yet the second sentence is easier to grasp than the first. Why?
The second sentence relates the information in the order in which it happened: ate dinner first, went to the movies second.
Relating events in chronological order parallels how we experience life. We eat breakfast first, then lunch, and later dinner. So it makes sense to mention breakfast before lunch and lunch before dinner.
In the first example, “Before I went to the movies, I ate dinner,” what happened second is mentioned first, and what happened first is mentioned second. Can we understand this sentence’s meaning? Yes, but only after a moment’s hesitation while we reconsider what we just read. That moment’s hesitation slows down the written action.
So if you are writing about fast moving action or fast thinking, you can enhance the speed which the reader perceives by using sentence structure strategies which enable the reader to understand faster. Using chronological order is such a strategy.
On the other hand, if you are writing about slow-moving action or confused thinking, you can slow down events even more in the reader’s mind by choosing sentence structures which force the reader to reconsider before moving on. Writing about actions out of order is such a strategy.