Definition of term End Focus and Endweight

Endweight refers to the observation that “complex or ‘heavy’ sentence constituents will tend to follow simpler or lighter ones” (Wales 2000: 145). When variation is possible, endweight explains the choice of ordering. Consider the following examples: in the 1960s, dresses were fastened up the back with long zips. A mother might use the verb to fasten in its imperative (command) form to her child:

a) Fasten the zip on your long black dress.

b) On your long black dress, fasten the zip.

c) Fasten – on your long black dress – the zip.

(Doing up such zips was very difficult. You needed someone else to zip you up.)

a) observes the endweight principle. b) and c) are stylistically marked for specific effect. Although the outcome will be the same in all three cases and the dress will be fastened, they don’t mean exactly the same thing: b) implies that there is another zip somewhere else ("on your long black dress, fasten the zip, but leave your anorak undone"), and c) might be said if the child reaches for another garment. a) is known as canonical ordering, and is the unmarked choice. It can be described as (S) V X, where the Subject (you) in this case is elided, the finite verb, an imperative, is fasten, and everything else is labelled X. SVX is canonical ordering in English. Examples b) and c) are not wrong, rather, they shift the emphasis on to one or other part of the sentence. This shifting of emphasis can be very useful for authors wishing to give nuances of meaning.

The endweight principle leads to another principle, that of end focus:

End focus “is based on the general fact that different parts of utterances have different communicative values … and that normally NEW or important INFORMATION is reserved for the end.” (Wales 2000: 126)

The implication here is that old information, stuff we already know, is likely to come in the Subject, and can be quickly dealt with by reducing it to a pronoun or eliding it altogether; and new information is likely to come in the X constituents. Being new, it is likely to receive a fuller treatment.

Geoffrey Leech has analysed the beginning of Great Expectations here , considering the effects of end focus and endweight.



References for further reading:

Leech, Geoffrey N. 2006. A Glossary of English Grammar. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Wales, Katie. 2000 [1989]. A Dictionary of Stylistics. Harlow: Longman, pp 144-5.

Demonstration of End focus and Endweight in action

Read through this description of a London suburb, bearing in mind the principles of endweight and end focus, and then click below to see the endweight made explicit.

In the text below, the X elements are marked in blue, the V elements in red, and the S elements in orange.

[In the straight streets planted with trees and fringed with grass plots]X [stand] V [the modern houses where the families live.]S [ These houses]S [have]V [quite different sorts of names from the old houses.]X [The modern names]S [are written]V [on the garden gates or slung in fretwork over the porch.] X [The Cedars, Cumfy, Dunromin, the more original Dunsekin, Trottalong.]S [There]S [is]V [the house that is called Home Rails (a happy investment, fortune-founding?)]X [There]S [is]V [Deo Data for the learned, Villa Roma for the travelled, Portarlington Lodge for the socially ambitious.]X [Ella, Basil and Ronald]S [live]V [There]S [is]V [also Elasofton which is ‘not for sale’ written backwards.]X

[The place names on the way to the city where the fathers go daily to earn their living]S [are]V [countrified – the mysterious Cockfosters, Green Lanes, Wood Green, Turnpike Lane.]X [Coming nearer to the city]X [there]S [is]V [Manor Park.]X [What]S [is]V [that curious building, an exact copy of Stirling Castle, that stands to the left of the bus route?]X [It]S [is]V [the Waterworks.]X


Hide explicit endweights.

Click here to see the endweight in the above text made explicit.

Commentary

(In what follows, I have marked new information in orange and given information in blue.)

The first sentence is not SVX but XVS (try changing it around to get canonical ordering: the modern houses where the families live stand in the straight streets planted with trees and fringed with grass plots). What does Stevie Smith’s ordering achieve that canonical ordering does not? Endweight throws the emphasis onto the S, the modern houses where the families live, in particular, the families – try saying it aloud. The passage is about the family house of the outer suburbs as opposed to the London townhouse – Stevie Smith wrote this in 1949, when the immense spread of semi-detached housing that created the outer suburbs between the two world wars was relatively new. She spent almost her entire life in such a house in such a suburb at 1, Avondale Road, Palmers Green, N. 13.

End focus is the principle of given to new information, and in the first sentence the modern houses are new information. In sentence two, the modern houses have turned into given information – these houses, and hereafter the endweight principle is observed. The end focus of the X is the old houses, bringing them into contrast with the modern ones, and the new information is the houses’ names. In sentence three, the modern houses and their names have become given information: The modern names (the fourth sentence lacks a finite verb and so is not actually a sentence but a list of names). Thereafter come the various names, introduced four times by There is. In the constructions there is and it is, the Subjects there and it are referred to as ‘dummy subjects’ when they lack an obvious referent. In such cases there and it lack semantic meaning and act as grammatical placeholders. Compare There is the house that is called Home Rails, There is Deo Data, There is also Elasofton, where there lacks any semantic meaning, with It is the Waterworks, where it refers back to the building that looks like Stirling Castle and hence is not a dummy subject but a pronoun standing in for the castle. (Contrast It is raining to see it acting as a dummy subject.) There and It are very light Subjects; the heavy constituents mostly come after the Verb and are where the new information is elaborated. The poet appreciates the suburban house-names, the puns, the disguised waterworks – all ways of deflating pomp with a joke.

Literary Exercise

Read through the following poem, bearing the principles of end focus and endweight in mind. Although you are expecting to see end focus and endweight, along with canonical SVX ordering, creative writers often flout these principles for effect.
Then click below to see whether canonical SVX ordering is maintained. What happens here?

In the text below, the X elements are marked in blue, the V elements in red, and the S elements in orange.

1Dear Daughter of the Southern Cross

2I admit your fiery nature and your loss


3Your fiery integrity and your intelligence

4I admit your high post and its relevance


5And I admit, dear Consuelessa, that your dressing gown

6Has wrapped me from the offences of the town.


7From rain in Milan in a peculiar May

8From anger at break of day

9From heat and cold as I lay


10Wrapped me, but not entirely, from the words I must hear

11Thrown between you and him, that were not ‘dear’.


12Oh that him

13Was a problem

14Consuelessa, your husband.


15He and I ran together in the streets, I think

16We grew more English with each drink


17And we laughed as we ran in the town

18Consuelessa, where then was your dressing gown?


19The Portuguese and the Italian languages

20Drew our laughter in stages

21Of infantine rages,

22This was outrageous.


23Yes, I admit your courage, I heard

24Heart steel at the word

25That found everything absurd,

26The English word I spoke and heard.


27Tapping at your heels, Consuelessa,

28We were children again, your husband and I,

29A worthless couple,


30Hanging behind, whining, being slow,

31Where is our wife?we cry. (This you knew.)

32Give us moneywe said, ‘you have not given us much’.

33We were your kiddies, Consuelessa, out for a touch.


34Yet I admit your dressing gown

35Wrapped me from the offences of the town

36But never from my own

37Ah Consuelessa, this much I own.


38From rain in May

39From the cold as I lay

40When the servant Cesare had stolen

41The electric fire, the only one,

42From disappointment too I daresay

43Consuelessa,

44It is your dressing gown I remember today.


Hide explicit canonical SVX ordering.

Click here to see SVX ordering in the above poem made explicit.


How does an analysis of end focus and endweight aid your interpretation of the poem? Write your answer below:


Compare your answer with the sample answer below:

Commentary

The poem is a letter from the poet to the Brazilian Consul, who, at some point in the relatively recent past, was a married lady with a grievance. It transpires that the poet gave offence by fooling around with the Consuelessa’s husband – not explicitly sexually, but enough to cause jealousy: she laughed complicitly, spoke English, mocked and got drunk with him to the exclusion of the Consuelessa, causing an early morning argument between husband and wife. The poet, reflecting upon the kindness of the borrowed dressing gown, admits guilt. Remorse is implicit in the list of admissions.

The Subjects are mainly light, with the exception of lines 12 and 14, where the subject has two synonyms (that him and your husband). Occurring where it does in the middle of the poem, this three-liner forms a crux. Endweight puts the emphasis onto your husband. At lines 28 and 29 the heavier Subjects (your husband and I, a worthless couple) are synonymous with we. The Verb Phrases are light, but the verb admit is repeated five times, and its synonym own once. Canonical ordering is relatively as expected apart from the last stanza. Here the X element is mainly fronted, and the reader or listener has to refer back to lines 5-9 to work out that the poet is reflecting on how the Consuelessa’s dressing gown wrapped her from the various adversities detailed in the series of Prepositional Phrases and clauses in lines 38-42. In line 44, endweight puts emphasis on I remember today. The poet’s conscience causes her to remember with remorseless clarity her individual offences against the Consuelessa, as opposed to the Consuelessa’s kindness to her. What is the loss mentioned in line 2? Did the Consuelessa lose her husband as a result?

Teaching Point

In English, the principles of end focus and endweight work together to create a canonical ordering of SVX, where S is typically light (one-word, elided or dummy subjects, pronouns) and X is heavy. However, creative writers disturb this order to shift emphasis.

What are or were Home Rails? A search of Google Books reveals numerous mentions in the relevant decades, e.g.:

E. M. Forster: “Her own fortune was invested in Home Rails, and most ardently did she beg her niece to imitate her.” (Howards End, 1910)

“Home Rails, which are now in effect British Transport stock” (Railway Gazette International, 1947)

Stoke Newington Pumping Station, London N4.