Language Corner

How cadence influences sentence structure

June 3, 2019

Years ago, a copy editor working on a reporter’s story changed some of the “whiches” to “thats” when they were being used as parts of essential clauses. The reporter went ballistic, shouting, “you’re destroying my cadence.”

Years later, another reporter was giving tips on successful interviewing. “I always let them finish their sentences, so I can hear the cadence,” the reporter said.

ICYMI: The term ‘bandwidth’ reaching full capacity in news reports

And a recent study about running said: “Contrary to long-standing popular belief, running at a prescribed, one-size-fits-all ‘optimal’ cadence doesn’t play as big a role in speed and efficiency as once thought.”

All three were speaking of rhythm, but in different ways.

In writing, “cadence” is the timing or flow of sentences. As Writing Explained says, “Cadence is created when reading the balanced words and phrases in free verse and prose. Writers choose their words carefully, and by choosing certain words, certain rhythms are created through one’s prose.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Interspersing short sentences for impact within a series of long sentence, for example, sets a rhythm. Sentences of the same length or structure can lull a reader: “Firefighters responded to the fire. They found the structure fully engulfed. It took them an hour to extinguish the fire.” Instead, one longer and one shorter sentence can better keep readers’ interest: “Firefighters responded to the fire, and found the structure fully engulfed. It took them an hour to extinguish the fire.”

“Cadence” can also build drama: “She feared going into work that day, because so many of her colleagues had been laid off, and she wasn’t sure quite how much work to expect when she arrived. It was worse than she expected.” The short second sentence emphasizes the “worse” part more than it would as part of a longer sentence.

Punctuation also sets “cadence.”

He remembered the first time a pet died. He was 5.

He remembered the first time a pet died: He was 5.

He remembered the first time a pet died – he was 5.

He remembered the first time a pet died (he was 5). 

These four sentences say the exact same thing; the only change is the punctuation. But it makes a difference in how the reader “hears” it.

The reporter listening to sources’ “cadence” wanted people to finish their sentences to see whether they “uptalked,” ending a declarative phrase or sentence as if a question. The reporter also wanted to hear how the sources thought on their feet: Too many false starts, or too many “ums,” “likes,” and sentences that trailed off with no point were often a sign that the source wasn’t directly answering the question, the reporter said. (The reporter did not mention “vocal fry,” that creaky, raspy sound that has come in for much discussion and ridicule recently.) Also, the reporter said, it was only polite to let a source finish a sentence. “Cadence” is the rhythm of speech.

As for the study about runners, the press release never defined what was meant by “cadence.” But the context made clear that it meant the frequency of steps a runner took. Apparently, a rate of 180 steps per minute used to be considered optimal, and runners would adjust their “cadence” to their speed, but the new study indicates (surprise surprise) that the individual’s natural “cadence” is more important than trying to reach an optimal rate.

In business, “cadence,” Merriam-Webster‘s Words at Play blog says, “is how often a regularly scheduled thing happens.” In the military, it’s the “the rhythmic chants sung by soldiers in marching formation.” And “cadence” also means “a falling inflection of the voice,” the opposite of “uptalk.”

Many people associate “cadence” with music, though it first entered English as a reference to verse. “Cadence” comes from Latin for “fall” and wandered through Italian and French before it arrived in English in the late 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. That wordmeister Chaucer first used it in an early work, Haus of Fame: “To make bookes, songes, and dities In rime or else in cadence.” (Congratulations! You understood Middle English.)

The musical “cadence” appeared in the early 17th century, the OED says, when it also described any rhythmic movement. The “cadenza” in music originally meant “cadence,” M-W says.

Finally, because “cadence” also means “a musical chord sequence moving to a harmonic close or point of rest and giving the sense of harmonic completion,” here is ours:

The End.

ICYMI: How some words don’t stand the test of time

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.