No one with any knowledge of good writing disagrees that the cleanest, clearest, most interesting and dramatic sentence structure is subject-verb-object, in that order. That structure yields the active voice — that is: actor, action and acted upon, the most natural syntax in English.
Certainly the active voice is the most conversational. In speech, we try not to slip unwittingly into the passive voice. And we also don’t pile a mountain of words in front of the subject, thus delaying both actor and action and violating one of the cardinal rules of good communication: getting to the point.
What does this mean in real terms? When little Billy runs up in tears, he cries, “Johnnie just hit me!” He doesn’t say, “I was just hit by Johnnie.” And, notably, he doesn’t say, “Following an altercation in the sandbox …”
Imagine several people running from a building screaming. Are they shouting, “A man has a gun!”? Or are they shouting, “In a startling and frightening development …”? Or two journalists meet on the street. When Journalist A asks how the city council meeting went, does Journalist B respond: “Well, in a surprise move …”?
We back into a sentence when we begin it with a preposition, verb, verbal or certain conjunctions and adverbs. Such sentences are easy to recognize: They begin with a dependent phrase rather than with the sentence’s subject.
Since delaying the subject — and thereby the actor and action — is unnatural and slow, how is it that newspapers are littered with just such beginnings? Wouldn’t those leads be clearer and more interesting and enlightening if the readers knew immediately who was doing what?
Consider this lead:
“In an attempt to lure back to the sea two injured humpback whales that have been stranded in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for more than a week, marine rescuers on Thursday played recorded whale music underwater to coax the mammals forward.”
That lead would be more straightforward and natural in subject-verb-object structure. (Notice as well the misplaced time element — “marine rescuers on Thursday” — another unnatural habit of journalese. Do we say, “I this afternoon have to write a story”?) More direct:
“Marine rescuers are hoping to lure two stranded whales back to the Pacific by amplifying whale calls underwater. The whales, first spotted Sunday in the …”
Another example (notice again the misplaced time element in the original version):
“Hoping to reassure residents of this embattled town after days of Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday paid a surprise visit to emergency and trauma centers with the town’s mayor, Eli Moyal.”
More natural and interesting:
“Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited this shaken border town Thursday to reassure residents, who were being evacuated after days of Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.”
A final example:
“Opening a new era in British politics, the governing Labor Party on Thursday confirmed that Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the Exchequer, had emerged as the sole candidate to assume the party leadership and thus succeed Prime Minister Tony Blair when he steps down in June.”
The most interesting part of that lead is its “new era” aspect. But that aspect deserves a sentence of its own; it’s lost as a backing-in phrase heralding a welter of words. Better:
“The Labor Party confirmed on Thursday that Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the Exchequer, had emerged as the sole candidate to succeed Prime Minister Tony Blair when Blair steps down in June.
“This development opens a new era in British politics. It means that Gordon Brown will be installed as prime minister next month with neither a formal contest within the Party nor a national vote.”
Do the typical backing-in weaknesses mean we must never violate subject-verb-object structure? Not at all. It’s the lead that’s most sensitive. And even with leads, short beginning phrases are fine: in the past decade; despite recent storms; during the primary. Later in the piece, we might choose to back in for transition and variety in sentence structure.