Three Types of Old Information

Type One: Information readers bring to the text

This old information is what your particular readers can be counted on to know. Here is a sentence from a document distributed to accounting firms:

In the past, amortization of purchased software costs over a five year period was required unless it could be established that the software had a shorter useful life.

Although you may be unfamiliar with the term "amortization," tax accountants know it well. In other words, for tax accountants "amortization" counts as old information.

The author of this document wrote a very different version to give to an audience of non-

In the past, you had to write off funds spent on software at an amount prorated over a five year period, unless you could establish that your software had a shorter useful life.

For non-accountants, the term "amortization" may be new and unfamiliar. Thus, the writer begins her sentence with "you" instead. Human beings usually count as old information, and reader and writer – "you," "we," "customers," "our firm," etc. – are always old.

Here's a somewhat more complex example. This is the first sentence of an article in The New York Times (12/20/90):

The White House's tortured handling of scholarships for minorities reflects both the disarray in President's domestic policy management and a fierce struggle for the civil rights agenda in the top levels of the Administration.

By opening this sentence with "The White House's tortured handling of scholarships for minorities," the writer assumes that we know that there has been a tortured handling of scholarships for minorities. That assumption is reflected in two ways: (1) the writer uses the definite article "the," thereby implying that we already share information about the tortured handling; and (2) the writer also nominalizes "handle," as though it referred back to a previous action.

Had the writer assumed no knowledge beyond the meaning of the words, he might have written this:

[1] The White House [he assumes we at least know that there's such a thing as the White House] tied itself up in knots trying to retain scholarships for minorities this week. [2] This tortured handling indicates that those who manage the President's domestic policy are in disarray and that the top levels of the Administration are struggling fiercely for the civil rights agenda.

When the writer nominalized "handle" into "handling," he changed a fully stated proposition (with a subject and a verb) into a phrase. When writers collapse a proposition into a phrase, they signal that they assume the reader already knows that part of the story: here, that there has been a handling of scholarships. It's as if someone said, "George's cheating on the test means that he won't graduate." That phrase, George's cheating on the test, takes for granted that the audience already knows George cheated on the test. On the other hand, if someone said, "George cheated on the test. That means he won't graduate," then that speaker does not take for granted that the intended audience already knows that George cheated.

By closing the first sentence in the article with "a fierce struggle for the civil rights agenda in the top levels of the Administration," the writer shows what in the sentence he expects to be new information to his readers. The indefinite article "a" in that phrase indicates that the writer assumes that would be new information. But once introduced as new information, it becomes available as old in the text. And that's the second kind of old information. . . .

Type Two: Information readers learn as they read

The second kind of old information is information the text itself provides. This information will be new when it is first mentioned but becomes old thereafter. Here are the first three sentences from the Tax Action Memo written to non-accountants:

[1] In the past, you had to write off funds spent on software at an amount prorated over a five year period, unless you could establish that your software had a shorter useful life. [2] However, you can now prorate software funds over a 36-month period instead. [3] To take the 36-month option, you must have purchased your software after August 10, 1993.

Having introduced the idea of 36-month amortization (now old information) in sentence 2, the writer can refer to this idea as simply "the 36-month option" in the beginning of sentence 3.

Type Three: Information the text implies

A third kind of old information is information that is not stated in the text but that readers reasonably ought to infer, given what we assume them to know. The New York Times article goes on:

[3] That struggle resumed with new intensity from the moment Mr. Bush woke up on the morning of December 12 to news reports of the Education Department's decision to ban federally funded subsidized institutions from designating scholarships for specific minority groups. [4] Surprised and reportedly disturbed, the President ordered his chief of staff, John H. Sununu, to find a way to retreat from the ruling, which was not only politically damaging but also challenged Mr. Bush's commitment to minority scholarship programs.

When sentence 4 begins with "Surprised," the writer assumes that anyone who wakes up one morning to disturbing news would be surprised. The writer also assumes that we would expect as much: he assumes that we will not be surprised that the President was surprised. Incidentally, notice how the writer takes for granted that we all agree that Mr. Bush is committed to minority scholarship programs. This kind of style in fact creates implicit agreement. In business contexts, such a style helps to build solidarity with your readers.