This handout lays out some basic principles you can follow in making sure that your writing comes across ... reread your sentences to tease out a meaning that could have been stated in a simpler or more .... what they are doing and how they relate to one another; show your reader ...... Your merchandise will be shipped on ...
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MAKING WORDS SAY WHAT YOU MEAN: SOME BASIC PRINCIPLES OF EXPOSITORY WRITING A Method Based on the Work of Joseph M. Williams and Steven Pinker by Filippo Valente This handout lays out some basic principles you can follow in making sure that your writing comes across clearly to your readers. These principles can be deceptive because they are on the surface very simple (invoking concepts such as topic and thesis, subject and predicate, agent and action), but on a deeper level they can be very difficult to take in, assimilate, and put into practice. We can begin our discussion by stipulating what it means to be clear in your writing. The idea was just set up a moment ago by suggesting that clarity has something to do with the way your readers perceive you. So we can adopt here a functional definition of clear writing as writing that (i) means the same to you as it does to your readers—you say A, and your audience understands A (and not B, C, or D, much less non-A) 1—and (ii) doesn’t require your readers to put too much effort into understanding A. Simple enough, but only apparently so. In fact both parts of that stipulation bear comment. The first part does so because it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Which is to say that all but the simplest specimens of writing are so straightforward and watertight that any two readers will invariably give them the same meaning. In other words, most things we experience are open to interpretation, 2 and, likewise, the language hasn’t been devised yet whose vocabulary and syntax admit of only one meaning or interpretation for any combination of words in that language. 3 1
“If you ever hear yourself saying, ‘I think I understand this,’ that means you don’t.” That is a quotation that Steven Pinker attributes to Richard Feynman. See Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (London: Allen Lane, 2014), 67. 2
Philosophy from Kant onward teaches us that there is no such thing as an uninterpreted fact: “There are no facts, only interpretations” (from Nietzsche’s Nachlass, trans. Arthur Danto). 3
“When one person uses a word, he does not mean by it the same thing as another person. I have often heard it said that this is a misfortune. That is a mistake. It would be absolutely fatal if people meant the same things by their words. It would make all intercourse impossible, and language the most hopeless and useless thing imaginable, because the meaning you attach to your words must depend on the nature of the objects you are acquainted with, and since different people are acquainted with different objects, they would not be able to talk to each other unless
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The single exception to that rule is the language of logic, and for that reason I will be suggesting that we can use logic as a foundation on which to build discourse: We can harness the power of logic in making our discourse clear, meaning that we can use logic as a standard by which to set about the twofold task of (a) saying what’s on our minds and (b) going back and revising our writing to make sure that it is clear and that the arguments we spin out are valid. I will be calling that the logocratic method (Scott Brewer)—a topic we will be returning to shortly. The second part of the definition introduces the criterion that your writing shouldn’t require your readers to work themselves into a sweat before they can figure out what you want to say. That criterion is both reader- and content-dependent: It is reader-dependent because different readers read in different ways, depending on their style of reading and on the background knowledge they bring to the material they are reading; it is content-dependent because different ideas and arguments have different degrees of complexity, so the language used to convey them will have to be correspondingly simple or complex, 4 and the effort needed to work through that content will therefore vary accordingly. However, neither of these two features of the criterion can take away its intuitive appeal or make it worthless. So perhaps we can firm up that criterion—bearing the two caveats in mind—by saying that clarity is achieved when you aren’t needlessly forcing your readers to go back and reread your sentences to tease out a meaning that could have been stated in a simpler or more direct way. Or, in Wilson Follett’s pithier statement of the
they attached quite different meanings to their words. We should have to talk only about logic—a not wholly desirable result. Take, for example, the word ‘Piccadilly.’ We, who are acquainted with Piccadilly, attach quite a different meaning to that word from any which could be attached to it by a person who had never been in London: and, supposing that you travel in foreign parts and expatiate on Piccadilly, you will convey to your hearers entirely different propositions from those in your mind. [...] If you were to insist on language which was unambiguous, you would be unable to tell people at home what you had seen in foreign parts. It would be altogether incredibly inconvenient to have an unambiguous language, and therefore mercifully we have not got one.” Bertrand Russell, “Logical Atomism” (1924), reprinted in Logic and Knowledge, ed. R. Marsh (London: Allen and Unwin, 1956), 195–96. 4
As Wilson Follett observes, there are “sentences that seem to consist almost entirely of packaging—wrappings and insulations of verbiage that have to be undone phrase by phrase if you are to come at the relatively small and simple core of meaning within.” Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide (New York: The Noonday Press, 1966), 299. Steven Pinker similarly speaks of abstractions as “verbal packages”: Figuring out what they mean is “like hacking through a blister pack to get at the product.” Pinker, The Sense of Style (n. 1), 74.
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same principle: “No one should ever be called on to read a sentence twice because of the way it is constructed.” 5 But how to achieve that standard of clarity? Since writing is a process, and there is no way that your first draft can also be your final draft, let us begin by looking at that process, which can be described as moving from turmoil to fine-tuning. The Creative Process It’s useful to think of writing as a four-step process: (1)
You think of things you want to say—as many as possible and as quickly as possible.
You figure out a sensible order for those thoughts; that is, you outline.
With the outline as your guide, you write out a draft.
After setting the draft aside for a matter of minutes or days, you come back and edit it.
— Bryan A. Garner, Legal Writing in Plain English: A Text with Exercises (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 5. (1)
Madman, the creative spirit who generates ideas.
Architect, the planner who ensures that the structure is sound and appealing.
Carpenter, the builder who makes the corners square and counters level.
Judge, who checks to see whether anything has gone wrong.
— Betty Sue Flowers, “Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles in the Writing Process,” Proceedings of the Conference of College Teachers of English 44 (1979): 7–10. A basic principle we want to bear in mind in this process, once we get past the madman stage, is that the writer’s job is not to put himself on view but to recede into the background so as to foreground the content that is being illustrated and explained. It follows from this principle that content is king, or, more accurately stated, that form should never showcase itself and get in the way of content. 5
Follett, Modern American Usage (n. 4), 291.
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This should serve as an overall criterion of good writing: “Good writing is conspicuous by its absence.” — Patricia T. O’Conner, Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know about Writing (San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt, 1999), 4. “Good English is English that . . . very rarely sparks the expressed or unexpressed reaction ‘That’s not good English.’” — Edward D. Johnson, The Handbook of Good English (New York: Washington Square Press, 1983), ix. But by the same criterion we can also judge clarity and style. Clarity: “Readers call reading clear not when it is clear, but when they have no reason to call it unclear. Which is to say, writing usually seems clearest when readers are least conscious of it.” — Joseph M. Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 109. Style: “To achieve style, begin by affecting none.” — William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed. (1919; Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000), 70. Note, too, that style follows from clarity, rather than preceding it as something you set out to specifically construct and put on display: “People think that I can teach them style. . . . Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style.” — Attributed to Matthew Arnold (English poet, essayist, and critic) in G. W. E. Russell’s Collections and Recollections (New York: Harper and Bros., 1898), chap. 13, p. 136. And note, finally, that in moving away from the foreground (past the madman stage), the writer is progressively bringing into focus not only the content to be conveyed but also its intended audience, namely, the envisioned reader. Hence the principle of transition stating that “we write a first draft for ourselves; the drafts thereafter increasingly for the reader” (Williams, Style, x). But how to transform that first rough draft (for you as your own inner audience) into a text for the reader (your outside audience)? As the principle just mentioned suggests, we begin by stepping into the reader’s shoes. This should enable us to avoid at least three kinds of writing. (a) Doublespeak: Political Speech “I decisioned the necessification of the resignatory action/option due to the dangerosity of the trendflowing of foreign policy away from our away from our originatious careful coursing towards consistensivity, purposity, steadfastnitude and, above all, clarity” (Tom Toles, Chicago Tribune). (b) Legalese: The Legal Contract “The revocation by these regulations of a provision previously revoked subject to savings does not affect the continued operations.”
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(c) Academese: The Academic Paper “It is the moment of non-construction, disclosing the absentation of actuality from the concept in part through its invitation to emphasize, in reading, the helplessness of its fall into conceptuality.” As Steven Pinker notes, the standard advice for a full century, if we want to move away from such language, has been to follow Strunk and White’s 1918 Elements of Style, offering such practical guidance as: -
Use the active voice. (Rule 11)
Use definite, specific, concrete language. (Rule 12)
Omit needless words. (Rule 13)
Put the emphatic words of a sentence at the end. (Rule 18)
Write with nouns and verbs, rather than with adjectives and adverbs. (Sec. V, Reminder 4)
This is sound advice, to be sure, but as Pinker notes, it gives us no principled understanding of how the language works or how the mind processes language to extract meaning from it. So, for an appreciation of what might lie behind this kind of advice, we can turn to the classic style. The Classic Style: Prose as a Window onto the World Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, 2011) Since writing is an unnatural act, good style requires a mental model of the communication scenario: What relationship do you as a writer imagine having with your invisible readers? The Model: PROSE AS A WINDOW ONTO THE WORLD The writer sees something in the world that the reader hasn’t yet noticed and positions the reader so that she can see it with her own eyes: The goal is to help the reader see objective reality. The reader and writer are equals, and the style is conversational. So this style is predicated on (1) a visual element (the window onto the world) and (2) a relational element, for it envisions a relation between writer and reader in front of the world that they are both looking at. But these two elements (the foundation on which the model rests) entail three others. Let us therefore consider these five elements one by one.
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Five Elements in the Classic Style (1) a visual element (2) a relational element (human and moral) (3) an element of cognitive psychology (4) a narrative element (5) a logical element
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(1) The Visual Element You have concepts and ideas that you are introducing to your reader: Visualize what they are doing and how they relate to one another; show your reader what is happening, the scene that you are both looking at. (2) The Relational Element Appreciate the distinction between writer and reader and how you as a writer want to relate to your readers. Writer and reader are equal yet different. 2.1. Writer and Reader as Equals (a) You are both working on the common project of discovering and understanding what you are both looking at, the problem you are both trying to solve and the solution you are offering. 6 (b) Establish some common ground. This is the context or background information that is taken for granted in any conversation. Common ground is also the mutually recognized shared information needed for communication to succeed. See Robert Stalnaker, “Common Ground,” Linguistics and Philosophy 25 (202): 701–21. 7 2.2. Writer and Reader as Distinct Individuals You cannot not assume that your readers (a) know what you know (the curse of knowledge) or (b) have gone through your same mental process (stream-ofconsciousness fallacy). “A tenet of journalism is that ‘the reader knows nothing.’ . . . You can’t assume that your readers know what you assume everybody knows, or that they still remember what was once explained to them.” — William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 149. This takes us to the third element, requiring us to appreciate how readers can take in content that is familiar to us but unfamiliar to them. 6
Note that, while writer and reader are equal—in that both are looking at the same scene and working out the same problem—the relationship between them is not egalitarian, in that one (the writer) is showing a solution to the other (the reader), and is thus imparting knowledge. This relationship can be compared to one among aristocrats. As E. M. Forster puts it in Two Cheers for Democracy (1951): “I believe in aristocracy, though—if that is the right word, and if a democrat may use it. Not an aristocracy of power, based upon rank and influence, but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes, and all through the ages, and there is a secret understanding between them when they meet.” 7
See “common ground” later on under “hedging” as a form of metadiscourse.
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(3) Cognitive Psychology You want to avoid (a) ascribing to your readers cognitive powers they cannot be expected to have, and (b) overloading them with cognitive work they should be spared. This makes it necessary to appreciate the cognitive load you can place on your readers, and to introduce new content, information, and thoughts accordingly: from simple to complex (a principle we will come back to shortly). Having laid out the underlying attitude behind the act of writing—with the idea that reader and writer are both looking at the same scene, but that one is disclosing this scene to the other without assuming that this other person knows what both are looking at—we can turn to the contents of the scene and how they can be illustrated and organized. This takes us to the final two elements, the narrative and the logical. (4) The Narrative Element Think of your concepts as actors on a stage: Show the action as it unfolds and storify the abstract to make it concrete. (5) The Logical Element Have an argument; develop it around a topic, an issue, and a thesis; and lay out the logical relations between your thoughts: “Rulify” them (express them as rules of thought). Begin by making sure that (a) you have a TOPIC; (b) you have an ISSUE or PROBLEM you want to solve under that TOPIC; and (c) you have a POINT or THESIS you want to argue. A Little Linguistic Aside: Topic and Comment The topic-thesis structure appears to be an inherent quality of all languages: “It has been found that all languages seem to have something equivalent to subject-predicate constructions. These may in some instances be more aptly termed topic-comment, but essentially they are very similar from one language to another. The speaker selects a subject and then makes a statement about it.” — Eugene A. Nida, Toward a Science of Translating (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1964), chap. 4, p. 66; italics added. Note that to write around a topic (stream of consciousness) is not to say something about that topic, or having a POINT to make and convincing others that your point is valid (making an argument).
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Hence, do not confuse your TOPIC (subject matter) with your THESIS (point). Two Renaissance paintings: Same subject matter (topic), different STATEMENTS about that subject matter (different theses).
The painting by Perugino “does not just simply pose a subject to which can be attached any number of different emotional connotations; it would seem to quell the possible anguish and effects of suffering which might be associated with the scene and to establish a serenity and a calm, a complete relaxation of the emotional and physical forces which might be expected to operate in connection with such a subject.” — Joshua C. Taylor, Learning to Look: A Handbook for the Visual Arts (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 52. “Perugino has at once presented a subject and a STATEMENT about it” (ibid.). “The peculiar character of this new experience [the particular way in which he has made us feel about the Crucifixion] seems not to be the inevitable product of the subject” (ibid.).
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“What produces the effect of calm, of limpid clarity, an atmosphere in which contemplation takes the place of physical violence? For this we must look to the visual forms of the painting itself” (ibid.). In our case, we have to look at the thesis and the ARGUMENT being made. What Is an ARGUMENT? An ARGUMENT is made up of two parts: (a) a THESIS (CLAIM), what you argue to be the case; and (b) supporting evidence for that claim, or a REASON why we should believe that claim. “An argument is a set of sentences such that one of them is being said to be true and the other(s) are being offered as reasons for believing the truth of the one.” — Marianne Talbot, Critical Reasoning for Beginners (University of Oxford, Department for Continuing Education, 2009). “An argument minimally consists of two statements, one of which (the premise) is claimed to be a reason for accepting the other (the conclusion).” — Martin P. Golding, Legal Reasoning (Toronto: Broadview Press, 2001), V. If it is snowing, then the mail will be late.
If it is snowing, then the mail will be late.
It is snowing.
The mail will be late.
Therefore, the mail will be late. Therefore, it is snowing. This is an example of the valid argument form of modus ponens.
This is an example of the fallacy of affirming the consequent.
— Marianne Talbot, Critical Reasoning for Beginners (Oxford 2009) When you write, think in logical terms (the logical element): If X, then Y. . . . Even though P, Q. Use function words that bring out logical relations and help you think that way: if, because, despite, unless, when, not. And use those words effectively.
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This will help you spot the fallacies such as those in the right-hand column above. Consider how difficult it would be to spot the fallacy if instead of laying out the logical relations, we said something like this: Due to the fact that the mail will be late, it can presumably be argued—once that fact is combined with the hypothetical statement that the mail will be late in case it is snowing—that it is snowing. That construction hides—instead of laying bare—the logical relations between the parts of the sentence you are writing. So use function words that make those relations explicit, not only within a sentence but also between sentences: Construct a relation between sentences in view of a POINT you are trying to make. This result can be achieved by the logocratic method mentioned at the outset. This method asks us to “rulify” our thoughts by recasting them as IF > THEN constructions that use function words to clearly identify your premises and the conclusions you expect to follow from those premises. But in the meantime, look at what those function words are doing to the logic of your sentence, and carefully consider how you combine them to construct meaning. A good example is the combination not . . . because: I do not like apples because they are healthy. This could mean “I do not like apples, and the reason for it is that they are healthy.” Or it could be the beginning of a longer sentence that says, “I like apples not because they are healthy but because they are sweet.” On one interpretation the sentence says you do not like apples, and states a reason why; the second interpretation says that you do like apples, but for reasons other than the one stated. You can avoid that confusion by an appropriate use of commas: (a) Lancelot and Guinevere did not elope, because they thought it was the right thing to do. (b) Lancelot and Guinevere did not elope because they thought it was the right thing to do. The first sentence says that Lancelot and Guinevere did not elope, and proceeds to state a reason why; the second sentence says that they did elope, but not because they thought it was the right thing to do (they eloped for some other reason). In general, however, you’re better off asserting a positive meaning than denying its opposite: Instead of choosing the construction “not x because y,” go with the construction “x not because y.” The meaning in (b) above, for example, would come across much more clearly if the sentence instead read
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Lancelot and Guinevere eloped, not because they thought it was the right thing to do, but because they were in love. 8 It follows from the foregoing remarks that an ARGUMENT is not just a loose succession of sentences or sentence parts connected by subject matter. That sort of looseness is illustrated by the following sentence: The painting, which is on loan from the Louvre, portrays a Jesus on a cross. Seemingly straightforward, but on closer inspection we have to ask: What does the subject matter of a painting have to do with its provenance? If a relation does exist, you have to make it explicit. Here is an actual example from a highly regarded publication: “An avid reader of biographies, he headed to New York and Wall Street to remake himself.” 9 The general form for such attempts to stuff into a single sentence contents that bear little or no logical relation to one another is termed by Wilson Follett “fraudulent unity.” 10 The Logocratic Method as a Guide to Good English This kind of looseness can be avoided by bearing in mind that expository writing must always have a topic and a thesis, and that the thesis (or point) must always be constructed as an argument. An argument, recall, must always have a premise and a conclusion, where the premise is the reason for accepting the conclusion, that is, the claim you are making. No matter the length of your argument—from a single sentence to an entire composition— everything you write must be geared toward supporting that conclusion. Anything that doesn’t support it is extra padding: It is gratuitous and should not be in there. But how to achieve that standard? That is, how to think, and hence write, clearly? This can be done through an appropriate frame of mind—call it the logical frame of mind—in which you always bear in mind what your argument is and try to make sure that everything you write fits properly into that argument. But that is essentially an attitude: It can take you a long way toward writing clearly, but it’s not foolproof. To that end you need to be systematic: You need a method, and the method you can use—developed by Scott 8
For a full discussion see Follett, Modern American Usage (n. 4), 412–15.
Jaime Diaz, “The Master,” review of The Making of the Masters: Clifford Roberts, Augusta National, and Golf’s Most Prestigious Tournament, by David Owen. New York Times, Books, April 11, 1999. 10
Follett, Modern American Usage (n. 4), 296.
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Brewer—is the logocratic method. As its name suggests—logos (reason) + kratos (power, strength)—this is a method for evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of arguments, helping us determine the degree of warrant the premises of an argument provide for its conclusion. The logocratic method therefore requires a good grasp of what an argument is and of the different ways in which a set of premises can be used in support of a conclusion, or of the different modes of logical inference. We begin in this endeavor by going back to our definition of an argument as a set of propositions minimally consisting of two sentences, one of which is offered as a reason for believing the truth or the other. We have to place that argument somewhere in our discussion, and to that end we need a conceptual map of our discussion enabling us to see where its basic parts are and what role they are playing. The most basic unit of discussion is the sentence, and its most basic breakdown consists in its division into subject and predicate: On top of those two parts of the sentence we can overlay our topic and thesis, and once we have a thesis we know where to locate our argument. In short, we have (i) a subject—this is where we fix our topic; (ii) a predicate—this is where we lay out our thesis, or what we want to say about that topic; and (iii) a thesis—this is where we present our argument. And note that just as a SENTENCE needs both a subject and a predicate, so a COMPOSITION needs both a topic and a thesis, or something you are going to say about that topic. Two Parallel Structures (a) LOGICAL (b) NARRATIVE
TOPIC / AGENT SUBJECT
THESIS / ACTION PREDICATE
is what the sovereign commands.
What the sovereign commands
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How does meaning change as we switch the content that goes into the subject and predicate slots? Why is there no action in the predicate slot? How would we develop either of the two sentences, ending with the content they do in the predicate slot? These questions invite us to think about the way we want to ORGANIZE our ideas (as ARCHITECTS). We can approach this problem by taking the reader’s point of view (stepping into the reader’s shoes) and asking how readers might process information as it is presented to them. Managing the Flow of Information How would you rather take in new information when it’s presented to you? From simple to complex or from complex to simple? FLOW (1): Move from Simple to Complex “When presenting complex new knowledge, first sketch a schematic structure that is too simple to reflect the complex reality of the subject; only then qualify, elaborate, and modify it” (Williams, Style, xvi). This is a principle we will be explaining as we go along, but we can briefly introduce it now by looking at the way it applies to the subject of a sentence, in which case the principle simply states that you should either (a) keep your subjects reasonably short or (b) not make your readers wait too long before they get to the subject of the sentence. As Claire Kehrwald Cook explains in Line by Line: 11 (a) Long Subject A subject may have so many qualifications that readers forget what it is before they find out what it does. [...] A sentence in which the subject consists of a noun modified by a long string of phrases and clauses that says what the subject does may be hard to read. [...] When complicated modifiers separate subject and verb, readers may have trouble connecting the two, as in this sentence: People for whom the nuclei of atoms are as real as the bacon and eggs they have for breakfast are exceedingly rare. 11
Claire Kehrwald Cook, Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing (Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1985), 46–47.
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You can easily eliminate an overlong subject, though the method will vary with the particular sentence. Here you might simply invert the sentence: 12 Rare indeed are people for whom the nuclei of atoms are . . . Or you could shorten the subject: People for whom the nuclei of atoms are as real as their breakfast bacon and eggs are exceedingly rare. Or you could restructure the sentence, either by eliminating the original predicate or by converting the original subject to a clause and choosing a different subject: Very few people find the nuclei of atoms as real as . . . Or: Though some may consider the nuclei of atoms as real as their breakfast bacon and eggs, such people are exceedingly rare. 13 (b) Long Gap between Subject and Predicate A sentence will often introduce a subject and then qualify it with so much information that you forget what the subject was before you get to the predicate: The applicability of the general state-of-necessity defense, when the perpetrator is not directly in danger and is not acting in selfpreservation, is controversial. Better to move the predicate closer to the subject so as not to force the reader to hold too much information in memory between the two: When the perpetrator is not directly in danger and is not acting in self-preservation, the applicability of the general state-of-necessity defense is controversial. Better yet: When the perpetrator is not directly in danger and is not acting in self-preservation, it is controversial whether he or she can invoke a state-of-necessity defense.
The same device is illustrated later on in this document under the heading “Switch Subjects and Complements.” 13
This device is also illustrated later on under the heading “Transform Long Opening Subjects into Short Introductory Clauses.” Another device is to “use passive constructions as needed” (under the heading of the same name).
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(c) Long Wait before Getting to the Subject While you should avoid amassing words between subject and verb, you should also avoid long-winded modifiers before the subject, lest you sidetrack your readers before they find out what you’re talking about. Here’s an example: Still persisting almost twenty years after the assassination, with its truth or falsehood probably never to be convincingly proved despite the negative conclusions of repeated investigations, the rumor of a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy has fueled yet another work of fiction. When you find yourself spinning out such an opening, start again. If you can’t move some of the preliminary comments into the predicate, you’ll have to break the bulging sentence in two: Despite the negative conclusions of repeated investigations, the rumor of a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy persists, probably never to be convincingly proved or disproved. Now, more than twenty years after the assassination, it has fueled yet another work of fiction. The Periodic Sentence vs. the Loose (Cumulative) Sentence The example we just looked at under (c) (“long wait before getting to the subject”) illustrates the periodic structure, describing a sentence whose main clause and point come at the end, or which is not grammatically or semantically complete until the end. In a periodic sentence, you “pile up modifiers, conditions, and comments before the reader knows what they apply to.” 14 The periodic sentence is contrasted with the loose sentence, in which the main clause and idea comes at the beginning, and then you proceed to cumulatively clarify and elaborate on that idea to complete its meaning, without asking the reader to hold anything in memory. Thus “Henry retreated into the woods
Jacques Barzun, Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, rev. ed. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 175. The periodic style is not inherently bad: “It may indeed require you to store up impressions before their full bearing can be seen, but it gives no false leads, it never compels you to return and reread” (ibid., 156). So if you choose to write in this style, make sure you construct your sentences in a way that “presents no barriers to consecutive thought” (ibid.).
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hoping to find the deeper meaning of life” is loose, whereas “Hoping to find the deeper meaning of life, Henry retreated into the woods” is periodic. 15 Periodic: If you’re the kind of person who likes to cry at the movies [clause leader], you’ll love Casablanca [base clause]. Cumulative: You’ll love Casablanca [base clause] if you’re the kind of person who likes to cry at movies [clause trailer]. 16 The Periodic Sentence Places the main clause at the end (where it completes the main thought), thus creating an effect of suspense: Not feeling that he owed them anything out of guilt but serving them instead from a heartfelt sense of oneness, an awareness that their destinies were inseparable, Clemente cared deeply about his people. Periodic: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance). How to make into a loose sentence? And what would be lost? The Loose/Cumulative Sentence A loose sentence is one in which the meaning is complete at one or more points before the end. — F. V. N. Painter, Elementary Guide to Literary Criticism (Boston: Athenæum Press, 1903), 60. The cumulative structure gradually clarifies or qualifies an idea stated in a preceding base clause. When we read periodic modifiers, by contrast, we don’t yet know what they will modify: Not feeling that he owed them anything out of guilt but serving them instead from a heartfelt sense of oneness, an awareness that their destinies were inseparable, Clemente cared deeply about his people.
On the use of the periodic sentence as an effective tool with which to build momentum and achieve emphasis, see “Strunk and White’s Rule 22” further down in this handout. 16
Chuck Guilford, “Designing Effective Sentences: Periodic and Cumulative Structure,” Paradigm Online Writing Assignment.
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Cognitive Load in the Periodic Structure Antecedent pronouns—using them and their before announcing that they refer to the “people”—can place a heavy cognitive load on your readers, requiring them to hold qualifiers in memory before knowing what is being qualified. FLOW (2): Gage Your Complexity to Your Subject Three sorts of complex writing: It may (1) precisely reflect complex ideas; (2) gratuitously complicate complex ideas; or (3) gratuitously complicate simple ideas. Here is an example of the third kind of complexity: The absence from this dictionary of a handful of old, well-known vulgate terms for sexual and excretory organs and functions is not due to a lack of citations for these words from current literature. On the contrary, the profusion of such citations in recent years would suggest that the terms in question are so well known as to require no explanation. The decision to eliminate them as part of the extensive culling process that is the inevitable task of the lexicographer was made on the practical grounds that there is still objection in many quarters to the appearance of these terms in print and that to risk keeping this dictionary out of the hands of some students by introducing several terms that require little if any elucidation would be unwise. — From the foreword to Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980). We can cut this passage down to size by asking: What is it topic? What is the issue? And what is the point the writers are making? We answer these questions and we get: We excluded vulgar words for sex and excretion not because we could not find them. We excluded them because many people object to seeing them. Had we included them, some teachers and schoolboards would have refused to let this dictionary be used by their students, who in any event already know what those words mean.
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FLOW (3): Have a POINT Make sure every sentence and word you write is there FOR A REASON—i.e., it supports a POINT—and is located in your composition in view of that point. This also means (a) avoiding fraudulent unity (the nonpoint of information loosely related to main clause) and (b) making sure that everything is necessary, nothing superfluous (“Omit needless words”): “To make our words count for as much as possible is surely the simplest as well as the hardest secret of style.” — Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide (New York: The Noonday Press, 1966), 14. This should be used not only as a rule of style, but also as one of composition, because the only way you can make each word count for as much as possible is to make sure it plays an essential role in your ARGUMENT, or at least that it is instrumental to your POINT. Look at these examples: What’s going on? What would you say is the difference between (a) and (b)? (a) The committee proposal would provide for biogenetic industry certification of the safety to human health for new substances requested for exemption from federal rules. (b) The committee proposes that when the biogenetic industry requests the agency to exempt new substances from federal rules, the industry will certify that the substances are safe. (a) Our lack of knowledge about local conditions precluded determination of committee action effectiveness in fund allocation to those areas in greatest need of assistance. (b) Because we knew nothing about local conditions, we could not determine how effectively the committee allocated funds to areas that most needed assistance. (a) Decisions in regard to the administration of medication despite the inability of irrational patients voluntarily appearing in trauma centers to provide legal consent rest with a physician alone. (b) When a patient voluntarily appears at a trauma center but behaves so irrationally that he cannot legally consent to treatment, only a physician can decide whether to administer medication.
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As the last example suggests, when you turn nouns into verbs—that is, when you “verbify”—you are also telling stories: You go into “story mode,” that is, you “storify.” Instead of saying “despite the inability of irrational patients voluntarily appearing in trauma centers,” we say “WHEN a patient voluntarily appears at a trauma center but behaves so irrationally.” Parallel Structure B: The Narrative Structure NARRATIVE
Telling Stories Make sure you quickly identify CHARACTERS and their ACTIONS: – The committee proposes . . . the biogenetic industry requests . . . the industry will certify. – we knew nothing . . . we could not determine . . . the committee allocated funds . . . areas that most needed. – a patient voluntarily appears . . . a physician can decide. (a) The current estimate is of a 50% reduction in the introduction of new chemical products in the event that compliance with the Preliminary Manufacturing Notice becomes a requirement under proposed federal legislation. (b) We estimate that if Congress requires the chemical industry to comply with the Preliminary Manufacturing Notice, the industry will introduce 50% fewer products. You can even have a story whose main characters are concepts: (a) Because the intellectual foundations of evolution are the same as those of so many other scientific theories, the falsification of their foundation would be necessary for the replacement of evolutionary theory with creationism. (b) Unlike creationism, evolutionary theory rests on the same foundations as so many other scientific theories, so only when those theories are falsified can creationism replace evolutionary theory. (c) If creationism is to displace evolutionary theory, it must first falsify the foundations of so many scientific theories, because unlike creationism, evolutionary theory rests on the same foundations as those other theories.
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(d) If you want to replace evolutionary theory with creationism, you have to falsify a bunch of other scientific theories, since unlike creationism, they rest on the same foundations as evolutionary theory. (a) Despite his knowledge of the need by cities for new revenues for the improvement of their schools, the governor executed a veto of the budget bill to give encouragement to the cities for an increase of local taxes. (b) Though the governor knew that the cities needed new revenues to improve their schools, he vetoed the budget bill to encourage cities to increase local taxes. Notice the story-making threads running through all the revised sentences: evolutionary theory rests on the same foundations . . . creationism can replace . . . the governor knew . . . the cities needed new revenues . . . he vetoed the budget You achieve that by making sure it’s clear WHO DOES WHAT. WHO (subject) DOES WHAT (predicate) This is called the agent-action style: WHO (agent) DOES WHAT (action) Main Principle of Clear Writing, in Two Parts (1)
Have a cast of CHARACTERS (WHO) and make sure they are named in the SUBJECTS of your sentences.
Make sure that their ACTIONS (WHAT THEY DO) are described using VERBS.
The real difference between sentences (a) and (b) lies not in the number of words or syllables they use, but in where the writer placed the characters and expressed their actions. Some Stylistic Consequences •
You may have been told to be specific and concrete in your writing. That’s what happens when you apply principles (1) and (2):
There has been an affirmative decision for program termination.
The director decided to terminate the program.
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Sentence (a) gives you a feeling of abstraction because (i) it does not name any characters and (ii) their action is expressed as a noun (“decision”). •
You may have been told to avoid too many prepositional phrases.
(a) Despite his knowledge of the need by cities for new revenues for the improvement of their schools, the governor executed a veto of the budget bill to give encouragement to the cities for an increase of local taxes. (b) Though the governor knew that the cities needed new revenues to improve their schools, he vetoed the budget bill to encourage cities to increase local taxes. NINE prepositional phrases in sentence (a); NONE in (b). What’s Wrong with Prepositional Phrases? “In lean writing, it’s a good idea to minimize prepositional phrases. In flabby prose, the ratio of one preposition for every four words is common; in better, leaner writing, the quotient is more like one preposition for every ten or fifteen words.” — Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 518–19. Nothing is inherently wrong with prepositional phrases: It’s just their overuse that tends to tax your readers’ ability to understand you, because they force readers to work out relations between nouns, and these relations may not always be clear—better to uncover the buried verbs concealed in those nouns and make explicit what may otherwise be ambiguous. One preposition that tends to court this kind of trouble is OF, because it’s not always clear what it’s doing in connecting two nouns. What’s the relation between the nouns connected by OF in these examples? a wall of stone ... a boy of fifteen ... this type of book ... the idea of a just society ... the left of the picture ... a work of great interest ... a series of programs ... a note of scorn ... the fashion of the moment ... the city of Prague ... the paintings of Rembrandt Is a painting of Picasso a Painting done by Picasso or one that depicts Picasso?
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You may have been told to clarify the logical relationships between the parts of your sentence, especially using connectors such as because, although, and if.
(a) The more effective presentation of needs by other agencies resulted in our failure in acquiring federal funds, despite intensive lobbying on our part. (b) Although we lobbied congress intensively, we could not acquire federal funds, because other interests presented their needs more effectively. •
You may have been told to write short sentences.
“Whenever we can make twenty-five words do the work of fifty, we halve the area in which looseness and disorganization can flourish, and by reducing the span of attention required we increase the force of the thought. To make our words count for as much as possible is surely the simplest and as well as the hardest secret of style.” — Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide (New York: The Noonday Press, 1966), 14. •
You may have been told to avoid the weak passive construction.
The agreement was broken by the partners.
The partners broke the agreement.
(a) A new approach to toxic waste management detailed in a chemical industry plan will be submitted. A method of decomposition of toxic byproducts of refinery processes has been discovered by Plexi Chemical. (b) The chemical industry will submit a plan that details a new way to manage toxic waste. Plexi Chemical has discovered a way to decompose toxic byproducts of refinery processes.
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A Graphical Representation of the First Two Principles grammatical sequence story
We have to choose (i) which character aligns with the subject and (ii) which action to make into a verb. (a) The Federalists’ belief that the instability of government was a consequence of popular democracy was based on their belief in the tendency on the part of factions to further their self-interest at the expense of the common good. (b) The Federalists believed that popular democracy destabilized government because they believed that factions tended to further their self-interest. Note all the prepositional phrases in sentence (a) above. (a) There has been effective staff information dissemination control on the part of the secretary. (b) The secretary has effectively controlled how his staff disseminates information. The crucial action is not be, but control and disseminate. The agent-action style enables you to avoid weak verbs like be and have and instead use action verbs (like control and disseminate), which are more specific and concrete, and usually force you to say who is doing what. •
The action-agent style enables you to avoid the NOUN + NOUN + NOUN construction:
(a) Early childhood thought disorder misdiagnosis often occurs because of unfamiliarity with recent research literature describing such conditions. (b) Physicians are misdiagnosing disordered thought in young children because they are not familiar with the literature on recent research.
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The agent-action style also enables you to avoid nominalizations (i.e., nouns derived from verbs or adjectives).
The police conducted an investigation into the matter.
The police investigated the matter.
The committee has no expectation that it will meet the deadline.
The committee does not expect to meet the deadline.
The uninformative verbs have and conduct have been replaced with the more specific ones investigate and expect. (a)
Their cessation of hostilities was because of their personnel losses.
They ceased hostilities because they lost personnel.
A Little Philosophical Aside: “The Lateness of His Arrival” Consider George Orwell’s rule against nominalization: “. . . and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining).” — George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (1946) And now consider Bertrand Russell’s analysis of language. Russell asks us to compare two outwardly similar propositions: (1) “The table is brown” and (2) “The lateness of his arrival was annoying.” These two propositions are traditionally analyzed as having the same structure: subject (“the table,” “the lateness of his arrival”) and predicate (“is brown,” “was annoying”). But on closer inspection we find an underlying contrast between (1) and (2): Proposition (1) seems unproblematic, because there are indeed tables in the world for the subject term to denote. The same cannot be said of proposition (2), which posits the existence of things called latenesses: Can we say there are latenesses in the world in the same way as there are tables? Probably not. So beware of nominalizations! Make sure they name things you are comfortable saying exist. Source on Russell: A. C. Grayling, Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 21–22.
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However, NOT ALL NOMINALIZATION IS BAD. •
You may need to nominalize to refer to a previous sentence:
These arguments all depend on a single unproven claim. This decision can lead to costly consequences. •
A nominalization can replace the awkward “the fact that”:
(a) The fact that I denied what he accused me of impressed the jury. (b) My denial of his accusations impressed the jury. But then, why not (c) When I denied his accusations, I impressed the jury. Another Philosophical Aside: “The Fact Is . . . The Truth of the Matter is . . .” Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (1919, 1935): “The truth is . . . The fact is . . .” — a bad beginning for a sentence. If you feel you are possessed of the truth, or of the fact, simply state it. Do not give it advanced billing. Compare that with Frank Ramsey’s redundancy theory of truth: “It is true that Caesar was murdered” means no more than that Caesar was murdered. •
Nominalizations are useful when referring to an often repeated concept:
The Equal Rights Amendment was an issue in past elections. It would be clumsy to rewrite that sentence using the verbs amend and elect. •
And some ideas can only be expressed in nominalizations: idea, duty, law, foundation, wisdom, nucleus, stone
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NOT ALL PASSIVE CONSTRUCTIONS ARE BAD. •
Sometimes it’s just irrelevant to say who is doing the action:
“Those who are found guilty of murder can be executed.” What happens when we turn that into the active voice? “We can execute those we find guilty of murder.” Not quite the same statement! It’s not even clear that the same truth conditions apply to the two sentences, that is, the passive sentence may well be true under conditions different from those that make the active one true. A Little Logical Aside: Truth Conditions and Meaning Truth conditions in logic determine what a sentence means, that is, what statement or proposition it expresses, and so they form the basis on which you can tell different propositions apart: Different truth conditions signal different statements, or propositions. For example, the sentence “Jack is an accountant” may express different propositions depending on who is doing the speaking, or on who the speaker is referring to when identifying someone as “Jack.” Conversely, the two sentences “Today is Wednesday” and “Yesterday was Wednesday” may express the same proposition depending on when they are uttered. Here it seems that just by making a sentence passive, you change its truth conditions and so its meaning. For a discussion of the distinction between sentences as “words set to paper” and the propositions (or statements) they express as identified and distinguished by their truth conditions, see Bangs L. Tapscott, Elementary Applied Symbolic Logic (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976), 9–10. •
Sometimes you just want to avoid responsibility:
Mistakes were made. (Nixon in 1973) > We made mistakes. The construction was popularized during Watergate by Nixon spokesman Ron Ziegler, who 1973 apologized to The Washington Post by saying that “mistakes were made in terms of comments” that the White House had made about the Post.
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Which message is Amazon more likely to use? active
We cannot ship your merchandise until July 1.
Your merchandise will be shipped on July 1.
— Marla Treece, Communications for Business and the Professions (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1978), 120. •
Sometimes you want to control your reader’s point of view:
Two passages about the end of WWII. The first one (a) from the point of view of Germany and Japan; the second one (b) from the point of view of the Allied nations: (a) By March of 1945, the Axis nations had been essentially defeated; all that remained was a final, but bloody, climax. The borders of Germany had been breached, and both Germany and Japan were being bombed around the clock. Neither country, though, had been so devastated that it could not resist. (b) By March of 1945, the Allies had essentially defeated the Axis nations; all that remained was a final, but bloody, climax. American, French, and British forces had breached the borders of Germany and were bombing both Germany and Japan around the clock. But they had not so thoroughly devastated either country as to destroy its ability to resist. •
Sometimes you need to MANAGE THE FLOW OF INFORMATION.
The traditional rule asks you to use the active voice: Not PASSIVE (a) A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble. But ACTIVE (b) The collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble creates a black hole. But what if the context for either sentence is this? Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists exploring the nature of black holes in space. —> PASSIVE (a) or ACTIVE (b) —> So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in puzzling ways.
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Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists exploring the nature of black holes in space. (a) A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble. (b) The collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble creates a black hole. So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in puzzling ways. You will agree that in this context the passive voice (a) makes a better fit than the active voice (b). That’s because the passive voice “flows” much more easily than the active. You can figure out why exactly that is by looking for the important characters in the STORY and seeing how they CONNECT as the discussion moves from one sentence to the next. We’ll see in a moment how that works, but before we get there we need to appreciate that we are now considering the sentence in context, and that with context comes the need for a balance to be struck between (i) the principles of local clarity (the single sentence) and (ii) those of transitional clarity (i.e., how we move from sentence to sentence). Local clarity (i)—i.e., “simple and direct”—cannot be achieved at the cost of reduced transitional clarity (ii). On this next level (that of transitional clarity), sentences combine into discourse. This is the level of composition. Composition (your discourse) needs to be both cohesive and coherent. But how to do that? Let’s begin by looking a cohesion. First Principle of Cohesion Manage your flow of information so that, as your sentence proceeds from left to right, the information moves from old to new, from familiar to unfamiliar, from simple to complex. Here you might want to bear in mind what is commonly referred to as the curse of knowledge, the assumption that what you know everyone else knows, and that for this reason it doesn’t have to be explained. But if you make this assumption, then there is no point in writing to begin with, because if your readers already know what you know, then there is no reason to explain it to
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them. It therefore becomes essential to decide what your audience ought to be familiar with, which doesn’t need any explaining, and what they instead cannot reasonably be expected to have much acquaintance with—which does need explaining, 17 and which is precisely the reason why you are writing to them. 18 This is where you want to step into your readers’ shoes and try to imagine what it would be like for them to understand you without knowing what you know, and indeed without having gone through the mental process that brought you to the place you want to take them, bearing in mind that they obviously haven’t been to that place, and that the path you want them to follow is not an exact replica of your own stream of consciousness but a version of it cleaned up as a reasoned sequence of thoughts. On this path along which you are guiding your readers, you are taking them into uncharted waters, hence the first principle of cohesion we are looking at, requiring that as we proceed in our discourse, we arrange the flow information from familiar to unfamiliar and from simple to complex. The Same Principle Expressed as Two Complementary Principles (1)
BEGIN your sentences with ideas or information you have already mentioned, or which you can assume your reader to be already familiar with.
END your sentences with the newest, most surprising, most important information—the information you want to STRESS and DEVELOP.
We just saw this two-part principle in action a moment ago in the passage about black holes, a MAIN CHARACTER that the writer wanted to DEVELOP. Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists exploring the nature of black holes in space. A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble. So much matter compressed into so little volume changes the fabric of space around it in puzzling ways. From those first principles flows another principle. 17
But there is such a thing as over-explaining. So beware of this other extreme, for you do not want to sap your reader’s energy by striking a didactic tone. 18
On the curse of knowledge see Pinker, The Sense of Style (n. 1), chap. 3.
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Third Principle of Cohesive Writing Make sure you announce at the beginning of your sentence what its TOPIC is, that is, the concept you intend to say something about, the one you intend to develop. Your TOPIC (what you want to talk about) should logically be named in the grammatical SUBJECT of your sentence. TOPIC grammatical sequence story
Develop your topic
OLD INFO >
To appreciate what happens when we fail to announce our topic, consider two passages: Passage A A newspaper is better than a magazine. A seashore is a better place than the street. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Once successful, complications are minimal. Birds seldom get too close. Rain, however, soaks in very fast. Too many people doing the same thing can also cause problems. One needs lots of room. If there are no complications, it can be very peaceful. A rock will serve as an anchor. If things break loose from it, however, you will not get a second chance. Passage B The procedure is actually quite simple. First, you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step; otherwise, you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run, this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first, the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another fact of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one can never tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually, they
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will be used once more, and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life. — John D. Bransford and Marcia K. Johnson, “Contextual Prerequisites for Understanding Some Investigations of Comprehension and Recall,” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior 11, no. 6 (1972): 717–26, at 722. What happens, of course, is that our ability to make sense of what we are reading decreases dramatically, along with our level of recall. Only once we know what the passages are about (what their topic is) can we make sense of them. (For the record, passage A is about flying a kite, while B is about doing the laundry.) Once you have named your topic, make sure you develop it. Example: (a) Private higher education is seriously concerned with trends through the end of the century. Are you going to develop that thought by focusing on private higher education itself (describing that concept in greater detail) or on the trends with which private higher education is concerned? The answer may seem obvious because the sentence clearly identifies a topic and clearly makes an assertion about that topic, introducing the point or thesis you will want to develop (a point having to do with trends). But make that sentence more complex, and suddenly it won’t be so obvious how the discussion ought to develop. Or invert its logical sequence, and it will become obvious that you can no longer develop it in the same way. This can be appreciated by looking at what would happen if we were to flip the two parts of the sentence around (subject and predicate): (b) Trends through the end of the century are a serious concern of private higher education. Would you still develop this sentence by entering into the concept of trends through the end of the century? The answer, of course, is no. That is not to say that there is anything wrong with the sentence, but it is the wrong sentence (the wrong setup) for a discussion in which you want to describe various kinds of trends through the end of the century. (In other words, a reader would be startled if the next sentence were to read, “Trends through the end of the century are many and diverse.” We would be more likely to expect the next sentence to be something like “That is because private higher education seeks to always be topical.”)
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Your TOPIC is your logical or psychological subject, which may or may not coincide with your grammatical subject. As for abortion, it is not clear how the Supreme Court will rule. In regard to regulating religious cults, we must proceed cautiously. Your topic or logical subject in these two sentences is abortion and regulating religious cults. The grammatical subjects are it and we. But would we say that it or we is what these sentences are “really” about? No. These sentences are about their logical or psychological subjects—and you want to signal to the reader early on that this is what you are going to talk about. HOWEVER, even more important than the grammatical function of your topics—ideally it should coincide with your grammatical subject—is their SEQUENCE, because your sequence of topics controls how your readers will understand your discourse. Compare this paragraph with the next (topics in boldface): [i] Particular ideas toward the beginning of each clause define what a passage is centrally “about” for a reader, [ii] so a sense of coherence crucially depends on topics. [iii] Cumulatively, the thematic signposts provided by these ideas should focus the reader’s attention toward a well-defined and limited set of connected ideas. [iv] Moving through a paragraph from a cumulatively coherent view is made possible by a sequence of topics that seem to constitute this coherent sequence of topicalized ideas. [v] A seeming absence of context for each sentence is one consequence of making random shifts in topics. [vi] Feelings of dislocation, disorientation, and lack of focus will occur when that happens. [vii] The seeming coherence of whole sections will turn on a reader’s point of view as a result of topic announcement. [i] Topics are crucial for a reader because [ii] they focus the reader’s attention on a particular idea toward the beginning of a clause and thereby notify a reader what a clause is “about.” [iii] Topics thereby crucially determine whether [iv] the reader will feel that [v] a passage is coherent. Cumulatively, through a series of sentences, these [vi] topicalized ideas provide thematic signposts that focus the reader’s attention on a well-defined set of connected ideas. If [vii] a sequence of topics seems coherent, [viii] that consistent sequence will move the reader through a paragraph from a cumulatively coherent point of view. But if through that paragraph [ix] topics shift randomly, then [x] the reader has to begin each sentence out of
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context, from no coherent point of view. When that happens, [xi] the reader will feel dislocated, disoriented, out of focus. [xii] Whatever the writer announces as a topic, then, will fix the reader’s point of view, not just toward the rest of the sentence, but toward whole sections. Does this revised version feel more focused? If so, why? The revised version focuses on fewer concepts: for the most part, some variation on topics and reader. It has a more consistent TOPIC STRING. This illustrates a FOURTH PRINCIPLE of cohesive writing: Keep Your Topics Consistent The secret to a clear and readable style is in the first five or six words of every sentence. At the beginning of every sentence, locate your reader in familiar territory: Create for your reader a reasonably consistent point of view—a consistent TOPIC STRING. In other words (1) Choose your CHARACTERS—a limited cast. (2) Name them in your SUBJECT. (3) Develop those subjects with VERBS that say what the characters do—their crucial ACTIONS. TOPIC
grammatical sequence story
Develop your topic
OLD INFO >
Three tricks that will help you follow the chart so as to manage the flow of your subjects and topics
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Use Passive Constructions as Needed
(a) During the first years of our nation, a series of brilliant and virtuous presidents committed to a democratic republic yet confident in their own superior worth conducted its administration. (b) During the first years of our nation, its administration was conducted by a series of brilliant and virtuous presidents committed to a democratic republic yet confident in their own superior worth. 2.
Switch Subjects and Complements subject THEN complement —> complement THEN subject
(a) The source of the American attitude toward rural dialects is more interesting [than something already mentioned]. (b) More interesting [than something already mentioned] is the source of the American attitude toward rural dialects. (a) The failure of the administration to halt the rising costs of hospital care lies at the heart of the problem. (b) At the heart of the problem lies the failure of the administration to halt the rising costs of hospital care. (a) Some complex issues run through these questions. (b) Through these questions run some complex issues. Notice how each of the sentences in (b) BEGINS with something short and simple—and which has been mentioned before, and so is familiar—and ENDS with something long and complex, which introduces new information that we can then DEVELOP in what follows. 3.
Transform Long Opening Subjects into Short Introductory Clauses
(a) An attorney who uncovers after the close of a discovery proceeding documents that might be even peripherally relevant to a matter involved in the discovery proceeding must notify both the court and the opposing attorney immediately. (b) If a discovery proceeding closes and an attorney then uncovers documents that might be even peripherally relevant to the matter of the proceeding, he must notify both the court and the opposing attorney immediately.
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So, although it’s good advice in the abstract to avoid PASSIVES and NOMINALIZATIONS, you may find when in the act of writing that you may need both of those to create a consistent strings of topics (your fourth principle). Summary So Far: Four Principles of Cohesion (1)
Move from old information to new, from familiar to unfamiliar, from simple to complex.
(1) BEGIN your sentences with the short and familiar and (2) END them with the long and new—the information you want to stress and develop.
Use the BEGINNING of your sentence—where the SUBJECT is—to announce your TOPIC, the concept you want to develop.
Keep your string of TOPICS CONSISTENT—limit their range, do not jump abruptly from topic to topic.
Begin your sentence well, and the rest will take care of itself. Begin by making explicit your SUBJECT/TOPIC—keep it SHORT—and then you’ll be free to develop that subject/topic—the LONG part, where you can make an IMPORTANT POINT about your topic. SUBJECT
“Law . . .
is what the sovereign commands.” WHY? HOW? Elaborate on that point. Notice where the STRESS falls when you speak.
“Law . . .
is what the sovereign COMMANDS.” This where you tell me what’s IMPORTANT about law. For this reason this part of the sentence we will call its STRESS.
See happens when you change that order: What the sovereign commands
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Strunk and White’s Rule 22: Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end. The proper place for the word, or group of words, which the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end of the sentence. (a) Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways. (b) Humanity, since that time, has advanced in many other ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude. (a) This steel is principally used for making razors, because of its hardness. (b) Because of its hardness, this steel is principally used in making razors. The word or group of words entitled to this position of prominence is usually the logical predicate, that is, the NEW element in the sentence, as it is in the second example. The effectiveness of the periodic sentence arises from the prominence which it gives to the main statement: Four centuries ago, Christopher Columbus, one of the Italian mariners whom the decline of their own republics had put at the service of the world and of adventure, seeking for Spain a westward passage to the Indies as a set-off against the achievements of Portuguese discoverers, lighted on America. With these hopes and in this belief I would urge you, laying aside all hindrance, thrusting away all private aims, to devote yourselves unswervingly and unflinchingly to the vigorous and successful prosecution of this war. The other prominent position in the sentence is the BEGINNING. Any element in the sentence, other than the subject, becomes emphatic when placed first. Deceit or treachery he could never forgive. So vast and rude, fretted by the action of nearly three thousand years, the fragments of this architecture may often seem, at first sight, like works of nature. A subject coming first in its sentence may be emphatic, but hardly by its position alone. In the sentence, Great kings worshipped at his shrine, the emphasis upon kings arises largely from its meaning and from the context. To receive special emphasis, the subject of a sentence must take the position of the predicate.
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Through the middle of the valley flowed a winding stream. The principle that the proper place for what is to be made most prominent is the end applies equally to the words of a sentence, to the sentences of a paragraph, and to the paragraphs of a composition. — William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000). A little Psychological Aside: Daniel Kahneman on Experience vs. Memory Using examples from vacations to colonoscopies, Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics Daniel Kahneman reveals how our “experiencing selves” and our “remembering selves” perceive happiness differently. This new insight has profound implications for economics, public policy—and our own self-awareness. Here is in his own words: “There is an experiencing self, and there is a remembering self. It’s the experiencing self that the doctor approaches in asking the question, ‘Does it hurt when I touch here?’ And then there is a remembering self, and the remembering self is the one that keeps score and maintains the story of our life; it’s the one the doctor approaches in asking the question, ‘How have you been feeling lately?’ Now, the remembering self is a storyteller. “What define a story—and that is true of the stories that memory delivers to us, and it’s also true of the stories that we make up—are changes, significant moments, and endings. Endings are very, very important.” — Daniel Kahneman, “The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory” (TED 2010, filmed Feb. 2010). How Can You Manage Your Endings for STRESS? 1.
Trim the end
(a) Sociobiologists are making the provocative claim that our genes largely determine our social behavior in the way we act in situations we find around us every day. Since social behavior means “the way we act,” we can drop everything after behavior: (b) Sociobiologists are making the provocative claim that our genes largely determine our social behavior.
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Shift less important information to the left
(a) The data that are offered to establish the existence of ESP do not make believers of us for the most part. (b) For the most part, the data that are offered to establish the existence of ESP do not make us believers. (a) No one can explain why that first primeval superatom exploded and thereby created the universe in a few words. (b) No one can explain in a few words why that first primeval superatom exploded and thereby created the universe. (a) Those questions relating to the ideal system for providing instruction in home computers are just as confused. (b) Just as confused are those questions relating to the ideal system for providing instruction in home computers. In this last sentence, notice that (1) “just as confused” makes reference to whatever was stated in the preceding sentence, so it moves to the LEFT; and (2) we are now free to expand on the information located at the end: “... providing instruction in home computers. For example, if the computer crashes on you ...” Metadiscourse: Writing about Writing Metadiscourse is language we use to (a) explain what we are going to say or how we are going to say it or to (b) qualify or comment on the claims or statements we make. Here’s an example of explanatory metadiscourse (a): So that I am not going to attempt a definition of law. Not anybody’s definition; much less my own. A definition both excludes and includes. It marks out a field. It makes some matters fall inside the field; it makes some fall outside. And the exclusion is almost always rather arbitrary. I have no desire to exclude anything from matters legal. In one aspect law is as broad as life, and for some purposes one will have to follow life pretty far to get the bearings of the legal matters one is examining. I say again, therefore, that I shall not attempt a definition. I shall not describe a periphery, a stopping place, a barrier. I shall instead devote my attention to the focus of matters legal. I shall try to discuss a point of reference; a point of reference to which I believe all
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matters legal can most usefully be referred, if they are to be seen with intelligence and with appreciation of their bearings. A focus, a core, a center—with the bearings and boundaries outward unlimited. Pardon my saying it so often; but I find it very hard to make people understand that I am not talking about putting or pushing anything out of the field or concept of law. People are so much used to definitions—although definitions have not always been of so much use to people. I am, therefore, going to talk about substituting a somewhat unfamiliar, but more exciting and more useful focus, for the focus that most thinking about law in the past has had. — Karl N. Llewellyn, “A Realistic Jurisprudence: The Next Step,” Columbia Law Review 30, no. 4 (1930): 431–65. Here’s an example of commentative metadiscourse (b): The opportunities we offer are particularly rich at the graduate level, it must be remembered. That comment is probably not the kind of information we want in our stress position. So we apply Rule 2: Shift less important information to the left. Here we have two choices. We can either place the comment (1) at the beginning It must be remembered that the opportunities we offer are particularly rich at the graduate level. or (2) in the middle The opportunities we offer are, it must be remembered, particularly rich at the graduate level.
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A Detour: Pinker on Metadiscourse versus Classic Prose Note that the last sentence ends with “graduate level” to say “graduate school.” While level may serve a useful function here if we are bringing different levels of education into comparison, the word exemplifies another type of metadiscourse that Steven Pinker calls metaconcepts (concepts about concepts), other instances of which are approach, assumption, concept, condition, context, framework, issue, model, perspective, process, role, strategy, tendency, and variable. Example 1: “I have serious doubts that trying to amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United would work on an actual level . . . . On the aspirational level, however, a constitutional amendment strategy may be more valuable.” 19 Translation: “I doubt that trying to amend the Constitution would actually succeed, but it may be valuable to aspire to it.” Note that level means “in fact” at first occurrence and “to aspire” at second occurrence! Example 2: “It is important to approach this subject from a variety of strategies, including mental health assistance, but also from a law enforcement perspective.” Translation: “We need to consult a psychiatrist about this man, but we also may have to inform the police.” Note how the police is referred to as a “law enforcement perspective”! The problem with metaconcepts—metadiscourse (c)—is that they remove us from the object of our description. This is contrary to classic prose, which is about the world, not about the conceptual tools we use to understand the world. A fourth kind of metadiscourse (d) is what Pinker calls professional narcissism, which similarly distracts us from the thing being shown by shifting our focus to the activity of studying that thing. - For example (not classic): “In recent years, an increasing number of researchers have turned their attention to the problem of child language acquisition. In this article, recent theories of this process will be reviewed.” - Revised (classic): “All children acquire the ability to speak and understand a language without explicit lessons. How do they accomplish this feat?”
Monica Youn, “A Campaign Spending Amendment Is Admirable but Dangerous,” New York Times, 24 Oct. 2012.
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Note, in this last example, that the nominalized “child language acquisition” is turned into agent-action style. And note also that in the revision we start out by stating a fact and then frame an ISSUE suggested by that fact. Finally, commentative metadiscourse (b) comes in two varieties that Pinker calls apologizing and hedging. Apologizing: “The problem of language acquisition is extremely complex. It is difficult to give precise definitions of the concept of ‘language’ and the concept of ‘acquisition’ and the concept of ‘children.’ There is much uncertainty about the interpretation of data and great deal of controversy surrounding the theories. More research needs to be done.” To be noted here is that (a) classic prose gives the reader credit for knowing that many concepts are hard to define and many controversies hard to resolve (reader as equal), and (b) the reader is there to SEE what the writer will do about it. Hedging: We hedge when we use qualifying words such as somewhat, fairly, nearly, seemingly, in part, relatively, comparatively, predominantly, to some extent, so to speak, and presumably. We also hedge when we use shudder quotes to distance ourselves from what we are saying, as if we weren’t sure whether we really mean it. An example from a reference letter: “She is a ‘quick study’ and has been able to educate herself in virtually any area that interests her.” In classic prose it is better to be clear and possibly wrong than fuzzy and “not even wrong.” There is here a philosophical analogy to Karl Popper’s falsifiability principle, on which a theory or statement can count as scientific only it can be falsified: It needs to show us how we might be able to test it and thus show it to be false—this in contrast to metaphysical discourse (“God created the heavens and the earth”), which does not give us this ability and so can never be wrong (it is thereby unscientific). One last point in regard to hedging is that in classic prose you can count on the cooperative nature of ordinary conversation. Conversation could not proceed unless there were a certain amount of charity between speaker and interpretation. For example, if someone says, “Americans are getting fatter,” we don’t take that to mean that every single American is getting fatter: The mostly, largely, or on average is implicit in that statement, and this goes back to the idea of establishing some common ground between writer and reader (see “Writer and Reader as Equals”). . . . END OF DETOUR
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Do not sink your important points in the middle
(a) Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA will promulgate new standards for the treatment of industrial wastewater prior to its discharge into sewers leading to publicly owned treatment plants, with pretreatment standards for types of industrial sources being discretionary, depending on local conditions, instead of imposing nationally uniform standards now required under the act. (b) Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA will promulgate new standards for the treatment of industrial wastewater before it is discharged into sewers leading to publicly owned treatment plants. Unlike the standards now required under the act, the new standards will not be uniform across the whole nation. They instead will be discretionary, depending on local conditions. We’ve seen how to manage the flow of information: SUBJECT
OLD / LESS IMPORTANT
NEW / MORE IMPORTANT
And we’ve also seen how to make our discourse COHESIVE by controlling our sequence of TOPICS and CHARACTERS. FIRST, we introduce in the STRESS position the ones we want to DEVELOP (and depending on how we choose topics and characters we control the reader’s point of view). SECOND, we make sure that all those topics and characters are consistent— that they do not “jump around” too much. We do that by making sure that (a) they have a GRAVITATIONAL or CONCEPTUAL CENTER—the one we announce in the STRESS POSITION—and (b) we develop that core along a few clearly identified THEMES.
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With that gravitational center we move from cohesion to coherence. Two elements of coherence: (a) a gravitational or conceptual center or POINT (b) a consistent set of THEMES developed around that center (a) GRAVITATIONAL CENTER Notice how in this paragraph the writers use the STRESS POSITION of the first sentence to announce the TOPIC that will be subsequently developed, namely, evolution. Clark’s practice of carefully mapping every fossil made it possible to follow the evolutionary development of various types through time. Beautiful sequences of antelopes, giraffes and elephants were obtained; new species evolving out of old and appearing in younger strata. In short, evolution was taking place before the eyes of the Omo surveyors, and they could time it. The finest examples of this process were in several lines of pigs which had been common at Omo and had developed rapidly. Unsnarling the pig story was turned over to paleontologist Basil Cooke. He produced family trees for pigs whose various types were so accurately dated that pigs themselves became measuring sticks that could be applied to fossils of questionable age in other places that had similar pigs. — Donald C. Johanson and Maitland A. Edey, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), 116–17. (b) THEMES But notice as well that the writers have selected at least two THEMES around which the idea of evolution (topic) is developed, namely, (i) what the surveyors do and (ii) the types of fossils they study: CLARK’s practice of CAREFULLY MAPPING every fossil made it possible to follow the evolutionary development of various types through time. Beautiful sequences of antelopes, giraffes and elephants WERE OBTAINED; new species evolving out of old and appearing in younger strata. In short, evolution was taking place before the eyes of THE OMO SURVEYORS, and THEY COULD TIME IT. The finest examples of this process were in several lines of pigs which had been common at Omo and had developed rapidly. UNSNARLING THE PIG STORY was turned over to PALEONTOLOGIST BASIL COOKE. HE PRODUCED FAMILY TREES for pigs whose various types were so ACCURATELY DATED that pigs themselves became measuring sticks that could be applied to fossils of questionable age in other places that had similar pigs.
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Here’s a paragraph that does a bad job at both (a) and (b) by (a) sinking in midstream the CENTRAL TOPIC to be developed—namely, the ISSUES Truman needs to consider—and (b) failing to clearly identify the THEMES along which it will be developed. Truman had many ISSUES to factor into his decision about the Oppenheimer committee’s scientific recommendation to stop the hydrogen bomb project. A Sino-Soviet bloc had been proclaimed; the Cold War was developing; Republican leaders were withdrawing support for his foreign policy; and opinion was coming down on the side of a strong response to the first Russian atom bomb test. As a Democratic President, Truman concluded that being second in developing the hydrogen bomb was an alternative he could not risk. In retrospect, some now believe that the risk was worth taking, but they did not have to consider the issues that Truman did. In the revised version (a) the first sentence clearly identifies in its STRESS the TOPIC that will be developed (the issues Truman had to consider) and (b) the rest develops that topic along THREE THEMES: (i) Truman’s decisionmaking, (ii) international politics, and (iii) domestic politics. When the Oppenheimer committee advised President Truman to stop the hydrogen bomb project, TRUMAN HAD TO CONSIDER not just scientific issues, but also how developing tensions between the US and the USSR were influencing domestic politics. When the Russians and Chinese proclaimed a hostile Sino-Soviet bloc, the Cold War became a political issue. At the same time, TRUMAN WAS LOSING REPUBLICAN SUPPORT for his foreign policy. So when Russia set off its first atomic bomb, Americans demanded that their PRESIDENT RESPOND STRONGLY. HE DECIDED that HE COULD NOT RISK voters seeing him as LETTING THE RUSSIANS BE FIRST in developing the most powerful weapon yet. Some critics now believe that HE SHOULD HAVE TAKEN THAT RISK, but they did not have to worry about Cold War American politics. How Do Topic and Thematic Strings Go Wrong? Too Few Thematic Strings: Your paragraph will feel unfocused. Inconsistent Topic Strings: Do not go for “elegant variation.” Make sure you don’t use synonyms just for the sake of it (“synonymomania”).
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If your topic is “bananas,” don’t call them “elongated yellow fruit” the next time they come up. If you are discussing Kelsen, resist the temptation of referring back to him as “the legal philosopher who hails from Vienna.” N.B. The term elegant variation was famously coined by H. W. Fowler in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926): It is the second-rate writers, those intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly, & still more those whose notions of style are based on a few misleading rules of thumb, that are chiefly open to the allurements of elegant variation. [...] The fatal influence [...] is the advice given to young writers never to use the same word twice in a sentence—or within 20 lines or other limit. Here is an example the Fowler brothers offer in The King’s English (1906) quoting an article in the British newspaper The Times: The Emperor received yesterday and to-day General Baron von Beck. [...] It may therefore be assumed with some confidence that the terms of a feasible solution are maturing themselves in His Majesty’s mind and may form the basis of further negotiations with Hungarian party leaders when the Monarch goes again to Budapest. In this sentence, “The Emperor,” “His Majesty,” and “the Monarch” are different names referring to the same person. As Fowler comments in Modern English Usage, “the effect is to set readers wondering what the significance of the change is, only to conclude disappointedly that there is none.” This is also a rule of propositional logic (TAPSCOTT). Diffuse Strings: The writer uses no single word to pull together concepts that seem to a reader wholly unrelated. Vary your word choice according to the number CHARACTERS you have or to the TOPIC and THEMATIC strings you want to develop. The writer of the next paragraph wanted to contrast two kinds of teaching: explanation and demonstration. But he used so many different terms to describe them that he seems to describe a dozen ways. He expressed the theme of explanation by symbolic modeling, precept, language symbols, words, narrative modeling, instructions, lecture presentations, undiluted narration, and verbal symbols (interestingly, never the word explanation). He expressed the theme of demonstration by demonstration, example, exemplification, and actual illustration—fourteen different words and phrases for just two concepts!
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Rule structuring supports cognition, whether the information comes from direct practice, witnessed demonstrations, or from symbolic modeling. Under what conditions is one social learning technique favored over another? Example can teach better than precept. This is most likely to be the case if the learners’ language skills are not adequate for utilizing information cast in language symbols, or if the patterns cannot be easily captured in words. In many cases, such as in learning to ride a bicycle, verbal directions may be too cumbersome, since quick and intricate coordinations must be made. In mastering certain concepts, diverse subroutines must be integrated serially. If the content is difficult and unfamiliar, lengthy lecture presentations can tax comprehension and satiate the discerning attention of the learner. In these case, demonstration offers advantages over undiluted narration. However, if verbal symbols can be easily stored and adeptly translated into their action referents, symbolic modeling should be much more efficient than enacting actual illustration for observers. The revised passage focuses on (1) a consistent TOPIC STRING—organized around the characters we and teachers—and (2) a few consistent THEMATIC STRINGS: learn, actions, rules, demonstration, and explanation: We learn rules for actions better when those rules are structured, whether we learn by practicing them, by watching a teacher demonstrate them, or by listening to a teacher explain them. But do we learn better from a demonstration or from an explanation? We are likely to learn more when we watch a demonstration if our language skills are so weak that we cannot understand words easily, or if the teacher cannot verbalize the rules. We are also likely to learn more from watching a demonstration when we must quickly coordinate intricate actions such as learning to ride a bicycle, but the explanation for them is too cumbersome. We may also learn more quickly from a demonstration if the action requires us to serially integrate diverse subroutines. Finally, we may learn better from a demonstration if the information is difficult or unfamiliar and the teacher lectures about it at length. In these cases, we may become satiated and not be able to pay attention. On the other hand, we will learn an action better from an explanation if we can adeptly translate explanations into actions and then store the information. Do Not Announce the Wrong Message Sometimes a writer will announce one TOPIC in the STRESS of the opening sentence but will then go on to develop another TOPIC:
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Seven out of eight reigns of the Romanov line after Peter the Great were plagued by some sort of palace revolt or popular revolution. In 1722, Peter the Great passed a law of succession that terminated the principle of heredity. He proclaimed that the sovereign could appoint a successor in order to accompany his idea of achievement by merit. This resulted in many tsars not appointing a successor before dying. Even Peter the Great failed to choose someone be- fore he died. Ivan VI was appointed by Czarina Anna, but was only two months old at his coronation in 1740. Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, defeated Anna, and she ascended to the throne in 1741. Succession not dependent upon authority resulted in boyars' regularly disputing who was to become sovereign. It was not until 1797 that Paul I codified the law of succession: male primogeniture. But Paul I was strangled by conspirators, one of whom was probably his son, Alexander I. TOPIC, ISSUE, POINT (THESIS), and DISCUSSION Here’s a paragraph that clearly (a)
announces a TOPIC (inflation);
frames the ISSUE under that topic (whether inflation is socially divisive);
makes a POINT, or states a THESIS (that it is socially divisive); and
develops that point in a DISCUSSION around two THEMATIC STRINGS, namely, social classes and divisiveness.
Inflation [TOPIC], both of prices and of population, presented a challenge to every family in later Tudor England. One of its ironies was that in the particular economic circumstances of the time it often made a reality of what medieval people had tended to believe, that one person’s good fortune was another’s distress. Inflation in prices was bound to be socially divisive [ISSUE and THESIS, or POINT]. The growth of population, itself the main cause of the increase in prices, ensured that those who suffered most were those most dependent on the earning of wages. But there were others, perhaps only a minority, at all social levels, whose income failed to keep pace with the rising cost of living, a situation not made easier for them to bear by the rise in the standard of material living which characterized the Elizabethan period. . . . Elizabeth’s subjects, and not only those in the upper ranks of society, discovered expectations of material comfort previously undreamed of. Perhaps it was as well, in the interests of social harmony, that although new horizons were appearing, neither at home nor abroad were there really great fortunes to be made. By 1600, however, there were greater distinctions, in both town and countryside, between the rich and the poor, particularly between those of modest prosperity, the yeomen, farmers and major urban tradesmen, and the poor husbandmen, small craftsmen and full-time labourers.
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— Joyce Youings, Sixteenth-Century England (London: A. Lane, 1984), 304. Notice how the writer
quickly sets up the ISSUE—i.e., the PROBLEM we are trying to solve—and then
DISCUSSES the issue by (i) making a CLAIM or POINT (stating how the problem is to be solved) and (ii) supporting that claim by providing REASONS why we should subscribe to it.
That should be the overall structure of your paragraphs: PARAGRAPH = ISSUE + DISCUSSION ISSUE
Again, the issue is much shorter than the discussion. That’s because you have to get to the POINT: “What’s the point?” is the first question you ask yourself (whether you realize it or not) once you have figured out what the issue is. So make sure you have a single POINT sentence in your paragraph. ISSUE POINT
DISCUSSION: • Support your THESIS (POINT) with REASONS. • Develop the characters and concepts introduced in your ISSUE and POINT: Develop them along a few TOPIC and THEMATIC strings. • Make sure the THEMES you develop are the ones you promised to discuss in the ISSUE.
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The issue PROMISES; the discussion DELIVERS. > Do not deliver the wrong package. The Romanov passage delivers the wrong package: It promises “turmoil” but delivers decisions about succession to the throne. Here’s how to make sure that the DISCUSSION delivers what is promised, namely, turmoil: After Peter the Great died, seven out of eight reigns of the Romanov line were plagued by turmoil over disputed succession to the throne. The problems began in 1722, when Peter the Great passed a law of succession that terminated the principle of heredity and required the sovereign to appoint a successor. But because many Tsars, including Peter, died before they appointed successors, those who sought to succeed to the throne had no authority by appointment, and so their succession was regularly disputed by the boyars and other interests. There was turmoil even when successors were appointed. In 1740, Ivan VI was adopted by Czarina Anna Ivanovna and appointed as her successor at age two months, but his succession was disputed by Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, who defeated Anna and her forces before ascending to the throne in 1741. In 1797 Paul tried to eliminate these disputes by codifying a new law: succession on the basis of primogeniture in the male line. But turmoil continued. Paul was strangled by conspirators, one of whom was probably Alexander I, his son. The Entire Model in a Single Snapshot Readers find writing to be clear when they find (a)
central CHARACTERS in subjects
and crucial ACTIONS in verbs
old information in TOPICS
and new and important information in the STRESS
POINTS at the ends of ISSUES
and any additional points at the ends of DISCUSSIONS
and when (d)
the ISSUE introduces key thematic and topical words
the DISCUSSION keeps topic strings consistent
the DISCUSSION reinforces the thematic words related to those topics