Today’s post o…

21 Jun

Today’s post on Pros Write ( quotes the Purdue OWL ( as advising writers to vary sentence types, e.g. alternate long and short sentences and vary sentence openings. I wonder what the OWL would have to say about the opening lines of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,…”
Not only is the repetition not “monotonous” (as the OWL predicts); it’s precisely this repetition that gives these lines their coherence. What’s going on here? 

Discourse does have structure but it’s not syntactic structure. Rather, writers can exploit sentence strucure to ensure that what’s known to the reader (OLD information) is always presented before what’s unknown (NEW information).

Research done almost 40 years ago shows that following the pattern of OLD followed by NEW information actually enhances comprehension. In particular, if you think of sentences as divided into two parts, OLD information (info the reader already knows) should come early in the sentence and NEW information (info the reader does not already know) should come late in the sentence. Moreover, the NEW info in one sentence can become the OLD info in the next sentence. This pattern is called AB: BC. Look, e.g., at the paragraph formed by sentences (1-2) below.
1. Most patients with heart disease are OVERWEIGHT. (old-NEW)
2. EXTRA WEIGHT around the waist is an especially high risk factor. (OLD-new)
By making the NEW info in (1) the OLD info in (2), the first sentence leads directly into the second. This pattern is easier to understand and is processed faster than an arrangement that violates this pattern.

Another pattern that enhances coherence is called AB:AC. In this pattern each sentence in the discourse begins with reference to the same information (OLD) and then ends with some bit of NEW info. For example,
1. MOST PATIENTS with heart disease are overweight. (OLD-new)
3. THESE PATIENTS also typically have high blood pressure. (OLD-new) 
Now look at  the paragraph formed by sentences (1) and (4) below. In (4) the order of OLD and NEW has been reversed.
1. Most patients with heart disease are OVERWEIGHT. (old-NEW)
4. An especially high risk factor is EXTRA WEIGHT around the waist. (new-OLD)
This paragraph (which has the incoherent AB:CB structure) is less cohesive and takes longer to process.  Neither does the NEW info in the first sentence lead into the second. Nor is the OLD info in the first sentence repeated at the beginning of the second. Instead a third topic, “risk factors,” is introduced out of nowhere.
Now go back to the lines from Dickens. What kind of pattern do these lines have? Is the pattern coherent?
For the orginal research on old and new information, see Haviland & Clark (1974). “What’s New? Acquiring New Information as a Process of Comprehension.” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 515-521.
For a synopsis, see Parker & Riley’s Chapter on “Language Processing” in Linguistics for Non-Linguists (4th or 5th edition).


Answers to Genre Quiz

18 Jun

1. Directive

2. Declaration

3. Representative

4. Expressive

5. Commissive

Genre Quiz

16 Jun

What type of  “speech act” (i.e. genre) is being performed by each of the following utterances:

Your choices are representative, directive, question, commissive, expressive, declaration.

1. A doctor’s report to a patient says, “I recommend that you lose 20 lbs.”

2. An umpire at a baseball game says to a base runner, “You’re out!”

3. An email to employees says, “The following is a list of all paid holidays throughout the year.”

4. A card  sent to new parents says “Congratulations on your new baby!”

5. A home buyer writes an offer to a seller stating “I am hereby offering you $250,000 for your property at 21 Elm St.” 

Answers tomorrow.



15 Jun

A helpful way to think about written genres is to view them as speech acts. There are essentially six “acts” you can perform with words:

1. You can describe some state of affairs (e.g. John has blue eyes). Such  acts are called representatives.

2. You can try to get someone to do something. (e.g. Shut the door). Such acts are called directives.

3. You can request information (e.g. When does the parade start?). Such acts are called questions.

4. You can commit yourself to do something (e.g. I’ll be home by midnight.) Such acts are called commissives.

5. You can express an emotional state (e.g. I’m sorry for stepping on your toe). Such acts are called expressives. 

6. You can change the status of some entity (e.g. You’re fired). Such acts are called declarations.

If you think about it, many types of writing fall into one of these six categories:

1. Many types of journalism (e.g. news stories) are representatives.

2. Intructions and directions (e.g. how to assemble a piece of furniture) are directives.

3. Interviews (e.g. with a celebrity) and interrogations (e.g. in a lawsuit) are questions. 

4. Contracts (e.g. between an author and a publisher) are commissives.

5. Letters of congratulation and commendation ( e.g. “welcome aboard” letters) are expressives.

6. Letters of appointment and dismissal (e.g. a promotion letter) are declarations.

It helps to know what “speech act” you are trying to perform with a particular piece of writing.

To read more about “speech acts,” see Chapter 2 of Parker, Frank and Kathryn Riley, Linguistics for Non-Linguists. Boston: Allyn and Bacon (any edition).

Hello world!

14 Jun

Welcome to! This is your very first post. Click the Edit link to modify or delete it, or start a new post. If you like, use this post to tell readers why you started this blog and what you plan to do with it.

Happy blogging!