Academic Writing

Writing paragraphs

Flow of information in paragraphs

Every paragraph has a structure. It is not just a random collection of sentences. The parts that make up the text are related in meaningful ways to each other.  

In order for a paragraph to be easy to read, the information in it must flow easily from one sentence to the next. To do this it is important to structure your information clearly and signal exactly what you want to say by the use of signalling words.

Information structure.

Most sentences in English have two parts a theme (or topic) and a rheme (or comment) (McCarthy, 1991, p. 55). The theme is what you are writing about - it is shared information and it has been introduced to your reader. The rheme is what you are saying about the theme - it is new information, what you want to tell your reader.

Look at the following sentences:

1. The M1 goes from London to Leeds.
2. The motorway from London to Leeds is called the M1.

The theme in sentence 1 is "the M1". The reader has been introduced to the M1 but does not know where it goes and therefore needs to be told. In sentence 2, the theme is "the motorway from London to Leeds". The reader knows there is a motorway from London to Leeds but does not know what it is called.

In English the theme usually comes at the beginning of the sentence and the rheme at the end. The decision about which part of the sentence to make the theme and which part to make the rheme depends on the information that needs to be communicated. This depends on the sentences that come before.

Look at the following short paragraphs:

3. I was born in Glasgow. Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland.
4. I was born in Glasgow. The largest city in Scotland is Glasgow.

All the sentences are grammatically correct but in example 4, the new information to be communicated, the rheme - the largest city in Scotland, is at the beginning of the sentence. Example 3 is preferred in English.

The following are similar

5. In the past 60 years, as many as 65 different classification systems have been developed to define the dimensions of leadership. One such classification system is the scheme proposed by Bass (1990, pp. 11-20).
6.  In the past 60 years, as many as 65 different classification systems have been developed to define the dimensions of leadership. The scheme proposed by Bass (1990, pp. 11-20) is one such classification system.
7. In the past 60 years, as many as 65 different classification systems have been developed to define the dimensions of leadership. Bass (1990, pp. 11-20) proposed such a classification system.

Again, all the sentences are grammatically correct but in examples 6 & 7, the new information to be communicated, the rheme - the scheme proposed by Bass, is at the beginning of the sentence. Example 5 is preferred in English.

There are two basic choices in organising information texts:

1. The rheme of one sentence becomes the theme of the next sentence.

Example 1

The complete electrical behaviour of any valve or transistor can be described by stating the interrelation of the currents and the voltages between all the electrodes. These relationships can conveniently be displayed graphically, and the various curves are known as the 'characteristics' of the device. In principle, all the characteristics should be available to the designer proposing to use the device in a circuit.
(W. P. Jolly, (1972). Electronics, p. 61)
Text diagram 1

Example 2

The early feminist movement was greatly influenced by the work on Mary Wollstonecraft. She proposed a feminist agenda whose aims were to expose the exclusion of women from traditionally male spheres such as politics, economics, education and religion. These aims became a main focus for religious women in particular in the United States.
(Tony Bilton et al (1981)  Introductory sociology.)
Text diagram 2

Example 3

In an era of global problems - whether they are financial, environmental, religious, social, or political - the calls for post-heroic leadership have come ever thicker. The alternatives to heroic leadership imply that leadership is unnecessary, or that it can be distributed equally amongst the collective, or that once the cause of conflict - whether that is private property, as Marx suggested, or religion - is removed, it becomes unnecessary, or that heroic leadership is the consequence rather than the cause of organization. In attempting to escape from the clutches of heroic leadership, we now seem enthralled by its apparent opposite - distributed leadership: in this post-heroic era we will all be leaders so that none are.
(Keith Grint (2010) Leadership: A very short introduction, p. 112)

2. The theme of one sentence is the same as the theme of the next sentence.

Example 4

Anthropology is the study of humankind, especially of Homo sapiens, the biological species to which we human beings belong. It is the study of how our species evolved from more primitive organisms; it is also the study of how our species developed a mode of communication known as language and a mode of social life known as culture. It is the study of how culture evolved and diversified. And finally, it is the study of how culture, people, and nature interact wherever human beings are found.

(Marvin Harris, (1975), Culture, people nature, p. 1)

Text diagram 3

Example 5

Karl Marx was a German philosopher. He was also an economist, historian, political theorist, sociologist, journalist and revolutionary socialist. He was born in Trier to a middle-class family and studied law and Hegelian philosophy. Due to his political publications, Marx became stateless and lived in exile in London, where he continued to develop his thought in collaboration with German thinker Friedrich Engels.
(Tony Bilton et al (1981)  Introductory sociology.)
Text diagram 4

NB: A mixture of the two is also possible.

Example 6

Darwin’s The origin of species published in 1859 was hugely influential in the field of science and in society in general. Indeed it has often been referred to as the ‘book that shook the world’. The book outlined how there could be a relatively gradual change in the characteristics of successive generations of a species and that higher plants and animals evolved slowly over time from lower beings. This evolution occurred as a result of competition within local interacting communities. Darwin’s book helped throw the idea that there was a complete difference between humans and the animal world into turmoil as he reinforced the suggestion that humans evolved from lower beings. Prior to this it was believed in the western world, based on biblical works, that humans were created superior to other beings.
(J. Holden (2008), Physical geography and the environment, p. 6)

Text diagram 5

More Examples:

Biology can be visualised as a hierarchy of units, ordered from the smallest to the largest.  These units are molecules, cells, tissues, organs, organisms, populations, communities, and the biosphere.

(W K Purves, D Sadava, G. H. Orians & H C Heller (2004) Life: The science of biology.)

 

Scientific methods are the most powerful tools that humans have developed to understand how the world works. Their strength is founded on the development of hypotheses that can be tested. The process is self-correcting because if the evidence fails to support a hypothesis, it is either abandoned or modified and subjected to further tests.

(W K Purves, D Sadava, G. H. Orians & H C Heller (2004) Life: The science of biology.)

 

Leadership style consists of the behavior pattern of a person who attempts to influence others. It includes both directive (task) behaviors and supportive (relationship) behaviors. Directive behaviors help group members accomplish goals by giving directions, establishing goals and methods of evaluation, setting time lines, defining roles, and showing how the goals are to be achieved. Directive behaviors clarify, often with one- way communication, what is to be done, how it is to be done, and who is responsible for doing it. Supportive behaviors help group members feel comfortable about themselves, their coworkers, and the situation. Supportive behaviors involve two-way communication and responses that show social and emotional support to others. Examples of supportive behaviors include asking for input, solving problems, praising, sharing information about one- self, and listening. Supportive behaviors are mostly job related.

(P G Northouse 2007 Leadership: Theory and practice.)

Example

Look at some examples in the following paragraph.

Correlation is a statistical technique that is used to measure and describe a relationship between two variables. Usually the two variables are simply observed as they exist naturally in the environment - there is no attempt to control or manipulate the variables. For example, a researcher interested in the relationship between nutrition and IQ could observe (and record) the dietary patterns for a group of preschool children and then measure IQ scores for the same group. Notice that the researcher is not trying to manipulate the children's diet or IQ, but is simply observing what occurs naturally. You also should notice that a correlation requires two scores for each individual (one score from each of the two variables). These scores normally are identified as X and Y. The pairs of scores can be listed in a table, or they can be presented graphically in a scatterplot. In the scatterplot, the X values are placed on the horizontal axis of a graph, and the V values are placed on the vertical axis. Each individual is then identified by a single point on the graph so that the coordinates of the point (the X and V values) match the individual's X score and Y score. The value of the scatterplot is that it allows you to see the nature of the relationship.
(F. J. Gravetter and L. B. Wallnau (1996). Statistics for the behavioral sciences.)

Exercises

Exercise 8 & Exercise 9

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