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From the USIA

Waves of Abstraction: Organizing Exposition

Part One

by J.R. Martin

From
Functional Approaches to Written Text: Classroom Discourse


Part One

Part Two

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Students are often told to "tell readers what you are going to say; say it; and tell them what you have said." This paper will look at what this advice actually means in linguistic terms, both with respect to organizing information and in terms of the abstract language needed to construct organization of this kind. I will make use of a number of re-worked versions of a student text to illustrate my points, with referenced to Halliday’s notions of theme, new and grammatical metaphor.

Once upon a time......when I was still in school in Canada, one of my teachers suggested that in exposition it was important to tell people what you're going to say, say it, and then tell them what you've said. Alongside a little traditional grammar, this was about all that was left of a once rich tradition of teaching in grammar and rhetoric - which the western world inherited from the ancient Greeks. As far as teaching writing is concerned, I doubt that even these impoverished relics of this tradition remain in many Commonwealth schools. But the textual organization they attempted to prescribe is still with us. Here for example is a piece of geography writing from an Australian secondary school (the student is in Year 10, and so about 15 years old).

Why animals are extinct

Man has been making animals rare and even extinct for thousands of years, and one of the main ways man has achieved this is by the destruction of their habitat. The destruction of a habitat means that the vital balance between an animal and its environment is disturbed. In ancient times the destruction of habitat and the extinction of animals was quite small. Since then it has rapidly increased. People began to make more use of machines and industrialisation occurred bringing with it changes which would destroy the face of the earths environment forever. As the demands grew wood and later coal, supplied the resources needed, this in turn resulted in the destruction of forests and habitats. At the same time that industrialisation was taking place humans were settling in new parts of the world. Whenever they settled, nests were cut down and farms established. This destroyed the habitat of many animals.

The effects of industrialisation and the need of more land due to the growth of population seriously affected wildlife and still is today already half the worlds tropical rainforests have already been destroyed or irreversibly damaged. This reckless ravaging of some of the most amazing habitats on earth means that by the year 2000 the destruction will be complete and the world will be without these areas.

This brief account of ecological disaster is part of a larger text - a geography report on rainforests (including several other texts of a similar size and various images). In broad outline, text 1 follows the rhetorical scaffolding rehearsed above: an account of the destruction is proposed, the account is rendered, and then it is summarized and its significance evaluated.

tell them what you're going to say-

Man has been making animals rare and even extinct for thousands of years, and one of the main ways man has achieved this is by the destruction of their habitat. The destruction of a habitat means that the vital balance between an animal and its environment is disturbed.

say it -

In ancient times the destruction of habitat and the extinction of animals was quite small. Since then it has rapidly increased. People began to make more use of machines and industrialisation occurred bringing with it changes which would destroy the face of the earths environment forever. As the demands grew wood and later coal, supplied the resources needed, this in turn resulted in the destruction of forests and habitats. At the same time that industrialisation was taking place humans were settling in new parts of the world. Whenever they settled, nests were cut down and farms established. This destroyed the habitat of many animals.

and then tell them what you've said -

The effects of industrialisation and the need of more land due to the growth of population seriously affected wildlife and still is today already half the worlds tropical rainforests have already been destroyed or irreversibly damaged. This reckless ravaging of some of the most amazing habitats on earth means that by the year 2000 the destruction will be complete and the world will be without these areas.

So in some respects, the advice I received still looks worthwhile. But advice is often easier to give than to practice. How did the writer of text 1 achieve the organization under focus here?

ANALYSIS
Here we will explore this from the point of view of a contemporary theory of text organization, developed by systemic functional linguistics. Part of this theory is concerned with information flow - the way in which information is packaged into clauses, paragraphs and texts as a whole. Halliday (1985/1994) considers the beginning of the English clause to be especially important in this respect, since it encodes the writer's point of departure for the clause in such a way as to relate it to the rest of the text. Consider the 'say it' section of text 1 (with clause Themes underlined, following the principles proposed in Fries 1981/1983):

In ancient times the destruction of habitat and the extinction of animals was quite small.

Since then it has rapidly increased.

People began to make more use of machines

and industrialisation occurred bringing with it changes which would destroy the face of the earth's environment forever.

As the demands grew wood and later coal, supplied the resources needed,

this in turn1 resulted in the destruction of forests and habitats.

At the same time that industrialisation was taking place humans were settling in new parts of the world.

Whenever they settled, nests were cut down and farms established.

This destroyed the habitat of many animals.

As can be seen, the main function of the Themes (6 out of 9) in this 'say it' stage of the text is to scaffold the unfolding narrative of ecological destruction - organizing it with respect to location in time. And this 'method of development' was predicted by the 'tell them what you're going to say' section, which announced the text's historical orientation.2

Man has been making animals rare and even extinct for thousands of years

[predicting]

In ancient times

Since then

As the demands grew

this in turn

At the same time that industrialisation was taking place

Whenever they settled,

Subsequently, in the 'tell them what you've said' section, the point of this history of ecological disaster is summarized (industrialisation and the need of more land due to the growth of population...) and evaluated (this reckless ravaging of some of the most amazing habitats on earth...). Clearly, the rhetorical sandwich outlined above is alive and well in the writing of the more successful of Australia's secondary school apprentice geographers.

The following takes a closer look at the way in which this sandwich was constructed, beginning with the 'say it' stage. One important feature to note is that as the history unfolds, Themes pick up the point of preceding clauses. Thus the Theme and industrialisation condenses 'people making more use of machines':

People began to make more use of machines
and industrialisation occurred bringing with it changes which would destroy the face
of the earth's environment forever.

The Theme as the demands grew packages the implications of 'changes which would destroy the earth's environment forever':

People began to make more use of machines
and industrialisation occurred bringing with it changes which would destroy the face of the earths environment forever.

As the demands grew wood and later coal, supplied the resources needed, this in turn resulted in the destruction of forests and habitats.

And the Theme at the same time that industrialisation was taking place consolidates the point of the three preceding clauses, in order to shift the focus of the text from industrialisation to population growth and the need for more land for settlement:

People began to make more use of machines
and industrialisation occurred bringing with it changes which would destroy the face of the earth's environment forever.

As the demands grew wood and later coal, supplied the resources needed, this in turn resulted in the destruction of forests and habitats.

At the same time that industrialisation was taking place humans were settling in new parts of the world.

Significantly, setting up Themes which pick up the point of previous clauses as points of departure for succeeding ones depends on a packaging strategy known as nominalization. Grammatically, words like industrialisation and demands are nouns, and thus natural candidates for English Theme; semantically on the other hand, these words are processes - processes dressed up a things, but processes all the same.

In the 'tell them what you've said' section of text 1, the pressure to consolidate is even greater, since the point of several clauses has to be summarized and evaluated. The grammar responds to this pressure by drawing even more heavily on nominalization as a packaging device. Consider the Themes of the first and third clauses of the text's final stage:

The effects of industrialisation and the need of more land due to the growth of population seriously affected wildlife and still is today...

This reckless ravaging of some of the most amazing habitats on earth means that by the year 2000 the destruction will be complete and the world will be without these areas.

In the Theme of the first clause, 4 nominalizations (effects, industrialization, need, and growth) are strung together in a single nominal group (a super-nominalization). And beyond this, the same nominal group encodes two logical connections as well (the noun effects, and the preposition due to) - which might have been realized through conjunctions rather than nouns. These alternative connections are outlined below:

[The effects of industrialization]

people began to use more machines (i.e. to industrialize) and so they cut down trees and dug up coal to run them, and thus destroyed the earth's environment...

[and the need of more land due to the growth of population]

and population grew
and so people needed more land

Just as important as the use of nominalization to thematize a summary of the text's narrative is its use to thematize and evaluate what went on. The writer of text 1 evaluates the destruction of habitat as 'reckless ravaging' - a negative assessment which nevertheless implies that by being more careful, we might have, or might still be able to make amends. Alternatively, the destruction might have been evaluated as arising from bad luck (tragic), stupidity (senseless), dishonesty (deceptive) or greed (avaricious) - as outlined below.

[normality] This tragic ravaging of some of the most amazing habitats on earth

[capacity] This senseless ravaging of some of the most amazing habitats on earth

[tenacity] This reckless ravaging of some of the most amazing habitats on earth

[veracity] This deceptive ravaging of some of the most amazing habitats on earth

[integrity] This avaricious ravaging of some of the most amazing habitats on earth

Critically, the main resources for evaluations of this kind in English are nominal ones, and so whatever is being evaluated is best nominalized to be interpreted.3 Consider, for example, the following 'de-nominalized' version of text's 1's final section and the problem of succinctly incorporating the 'reckless ravaging' evaluation in it:

People began to work in factories and there were more people all the time, and so wild animals suffered and still are suffering today. Already half the worlds tropical rainforests have already been destroyed or irreversibly damaged. If we keep going at this rate by the year 2000 we will have destroyed all our tropical rainforests.

GRAMMATICAL METAPHOR
Halliday (e.g. 1985/1994) offers of general theory of the phenomenon of nominalization, which he refers to as grammatical metaphor. Basically, his idea is that meanings and the ways we word them have unmarked correlations which evolved first in our culture, which we develop first as children, and which tend to unfold first in texts. Some of the most important of these unmarked correlations are as follows:

  • nouns encode participants (people, places, things...)
  • verbs encode processes (action, thoughts, feelings...)
  • adjectives encode qualities (size, shape, color...)
  • conjunctions encode logical relations (time, cause, contrast...)

But as we have seen in text 1, meanings and their wordings do not always correlate in this way. Here's a short checklist of some of the ways in which meanings can be moved around:

a. 'quality' as noun (instead of adjective)

'unstable' as instability

b. 'process' as noun (instead of verb)

'transform' to transformation [event]

'will/be going to' to prospect [tense]
'try to' to attempt [phase]
'can/could' to possibility/potential[modality]

c. 'logical relation' as noun (instead of conjunction)

'so' to cause/proof
'if' to condition

d. 'logical relation' as verb (instead of conjunction)

'then' to follow
'so' to cause
'and' to complement

e. 'logical relation' as preposition (instead of conjunction)

'so' to because of/in light of
'if' to in the event of

Halliday interprets these marked codings as metaphors because they have to be read on two levels - literally in terms of the actual grammatical class of the item under question, and figuratively in terms of the 'underlying' meaning that is being encoded. This means that in order to fully understand a nominal group like the need for more land due to the growth of population, we have to interpret need as a noun linked to the noun growth by the preposition due to, and in addition interpret need as a process which is causally related to the process behind growth. So when we unpacked the need for more land due to the growth of population as population grew and so people needed more land above, we were focussing attention on these two levels of interpretation.

Most of us find the de-nominalized version easier to understand. It is simpler in the sense that its meaning and wording match - nouns encode participants, verbs encode processes and conjunctions encode logical relations. This is the way young children talk, especially before puberty, and the way people in general chat with their friends, in casual conversation. But it is not the way educated people write exposition, where information is packaged differently. Powerful written language in our culture usually involves a great deal of grammatical metaphor - and one reason for this is that it makes it easier to construct the rhetorical sandwiches illustrated above and to evaluate the significance of their fillings.4

SYNTHESIS
What can we do with this, if we want to teach writing, instead of standing back and hoping grammatical metaphor and the organization and evaluation it facilitates will just happen? We will pursue this problem with respect to another text, which does not in fact display the features we focussed on in text 1. The text was written in another Year 10 geography class in another secondary school in Sydney. The text is very typical of those composed by students from migrant backgrounds, only a minority of whom will move on from Year 10 to senior secondary school and university. The student in question is writing in response to the question "Are Governments necessary? Give reasons for your answer."

2. (Original 'spoken English' version; 'writing as you speak')

I think Governments are necessary because if there wasn't any there would be no law people would be killing themselves. They help keep our economic system in order for certain things

If there wasn't no Federal Government there wouldn't have been no one to fix up any problems that would have occurred in the community. Same with the State Government if the SG didn't exist there would have been no one to look after the school, vandalism fighting would have occurred everyday. The local Government would be important to look after the rubbish because everyone would have diseases.

Writing of this kind can be embarrassing for students, and a real worry for their teachers, who may however be hard-pressed to evaluate its shortcomings and show their students how to do better. In Australia, few teachers have been trained to do more than point to errors in what is commonly referred to as 'grammar, punctuation, and usage.' The features of the spoken language that can be identified in this way are easy to 'correct'; this has been carried out for 2' below. Editing of this kind makes the text more presentable; but it does not really improve it as a piece of humanities discourse. It changes the text's status, but not its functionality.

2'. ('Written English' version; revising 'grammar, punctuation & usage')

I think Governments are necessary because if there weren't any there wouldn't be any law: people would be killing themselves. They help keep our economic system in order for certain things.

If there wasn't any Federal Government there wouldn't be anyone to fix up any problems that occur in the community. It's the same with the State Government - if the State Government didn't exist there wouldn't be anyone to look after the schools; vandalism and fighting would occur everyday. The local Government is important to look after rubbish, because otherwise everyone would have diseases.

.

Continued in Part Two


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