Waves of Abstraction: Organizing Exposition

Part Two

by J.R. Martin

From
Functional Approaches to Written Text: Classroom Discourse


Part One

Part Two

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The reason that editing of this kind falls short of the mark is that it does not affect the text's organization. Effective writing is not just a question of good manners - etiquette is not enough. Consider the clause Themes in 2':

2'. ('Written English' version; with Theme analysis)

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.

The pattern of Themes displayed here is more like that of spoken than written language - there are 3 pronominal Themes (I, it, they), and 3 dependent clauses (if there weren't any, if there wasn't any Federal Government, if the State Government didn't exist). Out of the 8 Themes, 5 refer to government. There is no nominalization.5

I
because if there weren't any (Governments)
They (Governments)

If there wasn't any Federal Government
It (the situation)
if the State Government didn't exist
The local Government
because otherwise everyone

This kind of thematic development might have been more appropriate if the teacher had asked for a description of Government, rather than an argument about why governments are necessary. The argument really hinges on the 3 dependent clause Themes, all negative existential conditional clauses which set up a 'no government' scenario with dire consequences. In 2', this rhetorical maneuver is not predicted (as it might have been had the student begun Imagine what would happen if we had no government!)

One way of working towards a more 'written' version of text 2 is to revise its choices for Theme, making use of different levels of government to organize the argument. Note that this kind of change can be made without affecting the text's content:

2''. (Re-organized version; highlighting Theme)

Governments are necessary at different levels for a number of reasons.
They make laws, without which people would be killing themselves,
and help keep our economic system in order.

The Federal Government fixes up problems that occur in the community.

The State Government looks after schools, preventing vandalism and fighting.

The Local Government is important to look after rubbish:
otherwise everyone would have diseases.

Governments at several administrative levels are necessary.

Alongside a change of this kind, it is important to scaffold the logic of the argument. To achieve this in 2'', we have made use of some grammatical metaphor to predict and sum up (a number of reasons, as a result of these factors).

2'' (Re-organized version; highlighting conjunction)

Governments are necessary at different levels for a number of reasons.

They make laws, without which people would be killing themselves, and help keep our economic system in order.

To begin, the Federal Government fixes up problems that occur in the community.

Similarly, the State Government looks after schools, preventing vandalism and fighting.

Finally the Local Government is important to look after rubbish: otherwise everyone would have diseases.

As a result of these factors, Governments at several administrative levels are necessary.

As a next step we might consider expanding the first and last sections of the argument so that they predict and sum up more effectively. This involves predicting the organization of the arguments according to levels of government in the 'tell them what you're going to say' section, and summing up the responsibilities of the different levels of government in the 'tell them what you've said' section - as in 2''' below. The nominalizations enabling the prediction and summary are in bold face.

2'''. (tell them what you're going to say, say it, tell them what you've said)

I think Governments are necessary for a number of reasons. These have to do with the special responsibilities of Governments at different administrative levels - Federal, State and Local.

To begin the Federal Government fixes up problems that occur in the community...

Similarly the State Government looks after schools; this prevents vandalism and fighting...

Finally the Local Government is important to look after rubbish: otherwise everyone would have diseases...

As a result of their concern with general difficulties, schooling and waste disposal, Governments at several levels of administrative organisation are necessary.

Next, we might want to develop the arguments for the Federal, State and Local Governments. This would involve setting up a concern with general difficulties (Federal), schooling (State) and waste disposal (Local) as predictive of the elaborations which might follow. We will elaborate just the first argument in detail here, adding content to the text for the first time in this re-texturing exercise. Note that 2'''' now has two levels of 'tell them what you're going to say' - one for the text as a whole and one for each of the three main arguments. We have not taken the step of summing up the first argument, though had it been further elaborated, its complexity might have warranted a further layer of 'tell them what you've said.’

2''''. (adding layers of prediction)

I think Governments are necessary for a number of reasons. These have to do with the special responsibilities of Governments at different administrative levels - Federal, State and Local.

To begin the Federal Government is concerned with general difficulties faced by the community. It organises armed forces to defend the country in case it is attacked and to help keep things peaceful in various parts of the world. It tries to improve the economy, helping businesses run more effectively and provide more jobs for people. And it collects taxes which it spends on Medicare, universities and airports.

Similarly the State Government is responsible for schooling... this prevents vandalism and fighting...[elaborated]

Finally the Local Government has to look after waste disposal... otherwise everyone would have diseases...[elaborated]

As a result of their concern with general difficulties, schooling and waste disposal, Governments at several levels of administrative organisation are necessary.

Because nominalizations facilitate prediction and summation, the 'tell them what you're going to say' and tell them what you've said' sections of a written expository text are usually more nominalized than are the parts of the text being predicted or summed up. Rhetorically, this has the effect of making a text more credible - since the less nominalized parts of the text sound like real evidence (the cold hard facts) backing up more abstract generalizations. To see how this works in a mature piece of history writing, consider text 3 (Buggy,1988: 224-225), from a senior secondary school history textbook which is especially concerned with teaching students how to deal with primary sources.

3. The Breakout: 16 October to 25 November

This most successful phase of the Long March owes a great deal to the diplomatic skills of Zhou Enlai and to the bravery of the rearguard.

Knowing that the south-west sector of the encircling army was manned by troops from Guangdong province, Zhou began negotiations with the Guangdong warlord, Chen Jitang. Chen was concerned that a Guomindang victory over the Communists would enable Chiang Kaishek to threaten his own independence. Chen agreed to help the Communists with communications equipment and medical supplies and to allow the Red Army to pass through his lines.

Between 21 October and 13 November the Long Marchers slipped quietly through the first, second and third lines of the encircling enemy. Meanwhile the effective resistance of the tiny rearguard lulled the Guomindang army into thinking that they had trapped the entire Communist army. By the time the Guomindang leaders realised what was happening, the Red Army had three weeks' start on them. The marching columns, which often stretched over 80 kilometres, were made up of young peasant boys from south-eastern China. Fifty-four per cent were under the age of 24. Zhu De had left a vivid description of these young soldiers:

They were lean and hungry men, many of them in their middle and late teens...most were illiterate. Each man wore a long sausage like a pouch...filled with enough rice to last two or three days. (A. Smedley, The Great Road, Calder, New York, 1958, pp. 311-12)

By mid-November life became more difficult for the Long Marchers. One veteran recalls:

When hard pressed by enemy forces we marched in the daytime and at such times the bombers pounded us. We would scatter and lie down; get up and march then scatter and lie down again, hour after hour. Our dead and wounded were many and our medical workers had a very hard time. The peasants always helped us and offered to take our sick, our wounded and exhausted. Each man left behind was given some money, ammunition and his rifle and told to organise and lead the peasants in partisan warfare when he recovered. (Han Suyin, The Crippled Tree, Jonathon Cape, London, 1970, pp. 311-312)

When entering new areas, the Red Army established a pattern which was sustained throughout the Long March:

We always confiscated the property of the landlords and militarist officials, kept enough food for ourselves and distributed the rest to poor peasants and urban poor... We also held great mass meetings. Our dramatic corps played and sang for the people and our political workers wrote slogans and distributed copies of the Soviet Constitution...If we stayed in a place for even one night we taught the peasants to write six characters: 'Destroy the Tuhao' (landlord) and 'Divide the Land'. (A. Smedley, The Great Road, Calder, New York, 1958, pp. 311-12)

Text 3 begins with a very abstract 'tell them what you're going to say' section, which announces that the diplomatic skills of Zhou Enlai and the bravery of the rearguard were in large part responsible for the success of the 'breakout' phase of the Long March. This announcement is built up around a number of grammatical metaphors - essentially involving three nominalizations (this most successful phase of the Long March, the diplomatic skills of Zhou Enlai and the bravery of the rearguard) connected by the metaphorical realization of cause owes a great deal to. Compare a spoken translation such as, Zhou Enlai was able to negotiate skilfully with Chen Jitang and the soldiers who were left to guard the rear were very brave, so the Red Army successfully escaped.

level of abstraction 1:

This most successful phase of the Long March owes a great deal to the diplomatic skills of Zhou Enlai and to the bravery of the rearguard.

The next part of the text documents Zhou Enlai's diplomacy and, subsequently, the bravery of the rearguard. This passage contains a number of nominalizations (underlined below), but is not as grammatically metaphorical as the introduction. The text uses this middling level of abstraction to spell out the events which form the basis for the historian's evaluation of the reasons for the success of this phase of the Long March.

level of abstraction 2:

Knowing that the south-west sector of the encircling army was manned by troops from Guangdong province, Zhou began negotiations with the Guangdong warlord, Chen Jitang. Chen was concerned that a Guomindang victory over the Communists would enable Chiang Kaishek to threaten his own independence. Chen agreed to help the Communists with communications equipment and medical supplies and to allow the Red Army to pass through his lines.

Between 21 October and 13 November the Long Marchers slipped quietly through the first, second and third lines of the encircling enemy. Meanwhile the effective resistance of the tiny rearguard lulled the Guomindang army into thinking that they had trapped the entire Communist army. By the time the Guomindang leaders realised what was happening, the Red Army had three weeks' start on them. The marching columns, which often stretched over 80 kilometres, were made up of young peasant boys from south-eastern China. Fifty-four per cent were under the age of 24. Zhu De had left a vivid description of these young soldiers:

Finally the text moves to primary source material by way of providing evidence for the preceding interpretation, drawing on diary records of those actually involved in the fighting:

level of abstraction 3 (exemplified):

When hard pressed by enemy forces we marched in the daytime and at such times the bombers pounded us. We would scatter and lie down; get up and march then scatter and lie down again, hour after hour. Our dead and wounded were many and our medical workers had a very hard time. The peasants always helped us and offered to take our sick, our wounded and exhausted. Each man left behind was given some money, ammunition and his rifle and told to organise and lead the peasants in partisan warfare when he recovered.

This material contains very little in the way of grammatical metaphor, and so has the rhetorical effect of sounding quite convincing. By and large, participants are realized as nouns, processes as verbs and logical relations as conjunctions.

PARTICIPANT

nouns: enemy forces, we, bombers, us, we, medical workers, peasants, us, man, money, rifle, peasants, he

PROCESSES

verbs: pressed, marched, pounded, scatter, lie, get up, march, scatter, lie, helped, offered, take, left, given, told, organize, lead, recovered

LOGICAL RELATION

conjunctions: when, and, and, and, then, and, and, and, and, when

Of course, the primary source material may bear no more direct a relation to what actually went on than the historian's interpretation. But in terms of abstraction, it sounds as if it bears a more direct relation - and so grounds the argument as an effective piece of historical interpretation.

 

THEORY OUT OF PRACTICE
At present, we are only just beginning to appreciate the significance of grammatical metaphor for organizing writing and constructing the uncommon-sense knowledge of the institutions in which this writing plays a pivotal role.6 In the future, I would expect that research in this area will be inspired by the needs of practicing teachers, working in contexts where abstract language has to be taught if students are to progress with their learning. These contexts may be in secondary institutions when students are introduced to specific disciplinary discourse, in tertiary institutions where they have to master English for academic purposes, in various sectors of public administration where they have to take control of English for the purpose of regulating populations, or in other workplace sites as part of their training and retraining. In the meantime, I look forward in particular to learning about teachers’ experiences introducing students to grammatical metaphor and the range of function it has evolved to serve - and the development of the new grammar and rhetoric which will frame these ideas for future generations.

J. R. Martin is currently Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney. His research interests include systemic theory, functional grammar, discourse analysis, register, genre and ideology, focussing on English and Tagalog - with special reference to the transdisciplinary fields of education linguistics and social semiotics. Recent publications include Language: a resource for meaning (co-authored with Frances Christie, Brian and Pam Gray, Mary Macken and Joan Rothery); English Text: system and structure); Writing Science: literacy and discursive power (with M.A.K. Halliday).


Notes:

1. The conjunctive adjunct in turn has been included here as textual Theme, even though it follows the topical Theme this - since it clearly reinforces the text’s method of development.

2. For more discussion of Theme and text organisation see Fries, 1994; Ghadessy, in press; Martin 1992a, b.

3. See Martin, 1995 for the evaluative framework drawn on here.

4. For further reading on nominalization and grammatical metaphor in general see Halliday and Martin 1993; Martin 1988, 1990.

5. Government is the name of an institution here, not a metaphorical encoding of a process.

6. For an overview of abstraction in science and technology and in humanities and bureaucracy, see Martin, 1993b.


References

Ghadessy, M (Ed.), (In press). Thematic Development in English Texts. London: Pinter (Open Linguistics Series).

Martin, J.R. 1988. Secret English: discourse technology in a junior secondary school. (With P Wignell, S Eggins & J Rothery) L Gerot, J Oldenberg & T Van Leeuven [Eds.] Language and Socialisation: home and school. Sydney: School of English and Linguistics, Macquarie University (Report of the 1986 Working Conference on Language in Education), 143-173. [republished in B Cope & M Kalantzis (Eds.) Genre Approaches to Literacy: theories and practices (Papers from the 1991 LERN Conference, University of Technology, Sydney, 23-24 November 1991). Sydney: Common Ground. 1993. 43-76.]

Martin, J.R. 1990. Language and control: fighting with words. In C. Walton and W. Eggington (Eds.), Language: maintenance, power and education in Australian Aboriginal contexts. Darwin, N.T.: Northern Territory University Press, 12-43.

Martin, J.R. 1992a. English Text: system and structure. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Martin, J.R. 1993b. Technology, bureaucracy and schooling: discursive resources and control. Cultural Dynamics 6.1. 84-130

Martin, J.R. 1993c. Genre and literacy - modelling context in educational linguistics. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 13, 141-172.

Martin, J.R. 1995. Reading positions/positioning readers: judgement in English. Prospect: a journal of Australian TESOL 10.2.

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