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ERIC Number: ED548728
Record Type: Non-Journal
Publication Date: 2011
Pages: 187
Abstractor: As Provided
Reference Count: N/A
ISBN: 978-1-2673-2234-0
The Position, Weight, and Content of the English Subject and Pre-Subject Constituents in Expository Writing: Interactions between Constituent Orders, Information Structure, and Subjecthood Properties
Jayaraman, Jaisree
ProQuest LLC, Ph.D. Dissertation, Purdue University
This study is concerned with clarity of writing at three levels of a written text: the clarity of each sentence, the "cohesion" of adjacent sentences, and the "coherence" of all sentences in the text taken together. Sentence-level clarity pertains to the clarity of the proposition expressed by it, cohesion pertains to the clarity of the connections between consecutive propositions, and coherence pertains to the clarity of the unified message that all the propositions convey together. Ways to achieve these three levels of clarity are described by Williams' (2005), which follow principles of sentence structure known from three areas of linguistic studies: (i) four principles of word order, or more precisely, constituent order, (ii) information structure, which is the source of two of the four constituent ordering principles, and (iii) properties of prototypical subjects. First, the four constituent orders are (i) the canonical SVX order of English, (ii) the light-heavy constituent order, (iii) the given-new information order, and (iv) the topic-comment order. Second, information structure pertains to three pairs of concepts: (i) given and new information, (ii) topic and comment, and (iii) presupposition and focus. Each of these three pairs is conceptually distinct from the other two, although the three are often conflated in the literature. Lastly, the referents of prototypical subjects are (i) animate, (ii) agents, if the proposition involves actions that require an agent, and (iii) topics of propositions. Given this framework, Williams' guidelines for clear writing can be expressed as follows: (i) Individual sentences are clear when (a) their subject refers to the main participant in the proposition, preferably an animate participant and an agent where applicable, and the verb expresses the action described in the proposition, (b) the subject is light and is the first or an early constituent of the sentence, and (c) the sentence begins with given information and ends with new information; (ii) a sequence of sentences is cohesive when each sentence begins with information given at the end of the preceding sentence; and (iii) a passage is coherent when the topics of its sentences are closely related, expressed as subjects, and placed close to the beginning of the sentences. The above guidelines taken together fall short on many accounts because they do not take into account cases where two or more sentence-structuring principles conflict with each other. In order to address these gaps, this study examined to what extent sentence structures in good writing follow Williams' clarity principles. The study corpus consisted of seminal articles on composition theory written by ten leading professionals in the field, all presumably good writers. Given that the prototypical subject is the topic and/or an animate agent and that the subject is the first constituent in the canonical order, this study focused on subjects in the corpus to determine if they satisfied the four constituent orders: the canonical, light-heavy, given-new, topic-comment orders, i.e. if the subject was the first constituent, light, given, and the topic, and additionally, if it was animate and agentive. The study found that almost three quarters of the subjects in the corpus were in canonical position and contained given information. Among all referential subjects, about 82% were topics, almost half were animate, and about 37% were agents, indicating that topicality was the most predominant property of subjects. Most of the subjects (97.8%) were lighter than their predicates, and four of the five inverted subjects found were heavier than the inverted complements, as they should be. In whole-complement inversions, the subject was the focus, not the topic. Pre-subject (preposed or inverted) constituents obviously violate the canonical order, but most of them in the corpus also violated both the light-heavy and given-new orders. More than two thirds of pre-subject constituents were heavier than the subject, more than half of them expressed new information, and almost two-thirds did not contain more given information than the subject. Among the sentences that violated one or more structuring constraints in favor of others, there was no predominant pattern as to which constraints were stronger; the strength of the constraints differed from case to case. The results of the study have implications for both writing instruction and for theories of information structure with regard to expository writing. [The dissertation citations contained here are published with the permission of ProQuest LLC. Further reproduction is prohibited without permission. Copies of dissertations may be obtained by Telephone (800) 1-800-521-0600. Web page:]
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Publication Type: Dissertations/Theses - Doctoral Dissertations
Education Level: N/A
Audience: N/A
Language: English
Sponsor: N/A
Authoring Institution: N/A