Challenging Stereotypes about
Academic Writing:
Complexity,
Elaboration, Explicitness
Doug Biber
Northern Arizona University
(Collaborating researcher: Bethany Gray)
Background: Generally accepted claims about
writing in comparison/contrast to speech
•
•
•
•
Complex
Elaborated
Explicit in meaning
E.g., Hughes (1996.32-34), comparing writing to
speech:
– longer and more complex clauses
– full phrases and clauses with little abbreviation or
ellipsis
– explicit and varied marking of clause relations
– explicit presentation of ideas
– explicit indication of text organization
Elaboration and/or explicitness as a characteristic of academic
research writing
Li & Ge (2009): “a more elaborate presentation of the data-analysis
procedures may serve to strengthen the […] accuracy (e.g. clearer,
precise) […] of the Results section […] “ (p. 98)
Hyland (2008: 11, 16): “Here then we see the emphasis of the soft
knowledge fields on […] identifying and elaborating relationships in
argument”
“This reflects the more discursive and evaluative patterns of argument
in the soft knowledge fields, where persuasion is more explicitly
interpretative […] The presentation of research is therefore
altogether more discursively elaborate, […]”
Hyland & Tse (2005): […] in academic writing […] elaborated
structures are generally preferred as they facilitate the readers’
understanding of the text. (p. 127)
Elaboration and/or explicitness as a characteristic of
student academic writing
Wright (2008): “Students [writing chemistry lab reports]
engage in elaborated discourse with a high degree of
specificity […] Once they have focused on salient data
and evidence, elaborated forms of discourse arrange
information into more complex and explicit
representations reflective of canonical scientific ideas.”
(p. 292)
Keen (2004): “Myhill (1999) identifies elaboration and use
of subordination as features which tend to
characterise high quality Grade A writing […]” (p. 95)
“The redrafting process facilitates “ progressively more
extended clause planning and greater elaboration.”
(p. 96)
Major goals of the talk
Challenge all three generalizations about the language of
academic prose:
1.
Complex: Not according to traditional measures.
•
There is actually more clausal embedding in conversation
2.
Elaborated: actually more 'compressed' than
'elaborated'.
3.
Explicit: academic style has evolved to become
increasingly less explicit in the expression of
grammatical and textual relations
Is Biber saying that academic
writing is not complex?
Yes and No.
Yes: The grammatical characteristics usually
used to measure complexity are not typical
of academic writing.
Conversation is actually more ‘complex’ if
we consider those features
But no, academic discourse is complex in its
use of other grammatical features
Why does this matter for language
pedagogy?
• Teaching EAP writing: Many books
emphasize grammatical features that are
not actually characteristic of academic
writing
• Testing (and researching) writing
development: usually emphasizes
grammatical measures that are not
actually relevant for academic writing
‘Complexity’ and 'Elaboration‘ (1)
• Elaboration, clausal subordination, and
grammatical complexity are usually linked in
linguistic theory.
• A ‘simple’ clause has only a subject, verb, and
object or complement. A ‘simple’ noun phrase has
a determiner and head noun.
• ‘Elaboration’ = structural additions, resulting in
‘complex’ grammar
‘Complexity’ and 'Elaboration‘ (2)
• Descriptive linguists: dependent clauses are the
most important measure of grammatical complexity
(often contrasted with ‘simple’ clauses; see e.g.,
Huddleston 1984: 378; Willis 2003: 192; Purpura
2004: 91; Carter & McCarthy 2006: 489).
• Researchers on writing development: dependent
clause measures (see Brown et al. 2005; Ellis &
Yuan, 2004; Larsen-Freeman, 2006; Nelson & Van
Meter, 2007; Li, 2000; Norrby & Håkansson, 2007)
• Wolfe-Quintero et al. (1998: 118-9): measures
based on dependent clauses are the “best […]
complexity measures so far”
What does corpus research tell
us?
Major corpora for the study
• Conversation
– Synchronic: Longman Network; 713 texts; 4,175,000
words
– Diachronic: Drama 1700-1990: ARCHER, 75 texts; c.
75,000 words
• Science/medical academic research articles
– Synchronic: 20th c. science research articles,
1965, 1985, 2005: 155 texts, 655,000 words
– Diachronic:
• ARCHER, 1700-1990: 160 texts; c. 160,000 words
• Corpus of English Texts on Astronomy (A Coruña),
1700-1900: 42 texts; c. 400,000 words
'Elaboration' features
• Contractions and 'incomplete sentences' are
common in conversation; rare in academic
writing:
A: Of course he gets mad cos he can't smoke
cos we always take non-smoking.
B: Oh well.
• But structural compression is much more
prevalent than structural elaboration in academic
writing
– Phrasal embedding is much more common
than clausal embedding
‘Elaboration' features: Dependent clauses
• Overall, dependent clauses are actually more common in speech
than in academic writing – especially finite dependent clauses
functioning as clausal constituents
– Adverbial clauses are more common in speech
• So she can blame someone else if it doesn't work.
– Complement clauses are more common in speech
• I don’t know how they do it
– Post-nominal clauses are more common in academic writing
• the quantity of waste that falls into this category …
• The results shown in Tables IV and V add to the picture …
Figure 1. Com m on finite clause types functioning as clausal constituents
12
10
Conversation
Rate per 1,000 words
8
6
Academic
Writing
4
2
0
Finite adverbial
clauses
V+THAT
V+WH
Examples from conversation
• I just don’t know
[if that’s
[what he wants] ]
• But I don't think
[we would want
[to have it
[sound like
[it's coming from us] ] ] ]
Conversation
Gayle: And Dorothy said Bob's getting terrible with, with the
smoking. Uh, he's really getting defiant about it because there are
so many restaurants where you can't smoke and he just gets
really mad and won't go to them.
[…]
Peter: Well they, they had a party. I forget what it was. They had it at
a friend's house. I can't remember why it wasn't at their house
any way. And they had bought a bottle of Bailey's because they
knew I liked Bailey's.
[…]
Gayle: I can't remember who it was. One of us kids.
[…]
Peter: Oh. I'll tell you I think the biggest change in me is since I
had my heart surgery.
Gayle: Really? Yeah I guess my, I mean I know my surgery was a
good thing but
Peter: <?> It makes you think. You realize it can happen to you.
‘Compression' features: Dependent phrases
Embedded phrases (non-clausal) are extremely common in academic
writing
For example:
Each new level [of system differentiation] opens up space [for further
increases [in complexity] ].
– Attributive adjectives
• new level, further increases
– Nouns as pre-modifiers of a head noun
• system differentiation
– Post-nominal prepositional phrases
• level [of system differentiation]
• space [for further increases [in complexity]
Figure 2. Com m on dependent phrasal types functioning as constituents in a noun
phrase
70
60
Conversation
Rate per 1,000 words
50
40
Academic
Writing
30
20
10
0
Attributive
adjectives in NPs
Premodifying
nouns in NPs
Postmodifying
prepositional
phrases in NPs
Academic writing: Noun phrases with non-clausal modifiers
• This patterning [of behavior] [by households]
[on other households] takes time.
This may indeed be part [of the reason [for the
statistical link [between schizophrenia and
membership [in the lower socioeconomic
classes] ] ] ].
• In conclusion, it is suggested that the interspike
intervals [in a burst] and the silent intervals
[between bursts] are two important determinants
[of the effectiveness [of the burst pattern] [in
promoting neuropeptide release] ].
Differing complexities in speech versus
academic writing
Favored in conversation -------
Favored in academic writing
Parameter A: Structural type
finite dependent clauses
vs.
dependent phrases
(non-clausal)
Parameter B: Syntactic function
structures that are
vs.
structures that are
constituents in clauses
constituents in noun phrases
Intermediate complexity features
• E.g., nonfinite clauses as clause constituents;
finite clauses as noun phrase constituents
• Syntactic function is more important than
structural type:
– Clause constituents are preferred in conversation,
even when they are nonfinite dependent clauses and
non-clausal phrases
– Noun phrase constituents are preferred in writing
V
V
+T
O
er
bi
Pal
s*
ad
ve
rb
ia
ls
*
+I
N
TH
G
A
TN
co
ou
m
n+
p
TO
-c
N
om
+
P
p
re
p
+
TH
IN
A
G
T
re
N
la
on
t iv
W
f in
es
H
ite
re
la
re
t iv
la
tiv
es
e
cl
au
se
s
* per 100 w ords
n+
P
er
bad
v
N
ou
A
dv
Rate per 1,000 words
Figure 3. Dependent structures that m ix the tw o param eters
10
9
8
Conversation
7
6
5
4
Academ ic
Writing
3
2
1
0
Dimension 1 in Multi-Dimensional studies of
English
• 1988 general spoken and written registers
• 2006 university spoken and written
registers
Study Corpus
Linguistic features on Dimension 1
Biber
1988
spoken
and
written
registers
1st and 2nd person pronouns, other pro. present tense,
mental verbs, modals, emphatics, hedges,
verb+that-complement clauses (usually with 0
complementizer), causative adverbial clauses,
WH-clauses
versus
nouns, prepositions, attributive adjectives, long words,
type/token ratio
Biber
2006
university
spoken
and
written
registers
contractions, demonstrative pronouns, it, 1st person
pronouns, present tense, time advs, that-omission, WHquestions, etc.,
verb+that-complement clauses (usually with 0
complementizer), WH-clauses,
adverbial clauses: causative, conditional, other
versus
nominalizations, long words, nouns, prepositions, abstract
nouns, attributive adjectives, passives, stance noun + toclause, etc.
General English Dimension 1 (1988 study)
INVOLVED
| TELEPHONE CONVERSATIONS
35 + FACE-TO-FACE CONVERSATIONS
////////
20 + Personal letters, SPONTANEOUS SPEECHES
////////
| PREPARED SPEECHES, Romance fiction
0 +
| General fiction, Professional letters
| BROADCASTS
-5 +
| Science fiction
| Humor
-10 + Popular lore; Editorials; Hobbies
| Biographies
| Press reviews
-15 + Academic prose; Press reportage
|
| Official documents
-20 +
INFORMATIONAL
Measuring complexity for writing development:
t-unit length and clauses per t-unit
• Conversation eg:
Well, since he got so upset, I just didn’t think we
would want to wait for Tina to come back.
–
t-unit length: 20
• Academic writing eg:
This may be part of the reason for the statistical
link between schizophrenia and membership in
the lower socioeconomic classes.
–
t-unit length: 20
Measuring complexity for writing development:
t-unit length and clauses per t-unit [cont.]
Conversation:
Well [since he got so upset], I just didn’t think
[we would want
[to wait for
[Tina to come back] ] ]
main verb: think
number of dependent clauses per t-unit: 4
Measuring complexity for writing development:
T-unit length and clauses per t-unit [cont.]
Academic writing:
This may be part of the reason for the
statistical link between schizophrenia and
membership in the lower socioeconomic
classes.
main verb: be
number of dependent clauses per t-unit: 0
Diachronic change towards compressed
(less elaborated) phrasal structures in the
noun phrase
• Increasingly dense use of non-clausal
modification
• Academic writing has been the most
innovative / receptive to change
Figure 3: Historical change in the use of nouns as nom inal pre-m odifers in academ ic
prose
90
80
70
Rate per 1,000 words
60
50
40
30
20
10
0
1725
1775
1825
1875
1925
Historical period
1965
1985
2005
Figure 4: Historical change in the use of phrasal as post-nom inal m odifers in academ ic
prose (m edical)
35
30
OF-phrases
Rate per 1,000 words
25
Other
prepositions
20
15
Appositive
NPs
10
5
0
18th century
20th century
Historical period
Explicitness
• Conversation: Inexplicit (situationdependent) references to objects, places,
and times are common
– rare in writing
• Academic writing: Inexplicit marking of
meaning relationships: among syntactic
constituents and textual elements
– in the noun phrase
– spreading to other structures?
– increase in use historically
Non-explicit references in speech
(classroom teaching)
Situation-dependent or vague reference marked in yellow
Instructor: What I want you to do in your free writes is kind of reflect on
what do you think he means here. Maybe - and what you could
answer is would you want to live in that kind of place. Would you want
to live there? And if you do, Why? and do not, Why? And how does
Rymmer give you clues? -- I think Rymmer, especially in a poem like
this, he talks about this hollowness at his core, sort of the absence of
the bona fide, legitimate purpose to the whole thing. I think clues like
this are embedded throughout that suggest that Rymmer's pretty
negative, or skeptical about this whole project, right? And what I wanna
know is, if you do want to live there, why is that, and if you don't, what
is it about Rymmer's writing, or Rymmer's ideas that lead you to
believe that you wouldn't want to live there.
Inexplicit marking of syntactic relations in writing:
Noun phrases
• Heavy use of nominalization
– (Halliday 1979; Halliday and Martin 1993)
– States the action, not explicit that someone acts
• But noun modification is even more important:
• dense use of phrasal modification, where the relationship
between the head noun and the modifier is implicit,
rather than being stated explicitly
– Pre-modifiers: Nouns
– Post-modifiers:
• non-finite clauses
• prepositional phrases
• appositive noun phrases
Inexplicit meaning relations in the noun phrase:
Nouns as pre-modifiers
Compare:
family history
heart disease
alcohol consumption
prison officials
computer keyboard
computation time
retail outlet
union assets
pressure hose
pressure ratio
history about a person's family
disease located in the heart
process of consuming alcohol
officials who work in a prison
a keyboard used with a computer
time required to compute something
outlet which sells retail merchandise
assets belonging to a union
hose able to withstand pressure
ratio measuring pressure
Inexplicit meaning relations in the noun phrase:
Prepositional phrases as post-modifiers
• Another reason to use Ohio as a surrogate [for the country
as a whole] is that the data base [for hazardous waste
generation and flow] [for the State] is fairly good.
• a surrogate for the country as a whole 
– a surrogate that represents the country as a whole
• the data base for hazardous waste generation 
– the data base that documents hazardous waste
generation
• the data base … for the State 
– the data base that the State uses
Inexplicit meaning relations in the noun phrase:
Prepositional phrases as post-modifiers [2]
• farms in Malaysia 
– farms that are located in Malaysia
• variation in the quality of water 
– the way in which the quality of water varies
• experiments in agricultural chemistry 
– experiments that focused on the study of agricultural chemistry
• the roots on the surface 
– roots which are on top of the surface
• restrictions on underground injection of chemicals 
– rules that restrict the underground injection of chemicals
• writers on style 
– writers who discuss style
20th c.; Appositive NPs in academic writing (1)
Coreferential, marked with parentheses:
• In four cohorts (Athens, Keio, Mayo, and
Florence), investigators stated that…
• We present the results of the International
Meta - analysis of Mortality Impact of
Systemic Sclerosis (IMMISS)
20th c.; Appositive NPs in academic writing (2)
NOT coreferential, or coreferential but providing technical definition:
• … depending on whether enrollment (first cohort visit) occurred
within 6 months of the first physician diagnosis of systemic sclerosis
(incident case) or whether diagnosis had preceded the first visit by
>6 months (prevalent case).
• Analyses that included all cases in each center (n=3311; total followup: 19,990 person-years) yielded largely similar results.
• All cohorts showed significantly increased standardized mortality
ratios (figure 1) .
• Our Girnock analysis (fig. 2a) shows that late autumn and winter
(day 240 onwards) was the only period when…
Inexplicit meaning relations in the noun phrase:
Appositive noun phrases (2)
Compare:
Our Girnock analysis (fig. 2a) shows that late autumn and winter (day
240 onwards) was the only period when…
vs.
Our Girnock analysis shows that late autumn and winter was the only
period when…
+
The results of the Girnock analysis are presented in Figure 2.
+
For the purposes of our study, we defined 'late autumn and winter' as
day 240 onwards.
Inexplicit meanings outside of the noun
phrase?
Signaling the meaning relations among
clauses
• linking adverbials vs colons
• (APA prohibition of numbered sections)
Clause connectors: linking adverbials vs colons
14
linking
adverbial;
acad
12
8
linking
adverbial;
news
6
colons;
acad
Rate per 1,000 words
10
colons;
news
4
2
0
1725
1775
1825
1875
1925
Century
1965
1985
2005
Conclusions: A more 'complex' picture of academic writing
• Complex:
– yes, in specific ways: nominal modifiers, non-finite
clauses, phrasal embedding
– but not in the overall frequency of dependent clauses
• Elaborated:
– yes, in that it avoids contractions and fragments
– but 'compressed' grammatical structures are more
prevalent than elaborated structures
• Explicit in the expression of meaning:
– yes, in that it avoids pronouns and other situationdependent references
– but many logical relations among elements in the text are
implicit; requires expert background knowledge to
understand