2. Sentence connector frequencies in academic writing
Authors: Kelly Lockman and John Swales
Date: July 2010
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Sentence connectors are one of three classes of linking words or phrases. One class is called subordinators, such as although or because. Another is called conjunctions, such as and, or and but. The third class consists of sentence connectors such as therefore and finally. Sentence connectors are usually followed by a comma, and they often occur initially in a sentence or clause, but not always. If a connector occurs at or near the beginning of a second clause, it is usually preceded by a semi-colon.
These connectors fall into a number of functional categories. Here are the common categories, with two examples of each:
Now here are two questions for you.
1. Within each category, which example do you think will be the more commonly used sentence connector in the MICUSP data?
2. Looking at the list as a whole, which sentence connector would you choose as the most frequently occurring? And the second most frequent?
Here are the results from MICUSP; the numbers refer to frequencies per 10,000 words:
Were your guesses right (or mostly right)?
As the majority of the papers in the MICUSP database are expository, it is no surprise that the most common sentence connectors are logical rather than temporal.
In the compilation of student papers in MICUSP, you can see that however is far and away the most frequently used sentence connector. Why might this be so? There are three possible reasons: one functional, one stylistic and one positional.
In functional terms, however is often used to introduce a problem, and this typically follows a piece of text which describes some situation, and the switch from situation to problem is signaled by adversative sentence connectors like however (or more rarely nevertheless or that said):
The University of Michigan continues to be a well-known and important research university; however, its future is somewhat uncertain because of the budget crisis in the state.
It is also used to indicate a gap in knowledge
In America today, females comprise about 60% of the undergraduate population; however, the long-term effects of this development are unknown.
Since problematizing and indicating gaps are common features of academic writing, the use of however is also common.
In stylistic terms, to make a contrast you could use words such as all the same or besides, but these may seem slightly informal. You could use nonetheless and nevertheless, but these could strike the reader as being overly formal, or pretentious. So however provides an ideal middle ground of being appropriately formal without appearing overly so.
The fact that however is moveable within a sentence may also be a contributing factor to its high frequency. Here are some MICUSP examples of positional variation.
However, species removal is not as simple as it seems; we must be aware that the removal of an invasive causes ecosystem disturbance, just like its introduction, and hasty action can cause irreparable damage to our global asset of biodiversity. (BIO.G0.15.1)
The optimal contact in that setting is for the investor to choose a cutoff return level below which to audit the firm. The model considers only deterministic audits, however. (ECO.G2.02.1)
Other workers that place more priority on present profit, however, may tend to squeeze customers for more repairs or sales than is prudent. (IOE.G2.01.3)
The Lawrence decision was decided correctly; however, the narrow ruling in the case, along with equivocal wording, did not advance gay rights as much as people had hoped. (POL.G0.05.1)
However most frequently occurs at the beginning of a sentence, and this opposes the old Strunk and White (1979) grammar rule that makes this prohibition: “However. In the meaning nevertheless, not to come first in its sentence or clause.”
Are the students in MICUSP similar to academic writers?
The following table compares the frequency of the sentence connectors we looked at above compared with the frequency that they occur in the Hyland Corpus of 80 published research articles from eight fields.
As this chart shows, the frequencies are very similar between the students’ papers and the published articles. In fact, the similarities are quite remarkable. If there are differences between student and published writing, it is clearly not in sentence-connector frequency. Further, a study of sentence connectors in student and professional writing in literature studies by Shaw (2009) shows a similar pattern, with a fairly close similarity between student and professorial usage, with however also being the most common sentence connector in his corpora.
A final question about frequencies we might ask is the following:
What about connectors in academic speech?
The following table displays the frequency of sentence connectors as they appear in MICASE, a corpus compiled of 1.8 million words, from a variety of academic speech events. Once again, the frequencies are shown per 10,000 words.
As you can see, however is no longer the most commonly used sentence connector. In fact, all the connectors from the previous tables occur much less or less frequently in academic speech than they do in writing, except for in other words. If these are not the words used to connect utterances in academic speech, which words are used instead?
Searching the MICASE database, the following would seem occur frequently (listed by frequency per 10,000 words)
So we see that academic speech prefers simple short words instead to link things together.
Shaw P, (2009). Linking Adverbials in Student and Professional Writing in Literary Studies: What Makes Writing Mature. In Charles, M. et al. Academic Writing: At the Interface of Corpus and Discourse. (pp. 215-235). London: Continuum.
Strunk, W, and E. B. White, (1979). The Elements of Style (3rd edition). New York, NY: Macmillan.
Simpson, R. C., S. L. Briggs, J. Ovens, and J. M. Swales, (2002) The Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English. Ann Arbor, MI: The Regents of the University of Michigan.
What are scare-quotes? What kinds of scare-quotes are there? Does their frequency vary across disciplines and levels?
Which sentence connectors are most frequent in MICUSP?