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I teach a course in academic writing. My students, who do not have much writing experience, add many phrases, as in What are these extra phrases added to the beginning of sentences called?, to the beginning of their sentences and in the middle.

I feel that the students should eliminate any extraneous language from their papers as it just makes the reader do more work to get the important ideas or the information that they want. They can use such phrases, but only when they add meaning to the paper and only when used quite sparingly. My students are not so easily convinced though, because a prior teacher told them they should add these phrases liberally.

I was surprised to learn about their prior teacher's advice, but will consider that possibility that the other teacher has valid reasons.

  • Are there any reasons why students should use these phrases in their academic writing?
  • I don't recall ever encountering such language in my readings of academic journals. Is such language common or appropriate in certain subjects?
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I added an answer to the question you referred to above. Prepositional (and other) phrases have their uses, but should be used sparingly in an academic context where ideas are often complicated enough without using complicated sentences to express them. – Joe Sep 25 '13 at 2:00
    
Sometimes, phrases like this are the result of writing ideas in the order you think of them - which is great for capturing them to start with, but they should only remain in a finished work when they are the simplest and clearest way to express a concept. – Joe Sep 25 '13 at 2:06
    
Haven't had an encounter with Grammar Girl, yet? Search for "Grammar Girl redundant". For example, quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/…. quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/…. – Blessed Geek Sep 25 '13 at 2:10
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Such "metadiscourse" can help guide the reader through a complex line of reasoning.

"Use these phrases liberally" seems like coarse advice, perhaps useful until students can distinguish for themselves whether the text requires such orientation, or until they can write the text so that it orients the reader without the burden of phrases like these.

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Whether such a phrase is good depends on the context. Does it add to the meaning or clarify the meaning? If the answer is no, then I'd leave it out.

For example, consider the phrase on that list, "the other reason is that". If you give two reasons for something, then such a phrase might well be superfluous.

Consider:

Sample A

There are two reasons why Sally was late to work yesterday. The first reason is that her car had trouble starting. The other reason is that there was a traffic jam.

Sample B

Sally was late to work yesterday because her car had trouble starting and because there was a traffic jam.

B is clearly much more concise without losing any meaning. I'd generally prefer B because it tells the reader what I want to tell him without a lot of wasted motion.

But there are times when you want to go slowly. For example, you may want to build up to a point. Or you may have a much longer block of text and without a separator, the reader could get lost on where the first reason ended and the second reason began.

So I think it's equally simplistic to say "use these phrases liberally" and to say "never use these phrases". You need to judge each case.

Sorry, I wish I could give you a more definitive answer. :-)

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My colleague Rob Waters taught me the value of "right-branching sentences." Sentences work best when they begin with a subject and a verb. Additional elements can follow if needed. Ex. John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln in an act of cowardly treachery, then ran for his life. Not: After shooting President Lincoln in an act of cowardly treachery, John Wilkes Booth ran for his life.

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By definition, anything "extraneous" is "irrelevant or unrelated to the subject being dealt with" so I would say that the answer to your question is "no".

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These are given to students to help them learn the pattern of a paragraph or essay. By telling the students not to use them, it may make it harder for the student to complete the task at hand. However, if you give them new suggestions for their papers it may do what you want it to. It's really your call, whether you want to change it or not. These traditional transition phrases help make the paper sound more formal for young students, and keeps the student on the right track instead of veering off into another direction. In academic, students should no longer require them, and should become more creative when changing topics or introducing new information. It's really becoming a crutch in their learning development.

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It might help to think of these phrases as signposting.

Too much signposting will clutter the landscape and obscure the view. Whether that's the mountains, or the ideas in an essay, obscuring them is bad.

On the other hand, judicious use of signposting can help the reader parse what you're saying. (For example, the chances are that in your mind, you effortlessly arranged that sentence opposite to the one before it, because I slipped in on the other hand.)

Used well, signposting will clarify your students' writing, not clog it. My advice would be to coach them to think about it like this: if the signpost is helping the reader to navigate complex ideas, great. If it's adding nothing but wordcount, then it deserves the chop.

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Hah! I just noticed this question is two years old. Oops. – Cakebox Jun 14 at 16:40

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