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A background story

Why argue?

As you have come to realise by now, this course in science writing is not about providing you a single answer how we should be constructing our text. The course offers a variety of navigational tools that will help you to make well informed choices about your text. In addition, we hope that by providing you these guidelines and perspectives on writing, you will also be able to understand why certain aspects of your text can be improved.

Argumentation is perhaps one of these concepts that indirectly influences our writing without us knowing why it does. The way we construct our text or the way we construct arguments in our text are a direct result of the texts we have produced before in high school and university.

As you may remember during one of the first lectures we had, we presented the model of contrastive rhetorics (Kaplan, 1966). The main idea behind contrastive rhetorics is that both our first language and (first) culture influences the way we produce text in a second language. For example, in the Estonian context, your first language (Estonian) and your culture (which includes education), will influence the way you will write in English (as your second or as a foreign language).

How does this influence argumentation? According to Kaplan, our logic and rhetoric are independent and cultural specific. This means that through our own understandings, we use a specific kind of persuasiveness at the text, paragraph, and sentence level of our writing.

The figure above, illustrates how different languages and cultures  pattern written discourse. So, considering your own first language and culture, try to place your own patterns in your text. Does it match these patterns, and, more importantly, is there a discrepancy.

English – (includes Germanic languages such as German, Dutch, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish) Communication is direct, linear and doesn’t digress or go off topic. In English, in writing, we often refer to this as the main theme of the story which binds all elements together. In some languages they refer to this as the Red Thread.  Like the communication, arguments are direct and to the point. Thesis statements and claims are presented at the beginning of an argument and supporting arguments follow hierarchically.

Semitic – (for example, Arabic or Hebrew) Thoughts are express in a series of parallel ideas, both positive and negative.  Coordination is valued over subordination. As such, arguments are placed in parallel propositions, or embedded in stories, not in hierarchical progression.

Oriental – (Languages of Asia) Communication is indirect. A topic is not addressed head on, but is viewed from various perspectives, working around and around the point. As such the arguments presented in the written texts are circular, often portray a great deal of respect, are indirect, non-assertive, but demand a degree of authority.

Romance – (Latin-based languages such as French, Italian, Romanian and Spanish) Communication often digresses. It is fine to introduce extraneous material, which adds to the richness of the communication. The romance style is also considered to be used in Germanic languages, such as German. Argumentative writing requires the readers to follow the digressive arguments to its conclusion. Unlike the North American or “English” argumentative approach which can clearly been picked up right from the beginning.

Russian – Like Romance languages, Russian communication is often digressive. The digression may include a series of parallel ideas. In the Russian model there seems to be more freedom for dividing the pieces of the main argument as the writers proceeds in the text.

Kaplan’s model has in the last few years been considered to be dated, and alternative ways of looking at the influence of culture on text constructions are proposed (e.g. Connor, 1996 and more recently Bazerman and Prior, 2004).

The point, however, that we’re making here is that the English language writing patterns which are most often represented in journal article writing requires a linear approach to developing arguments, and this is represented by how we structure paragraphs, sentences and arrange words (more on that in the Watch your Language module) but also how we can understand and build our arguments in our texts using Toulmin logic.