Hidden Elements of Academic Discourse: Signposting
By Elena Petrova, Ph.D., Associate Professor at HSE University, who completed the School of Trainers and ran a series of workshops at the Academic Writing Center.
What do you think about signposting? It may puzzle some people as they may not be familiar with the term. Others will feel annoyed: “Connectors again! Boring!” Well, yes and no.
What is signposting?
Signposting IS about connectors. You may be familiar with sequencing connectors (‘First,’ ‘Next,’ ‘Finally,’ etc.); you may be a fan of ‘thus’ or ‘however.’ But there are more connectors than the ones I have mentioned. Some connectors may seem similar, but there are differences between them both in meaning and usage. For instance, ‘however’ and ‘nevertheless’ are both used as connectors of contrast, but, unlike ‘however,’ ‘nevertheless’ suggests a concession rather than contrast. Or inexperienced writers constantly struggle with ‘other’, ‘another,’ ‘the other,’ or ‘others’.
*Which of the following sentences is correct?
- Some people think that climate change could have a negative effect on business. Another people think that climate change could create more business opportunities.
- Some people think that climate change could have a negative effect on business. Other think that climate change could create more business opportunities.
- Some people think that climate change could have a negative effect on business. Other people think that climate change could create more business opportunities.
- Some people think that climate change could have a negative effect on business. The other people think that climate change could create more business opportunities.
Other connectors look almost the same, but in fact, they are not synonyms at all. For example, compare ‘first’ and ‘at first’.
**Which of the two should be used in the following sentences?
- _____, we assumed that the correlation between nine-grade students’ choice of the academic track and their family’s socio-economic status would be positive. In the end, the research revealed the opposite.
- The purpose of my research is twofold. _____, the paper aims to shed a light on the dominance of one or the other concept in the Japanese national identity: shame or pride. Second, we plan to determine the reasons for this.
Signposting is NOT ONLY about connectors. Verbs can serve as signposts, too. The text organization patterns such as ‘comparison,’ ’cause — effect,’ or ‘time’ may be shown with the help of verbs: ‘to differ,’ ‘to lead to,’ ‘to proceed,’etc. Reporting verbs also help to structure the text properly, indicating your attitude. For example, verbs ‘show’ and ‘demonstrate’ suggest that you are supporting another author’s opinion, while verbs ‘claim’ and ‘assert’ may signal that you are about to challenge his/her viewpoint.
Pronouns can also help you to refer back to what you have said without repeating it word for word. This is called referencing, though not in the meaning you probably know the word.
Is signposting important?
Again, opinions differ. Some writers see it as a waste of space — in written discourse — and a waste of time — in spoken discourse. Another group of researchers believe that signposting is essential to comprehension, but they would limit the number of connectors used to one or two per a pattern of textual organization. And very few, mostly writing instructors, will urge you to use a huge variety of means, taking into account the nuances of meaning. You may think that the first and the last groups are exaggerations, two extremes. Not really. Although with writing instructors, you will be exposed to an array of means, it does not mean that you have to outdo yourself and use them all. Be smart. The instructor’s task is to show you what is available and what the difference is. It is you who decides on the actual cohesive devices to use.
Teaching signposting usually means teaching lists of connectors. It is assumed that learning a stock of phrases is sufficient. Still, some authors (“A Short Guide,” 2015; “Better Essays,” 2015; Grussendorf, 2011) caution against using signposting words and/or phrases imprecisely and warn about verbs conveying one’s beliefs and attitude to the information covered. Unfortunately, the authors do not elaborate much on the differences between synonymous words or phrases, and they do not provide an extensive list of verbs with the explanation of what each of them implies. Karen Bennet (2009) looked into 41 books on Academic Writing and came to the conclusion that most books focus on lexical cohesion, variously named as ‘logical indicators,’ ‘linkers,’ ‘connectives,’ or ‘transitional words or phrases’ (p. 47). The books she analyzed provide lists of linkers to use in different situations. Still, no indication that these books provide a thorough guidance for learners is given.
Why should we provide signposting in our writing?
To help ourselves and the target audience, of course. By applying signposting techniques, we ensure that our writing is logical and easy to follow. Signposting structures our thoughts for ourselves first. And, second, it facilitates comprehension by the reader/listener.
Signposting is divided into large-scale and small-scale types (“A Short Guide,” 2015; “Better Essays,” 2015). Large-scale signposting provides links between parts of one’s writing/speaking by indicating in what direction the paragraph will lead the reader and linking it with the previous paragraph. Therefore, such signposts ensure coherence (Bennet, 2009; Elbow, 2006). As for small-scale type, its function is to connect ideas within one paragraph through comparing them,explaining the logical sequence, or identifying cause and effect. In this way, the linkers guarantee cohesion (Bennet, 2009; Elbow, 2006).
How do we learn signposting?
- Identify what you already know. Here is the table of basic connectors.
2. Add new items to this list after reading self-study books, or after brainstorming in a workshop, or extracting them from a published text by a reputable scholar.
3. Analyze sentences with common mistakes to spot the difference in meaning. Or identify the rules by analyzing two/three sentences with the same meaning, but different connectors.
For example, look at the following two sentences and answer the question:
***What are the rules of using ‘as’ and ‘because’ as connectors of cause?
As the local residents were not happy with refugees littering outside their houses, they turned to the local authorities for them to take immediate action. = The local residents turned to the local authorities so that they took an immediate action because the local residents were not happy with refugees littering outside their houses.
4. Pay particular attention to the use of pronouns in the texts you read.
Underline them in the text and identify which word or part of a sentence they refer to. It may sound simple. But my teaching experience shows that sometimes readers misplace the referent, which leads to misinterpretation. And in many cases it is not the reader’s fault, but the writer’s.
What does ‘this’ at the beginning of the second sentence refer to?
With the spread of globalized capitalism, American universities increasingly follow a corporate fiscal model, tightening budgets and hiring temporary contract employees as teachers. This has prompted faculty and adjunct instructors at many schools to join unions as a way of protecting job security and benefits. (“Improving Sentence Clarity”).
The spread of globalized capitalism? The tightening of budgets? Confused? How about this?
With the spread of globalized capitalism, American universities increasingly follow a corporate fiscal model, tightening budgets and hiring temporary contract employees as teachers. This trend has prompted faculty and adjunct instructors at many schools to join unions as a way of protecting job security and benefits. (“Improving Sentence Clarity”).
5. Make your texts shorter by substituting the words that are repeated. Read the text that follows.
According to McGregor, a traditional organization has a centralized decision-making process and a hierarchical pyramid, and a traditional organization is based on several assumptions about human nature and motivation. The assumptions about human nature and motivation are called Theory X by McGregor and consider that most people want to be directed, people do not want to assume responsibility and people value safety above all. Moreover, the philosophy of Theory X assumes that people are motivated by financial means and are motivated by the threat of punishment. Managers who embrace this theory are likely to supervise and control managers’ employees, as managers feel that external control is needed when dealing with irresponsible people.
It looks cumbersome. Can you change it to reduce the word count?
The text above was modified. See the original version below. Is it easier to read?
According to McGregor, a traditional organization, which has a centralized decision-making process and a hierarchical pyramid, is based on several assumptions about human nature and motivation. These assumptions are called Theory X by McGregor and consider that most people want to be directed, they do not want to assume responsibility and value safety above all. Moreover, this philosophy assumes that people are motivated by financial means and by the threat of punishment. Managers who embrace this theory are likely to supervise and control their employees, as they feel that external control is needed when dealing with irresponsible people (Dobre, O.-I., 2013, p. 54).
6. Write, rewrite, and edit.
Comprehension without action is only halfway. Read books, listen to your instructor, but most importantly, practice. It is practice that makes it perfect. Remember that synonyms and quasi-synonyms can be tricky. Variety is good, but do not overstuff your writing with connectives.
Answer to the questions:
* It is C. ‘Another’ means ‘one other’ and ‘people’ is many. In sentence B it would be correct to use ‘others’, but not ‘other’ as it needs a noun. ‘The other’ suggests that we speak about concrete people, or there are only two groups of people — the sentences do not offer either of the options.
** While ‘first’ is used to indicate the first item/point/event in a list/sequence, ‘at first’ means ‘at the beginning’. Thus, ‘at first’ is used in the first sentence and ‘first’ — in the second.
*** ‘Because’ cannot be used at the beginning of a sentence. We use ‘as’ instead.
Bennett, K. (2009). English Academic Style Manuals: A Survey. Journal of English for Academic Purposes. 8, 43–54.
Dobre, O.-I. (2013). Employee Motivation and Organizational Performance. Review of Applied Socio-Economic Research, 5(1), 53–60.
Grussendorf, M. (2011). English for Presentations. Oxford, England: OUP.
Elbow, P. (2006). The Music of Form: Rethinking Organization in Writing. College Composition and Communication, 57(4), 620–666.
Purdue University. Improving Sentence Clarity. Retrieved from: https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/mechanics/sentence_clarity.html
University of Birmingham. (2015). A Short Guide to Signposting in Essays. Retrieved from: https://intranet.birmingham.ac.uk/as/libraryservices/library/skills/asc/documents/public/Short-Guide-Signposting.pdf
University of Portsmouth. (2015). Better Essays: Signposting. Retrieved from: http://www2.port.ac.uk/media/contacts-and-departments/student-support-services/ask/downloads/Better-essays---signposting.pdf