Use cause-effect connectors skillfully

Do you agree that every animate and inanimate object has a certain purpose and a definite function in the world, even though this may not be obvious at first sight? Every time we say or write something, we do this with a certain purpose in mind, which defines the language we choose. In academic writing, which should be coherent and cohesive in order to be easily perceived, functional language can help to develop thoughts, maintain logic, and connect ideas. Having learnt various functional expressions, your writing as well as speaking will have clearer connections with the real-world activities. You will be able to sound more idiomatic and communicate ideas in a clearer way.

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In this blog, let’s look at the functional language of cause and effect. Imagine you are asked to give examples of cause-effect connectors you use. What will they be? How often do you use them?

What makes me (a writing instructor) feel blue is that there is almost no variety of the functional language Russian authors use in their scientific articles. Sometimes the ideas are not connected at all. Let me illustrate this by showing the frequency of the uses of “because” and “due to” by Russians and native speakers in academic articles:

If you feel that your functional vocabulary for cause-effect needs to be expanded, read these tips:

TIP 1: Keep a dictionary at hand

No doubt, the most usual way of looking up new expressions is using either a reference book or an academic writing manual. There you will definitely find numerous expressions with examples and explanations. Sometimes such books include long lists of synonymous expressions, which can further on be used in your own writing (for instance, Academic Phrasebank by Dr. John Morley).

TIP 2: Read and underline

When reading articles written by English-speaking authors in the same research field, underline all cases of cause-effect vocabulary and expressions. This will raise your awareness of what is common for native speakers. Then you can single out the most frequent means of expressing the function in question and try to use the phrases in your own sentences.

TIP 3: Identify patterns

One more thing to keep in mind is that some words may have connotations, i.e. shades of meaning, which are different from the ones in Russian. To illustrate this point, let’s look at some examples with the verb “to cause” taken from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:

This results in scarring and a shortened cervix, which can cause problems during childbirth.

A controversial court case is under way in California, and a judge has to decide if coffee should be added to a growing list of products that could potentially cause cancer.

Like other regions they’ve studied, they are finding that floods, heat waves, and other changes predicted for Maine could cause trouble for its infrastructure.

Physicians have traditionally held that disclosing certain kinds of information can cause harm to patients under their care.

This proportion could further increase if apparently innocuous insects behave as “sleeper species,” a term used for species that eventually proliferate and cause damage 10 or more years after their establishment.

What have you noticed? Even though “to cause” may seem similar to neutral “to lead to” or “to result in,” a brief look at the words that are combined with this verb suggest that “to cause” is followed by a noun denoting a negative situation or phenomenon. Hence, we can draw a conclusion that “to cause” is used when we need to speak about some negative result.

Therefore, notice not only separate words in articles you are reading, but also longer chunks in order to identify possible word patterns. In addition to this, you may consult corpora, for example, the one above or the British National Corpus.

TIP 4: Vary your syntax

Words denoting this or that function can come from different parts of speech so use a variety of syntactic patterns. This may not only help you to show a wide range of vocabulary, but also let you use more complex sentences. Look at the following examples:

Bus fares went up because the price on oil increased.

Bus fares went up due to an increase in the price on oil.

The price on oil increased. Consequently, bus fares went up.

As the price on oil increased, bus fares went up.

The reason for bus fares going up was an increase in the price on oil.

An increase in the price on oil resulted in bus fares going up.

Make sure that you know how to use the chosen device syntactically. To illustrate this, let’s look at “because” and “because of,” which are frequently confused by non-native speakers. “Because” is used at the beginning of a clause when giving the reason for something, for instance, “Sub-images containing large parts of this drift-sand were excluded as well, because the small dunes within these areas are indistinguishable from barrows, even for humans.” In contrast, “because of” is used before a noun when giving the reason for something, for example, “The results of this study, however, should be interpreted with caution because of differences in a number of studies.”

To sum it all up, there are more ways of expressing cause-effect relations between your ideas, so don’t just stick to the one you have got used to. Don’t be afraid to try something new. See more phrases in the table below.

The list of phrases expressing cause-effect relations:

By Yulia Chanturidze, PhD
Senior lecturer at NRU HSE

The Academic Writing Center at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, provides writing support to everyone involved in research.

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