Phraseology in articles and book reviews – it’s not random, apparently

Groom, N. (2005) Pattern and meaning across genres and disciplines: An exploratory study. Journal of English for Academic Purposes; 4, pp257-277

Wow. A bit dry, this one…!!

I can see why it was suggested we read it at this point in the WrAP unit when we are putting together a book review for our portfolios, as it compares the dominant phraseology of book reviews with that of research articles, and also reviews and articles from two different humanities genres.

It actually feels quite surreal to be analysing language in this way; making so explicit something that was – for me at least – tacit and taken for granted. Reading this paper, I felt like I had stepped into another world (I almost want to say ‘one where nothing exciting would ever happen again’ but that would be rude… and I did feel a tiny stir of interest at least twice).

The study being presented here looked at one type of clause – the ‘introductory it’ clause – which serves a number of purposes in academic writing:

  • It gives ‘end focus’ and ‘end weight’ – following the preference in English to save the important bit for last.
  • It is evaluative – it evaluates what follows*.
  • The use of ‘it’ as the subject disguises the personal or subjective nature of the claim.
*in terms of adequacy, desirability, difficulty, expectation, importance or validity

Introductory ‘it’ clauses ending in ‘that’ and ‘to (infinitive)’ were compared:

A) It (is/would be/seems) (adj) that
B) It (is/would be/seems) (adj) to (inf)

Groom points out that (A) tends to evaluate the validity of propositions and is therefore more dominant in research articles, while (B) tends to evaluate difficulty, importance or desirability of processes (and therefore the agents of these processes), and is therefore more prevalent in reviews where the knowledge claims of others are being evaluated.

Rather than regurgitating every single difference Nicholas Groom points out, here are a few that might be of practical use when I finally get around to starting this book review (did I mention I have to read a book first?).

Evaluation of difficulty was surprisingly dominant in book reviews and the analysis of these showed such clauses were commonly used as a device to communicate constructive or reluctant criticism, praise and empathy, For example:

  • It is hard to fault…
  • It is easy to imagine…
  • It is difficult to do justice to…

These phrases often bridge the third (detailed critique) and fourth (positive closing comments) moves of book reviews as described by Hyland (2000) and Motta Roth (1995) – I suspect I’ll get more familiar with these four moves in the next Hyland chapter we’ve been given.

I want to say at this point that it occurred to me that these clauses are designed to communicate just as much about the reviewer as they do about the book in question (and its author). In all these clauses the scholarship of the reviewer is – surreptitiously? – on display.

The three examples above – and particularly those Groom picks out of the ‘would be’ type, e.g.

  • It would be unfair to argue that…
  • It would be helpful to…

all follow a pattern where a negative adjective (e.g. unfair, hard) is used in a positive evaluation, or a positive adjective (e.g. easy, helpful) is used to make a negative evaluation. This seems to be another linguistic device that helps to mitigate criticism, moderate praise and communicate empathy with the author of the book – all very important in showing the academic community that you are in a position to critique and be reserved in your praise, and that your academic status is on a par with the author.

One final, short example that Groom mentions earlier in the paper is the subtle difference between ‘it is interesting that’ and ‘it is interesting to note that’. In the former (assuming the context of a book review), the implication is that the interesting thing is in the book, while the latter implies it is the reviewer who is being interesting.

So… a mouthful of sawdust, but a few little tips for the task ahead.

Secondary references:
Motta-Roth, D. (1995) Rhetorical Features and Disciplinary Cultures: A Genre-based Study of Academic Book Reviews in Linguistics, Chemistry and Economics. PhD dissertation.

Hyland, K. (2000). Disciplinary Discourses. Social Interactions in Academic Writing. Harlow: Pearson Education.

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