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Inference and the art' of writing Billy Clark Middlesex University, UK Nicky Owtram European University Institute, Florence

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1 Inference and the art' of writing Billy Clark Middlesex University, UK Nicky Owtram European University Institute, Florence PALA 2009, Roosevelt Academy, Middelburg

2 Our aims: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings to develop a model of the inferential processes involved in writing to explore ways in which this model might be useful to writers and teachers

3 Three ways in which were approaching this: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings a)by looking at previous work on writing (and speaking) b)developing our own model on the inferences involved in writing c)developing classroom activities which focus on inferences made by writers Todays talk is mainly about (b) and (c)

4 Previous approaches have looked at writing from a number of different angles, but there has been very little work on the inferences of writers. We hope that our work will complement and build on previous work. Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings

5 Relevant previous work includes: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings work on cognitive processes involved in writing (e.g. Bereiter and Scardamalia 1987; Hayes and Flowers 1980) work on speech production and dialogue (e.g. Butterworth 1980, 1983; Levelt 1989; Pickering and Garrod 1989) work on frameworks for teaching and researching writing (e.g. Hyland 2002, 2005) work on academic writing (e.g. Bruce 2008; Hyland 2002, 2006; Swales and Feak 2004) work on metadiscourse (e.g. Aguilar 2008; Crismore 1989; Hyland 2005; Stainton 1996; Vande Kopple 1985) work on relevance theory and writing (e.g. Aguilar 2008; Owtram 2005, forthcoming)

6 We are approaching this within the framework of relevance theory which aims to account for linguistic and non-linguistic meaning. Relevance theory is usually thought of as hearer/reader-based (focusing on how relevance considerations guide hearers/readers in arriving at interpretations). But there are a number of ways in which relevance theory can be understood as focusing on communicators as well as addressees. Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings

7 Relevance theory and communicators: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings the presumption of optimal relevance is created by the act of ostensive communication (by the fact that someone has done something which can only be understood as an act of intentional communication) the presumption is about how the communicator intended to be understood the relevance-theoretic account of interpretation assumes that interpreters assess what the communicator could and would have intended (interpretations are consistent with the communicators abilities and preferences)

8 Explaining interpretations: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings Billy (crossing Markt square):What time is it? Passer-by:Five past nine. How does Billy decide what the passer-by intends to communicate?

9 Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings One thing that follows from the passer-bys utterance is that Billy is late for this mornings plenary lecture. Even if Billy infers this, he cannot think it is something the passer-by intended to communicate (because he assumes the passer-by could not have expected Billy to infer this).

10 van der Henst, Carles and Sperber (2002) provide evidence that communicators regularly make inferences about how addressees will be likely to interpret their utterances and adjust their utterances in order to make them as relevant as possible. They found this evidence by having testers approach people they did not know and say: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings Bonjour! Est-ce que vous avez l'heure s'il vous plaît? (Hello. Do you have the time please?)

11 When asked the time by someone they did not know, people tended to round their answers so that the processing effort involved in understanding them is reduced, e.g. at 09.48, speakers tended to reply: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings Ten to ten

12 When approached by someone who is adjusting their watch, or by someone who also says that they are rushing to catch a train, they are less likely to give rounded answers and more likely to give more precise answers, e.g. at 09.48, speakers tended to reply: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings Twelve minutes to ten Nine forty-eight etc.

13 More generally, we assume that communicators model the minds of their interlocutors and make assumptions about the inferences they might make based on the utterances we produce. There are a number of questions to consider about this model. Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings

14 Some questions about writers models of readers inferences: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings a.How similar is writing to speaking? b.How similar are writers to each other? c.Can explicit focus on inference help writers? d.Can explicit focus on inference help teachers?

15 In a module at Middlesex, we have been developing classroom activities which focus on the inferences made by writers. Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings

16 The Module: Writing Techniques is a year-long level 3 module within a BA in English Language (and related programmes) The module is taught on two campuses, one in London and one in Dubai. It aims (amongst other things) to: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings explore the connection between decisions writers make and the effects they have on readers

17 The students: Students on both campuses come from a wide range of educational, language and other backgrounds. Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings

18 Module content: Stylistics: The module introduces students to stylistic analysis (practising it, considering what it is and how useful it might be, both for analysing other peoples writing and for developing their own writing) Inference: The module looks at inference in general and the kinds of inferences readers make. Meaning: We do not focus on any particular pragmatic theory but students know that pragmatics involves the study of inferential processes. Some of the students will be taking a module on Creating and Understanding Meaning alongside this one. Semantics is explored in that module but not (much) in this one. Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings

19 Early in the module, students look at inference in general and establish: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings that there is a distinction between linguistic semantics and pragmatics that linguistically encoded meanings fall far short of intended communicated meanings that we infer a large amount of what is communicated

20 An example to introduce inferred meanings: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings Billy:How do you think my seminar went? Sylvia:Its really hard to prepare a seminar properly, isnt it?

21 Looking at examples, students develop their ability to think about what inferences follow from particular linguistic decisions, e.g. we discussed the meaning of oh and how we interpret its meaning in an utterance such as this extract from the end of a fairly long Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings … Oh, while youre there, can I just check how youre getting on with the handbook? Best wishes, …

22 Students develop their ability to explain effects of texts in terms of inferences, e.g. when we discussed an extract from: Myers, B.R A Readers Manifesto: An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose. The Atlantic. Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings

23 Myers discusses this extract from McCarthys 1994 novel, The Crossing: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings "He ate the last of the eggs and wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate the tortilla and drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth and looked up and thanked her."

24 Myers says: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings Thriller writers know enough to save this kind of syntax for fast-moving scenes: "... and his shout of fear came as a bloody gurgle and he died, and Wolff felt nothing" (Ken Follett, The Key to Rebecca, 1980). In McCarthy's sentence the unpunctuated flow of words bears no relation to the slow, methodical nature of what is being described. And why repeat tortilla? McCarthy's second tortilla... is there, like the syntax, to draw attention to the writer himself.

25 Myers says: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings For all the sentence tells us, it might as well be this: "He ate the last of the eggs. He wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate it. He drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth. He looked up and thanked her." Had McCarthy written that, the critics would have taken him to task for his "workmanlike" prose. But the first version is no more informative or pleasing to the ear than the second, which can at least be read aloud in a natural fashion. (McCarthy is famously averse to public readings.) All the original does is say, "I express myself differently from you, therefore I am a Writer."

26 Responding to this, students disagreed with Myers and spontaneously offered an essentially pragmatic explanation of some of the effects of the text. Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings They also suggested that Myerss rewritten version: was not as bad as Myers thought and suggested an explanation along similar lines. "He ate the last of the eggs. He wiped the plate with the tortilla and ate it. He drank the last of the coffee and wiped his mouth. He looked up and thanked her."

27 Other activities focus more specifically on inference. In two consecutive sessions, students worked through a number of tasks which included: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings a.An individual writing and group rewriting task (which does not mention inferences) b.A review of these tasks considering how they might be explained in terms of inferences c.A discussion of inferences around an existing piece of writing d.A piece of writing with inferential goals defined e.A rewriting task based on inferential goals

28 Individual Writing Task: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings Imagine you have agreed to contribute an article on student societies to a magazine to be published by a group of Middlesex students. The editor who asked you to do this, Mel Fraser, explained that publication timings were tight and that they really needed to be sure the final version of your article would be with them by the 9th of February. You received feedback on a first draft on the 5th of January and responded confirming that you would get the new version back on time. However, you have found the revisions harder to do than youd expected and have been busy with other work. Youre now a week late and feel you need to get back in touch to apologise and to say that you will be sending the final version by Friday the 20th of February. Write a short explaining this in the space below:

29 Group Rewriting and Review Tasks: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings Students work with partners and suggest changes to each others work. They discuss these and agree a new version. They then compare originals with rewritten versions and discuss to what extent they think the second versions improve on the first. They are then reminded of the previous work they have done on inference and asked to consider to what extent what they have done could be explained in terms of inference.

30 Looking at existing writing: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings Consider this text which is adapted from a notice I saw outside a building in London yesterday: NURSERY Weekdays 8.00am / 6.00pm Places available – register now! GOOD OFSTED REPORT For more information call XXXX: 07XXX XXXXXX / 020 8XXX XXXX

31 Looking at existing writing: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings a.make a note of any inferences you think a reader of this notice might make b.choose one which you think you can eliminate by rewording the text c.rewrite the text in a way which you think makes it less likely that a reader will make the inference

32 Writing Task: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings Working in pairs, choose one of the following writing tasks (in each case, you can make any assumptions you choose about any details not mentioned in the brief here): - write the text of a leaflet to post through letterboxes advertising your homeopathy service - write the text for a flyer to send to schools advertising a one-day event at Middlesex University where A level students can come to hear about studying English Language at university - write the text of a letter from a bank explaining that they will be increasing current account charges from April 2009

33 Writing Task: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings Work through the following stages in developing your answer: identify TWO inferences which you want your readers to make: identify TWO inferences you do not want your readers to make: write a first draft of your text which you think makes it likely that readers will make the inferences you want them to make and not make the inferences you do not want them to make: look at your text carefully and see whether there are any inferences your readers might make which you would prefer to avoid: rewrite your text to make them less likely: now, try rewriting your text to make it less successful, i.e. to make it likely your readers will make inferences youd rather avoid:

34 Student responses to the tasks are varied, but there are some general tendencies: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings In the earlier writing and rewriting tasks (which do not mention inference), students tend not to mention inference spontaneously In the earlier tasks, students are fairly vague in discussing texts and giving reasons for changing them In later tasks, student responses are much more focused, not just on inferences but on the effects of specific linguistic features Focusing on inference helps students to think about (effects of their writing on) their audiences Students develop confidence as writers by working on these tasks

35 Example responses to earlier tasks (critiquing first versions): Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings too formal too informal less polite seriousness bad news is coming because of apologise she doesnt care start with an apology / dont start with an apology

36 Example responses to later tasks (inferences from nursery notice): Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings The word good is in quotation marks, which automatically makes the reader suspicious. I would say excellent report and maybe add a sentence about the facilities or the staff.... Why Good has quotation mark? and still have place available.

37 Example responses to later tasks (desired and undesired inferences): Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings To convince readers that homeopathy works, and the pills do not give side effects It is cheap and natural, and it is made from natural ingredients, it does not make people to be addicted... That this kind of medicine is considered a witchcraft That it can be harmful or may not work on certain individuals

38 Example responses to later tasks (desired and undesired inferences): Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings Middlesex has one of the best English Language courses in the country The event will be exciting.. All information about the course is already available online Middlesex is located in a bad area

39 Example responses to later tasks (desired and undesired inferences): Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings Understand why we have to increase the charge We are considerate (our customer are valued) excellent services I dont want the customers think only our bank current account is increased. Our rate is too high.

40 Example responses to later tasks (discussion): Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings Inferences are quite important for writing. When I write … I always consider what inference readers have because I want my inference to match readers inference. Throughout the tasks, I was surprised that my inference are different from readers (my classmates). I thought my future writing should be read by someone before it was handed in.

41 Example responses to later tasks (discussion): Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings Put the reader in your shoes How is your writing going to affect your reader Think about the contextual, critical meaning of what you are writing Read and re-read your texts..... It is very important to keep in mind what the reader will infer, NOT what YOU will infer as a writer which is much harder to do.

42 What we aim to do next: Introduction - Previous Approaches - A Model - Classroom Activities - Beginnings develop our model of the inferences made by writers when working on texts develop tasks which will help students to understand texts as sources of evidence for reader inferences develop further work with students to assess the model and the effects of tasks like this develop an account of how our model relates to other approaches

43 THE END THANK YOU! Some references: Aguilar, M Metadiscourse in Academic Speech. A relevance-theoretic approach. Peter Lang, New York. Bereiter, C. and M. Scardmalia The Psychology of Written Composition. Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale NJ. Bruce, I Academic Writing and Genre: A systematic analysis. Continuum, London. Butterworth, B Language Production, volume 1: Speech and talk. Academic Press, New York NY. Butterworth, B Language Production, volume 2: Development, writing and other language processes. Academic Press, New York NY. Crismore, A Talking With Readers: Metadiscourse as rhetorical act. Peter Lang, New York NY. Flower, L.S. and J.R. Hayes A cognitive process theory of writing. College Composition and Communication 32: Hayes, J.R. and L.S. Flower Identifying the organisation of writing processes. In Gregg, L. and E.R. Steinberg (eds.) Cognitive Processes in Writing. Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale NJ: Hyland, K Teaching and Researching Writing. Longman, London. Hyland, K Metadiscourse: Exploring interaction in writing. Continuum, London. Levelt, W.J.M Speaking: From intention to articulation. MIT Press, Cambridge MA. Owtram, N.T The pragmatics of academic writing. PhD Thesis, University College London. Owtram, N.T. Forthcoming. The Pragmatics of Academic Writing: A relevance approach to the analysis of research article introductions. Peter Lang, Oxford. Pickering, M.J. and S. Garrod Toward a mechanistic psychology of dialogue. Behavioral & Brain Sciences 27: Stainton, C Metadiscourse: the Rhetorical Plane of Text. Nottingham Working Papers, volume 2. Department of English Studies, University of Nottingham. Swales, J.M. and C.B. Feak Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential tasks and skills. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor MI. Vande Kopple, W Some exploratory discourse on metadiscourse. College Composition and Communication 38:


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