Writing Conclusions with a “Punch”: Initial (Grammatical) Thoughts

Previously here I mentioned my first startup fund for a research I’ve been doing. I feel the need for illustrating it briefly here, as a kind of think-aloud for putting my ideas together in more concrete ways.

Explaining the metaphoric “punch” linguistically. Photo by Dan Burton on Unsplash

My study is a text analysis of associate degree and undergraduate essays from the fields of business and social sciences. The main research problem I identified is that students’ writing, most of them being persuasive ones, are often not persuasive: sometimes dry, oftentimes subjective or overly assertive, frequently lacking insights. While the “dryness” and “subjectivity” have been discussed in an ever-proliferating reference list of English-for-Academic-Purposes studies across various linguistics schools, I want to focus on packing “punches” of insights when the student writer conclude a paragraph or an essay.

I came across the word “punch” first in Sue Hood’s 2010 influential book on evaluative language in academic writing. The word is just mentioned once in the book, but “punchy” enough to catch my attention. She shows that the concluding sentence of a paragraph usually has a stronger interpersonal punch than the topic sentence, when evaluation on a topic accumulates across the paragraph (Hood, 2010, p. 154).

The idea of “punch” keeps ringing in my head that I thought it is a technical term, and I found another instance of the term in Martin’s article on different of expressions of modality packing semiotic “punches”. But it turns out “punch” is not a linguistic term in either of these two works; nor did they intend to define the term. However, it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth defining, because when you google “writing with a punch in the conclusion”, it’s not hard to find a few matches:

They are all useful resources with sound advice, but the advice seems to be for those who already master English, in a way that the tips do not explicitly make a point about what grammatical features are common for “linking the paragraph with the introduction”, “considering the implications of your argument” or “setting your discussion into a different context”.

Other tips don’t go beyond impressionistic visions of what a conclusion may “sound” like — with a sentence consisting mostly of one-syllable words. This doesn’t seem to be linguistically sound: so insightful phrases with long words aren’t welcomed? Even that particular website cannot wrap up its advice with that. How are students from an ESL background able to do the same?

From the two functional linguistic works mentioning punch, however loose the word may actually mean, it does pack a number of meanings that deserve close examination:

  1. Based on Hood (2010): Punch is how evaluation towards the topic is strengthened in relation to the logical and structural organisation. In terms of meaning, features such as adjectives and modality marking evaluation and stance towards the topic, conveyed through complex and general nouns, achieve greater evaluative effects at the end of the paragraph/essay after series of reasoning (such as cause-and-effect).
  2. Based on Martin (1995): Punch is the way modality is expressed in various forms that signal explicitness of authorship, positioning the reader, and adjusting modal responsibility — all of which point to the concept of “intersubjectivity”.

Somewhere between 1 and 2, there is a 3: Sue’s notion of “commitment” as a process of “recontextualising” layers of meanings in summary writing (Hood, 2008). The article suggests that more meanings, especially interpersonal meanings, are committed when ideas are summed up. Ah, aren’t conclusions all summaries at various levels?

So far, the article examines all kinds of meanings except for logical meaning: conclusions and summaries can be seen as both restatements of the introduction and interpretations/evaluations of the topic (that’s why we use “as a result” to signal them for more than just annoying the readers by stating the obvious). In this sense, the evaluation is more affirmative when the cause-effect chain is effectively established and reaches the final verdict.

Mm… this reminds me of a book chapter by Martin (2004) titled “Sense and Sensibility”, in which he illustrates how an elaboration (sense) of a topic sentence can actually also have evaluation (sensibility) embedded within. So punch clearly has to do with all types of meaning in action “at boundary points in discourse” (Hunston & Thompson, as cited in Martin, 2004, p. 283).

Having said so much, I hope what I’ve outlined here makes sense. I cannot further elaborate here with examples due to space, but in the coming posts I can deconstruct this idea better by looking at how the complexity, logic, organisation, voice and evaluation (CLOVE?) merge and pack punches in essays.

Fellow teaching colleagues and linguists, if you reach this closing, I hope to have your valuable and constructive inputs to make sense of what I’ve said, enriching and organising my train of random thoughts.

Hood, S. (2008). Summary writing in academic contexts: Implicating meaning in processes of change. Linguistics and Education19(4), 351-365.
Hood, S. (2010). Appraising research: Evaluation in academic writing. Springer.
Martin, J. R. (1995). Interpersonal meaning, persuasion and public discourse: Packing semiotic punch. Australian Journal of Linguistics15(1), 33-67.
Martin, J. R. (2004). Sense and sensibility: Texturing evaluation. In J. Foley (Ed.), Language, education and discourse: Functional approaches (pp. 270-304). Continuum.

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