Revisiting “Sense and Sensibility”: How to Logically Organise “Punch” in Writing?

“Text is a… semiotic rally. But the ball that comes back may be slightly different from the ball you’ve just played.”

Martin (1992, p. 490)
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This topic leads to a few lines of thought, which have me a while to think about how to approach it. I’m still using SFL as my theor-analytical (my coinage) point of departure, but not sure which in specific. The contenders are (i) logico-semantic relations, (ii) rhetorical relations and (iii) cause-inside-the-clause. I’ll see how far I can go; stop me if there’s anything wrong, or too clunky.

(Post-hoc note: the three contenders, now it seems to me, represent logical meaning at (i) clause-complex, (ii) text span and (iii) discourse semantic levels. Don’t ask me about the order of these three ideas — my thoughts are still unorganised.)

My starting point is a couple of quotes from Jim Martin’s works on texture and context (Martin, 1992) and texturing evaluation (Martin, 2004). Accompanying these ideas is of course Appraisal (Martin & White, 2005/2007), the linguistic resources for expressing attitude and positioning.

Regarding texture and context:

The texture deriving from [the interaction of transitivity roles, Theme, New and Subject] was discussed under the headings of cohesive harmony, method of development, point and modal responsibility.

Martin (1992, p. 488)

I’ll leave the relationship between attitude and stance with text structure in the coming post, while there are quite a number of book chapters and articles on this topic. But the above quote seems to miss the element of the logical relationships among clauses in a paragraph or a text in general. And how attitude and stance are logically arrived at may perhaps give insights into the difference in evaluative “punch” between the topic sentence and the concluding sentence. That is, using Martin’s (1992, p. 490) analogy, “[t]ext is a… semiotic rally. But the ball that comes back may be slightly different from the ball you’ve just played.”

Turning to Martin (2004), in which I saw him quoting Hunston and Thompson (2000), who in turn quoted Sinclair, that “evaluation tends to occur at boundary points in discourse”. After briefly mentioning about Theme and New at higher levels (which we commonly call “topic/concluding sentence” or “introduction/conclusion”), here comes the main part catching my attention:

The association of evaluation with Hyper-Themes is revealing as far as logico-semantic relations between HyperThemes and ensuing text are concerned… the paragraph elaborates the sense of its HyperTheme… at the same time as it justifies the sensibility.

Martin (2004, p. 356)

Then what about the HyperNew and its preceding text?

Our understanding about concluding sentences or conclusions is that they consolidate what have been said across sentences or paragraphs, i.e. summarising the ideas in general terms (“the employment rate”). What’s more than this is that the summary may also pick up the evaluation along the way. I’ve got a slightly edited text from a student:

Lantau Tomorrow Vision can provide several job opportunities to Hong Kong people.
Building the third Core Business District, a lot of businesses will be created. It can emanate 200 000 diversified, high-end and high value-added jobs, business opportunities with a scale equivalent to 80 percent of Central. In this commercial area, a large number of workers are needed, be it store salespersons or office employees. Considering the size of its Third Core Business District, the project would provide numerous jobs and work opportunities to Hong Kong people, especially business workers.
As a result, the employment rate will be raised to an inconceivable extent

Following Martin’s analysis, the body text serves to elaborate and justify “several job opportunities” with examples and explanations. Then in the HyperNew, the writer indicates the conclusion “as a result”, gives her interpretation “raised to an inconceivable extent” based on the ideas given in the paragraph. Here the positioning is made more affirmative with the modal verb “will” (compared with “can” in the HyperTheme) and the explicit attitude (“inconceivable” for denoting the impact of the raised employment rate).

On the one hand, we can say that this interpretation is made through restating the accumulated meaning (the purple content); on the other, it is justified causally (“creating new commercial area, then providing more jobs, and “as a result” increasing in employment rate). In this sense, the concluding sentence packs a “retrospective” punch, which adds a comment on what has been just reported.

When we move to the conclusion, we may see a different picture: the comment can punch both back and forth: a retrospective comment looks back at the preceding text; a prospective comment looks into the future. By “future” it means what is likely to happen (prediction) or what behaviour is expected of the writer, the readership or other people responsible (recommendation). From the same essay, the conclusion reads:

To summarize, there are numerous advantages reaped from Lantau Tomorrow Vision. Not only will it furnish more job opportunities, reclaim sizeable pieces of land and attract tourists to Hong Kong, but also bring about a lot of benefits not being mentioned above. These advantages can lay a solid foundation for Hong Kong’s economic development and greatly enhance Hong Kong’s competitiveness in the long run. Therefore, It is hoped that this project can be put into practice in no time for the sake of Hong Kong’s better future.

On the surface the conclusion is a summary with the adjunct “to summarise”. As the paragraph progresses, the ideas are evaluated through a frame not established in the essay (lots of benefits not mentioned in the essay; enhanced competitiveness in the long run) These insights are supported with a line of implicit cause-and-effect sequence, many of which are infused with positive values (highlighted in purple), suggesting how Lantau Tomorrow Vision causes advantages, which in turns leads to economic development and raised competitiveness.

This line of reasoning justifies the final statement in support of the project with a mix of implicit personal vision (“it is hoped that”, “can”) suggesting urgency (“in no time”) for a positive social value projected into the future (“Hong Kong’s better future”).

This brief analysis shows how complex a conclusion can be for fulfilling the need for summarising the ideas (sense) and justifying the stance (sensibility). The stance incorporated here is not just “looking back”, but also “looking forward”. Up till here, we can say that, generating “punch” or so-called “insight” requires a strong sense of linguistic capacity to generalise ideas, to express comments and to create a logical line of reasoning.

If you allow me to ramble on, a final mumble to myself since there are two interesting questions I cannot possibly cover in a post (I want to but you won’t): (1) are there more explicit text signals for differentiating Interpretation/Evaluation in terms of rhetorical relations (or RST)? (2) what will be the differences in stance-taking/ attitude-expressing between external (material) and internal (semiotic) connexion? Answering these questions can possibly further sort out the reason for a punch of different strength at the end of the paragraph or text, “bouncing back a different ball”.

Next up: how punch is textually organised through cohesion and texture. Thanks for reading!

Martin, J. R. (1992). English Text: System and structure. John Benjamins Publishing.
Martin, J. R. (2004). Sense and sensibility: Texturing evaluation. In J. Foley (Ed.), Language, education and discourse: Functional approaches (pp. 270-304). Bloomsbury.

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