18. Reading Obstacles 9: Relations Between Sentences

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BRIDGE

Meanings are created just by placing sentences together. Understanding them is a vital part of reading.

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WHAT IS A SENTENCE RELATION?

A sentence relation is a meaning created just by placing two sentences next to each other in a text. Consider the meaning of the following single sentence:

(a) Italians frequently eat pasta.

By itself this just states a fact about Italians and/or pasta. However, placed after another sentence the same words will usually say something extra:

(b) Food is an important part of a culture. Italians frequently eat pasta.

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The extra meaning that the sentence now has is that of being an example. There are no special words that communicate this meaning but nevertheless we understand it because we know that Italians belong to the class of “countries” and pasta belongs to the class of “food” (see 33. Complex Example-Giving). The logical process by which we recognise the extra meaning is similar to that used for discovering preposition meaning between two neighbouring nouns (see 136. Types of Description by Nouns).

“Example” is only one of many possible sentence relations in English. Consider what happens if we change the first of the two sentences above:

(c) Chinese food is typified by rice. Italians frequently eat pasta.

Now we have a different sentence relation: contrast. No specific word expresses this meaning; it just comes from the two sentences being together, combined with our recognition of two pairs of opposites (Chinese/Italians and rice/pasta). Other major types of sentence relation are similarity, reason, consequence, addition, specificationsurprise and alternative.

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DETAILS OF SENTENCE RELATIONS

Sentence relations have two main characteristics that have to be borne in mind if you are trying to discover and understand one in a text.

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1. They involve two sentences

It is possible for the meaning created by placing two sentences together to be found in one sentence instead of two (see 1. Simple Example-Giving,  32. Expressing Consequences and 117. Saying More Precisely What is Meant). However, when there is only one sentence, we cannot say there is a sentence relation. As a result, simply identifying a particular meaning like “example” is not enough for recognising a sentence relation. The presence of two sentences will, of course, be shown by a full stop between them, though an acceptable alternative might be a semi-colon (see 17. Colons versus Semi-Colons).

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2. The second sentence indicates the specific meaning

To understand the importance of this characteristic, consider the sentence relation in the following:

(d) Oil output was restricted in the 1970s. The price of petrol increased considerably.

The first sentence here gives the cause of what the second says, and the second gives the result of the first. So is the sentence relation “cause” or “result”? Following the guideline given above, the relation is the result expressed by the second sentence.

One other point to note is that not all pairs of sentences are as clearly related as the examples given above. I hesitate to say that some pairs of sentences are not related, but I would suggest that trying to find a link is sometimes very difficult.

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THE LINK BETWEEN “CONNECTORS” AND SENTENCE RELATIONS

Although sentence relations do not need any special words to be understood, there are such words available to writers if they want to make sure the relation is clear. Usually these words are “connectors” (see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors and 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs), but occasionally they are other kinds of words (see 112. Synonyms of Connectors). Connectors go in the second of two related sentences. In (b) above, it would be possible to add the connector for example to the second sentence; in (d) an appropriate connector would be consequently. Other examples of connectors are on the other hand, similarly, moreover, however, alternatively and this is because.

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HOW SENTENCE RELATIONS CAUSE DIFFICULTY IN READING

Three different errors seem possible with sentence relations. The most basic one is to read the sentences in isolation from each other, without looking for any connection between them at all. If this is done, the full meaning of a text cannot be understood, since it depends quite heavily on sentence relations.

The other two possible errors both involve misunderstanding a particular sentence relation. In one case, the problem is failing to notice clues to the relation in the two sentences, such as the mentions of a class name and a class member signalling example and the mentions of opposites showing a contrast. In the other case, the problem is misunderstanding the meaning of a connector in the second sentence. This problem is quite a major one because connectors rarely translate exactly from one language to another; they are often similar in two languages but with a subtle difference. Some of the most problematic connectors in English can be read about within this blog in the post 20. Problem Connectors.

Reading as much as possible is probably the best way to improve one’s recognition of sentence relations, but doing exercises might help a little as well. The next section offers two that can be tried.

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PRACTICE IN RECOGNIZING SENTENCE RELATIONS

EXERCISE 1:  Each of the sentences below is a possible continuation of a text that begins One benefit of prosperity is that people have more free time.  However, the sentence relation created by each continuation is different each time.  Can you match the right meaning with the right continuation (answers are given below)?

Sentence Relations

REASON, UNEXPECTED RESULT, EXPECTED RESULT, ADDITION, CLARIFICATION

Continuations:

1. Hunger is rare.

2. They do not have to work as much.

3. To avoid being bored, they participate in more leisure activities.

4. Some become unhappy if they are not busy enough.

5. Employers are more willing to cut the length of the working week.

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Answers  (Sometimes more than one answer is possible).

1. Addition;  2. Clarification;  3. Expected Result;  4. Unexpected Result;  5. Reason.

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EXERCISE 2Match each sentence in List A below with the sentence in List B that helps to make the sentence relation shown in brackets.

List A

1. Key points in a talk need to be emphasised.  (REASON)

2. Success at sport requires frequent physical exercise.  (SIMILARITY)

3. Global warming may be taking place because of human activity.  (ALTERNATIVE)

4. Water evaporates from the sea and forms clouds.  (NEXT STEP)

5. Some theorists link child learning with maturation. (CONTRAST)

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List B

A. Increased sunspot activity could be a factor.

B. Others say that it depends on past learning.

C. People do not always notice the obvious.

D. Academic Achievement will not come without regular assignments.

E. Rain falls onto the land or the sea.

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Answers

1 – C;  2 – D;  3 – A;  4 – E;  5 – B

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