Uninformative information is often necessary but must be phrased appropriately
THE IMPORTANCE OF NAMING THE FAMILIAR
It may seem strange that anyone would want to mention an idea that they expected their reader to know already, but in fact it is a normal aspect of communication. It can happen when something new needs to be said about the familiar idea or, as in the cartoon above, to prove that the speaker has recognised something already known by the listener. Mentions of the familiar are even encountered in elementary English courses, where a standard example is the use of the before previously-mentioned nouns (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”).
Throughout this blog, mentions are made of other ways in which English can acceptably mention something that the reader is expected to know already. One of the earliest is in the post 24. Good and Bad Repetition, where it is shown that repeating a previously-mentioned point or idea can, if done correctly, facilitate such objectives as linking, reminding and clarifying. Some ways of repeating are illustrated in that post; others are in 5. Repetition with Synonyms and 37. Subordination: Grammar for Good Repetition.
In this post, I wish to present a wider variety of familiarity-suggesting language, in order both to indicate its overall importance in English and to facilitate its study as a topic in its own right. The focus is less on the kind of familiarity that results from an earlier mention in the same text, and more on the kind that the writer assumes to exist because the information in question seems common knowledge, or at least something that the targeted readers would not unreasonably be expected to know already.
SURVEY OF FAMILIARITY-SHOWING LANGUAGE
The following words and structures can suggest that a point or idea is expected to be already familiar to a reader.
Subordination gives a verb in a sentence a lower rank than other verbs. It often suggests that the sentence is not “about” what that verb is helping to say (see 37. Subordination). Subordination is a very likely location for familiar points and ideas because they too are by definition unlikely to be what a sentence is “about”. The underlined words in the following example are subordinated:
(a) Automation may cause a rise in the number of the unemployed. As unemployment increases, wages will tend to fall.
The subordination here is recognizable from the presence of the “subordinating conjunction” as. The idea of lesser importance is particularly likely to be conveyed when such conjunctions are at the start rather than the middle of a sentence, as here. Relative pronouns (who, which etc.) are another important kind of subordinator. Some other grammatical categories (prepositions, “action” nouns, adjectives) are not technically subordinators but can have the same effect. For full details, see the relevant post.
These two prepositions introduce a familiar idea or point in order to clarify an unfamiliar one through comparison. Like shows a similarity between the two, unlike a difference. Comparisons do not have to be with familiar ideas, but many are (see 149. Saying How Things are Similar). Because like and unlike are prepositions, they need the familiar idea to be a noun or equivalent. Here is an example of their use from the Guinlist post 56. Comparing with “Like” and “Unlike”:
(b) Like motor vehicles, coal stations pollute.
This suggests the reader already knows that motor vehicles pollute. That knowledge is being used to make coal station pollution more understandable.
3. “Just as”
This conjunction resembles like in enabling a familiar idea to be included in a similarity statement. It differs in that, being a conjunction, it needs to be followed by a statement with a subject and verb, rather than by a simple noun or noun equivalent. It can be used either at the start of a sentence, before the two compared ideas, or in the middle between them. In the former case, there must be a so in the middle (see 64. Double Conjunctions). Here is an example from the post 149. Saying How Things are Similar:
(c) Just as water travels to the lowest possible level, so heat transfers to cooler substances.
4. “Not only”
These words are normally combined with a later but also to make a double conjunction. As such, they signal the first of two listed items or statements, rather as both does before a later and. Suggesting the familiarity of the first of these two items or statements is the main reason for using not only instead of both. The negative of not only is any more than (combined with a preceding negative). Full details of all these options are in the post 64. Double Conjunctions.
5. “That is why” and “of course”
Unlike the other expressions, these suggest the reader’s familiarity with everything said by the rest of their sentence. The reason is that they are sentence adverbs – more associated with whole sentences than with the sentence parts like verbs that adverbs often partner (see 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs).
That is why additionally suggests that the accompanying familiar information is a consequence of the statement before (the involvement of a previous statement makes that is why a sentence adverb of the “connector” variety – see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors). Consider the following:
(d) It is becoming harder to exercise regularly. That is why so many people are overweight.
The underlined consequence here is expected to be familiar to the reader because it is visible to all. The familiarity suggested by that is why is here reinforced by the use of so instead of very (see below). The suggestion of familiarity is the main difference between that is why and other consequence connectors like consequently and for this reason (see 20. Problem Connectors).
Of course, on the other hand, is not a connector, and merely implies that the reader is already familiar with the point stated next to it. It often has a politeness function: the writer needs to mention the point in question (perhaps in order to say something about it in a neighbouring sentence, or simply to remind the reader), but is aware that some people dislike being told things they consider obvious (because it suggests they are unduly ignorant). Of course, in saying “I know you know this”, prevents offence being taken.
6. “So” before an adjective or adverb
This usage may be illustrated as follows:
(e) The country is so poor because it cannot engage in agriculture.
A writer who did not expect the reader to be already aware of the poverty in question would probably write very instead of so (see the footnote in 98. “Very”, “Much” and “Very Much”). Note that this use of so + ADJ is different from the one with a following that, as illustrated in 32. Expressing Consequences, where reader familiarity seems less easily assumed.
A less clear-cut usage is so in thanking expressions like Thank you so much. The alternative of using very seems to be disappearing, particularly in the USA, probably as a result of politeness conventions. Perhaps the feeling of greater politeness is a logical consequence of implying the hugeness of the thanks to be obvious.
7. Attention-Focussing “What” Sentences
This kind of sentence is extensively analyzed in the Guinlist post 145. The Highlighting Use of “What”. An example is:
(f) What causes the most stress is noise.
In sentences like this, attention is being drawn to the wording after is at the end – here noise – in order to leave no doubt that it is the main information. The part that is implied to be familiar to the reader hence comes earlier, expressed by everything between what and is. A more normal wording of (f) would be Noise causes the most stress.
Of the three uses of whether examined in the Guinlist post 99. When to Use “whether … or …”, it is that resembling either that can imply familiarity to the reader. Consider this:
(g) Please write clearly, whether in ink or pencil.
This seems to suggest that the choice between ink and pencil is already familiar to the addressees, perhaps because it has been previously discussed. If this familiarity was absent, the speaker would probably use either instead of whether.
9. Complements Starting with “the fact that”
Complements are normally subject-referring expressions after a link verb such as BE. Not many can start with the fact that like the following:
(g) The problem is the fact that nobody takes responsibility.
For the fact that to be possible, the subject of the sentence (here problem) must be of the right kind: not one of saying or thinking, such as idea, message or word (which all need that by itself), but from a rather select group that also includes advantage, clue and curiosity (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”).
Most complements starting with the fact that can also start with that by itself. Choosing the fact that seems particularly to suggest that the reader already knows the subsequent information.
10. Grammar for Altering Word Order
In the absence of anything else, word order gives a clue about what the writer expects the reader to know already. The tendency is for familiar information to be placed at the start of a sentence. What happens, then, if a writer thinks of a possible sentence, but finds it requires the familiar information to be at the end?
One way to change the word order is by replacing vocabulary but keeping the grammar the same. Examples of how this can be done are in the Guinlist posts 27. How to Avoid Passive Verbs and 113. Verbs that cannot be Passive. Another way is by changing the grammar. The following table shows grammar structures that mean more or less the same but require different word orders:
 See 126. Verbs with an Indirect Object.