15.3446, Diss: Disc Analysis,Sem,Text/Corpus Ling:Caldwell: Le...

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LINGUIST List: Vol-15-3446. Thu Dec 09 2004. ISSN: 1068 - 4875.

Subject: 15.3446, Diss: Disc Analysis,Sem,Text/Corpus Ling:Caldwell: Le...

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Date: 06-Dec-2004
From: Candice Caldwell < candice at cantab.net >
Subject: Lexical Vagueness in Student Writing

-------------------------Message 1 ----------------------------------
Date: Thu, 09 Dec 2004 09:12:34
From: Candice Caldwell < candice at cantab.net >
Subject: Lexical Vagueness in Student Writing

Institution: University of Cambridge
Program: Research Centre for English and Applied Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2003

Author: Candice Caldwell

Dissertation Title: Lexical Vagueness in Student Writing

Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
                     Text/Corpus Linguistics

Dissertation Director(s):
Gillian Brown

Dissertation Abstract:

This study addresses the issue of underspecificity in undergraduate
writing. Two corpora of South African undergraduate essays (writing in
first and second language English) are compared to a corpus of academic
papers (PW). The comparison is in terms of corpus-analytic methods and a
discourse analytic approach to using definite expressions.

So-called "abstract" nouns like problem, purpose, fact, example, and idea,
identified as 'carrier/shell' nouns, are often claimed to cause vagueness
in student writing, so students are advised not to use them. Yet corpus
analysis (e.g. Biber et al, 1999) shows they are a core feature of English
academic vocabulary.

Distinguishing between sense and reference clarifies a crucial difference
between nouns with vague denotation, and noun phrases (NPs) with vague
reference. A quantitative analysis of the corpora reveals that the
students and PWs use both 'shell' nouns, and the syntactic patterns in
which they frequently occur, with similarly high frequency. However, the
PW sub-corpus contains significantly more nouns than the student corpora
and exhibits significantly more variety in the nouns used.

Using a discourse-based approach, a second analysis focuses more closely
on the discoursal structure of the texts, concentrating on definite
referring expressions. A specially developed method of coding is used to
categorise the way writers specify and constrain the referents of NPs
containing 'abstract' nouns.  Student writers in this study tend to use
'shell' nouns not only as NP heads but, repetitively, within specifying
phrases whose function should be to constrain reference.  Hawkins' (1991)
approach to definiteness is used  to show that this embedding of 'vague'
nouns in referring NPs, together with other discoursal features, stems from
student writers inappropriately assuming shared knowledge. This in turn
strengthens the argument that if student writers are to be viewed as
apprentice PWs, learning to write for a 'general readership' must be seen
as a crucial part of their training.

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