IELTS to University: participle clauses in academic paragraphs

So, in this blogpost I am going to explore how a high-level piece of IELTS grammar can become unhelpful when developing arguments in academic coursework and dissertations. The post deals with a common issue in the writing of postgraduate international students; one which is a carry over from IELTS courses and which needs revising at university level. Also, only read this post if you have an appetite for complex English grammar, and if you feel fresh and relaxed. Unfortunately, it maintains a headache-inducing level of grammar analysis throughout, but sometimes there’s no way to avoid these things. Deep breath…

Participle clause sentences are an established feature of high-level IELTS performance. One strategy for a 7 in writing task 2 is to use these participle clauses to make sentence-level grammar more complex, and therefore higher-scoring in the writing criteria.

For example, look at the two sentences below:

  • The company decided to delay their investment plans because of the economic outlook.
  • Considering the economic outlook, the company decided to delay their investment plans.

The grammar in the first sentence is relatively simple as the subject noun phrase (The company) starts the first clause of the sentence, and the main object noun phrase (the economic outlook) is introduced by a prepositional phrase of cause (because of) which together form a second clause (because of the economic outlook).

The second sentence is more grammatically complex as the participle form which opens the first clause (Considering) converts the main object noun phrase (the economic outlook) into the main subject. Therefore, the second sentence is more likely to score the IELTS grammatical range and accuracy descriptor for grade 7 – ‘Uses a variety of complex structures’.

So, high-scoring IELTS students arrive at university, often at MA level, with a tendency to use these participle clauses as they associate them with high-level English writing. In some respects they’re right, as these participle forms do have a role in academic writing. Compare the two paragraph openings below:

  • The company decided to delay their investment plans because of the economic outlook. The wider economic conditions were poor, as quarterly increases in inflation were affecting consumer spending.
  • Considering the economic outlook, the company decided to delay their investment plans. The wider economic conditions were poor, as quarterly increases in inflation were affecting consumer spending.

The second opening is clearer as the negative economic conditions repeat as the subject at the start of the first and second sentence. This paragraph will clearly continue to analyse the economic conditions in more depth. However, in the first opening the paragraph subject is confused by the differing subjects at the start of sentence one (The company) and sentence two (The wider economic conditions).

So, the participle form is useful for flipping the sentence object into the sentence subject. Used carefully, as in the above example, this can introduce more clarity into an academic paragraph. The problems start when a writer starts to insert participle clauses at random in a way which would generate more marks in IELTS writing task 2 but has a disruptive effect on meaning in an academic paragraph.

The key to understanding this is that a strong academic paragraph develops an argument in a step-by-step fashion – clause by clause and sentence by sentence. For this reason, it becomes important to track the developing subject through the paragraph, and the overuse of participle clauses can complicate this flow. Look at the different ways the paragraph develops in the example below:

  • Considering the economic outlook, the company decided to delay their investment plans. The wider economic conditions were poor, as quarterly increases in inflation were affecting consumer spending. Taking into account price rises in basic commodities like crude oil and steel explains much of this inflation. Raising capital subsequently became much more difficult.
  • Considering the economic outlook, the company decided to delay their investment plans. The wider economic conditions were poor, as quarterly increases in inflation were affecting consumer spending. Inflation in crude oil and steel largely created these increases which made raising capital much more difficult.

In the first paragraph the use of the participles ‘Taking…’ and ‘Raising…’ at the start of the 3rd and 4th sentences make sense and are acceptable English, but make comprehension slightly more difficult than in the second paragraph. Here, ‘Inflation…’ is clearly presented as the main subject, and the relative pronoun ‘which’ introduces a statement of consequence. When reading pages and pages of an academic paper, the main argument can quickly become indecipherable unless the writer is careful with how the evolving subject is presented from one sentence to the next.

The point is that there is a relationship between complexity of meaning and simplicity of grammar, and making a tightly-knitted argument actually rests on simple sentence-level grammar, involving frequent restatements of the main subject, the use of relative pronouns and adverbs which signal cause and effect relationships between clauses and sentences.

And if you’ve got this far, well done! Perhaps go for a walk now and take a paracetamol. The headache will dissipate soon enough.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *