Devil in the Details: How to Connect Ideas in Text

Ilari wrote about indexicality a while back.

Then Duncan Nisbet wrote a blog post about how he tries to improve/reduce his use of deixis.

I ended up ranting a bit in the comments section about it because this topic is very familiar to me: I’ve been drilled and trained and what not about deixis at the university. And there’s another topic similar to that of deixis where the devil is in the details: linking words.

I had learned about the linking words back in school, of course, but after entering the university, I quickly learned I hadn’t paid sufficient attention and respect to them. All those comments and strikethroughs in red pen… My supervisor for my BA thesis gave me the ultimate lessons in using linking words by asking in a very ironic voice “Why do you use “because” here? Do you really think there is a causal relationship between these sentences?”

What are linking words?

Linking words and phrases are sentence connectors that are used  to link one idea to another. For example, “because”, “as”, “so”, “firstly”, etc are linking words.

Each of them is used to create a specific link between ideas. You would use “because” if there is a causal relationship: “He was tired because he had stayed up late”.

Why are linking words important?

They are important because using them right makes the text easily readable. If misused, the text may become fairly difficult to understand.

In my experience people don’t often pay attention to linking words and sprinkle them in the text incorrectly. As a result, the text becomes less clear or the text suggests connections between ideas that are not there. I often find the linking words for causality and contrast are misused. Then it’s the burden of the reader to figure out why two sentences that seem to go together are contrasted or why causal relationship is suggested even though the content of the sentences doesn’t suggest it.

As a (frequent) editor of different kind of texts, I have learned that the most difficult texts to crack aren’t necessarily those where the terms are used incorrectly or where the grammar or syntax isn’t clear. The biggest source of misunderstanding for me comes from disjointed ideas and poor connection between the ideas.

I have looked out for the use of linking words in my testers’ bug reports and have explained to them how to use linking words and what to pay attention to.

The reason for this is that if linking words are used effectively, the text is easier to read, so the reader doesn’t have to make a big effort. The text will flow much more nicely if you connect your ideas properly. Also, since I try to make my bug reports crisp and to the point, I want to make sure I have used linking words efficiently.

Clarity is important when dealing with programmers who often skim read the reports (because they’re busy… what did you think?). Importantly, I think that getting such details right is a fundamental skill in both written and oral texts.

Therefore, I suggest it’s worthwhile to scrutinize your reports and find out (if? and) how you use linking words in them.

There is plenty of material out there but here’s a fairly decent collection of linking words. Print the list out and stick it on the wall!

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9 thoughts on “Devil in the Details: How to Connect Ideas in Text

  1. Hey Helena,

    I didn’t see it as ranting & I thought it added great value 🙂

    Thanks for taking the conversation on further WRT linking words – they are not something I had directly considered before now.

    Can you provide an example of a sentence with a misused linking word please?

    Thanks,

    Duncs

    PS List of linking words printed & stuck to my desk divider!

    • Hey Duncan,

      Thanks! It’s just I tend to get carried away sometimes (judging by the length of the comment)…

      Such examples aren’t as easy to come up with as grammar examples… But I was reading some blogs today and found one that illustrates the use of linking words. I hope the author won’t mind 🙂

      “This posting regarding “Is Miagi-Do a “School” of Testing?” was going to be posted shortly after the tweet thread started, however due to editorial issues it got delayed 😉 . However since we now have a new testing society the ISST, I think this posting becomes timely once again. ”

      Can you spot the problem?

      Helena

      • Not sure about a problem as such – but I wouldn’t use “however” twice in quick succession like that. (without re-writing) I would have written that statement like this

        “This posting regarding “Is Miagi-Do a “School” of Testing?” was going to be posted shortly after the tweet thread started, but due to editorial issues it got delayed 😉 . Since we now have a new testing society the ISST, I think this posting becomes timely once again. ”

        • Yes, the multiple use of “however” is the problem here. It’s OK to use “however” in the first sentence (but then it has to be between commas). “However” is not suitable at the beginning of the second sentence because it’s confusing what it opposes: the first idea or the second idea after “however”. Also, using these “howevers” in such close proximity to each other makes the text sound a bit “staccato” as well in my opinion.

          This is just one example and most of the time I find the issues with linking words to be a lot more subtle (if I find one in the future, I’ll set it aside :)).
          It’s also a problem if the linking words are not used at all. In that case sentences will just follow each other and the connection may remain a bit vague. If the writer hasn’t inserted the linking words as “checkpoints”, then it’s the burden of the reader to figure out how the writer connects the ideas. Therefore, I think it’s fair to say that the linking words have the function to clarify and help the reader.

          • Brilliant feedback Helena – this is really valuable to me.

            Love this sentence
            “… If the writer hasn’t inserted the linking words as “checkpoints”, then it’s the burden of the reader to figure out how the writer connects the ideas…”

            When the reader has to figure out what is going on, they are making their own interpretation which of course may be incorrect. Here be dragons!

            • Thanks! I’m really happy it is helpful.

              I can see this thread could grow even longer… but then it could be taken outside the comment section… to Skype or something like that.

              To expand on this (I just like to wander off, don’t I…), it could be said that a text is always open to interpretation and the author can never fully control the reception of the text. Sure, authors try to do it through the language they use, narrative, style, etc. However, a text can end up being read in different contexts and at different times (if you think of fiction, we read works that were written centuries ago – we surely interpret the texts differently than the contemporaries) which means that it can be received very differently (though I think it can be true about bug reports as well: maybe they travle through the hierarchies as pieces of information becoming detached from their original surroundings). Of course, linking words are more of a technical aspect of the text but they still matter and still can be dangerous if used improperly.

              One possible interpretation of a text where linking words are misused is that the author doesn’t really know what they’re talking about 🙂

  2. Pingback: Five Blogs – 9 September 2013 | 5blogs

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