Is this Too Polite? The Limited Use of Rhetorical Moves in a First-Year Corpus

  • Thomas Peele The City College of New York
Keywords: corpus studies, rhetoric and composition/writing studies, writing analytics, writing assessment, writing in the disciplines


  • Background: The researchers conducted a corpus analysis of 548 research-based argument essays, totalling 1,465,091 words, written by first-year students at The City College of New York (CCNY). The purpose of this study was to better understand the ways in which CCNY students were constructing arguments in research essays in order to better support our instruction of the research essay. Curricular guidelines for the research assignment are general. Instructors are directed to require a research-based, persuasive argument that includes conflicting points of view. Model assignment sheets are provided to instructors, but they are free to write their own. Assignment sheets are not collected or approved. In the fall semester in which this corpus was collected, over 70 part-time instructors taught approximately 120 sections of the first- or second-semester composition course.
  • Literature Review: The study of The City College of New York Corpus (CCNYC) partially replicates and relies on the analysis of three corpora of academic writing conducted by Zak Lancaster (2016a) in his examination of Gerald Graff’s and Cathy Birkenstein’s textbook They Say/I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing (2014). The current study also compares the CCNYC findings to studies of stance and voice markers frequency conducted by Ken Hyland (2012) and Ellen Barton (1993) and suggests the classroom use of corpus analysis as described by Raith Abid and Shakila Manan (2015), and Maggie Charles (2007).
  • Research Questions: The study was guided by a narrowly-focused interest in learning whether or not the CCNYC would demonstrate the range and distribution of rhetorical moves that Lancaster found in his study of academic writing (2016a). The analysis of the corpus consists of frequency counts; we did not conduct other statistical analyses. Since we had little prior experience with corpus analysis, we wondered what would be revealed about students’ writing practices by a partial replication of Lancaster’s study. We did not reproduce Lancaster’s analysis but relied on his publised results. This study served as an assessment tool, providing a microscopic view of a limited number of rhetorical moves across a large corpus of student essays. As a result of our study, we hoped to be able to create assignments for research essays that responded directly to the patterns that we saw in our students’ essays.
  • Methodology: Modeled on Lancaster’s study and the templates of rhetorical moves offered by Graff and Birkenstein, concordances of terms used to introduce objections, offer concessions, and make counterarguments were drawn from the CCNYC and then analyzed to confirm that the rhetorical form was in fact functioning as one of the above rhetorical moves within the context of the essay in which it was found.
  • Results: Our study demonstrates that CCNY students use fewer linguistic resources than their peers at other institutions, a finding that helps shape faculty development seminars. The corpus analysis reveals that while CCNY students introduce objections to their arguments at about the same rates as in other corpora, they are less likely to concede to those objections. In addition, when students made counterarguments, they used only a limited range of the linguistic resources available to them.
  • Conclusions: The low rate of engagement with opposing points of view and the limited use of linguistic resources for counterarguments all suggest the potential value of focused, corpus-based instruction.

Author Biography

Thomas Peele, The City College of New York
Associate Professor, Department of English


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