Initial:If you add leucovorin the toxicities are really similar (CP)
Medial:This tumor is very amenable if it’s a carcinoma by biopsy to local excision (CP)
Final: Patients were eligible for participation ifthey were 18 years of age or older (RA)
22A final formal feature examined in the RA subset was that of the location of the conditional construction within the IMRD sections. It is well-known that there is a strong correlation between the frequency of certain linguistic features and the section of the text (Hyland 1998; Adams-Smith 1984). We wished to see whether this was also the case with conditionals.
23This formal classification was then completed by an analysis of the functions fulfilled by the conditional constructions in their discourse contexts. We had no predefined analytical categories in mind and instead concentrated on identifying the dominant rhetorical functions in relation to the regularities in the data. Three main functions emerged from this process: Factual, Refocusing, and Discourse Management functions – each subsequently divided into a number of sub-categories.
24The Factuals category broadly corresponds to what have often been called course of event, generic or habitual conditionals in other functional approaches (Athanasiadou & Dirven 1997; Ferguson 2001) and to the category of real conditions (present or past) often referred to in pedagogical grammars and manuals. However, the term ‘Factual’ seems particularly relevant to scientific discourse, where the facticity (Latour 1987), or status as fact, of its statements about the natural world is established by observing regularities and correlations, and by carefully defining the conditions under which the facts hold. In clinical medicine, an observational rather than a theoretical science, facticity is important in order to enable protocols and findings to be compared and reproduced. A substitution test of if by when (if [when] X, Y) was used in order to confirm allocation to this category, with the if-operator specifying the exact conditions under which the medical decisions and procedures were carried out, as in example (1):
(1) The dose of paclitaxel was reduced by 20% if the patient had Grade 4 neutropenia that lasted >5 days (RA-NSE)
25Our Refocusing category comprises occurrences which have a marked argumentative function. To make their claims researchers constantly need to redraw the argumentative boundaries within some type of suppositional or speculative world. This category includes what have often been referred to as unreal or ‘hypothetical’ conditionals in the literature, such as:
(2) If the results of Aoyama et al are confirmed, HFSR might be the most adequate technique to propose (RA-FSE)
as well as modalised recommendations (3) and concessive uses (4).
(3) If the tumor is at a curative stage the operation should be converted to an open surgery (CP-FSE)
(4) Even if noncancer deaths did not differ, the presenceof concurrent adverse health conditions, or comorbidity, hasbeen shown to increase cancer mortality. (RA-NSE)
26In the Discourse Management category we have classified occurrences which serve to instruct or guide readers and listeners in following the development of the text or talk. If-conditionals can be used to introduce new topics (5) or to instruct readers on where to direct their attention (6):
(5) Now if we go to patients who experienced mucositis toxicity…(CP-NSE)
(6) If you look at the crossover versus the non-crossover group, there was a doubling of survival (CP-NSE)
27As can be seen from Table 1 above, the frequency of if-conditionals varies considerably with genre, ranging from only 0.96/1000w. in the RA to 3 times as many in the CPs (3/1000w.). This corroborates other studies which have found the construction to be more frequent in speech than in writing, both in general and in specialised discourses (Ford & Thompson 1986; Biber et al. 1999; Ferguson 2001). While the difference between the two speaker groups is negligible in the RA (NSE 1.06 vs. FSE 0.85/1000w), it is considerably more marked in the CP, where the native English speakers use the construction twice as frequently as their French-speaking colleagues (NSE 3.85 vs. FSE 1.96), a point we return to later in section 5.4.
28The medical RA subset presents a very specific profile of use. The verb sequences used are firstly starkly different from those encountered in the literature on conditionals. The three traditional canonical verb sequences are extremely rare, representing under 5% of the total occurrences in both the NSE and FSE articles (see Table 2 below). It is clear that any novice or NNS author, who has been led to believe that such forms are the norm, will therefore be ill-prepared for this reality of discourse practice.
Table 2. Canonical verb sequences in the RA
29Our RA subset reveals instead a variety of other verb sequences. The most frequent of these are given in Table 3:
Table 3. Other Verb Sequences in the RA
30These ‘non-canonical’ forms represent overall 95% of the if-conditionals in the data. A minor fraction of these combinations, amongst those classified as ‘other sequences ’ in Table 3, are decidedly odd. In (7), for example, the use of the modal might in both the P and Q clauses can almost certainly be attributed to a lack of linguistic expertise by the FSE author(s):
(7)if TGF-b overexpression might be required for the initial expansion, the maintenance of the fibrotic lesion might be independent of TGF-b action. (RA-FSE)
31However, the great majority of the non-canonical combinations are appropriate in context and occur with far greater regularity than those in any of the canonical sequences. The most frequent combination in both the FSE and NSE articles, representing globally 48.4% of occurrences, is that of two past tenses:
(8) Patients were eligibleif there was evidence of spread of tumor to regional lymph nodes(Dukes’ C or tumor, lymph node, metastasis stage III tumor). (RA NSE)
32Such sequences representing real situations in the past are rarely referred to in the literature on conditionals (see section 2).
33The second most frequent verbal form in the medical RA subset, and one also perhaps insufficiently highlighted in the literature, is that involving various types of truncated verb sequence (11.5% of the occurrences). In the RA, conciseness is at premium and the use of reduced verb forms allows a greater economy of style:
(9) (adjuvant therapyallowed if >6 months since completion)(RA-NSE)
34The reduced form of the Q clause and the replacement of the verb in the P clause by the mathematical symbol in this particular example represent a considerable gain in concision with regard to the full conditional sentence. However, there is a slight discrepancy here between the two author-sets, suggesting perhaps that the FSE authors are less aware of the usefulness of the various truncated conditional forms.
35Canonical forms are slightly more frequent in the CP than in the RA but still only represent 12.5% of the total, a proportion which is once again very different from what the literature and teaching resources lead one to expect (see Table 4). The most common type is canonical 1, used in most cases, however, not for prediction but to describe the speaker’s regular clinical practice, as in the following example:
(10) if it’s a low rectal cancer we’ll do more frequent flexible sigmoidoscopy (CP-NSE)
36The quasi-absence of conditional 3 in the two research genres (1 occ. in the RA) is also worth pointing out. This construction is widely-taught, but appears in fact to be irrelevant to the argumentative needs of the specialised discourse studied here, as the researchers would be doing themselves a disservice if they opened up past hypothetical spaces in which a different set of results might have been obtained. Alternatives likely to cast serious doubt on their claims are therefore not raised, obviating the need for canonical 3.
Table 4. Canonical verb sequences in the CP
37The wide variety of other verb sequences, accounting for 87.5% of all occurrences, is shown in Table 5. In strong contrast to the RA, however, where the past + past pattern was the most frequent, it is the present + present pattern which predominates in the CP (31.5% of all occurrences). The function generally attributed to this pattern in EST manuals is that of stating general scientific laws or timeless truths; in the medical CPs studied here, however, it is used, like canonical 1, to describe regular clinical practice, the presentation of personal experience and know-how being a typical feature of the genre:
(11)iftumor is left then we do a postoperative radiotherapy(CP-FSE)
38The second largest sequence, present + modal (21.7%) also refers primarily to clinical practice but statements are hedged, reflecting the inherently probabilistic basis of medical knowledge:
(12) if the patient is absolutely inoperable you can try to treat some very superficial T2N0 (CP-FSE)
39These two sequences combined account for over half the occurrences. The very high proportion of patterns in the present is probably due to the real-time delivery of the talk, in that speakers prefer the immediacy of the present tense to the distance created by the past, and also to the need to refer constantly to the visuals projected on the screen during the talk.
40Two other patterns characteristic of the CP, although seldom pointed out to learners, are the Q-less P-clause and the present + past pattern. The Q-less P-clause, used for slide requests (If I could have the next slide please?), although syntactically incomplete is not pragmatically incomplete in this context, and suffices, as Ford points out, to make a polite request: “A ‘main’ clause seems to be unnecessary […], with the if-clause alone becoming a conventional format for proposing another’s action.” (1997: 405).
41The present + past sequence is used in the CP with the specific role of semiotic management:
(13)now if we look at just some factors, the disease-free survival was less (CP-NSE)
42This sequence enables the speaker to manage a smooth transition between the current enunciative space of the talk (the polite invitation in the present tense to look at the slide), to the research or content space of the results obtained in the past (disease-free survival was less…).
Table 5. Other verb sequences in the CP
43The initial positioning of if-clauses can only be considered to be the norm in the CPs. In the RAs, on the other hand, final P clauses are more frequent than initial P clauses.
Table 6. Clause ordering in the RA and CP
44The tendency towards the final positioning of P clauses is contrary to what is normally presented in the literature as the default positioning but would appear to be a pronounced specificity of the medical RA and characteristic of both author groups (NSE 55%, FSE 52%). Several factors can be seen to motivate this choice. A large proportion of these postposed P clauses in both author groups involve ‘factual’ type conditionals relating to methodology and treatment decisions taken:
(14) Fine needle aspiration was performed if involvement of inguinal nodes was clinically suspected. (RA-FSE: Meth.)
(15) Patients were eligible for participation if they were 18 years of age or older (RA-NSE: Meth.)
45In examples such as (14) or (15) the various defining and criterial uses of P clauses often seem better suited both cognitively and discursively to final positioning. The particular research decisions taken are presented before the precise operational definitions and/or explanations relevant to these decisions. Positioning of the if-clause can also be exploited on occasion for rhetorical effect:
(16) Associations between obliteration rate (OR) and parameters included in the univariate analysis were studied using the chi-square test where variables could be reduced to classes if the counts were >5. If the minimal count was <3, a nonparametric Mann-Whitney test was used. (RA-FSE: Meth.)
- 6 The respective ordering of the P and Q clauses also fulfills a vital role in information structuri (...)
46By alternating the Q-P, P-Q order in these two consecutive sentences, the RA author is thus able to highlight the contrasting methods used in the case of counts >5 and<3. It appears therefore that the emphasis in conditional theory on initial positioning of if-clauses is not only rather misleading but also masks this possible discursive function of the construction.6
47In marked contrast to the RA, three-quarters of if-clauses in the CP are initial. Although initial positioning is often presented as a global norm across speech and writing (cf. section 2 supra), it seems more accurate to say that the question of mode plays a predominant role. In real-time processing it is important for speakers to first provide the background for the assertion in Q, by specifying under which conditions it holds, in order to avoid misinterpretation and back-processing by listeners. They also need to focus the listener’s attention on the referents needed in the subsequent discourse. This ‘presentational’ function of initial if-clauses comes across clearly in many occurrences in the data:
(17) If we look at the toxicities used in some slides before we see that with this schedule we can have less toxicity than with the others (CP-FSE)
48As Table 6 shows, the proportion of initial P clauses is identical in the two speaker groups, lending further support to our contention that it is the cognitive constraints of the oral mode which govern initial positioning.
49The medial position of P clauses, though rarely mentioned in the literature, is also relatively frequent in the CP (11%), and once again seems to be due to real-time processing factors. Speakers sometimes interrupt the syntactic flow so as to insert in mid-sentence, almost as an afterthought, an if-clause to clarify the condition governing the assertion in Q:
(18) the diameter of the lesions if they’re adenomas tends to be bigger (CP-NSE)
50This type of syntactic improvisation would usually be eliminated during the writing process.
51In addition to the differences in formal features noted above, the two genres also differ considerably in the preferred functions that if-conditionals fulfil (see Table 7).
Table 7. Functions in the RA and CP
52The medical RA also presents a very specific profile functionally speaking. What are usually presented as the prototypical hypothetical or predictive functions of if-conditionals are in fact far from ‘typical’ in the medical research article. What predominates instead is a particular type of Factual conditional.
53The practical absence of Discourse Management conditionals in the RA should not come as a surprise. All the medical RAs follow the standardised IMRD format, and there is thus no need for any extra meta-discursive signals to guide the reader through the text. The Refocusing type of conditional functions, enabling researchers to make use of the argumentative potential of the construction account for 38% of occurrences. Within this category however, any predictions and hypotheses that do occur are frequently hedged, as envisaging hypothetical alternatives or engaging in speculation is contrary to one of the main objectives of research discourse, namely that of establishing facts.
(19) Also, if preoperative therapy is administered at the time of diagnosis it might be more effective because the metastatic burden may be the smallest at this point. (RA-NSE: Disc.)
54The high number of factual functions in the RA corpus can thus be related to this need to establish facticity in scientific texts. While it is true that reference to Factual conditions in scientific texts is usually addressed in EST manuals (cf. section 2), reference is invariably only made to factual conditions in the present, expressing some type of generalisation or timeless truth. In our medical RAs, the great majority of factual if-conditionals involve the past + past pattern and refer to specific pieces of research accomplished by the author and colleagues, rather than to the statement of any general truths.
(20) If 10% or more of the malignant nuclei were stained, the slide was scored as negative (RA-NSE: Meth.)
55As in the RA, the Refocusing function accounts for one-third of if-conditionals; the other two functions, however, are distributed very differently between the two genres.
56Factuals are less common in the CP (41% vs. 61% in the RA), no doubt because most Factuals occur in the Methods section of the RA, a section that is much shorter and less detailed in the CP – audiences come to hear ‘breaking news’ and fresh results, so established methods are very quickly glossed over.
57The function that marks the real specificity of the CP genre however is Discourse Management. Whereas we found only one occurrence in the 60 RAs, there are 56 in the 30 CPs (i.e. >100 times as many). Two factors can be adduced to explain this difference. Firstly, the structure of conference presentations is more variable from one speaker to another than that of the RA. The absence of a template therefore makes it necessary for speakers to guide their audience through the talk by signalling its organisation. Moreover, as various analysts of lengthy expository monologues have pointed out, organizational markers are necessary in this type of discourse in order to chunk the continual verbal flow into manageable segments and mark topic boundaries (Rilling 1996; Thompson 2003). If-conditionals are one of the preferred means to do this; in Rilling’s study of university lectures, for example, of the nine most frequent 4-word topic shifters, four are if-conditionals. A typical example from our data is:
(21) Ifwe now go on to discuss the other problem, that is the local recurrence problem, this is a serious problem(CP-NSE)
58Another reason for the large number of discourse management if-conditionals is linked to the fact that scientific speakers’ need to manage concurrently two kinds of semiotic spaces – the verbal space, or spoken commentary, and the visual space, or what is projected onto the screen. As the latter is an integral part of the scientific content, the two spaces need to be connected by intratextual references for the discourse to be cohesive (Young 1990: 91). If-conditionals have the advantage of giving a suitably polite directive to the audience, not threatening to the listener’s negative face.
(22) If you look at the number of patients that were treated, … (CP-NSE)
- 7 Among the teaching resources consulted, the only one to mention the ‘politeness’ function of if-cl (...)
59These various discourse management uses of if–conditionals have received little attention in the teaching literature on conditionals.7
60As several of the tables shown above indicate, in addition to the differences between genres, there are also some interesting divergences in the way the two speaker groups use if-conditionals in specialised discourse. This section discusses the most significant differences observed.
61In the RA, there are overall few notable differences concerning the forms of if-conditionals in the two author groups. In both sets of articles final positioning of P clauses is preferred and recourse to the three canonical conditionals is very rare (see Tables 2 & 6). Both groups instead frequently use the combination of two past tenses in order to describe real situations in the past. In the FSE subset there are however slightly more verb sequences involving two present tenses or the present + modal sequence than in the NSE subset. This discrepancy can be related to the slightly higher proportion of refocusing type conditionals in the FSE subgroups.
62As Table 7 illustrates, although discourse management functions are conspicuously absent in both author groups, there are some differences with regard to the distribution of the refocusing and factual functions. Factuals, even if predominant in both author groups, are more widely used by the NSE authors than by their FSE counterparts. Refocusing conditionals, on the other hand, are more exploited by the FSE authors than by the NSE authors (46% and 32% respectively), particularly with the contrastive and concessive uses, where one invariably finds two present tenses:
(23) If the results are encouraging for T2 lesions, the rate of local failure with RT [radiotherapy] … for T3 lesions remains >20%. (RA-FSE: Disc.)
(24) Even ifthese local failures are surgicallysalvageable in most patients, they are certainly not trivialevents and, in some cases, may have a deleterious impact onsurvival. (RA-FSE)
63These differences can be related not only to a certain amount of language interference (French si has a wider range of values than English if) but also to the potential influence of different national academic writing styles. Lack of space prevents us from examining this issue here in detail but in a previous study contrasting the use of French si and English if in the medical research article (Carter-Thomas 2007), French authors were seen to make greater use of the refocusing and manœuvring capacity of the conditional operator si in argumentation and it is therefore possible that this trait is also carried over to their research writing in English.
64The differences in the distribution of functions between the two author groups is also reflected in the distribution of if-conditionals across the RA IMRD sections. Although if-conditionals occur with a similar frequency in both author groups (see Figure 1) the occurrences are not distributed in the same way over the RA sections.
Figure 1. Comparative distribution of if-conditionals by section in the NSE and FSE RAs
65As is well-known there are considerable differences in communicative function from one section of the research article to another (Swales 1990; 2004). In particular a sharp distinction is maintained between the research data and its interpretation. In the NSE group the majority of occurrences are in the more descriptive Methods and Results sections (67%), as opposed to only 27% of occurrences in the Discussion section. Those of the FSE authors also contain a substantial number of occurrences in the Methodology section (46%), but they also contain an almost equally high percentage of occurrences in the more polemical Discussion sections (44%), reflecting the greater recourse to refocusing functions of if-conditionals noted above and exploitation of the construction’s argumentative potential.
66The need for syntactic structures that are adapted to the specific communicative requirements of the conference presentation genre is not always fully apprehended by the FSE speakers, leading to much greater differences between the two speaker groups than those observed in the RA. This is to some extent understandable as in the CP no hard and fast rules, or even models that can be analysed and then imitated, exist.
67A first major difference between the two speaker groups concerns the frequency with which they use if-conditionals in their talks: though overall if-conditionals are three times more frequent in the CP than in the RA, this is mainly due to the NSE speakers who use the construction twice as frequently as FSE authors do (NSE: 3.8/1000w. vs. FSE: 1.9/1000w.). Or, to put it differently, the ratio of if-conditionals in the CP compared to the RA is 4:1 in the case of NSE, and only 2:1 for FSE. When switching from a written to an oral mode of presentation, the French speakers do not differentiate as radically as the American speakers do in their choice of preferred syntactic patterns. This confirms our earlier findings on other syntactic constructions such as the passive, extraposition, pseudo-clefts and inversion (Carter-Thomas & Rowley-Jolivet 2001; Rowley-Jolivet & Carter-Thomas 2005): in all cases, the constructions characteristic of written scientific discourse are more prevalent in FSE talks, while those characteristic of speech are much less in evidence.
68There are also some notable differences with regard to the three main functions of if-conditionals in the two speaker subsets. Although Factual functions are exploited in the same proportion in both groups, the FSE researchers make greater use proportionally speaking of the Refocusing functions (NSE 28%; FSE 45%), reflecting the greater recourse to the argumentative capacity of refocusing if-conditionals noted previously among FSE RA writers. The most striking difference however is in theDiscourse management function, that is, if-conditionals used to signal the structure of the talk and to direct the audience’s attention, as in: Now if we look at some other series… It is heavily used by the NSE speakers (47 occ., representing 31% of all if-conditionals in their talks), but only sparsely by the FSE speakers (a mere nine occurrences; see Table 7). It would appear that this pragmatic use of the if-conditional is largely unfamiliar to the latter group, no doubt in part because it is granted so little attention in EFL manuals. Given its important discourse functions in the CP, this raises the possibility that their talks may be less clearly signposted and with less attention paid to politeness strategies. EFL learners are generally taught logical link-words and set expressions – on the other hand, therefore, I will now move on to my second point, etc. – to structure their discourse. However, many if not most of these do not occur at all in our data, in either speaker group. Incorporating some explanations of the more pragmatic uses of conditionals, within a generally more genre-sensitive approach to English syntax, would prepare learners more completely for the reality of disciplinary discourse use they are likely to encounter.
69This study of the frequencies, functions and forms of if-conditionals in two medical research genres has highlighted several interesting features of specialised discourse use. We have seen firstly that if-conditionals are overall much more frequent in the spoken than in the written genre. This tallies with the findings of several studies comparing if-conditionals in speech and writing in general, so on this point specialised discourse is not noticeably different.
- 8 To assess whether this is a discipline-specific feature or more generally characteristic of resear (...)
70Several of the formal features of the construction, however, diverge markedly from what the theoretical and pedagogical literature present as the norm. Whereas if-conditionals are invariably presented in the literature with the P-clause in initial position, this is by no means the case in the medical RA. On the contrary, initial positioning seems to be attributable to modal factors such as the constraints of cognitive processing in speech rather than being a characteristic feature of the construction itself. We have also noted that certain verb sequences in if-conditionals are highly genre-specific, with the RA being characterised by the past + past pattern and to a lesser extent truncated forms. In the CP, the present + present sequence dominates, while two additional patterns – present + past and the Q-less P-clause – appear motivated by the semiotic and pragmatic parameters of the genre. Most importantly for teaching applications, we have seen that the emphasis in EFL/EST manuals on the three ‘canonical’ verb patterns is largely irrelevant to the research discourses of medicine. In both the RA and the CP, these patterns represent only a fraction of all verb forms used in the construction.8
71It is clear that learners who have been led to believe that only these forms exist and that they can be used in all circumstances will be ill-equipped for either producing or processing medical research discourse. This discrepancy is undoubtedly linked to the incompatibility between the rhetorical aims of the medical research genres and the habitual semantics of the ‘canonical’ forms, namely prediction, supposition, and counterfactuality. The functions fulfilled by if-conditionals in our corpus appear on the contrary to be very genre-specific. Each of the two genres makes preferential use of a particular function: Factuals in the RA and Discourse Management in the CP. These preferences are rhetorically motivated, in that they correspond in each case to the communicative and argumentative needs of the genre in question.
72At several points in this study, however, we have noted differences between the native English writers/speakers and their French counterparts. In the RA, the FSE group differs from the NSE by a rather different distribution of if-conditionals over the RA sections and greater use of the Refocusing function. While some of these differences can perhaps be attributed to interference from French or to different writing styles, others, we would contend, are linked to the way such common syntactic patterns as the if-conditionals are generally presented to learners. The much lower frequency of if-conditionals in the FSE CPs, for example, can probably be attributed to a lack of awareness of the pragmatic and discourse management functions of the construction.
73Our study has brought to light some important discrepancies between the general theory and rather prescriptive rules found in learner manuals on if-conditionals on the one hand, and specialised discourse practice on the other. If teaching oriented resourcesgive a misleading or incomplete picture, learners may be unfamiliar with certain verb patterns and functions, and therefore risk either misunderstanding certain usages or being less rhetorically effective themselves in the different genres they need to master. Teaching if-conditionals using decontextualised examples, or focusing on purely logical and abstract meanings, without taking into account the specific requirements of the genre and discipline, can even be counter-productive.
74What is needed is a more genre sensitive approach to such common syntactic constructions as the if-conditional. This includes familiarising learners therefore with the specificities of the syntactic patterns they are likely to meet when reading, writing or speaking the discourse of their specialised communities. If a more genre-sensitive and discoursal approach to syntax is taken, learners will be more aware of the linguistic and discursive specificities of their discipline and its associated genres and therefore more adequately prepared to take part in the life of their discourse communities.