Academic Writing

Rhetorical functions in academic writing: Providing support


One thing that you learn in higher education is how to make general claims from specific examples.

Your claims, though, need to be supported. This is an important aspect of critical writing.

Supporting generalisations

There are three main ways in which you can support your generalisations. You can support your claims with examples, with details or with evidence.

Look at these extracts all related to the use of fire in agriculture. In extract 1, the claim is supported by a diagram (figure 8.1)

Extract 1

Land which was burned too frequently became overgrown with perennial grasses, which tended to make it difficult to farm with primitive tools. Land cultivated for too long rapidly suffered a deterioration in fertility, while land recently burned was temporarily rich in nutrients (see figure 8.1).

(Andrew Goude, The human impact on the natural environment. Basil Blackwell, 1981)

In extract 2, the claim that the use of fire has not been restricted to primitive people in the tropics is supported by examples of practice in highland Britain, and parts of north and south Amertica as well as evidence from Sternberg.

Extract 2

The use of fire, however, has not been restricted to primitive peoples in the tropics. Remains of charcoal are found in Neolithic soil profiles in highland Britain; large parts of North America appear to have suffered fires at regular intervals prior to European settlement; and in the case of South America the 'great number of fires' observed by Magellan during the historical passage of the Strait that bears his name resulted in the toponym, 'Tierra del Fuego'. Indeed, says Sternberg (1968: 718): 'for thousands of years, man has been putting the New World to the torch, and making it a "land of fire".'

(Andrew Goude, The human impact on the natural environment. Basil Blackwell, 1981)

In extract 3, the claim that fire is still used is supported by evidence from Lemon, a diagram (plate 2) and examples from Malysia, Indonesia and Latin America.

Extract 3

Given this remarkable utility [fire] it would be surprising if it had not been turned to account. Indeed it is still much used, especially by pastoralists such as the cattle-keepers of Africa (Lemon, 1968), and by the practitioners of shifting agriculture (plate 2.2). For example, the Malaysian and Indonesian ladang and themilpa system of the Maya in Latin America involved the preparation of land for planting by felling or deadening forest, letting the debris dry in the hot season, and burning it before the commencement of the rainy season.

(Andrew Goude, The human impact on the natural environment. Basil Blackwell, 1981)

And in extract 4, the claim that fired can assist in seed germination is supported by examples.

Extract 4

Fire may assist in seed germination. For example, the abundant germination of dormant seeds on recently burned chaparral sites has been reported by many investigators, and it seems that some seeds of chaparral species require scarification by fire.

(Andrew Goude, The human impact on the natural environment. Basil Blackwell, 1981)

Supporting with examples

You can provide support for your claims by using examples.

The reduction in numbers was still startlingly small. For example, even after the convertibility crisis of 1947 had led to a further downward revision of the targets for 31 March 1948, there were still 937,000 men in uniform, supported by 350,000 in supplying industries.

The nature of contemporary class structures and the facts of exploitation are the object of elaborate ideological manipulation by the ruling classes of all modern industrial states. Both the United States and the Soviet Union, for example, have ruling classes that foster the illusion that they do not exist. The governing elites of both countries claim that the people are the source of all power. Both ruling classes claim to be democratic, and, to a considerable extent, the mass of Soviet and U.S. citizens appear to accept these illusions as accurate accounts of actual conditions in their own but not the other country.

(Marvin Harris, Culture, people, nature: An introduction to general anthropology, Harper & Row, 1975)


For more practice, see: Writing Functions 8: Examples

Supporting by giving details.

You can provide support for your claims by providing details.

Many international students studying at British institutions of further or higher education experience problems. Some of these problems will be general to all students, but many will be particular to those students who are non-native speakers of English.

One interesting mechanism for getting around this problem is known as silent trade. The objects to be exchanged are set out in a clearing, and the traders retreat out of sight. The other group inspects the wares and lays down what it regards as a fair exchange of its own products. The first group returns and, if satisfied, removes the traded objects. If not, it leaves the wares untouched as a signal that the balance is not yet even.

(Marvin Harris, Culture, people, nature: An introduction to general anthropology, Harper & Row, 1975)

Several languages have however been quite remarkable in terms of their significance and use over time. Greek had a key role in parts of Eurasia and North Africa from the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC) to the fall of Constantinople (1453): almost 1,800 years (and it continues as a primary language of the European Union). Latin was a key language of government, religion, and scholarship from the defeat of Carthage (202 BC) to 1687, when Newton published his first major work, the Principia, in Latin, and 1704, when he published his second major work, Opticks, in English: almost 2,000 years.

(Tom McArthur, The Oxford guide to world English. Oxford University Press, 2002)

Supporting by providing evidence

You can provide evidence to support your claims.

Evidence from your knowledge

The English language ceased to be the sole possession of the English some time ago. Indeed, when even the largest English-speaking country, the USA, turns out to have only 20 per cent of the world's English speakers, it is clear that no one can now claim sole ownership.

Even so, however, we cannot simply single English out for special attention, and this for four reasons. First, the fundamental issue raised by Crystal is evolution, in which the time scale is immense. Secondly, English did not leap out of nowhere: it is an inheritor and is in a serious sense simply part of an already copious flow. Languages such as Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Classical Arabic, Classical Chinese, and French have all been part that flow, English taking up where others have left off or may now be leaving off - or, indeed, may not at all be leaving off. Thirdly, although it is the pre-eminent world language of our time, English is far from being the only world language. Fourthly, English evolves, and the present-day language in all its varieties is vastly different from past Englishes, while its broad international standard is often very different from many of its varieties.

(Tom McArthur, The Oxford guide to world English. Oxford University Press, 2002)

For more practice, see: Writing Functions 16: Reasons & Explanations

Evidence from research

You can cite evidence from other people:

The intensity of physiotherapy provision may affect some patient outcomes including reduced mortality following a stroke (Jones, 1997; Smith, 2006) .

Or you can use another person's words:

The issue of language has been hugely important in thinking about ways to address the discrimination and oppression of disabled people. As Neil Thompson (2007: 39), a social work academic, writer and former practitioner states, “The language we use either reinforces discrimination through constructing it as normal or contributes in some small way at least to undermining the continuance of a discriminatory discourse” .

Evidence from graphs and figures

You can site evidence from your own research, using either quantitative date:

Phone sales

Figure 1 shows sales of mobile phones per month. As can be seen, sales of mobile phones increased steadily from 1998 to 2001.


Married Men

Married Women

Food production
Food preparation
Child care

4.4 hours
0.2 hours
1.4 hours
0.3 hours
1.0 hours
2.3 hours

1.8 hours
2.4 hours
2.1 hours
1.1 hours
0.6 hours
0.8 hours
2.5 hours


9.6 hours

11.3 hours

Table 4: Time devoted to various activities by married men and women.

Table 4 shows that food production plus food preparation plus the manufacture of essential items such as clothing, tools and shelter consume on 6 hours per day for married adult males and 6.3 hours per day for married adult females.

Fig 21

An exponential increase in deposits of airborne lead has been detected by extraction of successively deeper samples from the Greenland ice cap, as shown in figure 21.


or qualitative data (for example an interview):


In the following, MG (See Appendix B) describes extending this initial search motivated by the goal of developing a better personal understanding of an issue:

Obviously the main interest is whether it has been in a British newspaper ... but I like to know whether it has been in the LA Times and the cutting might well tell you something useful anyway ... it might give you background on the stories ... things in the background that are not apparent to you when you are looking at the thing to write a story ...

(Attfield, S. & Dowell, J. (2003). Information seeking and use by newspaper journalists. Journal of Documentation, 59(2), 87-204)


Engineers complained that crises continuously arose. From their perspective a crisis was anything that had to be done urgently, taking time away from the work that they would have "normally" done to make progress on their individual deliverables. One engineer explained, "Every Sunday night I used to make a 'to do' list for the week. By Monday morning I was already off schedule. I ended up feeling so bad about it, I just decided the list wasn't worth it." Another engineer complained, "I can hardly get my coat off before the crises start.... Every morning my priorities seem to shift."

(Perlow, L. A. (1999). The time famine: Toward a sociology of work time. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(1), 57-81.

See also for producing evidence:

Writing Functions 25: Presenting findings from statistical analyses

Writing Functions 26: Presenting findings from interviews

Writing Functions 28: Using theory

Writing Functions 29: Previous research

Writing Functions 9: Charts & Diagrams


Try this exercise: Exercise 1