Abstracts in History: Content and Linguistic Features
The abstract is the text which Slovene historians most frequently have to write in
English. Writing an abstract is a very complex task, yet ISO: 214:1976, academic
writing manuals and history journals provide authors with insufficient guidelines.
In this paper content of history abstracts as identified by Helen Tibbo (1993) is
compared to the findings of Caroline Coffin (2006). An analysis of 100 abstracts
from 4 history journals confirms the presence of the linguistic features which Coffin
found in historical texts. The corpus analysis shows that causality is most frequently
expressed by nominal groups and verbs and that metatextual verbs are the most salient
feature of these abstracts. In the conclusion, Tibbo and Coffin's findings are determined
to be useful tools in designing the content of the abstract, while the corpus analysis
suggests a list of linguistic items to be taught before or during the process of
teaching the writing of abstracts in an English course for undergraduate history
Keywords: abstract, history, English for specialist purposes, content, corpus analysis,
The abstract is the text which Slovene historians most frequently have to write in
English. Even if they publish their articles in a Slovene journal and the language
of the article is Slovene, the accompanying abstract is in a foreign language, usually
English. Thus a need to include abstract writing into the ESP syllabus for undergraduate
history students has been expressed by both the faculty and the students at the University
But writing an abstract seems an extremely complex, even gravid, task: this short
text should faithfully represent the article while also skillfully promoting it.
Such a task requires good command of language, in this case English, and good writing
skills. The analysis, reported on here, aims at identifying the structure of the
abstract’s content and its linguistic characteristics, hoping that the findings may
be employed in the drafting of a module on abstract writing at an advanced ESP level.
The ISO definition of the abstract is “an abbreviated, accurate representation of
the contents of a document, without added interpretation or criticism and without
distinction as to who wrote the abstract” (ISO: 214:1976, confirmed on 23 August
2004, p. 1, hereafter Standard). The Standard’s guidelines structure the abstract’s
content into: purpose, method, results and conclusions. The Standard allows the inclusion
of additional information if there is enough space. But both the Standard and academic
writing manuals, which at best seem to reiterate the former, ignore the specific
demands of the academic field. It is this flaw that Helen Tibbo (1993) addresses
when she argues that such a structure of the abstract’s content is of little use
to historians and proposes an alternative set of guidelines.
This article reports on one part of a pilot study carried out by Dr. Alenka Šauperl
of the University of Ljubljana’s Faculty of Arts and myself. A. Šauperl analysed
the selected 100 abstracts in history journals from the information science point
of view (for a similar analysis see Šauperl, 2008), while I analysed their linguistic
This article will briefly summarize Helen Tibbo’s (1993) guidelines and compare them
to the findings of Caroline Coffin (2006), who analyzed the content and language
of historical genres. A report on the findings of a linguistic analysis of a corpus
comprising 100 historical abstracts will follow, focusing on two main features, causality
and the use of metatextual verbs. Finally, a set of issues to be dealt with in ESP
before writing abstracts will be proposed.
In order to collect 100 abstracts from history journals published in the English
language, a selection of those journals which are accessible in the Slovene academic
libraries in electronic form, and are recognized both in Slovenia and internationally,
was first made. None of these journals publishes any instructions on how to write
an abstract on their websites, although some do suggest a word limit. It is presumed
that some journals may provide their authors with some guidelines that seem to change
periodically, resulting in significant heterogeneity in abstracts from different
issues. Eventually, 4 journals were selected, each to provide 25 more or less homogeneous
abstracts. These journals were:
– History & Memory. Frankfurt am Mein: Athenaum, 1989-. ISSN 0935-560X (all issues
published in 2006 and 2007).
– History. Oxford: Blackwell, 1912-. ISSN 0018-2648 (one issue from each volume between
2002 and 2007).
– American Historical Review. Washington: American Historical Association, 1896-ISSN
0002-8762 (one issue from each volume between 2001 and 2007).
– European History Quarterly. London: Sage Publications, 1984-. ISSN 0265-6914 (one
issue from each volume between 2001 and 2007).
The corpus was collected in September 2007, so any later issues of these journals
were not taken into account. This article only reports on the linguistic analysis,
which was carried out by using the AntConc 3. 2. 1w (Windows) 2007 concordancer.
This analysis sought to verify whether the findings of Caroline Coffin could be extended
It should be pointed out that the present corpus of 100 abstracts is limited, amounting
to only 12,697 words. The present analysis is therefore projected as a pilot study
and will be repeated with a larger corpus.
3. The Content of the Historical Abstract
3.1 Tibbo’s Content Structure
Tibbo (1993) argues that the content elements as suggested by ISO: 214:1976 are not
present in abstracts in history, concluding that they are inadequate to the subject
of history. She therefore proposes a different set of content elements. Tibbo (ibid.,
pp. 191-192) identifies the following obligatory elements:
· Specific dates of key events and/or the period covered by the text
· Colligatory time span indicators (e.g., the Renaissance)
· Names of key geo-political units
· Names of key individuals and/or groups
· Names of key institutions and/or organizations
· Names of key events
· Other topical terms that do not fit into one of the above categories but are central
to the text.
However, Tibbo (ibid., p. 192) demonstrates that other significant information is
often included in abstracts. These data regard:
· Historical context as necessary to make the remainder of the content understandable.
· Historiographical and/or scholarly context (i.e., interpretative stance and the
work’s place in any existing scholarly arguments)
· Purpose and scope of study including mention of the key time periods, geo-political
units, and personalities as applicable.
· Summary of the author’s main theses, arguments, opinions, explanations, and conclusions.
· Description of the author’s methodology, especially if it involves other than archival
· Specific identification of key data sources that the author used in the writing
of the document
· If the text documents a social scientific work, a list of important empirical results
· “Type” of history designations (e.g., social, military, medieval)
3.2 Coffin’s Content Structure
Tibbo’s content structure, particularly the placement into historical and historiographical
context and the summary of the author’s main theses, etc., recalls the content elements
that Caroline Coffin (2006) identifies in historical texts. Coffin determines 9 basic
historical genres: 4 recording genres (the autobiography, biography, historical recount
and historical account), 2 explanatory genres (the factorial and consequential explanation),
and 3 argumentative genres (the exposition, discussion and challenge). Historical
texts need not be pure representatives of any one genre, but are indeed most often
composed of passages belonging to various genres. An article may thus contain a paragraph
or passage, which is a biography, another passage being a historical recount, etc.
It is presumed that articles published in academic journals can be classified within
the argumentative genre. These articles’ abstracts are supposed to faithfully represent
the articles’ content. It is therefore expected that they will retain some trace
of the content structure of the original texts. For this reason, a summary of Coffin’s
(2006) content elements might be useful. These are:
1. In the recording genres:
· Background or orientation
· Record of events
· Deduction or evaluation of historical significance
2. In the explanatory genres:
a) The factorial explanation
· Series of factors
· Reinforcement of factors
b) The consequential explanation
· Series of consequences
· Reinforcement of consequences
3. In the argumentative genres:
a) The exposition
· Background (optional)
· Arguments supporting thesis (with possible concessions)
· Reinforcement of thesis
b) The discussion
· Background (optional)
· Series of perspectives
c) The challenge
· Position challenged
· Rebuttal arguments
An important feature of argumentative genres is the demand for the author’s statement
of his/her position, an opportunity for the author’s self-placement into a historical
debate or for his/her rebuttal of an established interpretation. A position statement
indirectly serves the author to express his/her purpose: having succeeded (through
the text) to prove the validity of his/her thesis, the author has justified and legitimized
3.3 Content analysis of a sample abstract according to Tibbo and Coffin
Below is a randomly chosen sample abstract, in which the sentences have been numbered
for easier orientation:
1Central to the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 was the high public profile of working-class
women who attended the parliamentary reform meeting that preceded it in all-female
contingents, carrying their own flags, distinctively dressed in white and with their
own women leaders prominently displayed on the speakers’ platform. 2In the circumstances,
the military's brutal attack on the crowd appeared to be incited, among other things,
by a sense of manhood under serious threat from this provocative female presence.
3As well as studying what happened to the women and why, this article examines the
motivation behind their commitment to reform. 4In a novel manner, the women challenged
the traditional relationship between gender and politics by insisting upon a political
organization of their own; yet they were also ready to accept the Radical Reform
programme even though it excluded them from the vote. 5Arguably the politicization
of women evident at Peterloo caused a transformation of the political system, by
ensuring that in future the cause of reform would be distinguished by a dynamic female
engagement. 6As a result, British politics came to be radically altered by women
long before feminism made its mark. (Bush, 2004)
At least 6, if not 8 out of 15 Tibbo’s (1993) content elements can be identified
in the above abstract: 1. specific date, 2. key group (women, army – implied in military
attack), 3. name of event (the Peterloo Massacre), 3. other topical terms (Radical
Reform programme, feminism, British politics, vote, white dress, brutal attack, etc.),
4. historical context (sentence 1), 5. summary of the author’s main thesis and arguments
(sentence 6), 6. name of a geo-political unit (implicit: Britain). Purpose or scope
might be implied in sentences 3 and 6, as is “Type” of history (e.g., history of
women, history of British politics, post-Napoleonic Britain, etc.) in the entire
The first two sentences constitute the background/orientation and description of
the historical event. Sentence 4 is both a narration of events and a thesis. Sentence
5 brings forward a challenging and innovative thesis, which does not insist on the
reader’s alignment (note the use of arguably). The last sentence (6) gives the final
thesis, evaluating the historical significance of the event, which according to Coffin
(2006) is a frequent conclusion of historical texts. This final stage is of key importance:
if the author succeeds in proving that the matter is historically significant (and
his/her approach original), then he/she has secured the relevance of the research
question, thus legitimizing the research. Coffin does not mention “author’s purpose;”
however, it often seems to be implied in the formulation of the thesis. The sample
abstract is one of the few abstracts in the corpus where the author explicitly states
his purpose (sentence 3).
A mention of methodology is absent from the sample abstract, as it is from most of
the abstracts in the corpus. It is presumed that method, purpose and background are
frequently left out due to the author’s expectation that the reader will know the
missing answers, because they are either part of a common base of the discipline
or its epistemology, or are implicit in the policy of the journal. Authors might
resort to the omission of such data because the editing board limits the length of
the abstracts. A skilful author will thus select the data he/she deems less self-evident.
As a consequence, authors seem to give a background when they need to provide a historiographical
niche for their thesis.
4. The Linguistic Analysis of the Abstracts
According to Coffin (2006) argumentative texts are characterized by several linguistic
features. Among these, four are potentially interesting for ESP. These are:
· Nominalization and long nominal groups
· Conjunctive adverbs for the textual organization of arguments and perspectives
· Causal relationships, rendered with a wide range of lexicogrammatical elements
(mostly nouns, verbs, adverbs and conjunctions).
· Verbs of saying/thinking
The analysis reported on here has identified all of these traits of the argumentative
genre. The selected abstracts are dense with nouns and nominal groups, and the level
of causality is very high. Modality and conjunctive adverbs (first, second, etc.)
are evident but not salient.
Coffin (2006) argues that verbs of saying/thinking are an important device adopted
by an author in interaction with other voices (other authors which he quotes or rebuts)
or the reader. This group of verbs somehow coincides with the verbs to which Fløttum
et al. (2006) refer as metatextual verbs. These verbs are the most salient feature
of the examined abstracts.
The range of causal expressions and the use of the metatextual verbs will now be
4.1 Cause and Consequence
This analysis does not consider devices for cause and consequence separately. Neither
does it follow Coffin’s (2006) classification of different types of causation.
It should be noted that causation is related to nominalization. According to Coffin
(2006), the cause in complex historical texts tends to be expressed by nominal groups.
This is confirmed by the present corpus analysis. The most frequent headwords of
these nominal groups are: factor (11 occurrences), influence (10 occurrences), reason
(6 occurrences), effect (6 occurrences), result, implication and consequence (all
three with 4 occurrences). Only the nouns occurring at least twice were counted.
54 occurrences of nouns denoting cause/consequence were found in the 100 abstracts.
It is noteworthy that factor(s) collocates with verbs contribute and lead to, both
of which will be returned to in section 4.2.
That the cause or consequence of an action or event can be expressed by a nominal
phrase (even if no specific cause/consequence noun is used) is evident from the concordances
of the verbs which will hereon be referred to as causal verbs. The most frequent
among these verbs are lead to (10 occurrences), influence and the causal make (make
+ direct object + nominal phrase/adjective etc.)(both verbs 5 occurrences). Other
similar verbs are: allow, contribute to, result in/from, arise from, emerge from,
etc. A total of 38 verbs of this type were found.
Only 10 adverbs denoting cause or consequence were found. The most frequent among
these is thus, occurring 6 times. As a result and consequently occur twice each.
Prepositional phrases denoting cause are rare: there are 3 occurrences of in order
to, while because of, due to and as a result of occur once each.
Another rare device in expressing causality are conjunctions: in 100 abstracts there
are only 3 occurrences of because, while since occurs twice and as only once. However,
there are 4 occurrences of if, a conjunction classified by Coffin among the conjunctions
denoting the determining causation, which will be returned to later. The most common
conjunctions are and and but. Yet while is also noteworthy, with 18 occurrences,
of which 14 are used to link two contrasting interpretations, events, etc. Although
occurs 8 times and before (as a temporal conjunction) 4 times. Relative pronouns
are also quite common.
Coffin (2006) distinguishes between determining causation (i.e., why something happened)
and enabling causation (i.e., how something happened). Verbs are just one lexical
tool for expressing these two types of causality. Verbs such as result in, create,
lead to and determine are typical of determining causation, while verbs such as enable,
influence and allow are used for enabling causation. An evident trait of enabling
causation is that it is often expressed with manner; e.g., phrases with by and through.
The latter occurs 9 times. However, by with a present participle occurs 25 times.
Regarding determining and enabling causation, a look at how and why also reveals
interesting statistics. A combination of how and why (or why and how) occurs 4 times.
But an independent how is used 18 times, while an independent why only occurs 3 times.
4.2 Metatextual Verbs
Collocation like this article explores is the most salient feature of the corpus.
This article occurs 50 times and the (+ adjective) article 45 times. Moreover, there
are numerous alternatives for article, such as analysis, essay, etc., and the pronoun
it. 168 cases of collocations of such a noun or pronoun with a metatextual verb were
found, amounting to an average of 1.7 per abstract. In this study it has not always
been possible to keep track of all the present participles of metatextual verbs,
which might also be governed by nouns such as article.
Most abstracts are packed with similar collocations. Below is a sample abstract,
showing the distribution of similar collocations.
While a good deal has been written about the contacts between British and continental
reformers in 1848 and afterwards, the same cannot be said of the 1820s and 1830s.
This articlewill investigate the involvement in European affairs of Thomas Perronet
Thompson and John Bowring, two of the closest colleagues of the utilitarian philosopher
Jeremy Bentham. This articlehas three main purposes: first, to establish the relevance
to British radicalism of a European perspective, using Thompson and Bowring as exemplars
who can be taken to represent one of the most important strands in the British radicalism
of their day; secondly, to improveour understanding of reform agitation and ideologies
in early nineteenth-century Britain and Europe; and, thirdly, in view of the customary
focus of historians on 1848 and after, to begin to redress this imbalance in the
historiography by drawing attention to the 1820s and 1830s. (Turner, 2005)
Metatextual verbs such as investigate, establish, focus, etc. may express the author's
intervention in the discourse. Fløttum et al. (2006) distinguish between researcher's,
writer's (further subdivided into discourse-related and process-related verbs), arguer's
and evaluator's verbs.
The present study only focused on the use of such verbs when the agent is article
or its alternative, although it should be noted that metatextual verbs can also be
used when talking about other authors' or the reader’s interpretations. Tables 1-3
show the frequency of article + metatextual verb collocations. This concordance analysis
largely relies on the list of metatextual verbs given by Fløttum et al. (2006), although
it is clear that there is a much wider range of other verbs and verbal phrases. This
statistics therefore does not include examples such as 'using … as exemplars', 'to
improve our understanding' or 'by drawing attention,' used in the above abstract.
Table 1: Researcher's verbs.
Table 2: Writer's verbs.
Table 3: Arguer's verbs.
Evaluator's verbs (e.g., feel, be content to) were not found in the selected corpus.
Fløttum et al. studied academic articles in medicine, economics and linguistics.
Caution should therefore be taken in comparing their findings to the results of this
corpus analysis. It nevertheless needs to be mentioned that Fløttum et al. show that
researcher's verbs are the most frequent metatextual verbs, followed by writer's
and arguer's verbs, while evaluator's verbs are the rarest. However, the analysis
of 100 historical abstracts shows that the writer role is only slightly rarer than
the equally common roles of researcher and arguer (Table 4).
Table 4: Metatextual verbs in the corpus of historical abstracts.
The use of these verbs probably enables the author to reach several objectives:
1. Impersonal style,
2. Transparency of discourse,
3. Organisation of the text.
Impersonal style and 3rd person is typical of abstract writing (Cf.: Graetz, 1985,
as cited in Swales, 2000). Nouns such as article, analysis, essay, etc., therefore
seem convenient shields for the author, which is evident from the fact that they
collocate with metatextual verbs. On the other hand, authors might use this device
when distancing themselves from the article in an attempt to take the article itself
as the subject of their critical scrutiny. Considering that the abstract describes
a text, i.e. the article – as is also noted by Swales (2000) – metatextual devices
are an essential tool in the representation of the relationship between the article
and its abstract.
Metatextual verbs can also be an effective tool for an author who wishes to analyze
and represent his/her own discourse by showing his/her attitude and approach to the
subject, his/her process and method of research and writing, and last but not least
his/her attitude to alternative interpretations. At the same time, the author interacts
with the reader and anticipates the latter's alignment or dissent. Table 5 shows
an example of the effective use of metatextual verbs.
Table 5: Coincidence of content elements with the use of metatextual verbs.
Another very important function of metatextual verbs is therir role in the organization
of the text. A high level of nominalisation requires verbs to function as connectors
between these nominal chunks. Apart from be and have, metatextual verbs are the most
frequent verbs in the corpus. Examine, argue and focus are even more frequent than
can and do. The most frequent lexical verb which is not a metatextual verb - i.e.,
the causal lead to -is only about half as common as examine. Table 6 shows the most
common verbs in the corpus.
Table 6: The most frequent verbs.
From an information science point of view, metatextual verbs when employed for mere
text organization are useless. Chunks like 'This article explores' or 'This article
focuses on' havelittle information value, which is also evident from the fact that
the subject 'This article' in the beginning of the abstract is left out 16 times.
In some journals examined before collecting the corpus, 'Focuses on' at the beginning
of the abstract seemed to be a norm, although it seems surprising that the apparently
equally empty initial “Focuses on” is kept. The rest of such an abstract typically
shows a high degree of nominalisation. In spite of the fact that this abstract pattern
emerges in many journals in limited spans of time it appears eventually to give way
to less terse abstracts.
Both Helen Tibbo’s (1993) and Caroline Coffin’s (2006) findings seem helpful in teaching
the writing of abstracts. If Tibbo’s guidelines constitute a useful checklist, Coffin’s
identification of text phases can be employed in the study of sample abstracts and
in the phase of an author’s (or in this case, a student’s) analysis of his/her own
article, facilitating both a better article structure and a truer representation
of the original text by the abstract. The awareness of Tibbo’s content elements and
Coffin’s text phases could be developed through both reading and writing activities.
To be able to express causal relationships, authors of historical abstracts written
in English need to learn the following:
-the most common nouns and verbs denoting causal relationships,
-structures expressing manner, including participial clauses and phrases by + participle.
Aiming at covering the above issues and seeking to develop a good lexical and syntactical
knowledge in students, an ESP teacher of undergraduate history students may pay considerable
attention to word-formation, dictionary skills and sentence patterns. It seems important
that students learn to use less of causal/consequential conjunctions or adverbs and
shift their focus to nominal and verbal means of expressing causal/consequential
relationships. Another important feature to cover in an ESP course for history undergraduates
is the use of expressions of manner to convey an enabling causation (i.e., how, not
why, something happened). These issues could be dealt with at the earlier stages
of an ESP course for history undergraduates.
The metatextual verbs are probably a more difficult subject and would therefore best
be dealt with in the third year of the ESP course. To be able to effectively use
metatexutal verbs, writers of abstracts need to understand both their meanings and
their syntactic use. The classification into the researcher, writer and arguer role
is probably helpful in the process of learning both the metatextual verbs and writing
the abstract. Given the wide range and subtle differences in meaning of metatextual
verbs, however, the lexical side of these verbs might provide the most critical aspect
for the students to master. Reading and writing activities and dictionary work are
probably essential here.
It seems then that some of the skills required for the effective writing of abstracts
in history should be a red thread developed throughout the three-year course. However,
students might benefit form first understanding the structure of an academic article
before they can master the structure of the abstract. This and the lexical complexity
of the metatextual verbs speak for postponing the writing of abstracts to a module
included in the third year’s syllabus.
Coffin, C. (2006). Historical Discourse : The Language of Time, Cause and Evaluation.
London : Continuum.
Fløttum, K., Kinn, T. in Dahl, T. (2006). “We Now Report on …” Versus “Let us Now
See how …”. Author Roles and Interaction with Readers in Research Articles. Retrieved
18 November 2007 from http://www.hf.uib.no/forskerskole/FlottumKinnDahl.pdf.
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of scholarly abstracts in pharmacology, sociology, and linguistics and literature.
Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. Vol. 59,
issue 9. Published online: May 8 2008. DOI: 10.1002/asi.20858
Swales, J. M. (2000). Genre Analysis. English in Academic and Research Settings.
Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
Tibbo, H. R. (1993). Abstracting, Information Retrieval, and the Humanities: Providing
Access to Historical Literature. Chicago, London: American Library Association.
Bush, M. L. (2004). The Women at Peterloo: The Impact of Female Reform on the Manchester
Meeting of 16 August 1819. History; Vol. 89, issue 294, pp. 209-232.
Goode, J. (2005). Corrupting a Good Mix: Race and Crime in Late Nineteenth- and Early
Twentieth-Century Spain. European History Quarterly, Vol. 35, issue 2, pp. 241-265.
Turner, M.J. (2005). Arraying Minds against Bodies': Benthamite Radicals and Revolutionary
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