Language and Text Structure Across Disciplines

Let’s take a look at the characteristic language features of representative texts in math, in the social sciences and humanities, in the natural or “hard” sciences, and in business. If you know some of these features, you will be able to adjust your reading strategies in order to help yourself understand the material.

Mathematics Texts

Mathematics is easily recognizable because of its unique language features. Its most prominent language feature is the use of symbols. Math uses symbols in place of words, such as symbols for operations like’+’for addition, ‘x’ for multiplication. It often uses letters with special meanings, like ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’ are used to stand for variables or the unknown. Notations, numbers, and formulas are typical of math texts. If there are nouns and verbs in ordinary language, in the language of math, the nouns could be numbers or expressions with numbers and the verb could be the equal sign =.

To make sense of a math sentence, you have to understand the special meanings that the discipline of math has assigned to these symbols and expressions. True, math also uses ordinary language but watch out—these ordinary words could have different meanings. For example, in statistics, universe is not the outer space but the total count of the subjects under study. Another example is the linking verb ‘is.’ In the following sentences, ‘is’ has different meanings:

  • 3 is the square root of 9 –> 3 or is the same as the square root of 9. 
  • 10 is less than 15 –> regular meaning of ‘is’. 
  • 5 is a prime number –> 4 5 a prime number.

What the above examples suggest is that in math, even short, simple sentences have to be read closely: What exactly does it say? Keep in mind that math is an exact, precise language. In math, ask yourself: Is this sentence saying something about sets? functions? relations? binary operations?

The dominant structure of math texts is problem-solution, except that you, the reader, are expected to come up with the solution based on the carefully worded problem, which is often a short description of a given situation. The problem is posed as a question, the answer to which you arrive at by doing any or several math operations. Another common text structure is comparison and contrast of two units or situations: for instance, which has more and by how much? Which is bigger/faster/cheaper?

Business Texts

Like mathematics, business has a special vocabulary (jargon), so first of all you have to learn its jargon, like remit, obligate, loan, collateral, interest, stocks, etc. Some compound nouns are standard expressions in business, like tax collection system, company car, price list, and bulk buying.

You must also learn some of the conventions, or established practices, of business writing. For example, business uses a lot of form letters, so you have to be familiar with the standard forms (meaning the parts) of a business letter, a memo, minutes of a meeting, a proposal, etc. Some standard parts of business communication are date, inside address, the salutation, the body or main purpose of the communication, the complimentary close, etc. 

It is important to remember that business requires cordiality to sustain it, to keep the customer. Hence, even if the content of a communication is negative—like a complaint or a collection—the communication must be polite. There is careful use of modal expressions and adverbs. Polite expressions such as the following are part of the ritual of politeness in business: (Cortes de los Rios, 2010).

  • Could you please… 
  • We are extremely sorry… 
  • May I suggest… 
  • Thank you for your inquiry on… 
  • Please let us know…

Common text structures in business communication are problem-solution in which the cause(s) of a problem situation is/are explained, followed by the company’s proposed solution, and description in which the specifications of a product or offer are given.

Social Science Texts

Just like in reading math and business texts, reading in the social sciences requires knowledge of the jargon of its specific disciplines, for example: Political Science (communism, monarchy, and executive branch), Economics (market, profit, equity, and trade relations), Sociology (migration, social ,class, and discrimination), Psychology (depression, suicidal, personality, and motivation). 

Graphs and tables are common features of social science readings, therefore, knowing how to analyze graphic data is a big advantage. 

Text structures or thought patterns common in the social sciences are definition and example, recount of an event (history), cause-effect, and comparison and contrast.

Natural Science Texts

In natural science texts such as physics, chemistry, and biology, technical terms, symbols (ph, NaCI, and CO2) and abbreviations are common. Similar to other disciplines, common words like power, pressure, force, work, and impulse have a technical meaning. To help yourself understand many of the technical terms, you have to know some prefixes (uni, semi, and multi), root words (bio, geo, vis, and derma), and suffixes. Diagrams and drawings are also characteristic of science texts. 

The typical sentences in science texts are dense; that is, they are information-heavy. An example is this: Each nucleus is packed with information coded in the form of a chemical called Deoxyribonucleic Acici(DNA) and organized into groups called geneswhich are arranged on thread-like structures, the chromosomes. The lengthy and dense sentences found in science texts suggest slow reading for comprehension and retention of facts.

Literature and the Arts

Like the other disciplines, literature and the arts have their content-specific terms or jargon (examples: gothic mood, symbol, balance, mosaic, hue, etc.) but what makes them different is the dominant use of connotative language and figures of speech to describe and convey content. Vivid language is used to create images and impressions. The importance given to language and structure is due to the value attached to a work’s ‘style’. In other words creativity weighs as much as content in literature and the arts. 

Particularly in literature, texts may not have a one-to-one correspondence between the situation rt depicts and reality as you know it. To represent a particular situation or world, a literary text might even violate language rules. To make sense of a literary text, the trick is to ‘suspend disbelief, ride along with the writer, and discover the patterns in the unique use of language. 

Common structures in literature and the arts are definition, description, example, and cause-effect, which may be in the form of a recount (fiction).