Academic Writing Pattern # 2: “with-linked phrases”

Like the “and is” pattern covered in AWP #1, this common pattern is not incorrect. Nor is it even necessarily awkward or otherwise undesirable. But it is used by some writers, especially in sciences, uncritically and too often. As a case in point, the examples I quote below were all taken from articles I already happened to have in my hard-drive; of all the papers I opened searching for the “with-link” pattern, only two (2) didn’t use it at least once.

From my observations I’d say this pattern, like “and is,” tends to appear early in papers, when authors are trying to get a load of background covered before getting to the real matter of interest. But it can appear anywhere. Here is an example from an article on CBC.ca:

Variants recently identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil are transmitting much more easily than the original strain, with the first estimated to be at least 56 per cent more transmissible.

Adam Miller, “How the spread of coronavirus variants could completely change the pandemic in Canada.” CBC.ca (16 Jan. 2021).

In this pattern, the preposition “with” serves as the connection between the main sentence and a new piece of information contained in a phrase.

Here are a few more examples, these from scholarly articles:

Development of improved systems for CO2 conversion has been an area of intense activity, with significant emphasis placed on EC design and on discovery of improved CO2 reduction (4, 5) and H2O oxidation (6) catalysts based on nonprecious earth-abundant elements.

Kunene et al. “Solar-powered synthesis of hydrocarbons from carbon dioxide and water.” PNAS 116.20 (2019): 9694.

Coot eggs in a nest hatch asynchronously, with an average of 9 to 10 eggs hatching over a period between 2 and 11 d, depending on the nest (median 6 d).

Lyon and Shizuka. “Extreme offspring ornamentation in American coots is favored by selection within families, not benefits
to conspecific brood parasites.” PNAS 117.4 (2020): 2057.

The PPA is thought to represent the basic geometry and content of a scene, with these representations being intolerant to low-level shifts in information (Epstein, 2008)….

Douglas et al. “Perception of Impossible Scenes Reveals Differential Hippocampal and Parahippocampal Place Area Contributions to Spatial Coherency.” Hippocampus 27 (2017): 61.

As you’ll probably agree, these sentences are fine. Fine: that is, not bad, not ungrammatical. But could they be better? My first observation is that these constructions sound very unlike the way people actually speak, even when they speak to fellow specialists about their research. So: is the “with” actually helpful; it is actually necessary? More to the point, what alternative arrangements does it conceal?

In many cases, the simplest alternative is just to delete “with,” leaving the sentence otherwise unchanged. This isn’t always possible, but when it is it’s worth a try. I suspect that the “with” can be removed this way when the phrase it introduces contains a verb ending in -ing. The second and third examples above are exemplary:

Coot eggs in a nest hatch asynchronously, an average of 9 to 10 eggs hatching over a period between 2 and 11 d, depending on the nest (median 6 d).

The PPA is thought to represent the basic geometry and content of a scene, these representations being intolerant to low-level shifts in information (Epstein, 2008)….

In other cases, you can replace the “with” with a verb (ending with -ing or not, as the case requires. For example, here is a revision of the first part of the first quotation:

Development of improved systems for CO2 conversion has been an area of intense activity, which has placed significant emphasis on EC design…

Why is this better? Well, whether it is better is a matter of taste, I guess. I prefer it because the new verb (“using”) adds action to and therefore clarifies the relationship between various parts of this short sentence. “With” represents the same relationship but less evidently, less actively.

Look at a sentence I wrote earlier: “In many cases, the simplest alternative is just to delete ‘with,’ leaving the sentence otherwise unchanged.” I could have used the “with-link” arrangement instead: “In many cases, the simplest alternative is just to delete ‘with,’ with the sentence otherwise unchanged.” I hope you’ll agree that the original just sounds more natural (and not just because the revision ends up repeating “with” twice in a row). Instead of “with,” my original sentence uses a verb ending with -ing: leaving. Action!

The benefit of such a strategy becomes clearer when you’re dealing with a longer, more complex sentences, as in the second quotation above:

Development of improved systems for CO2 conversion has been an area of intense activity, significant emphasis being placed on EC design and on discovery of improved CO2 reduction (4, 5) and H2O oxidation (6) catalysts based on nonprecious earth-abundant elements.

I would actually recommend dividing this sentence into two sentences–not because it’s that long, but because as I read it it really does address two ideas (1 = this is an area of intense activity; 2 = within this area of activity, special emphasis is placed on X). But if it’s one sentence I think this revision is clearer, more active and (not unrelatedly) more like spoken English.

4 thoughts on “Academic Writing Pattern # 2: “with-linked phrases”

  1. “with-linked phrases”
    Just some thought on your post. Very interesting.
    “The PPA is thought to represent the basic geometry and content of a scene, with these representations being intolerant to low-level shifts in information (Epstein, 2008).”

    I agree that the sentence is not written as spoken, but I think changes in the sentence to make it read as if spoken would be at the beginning: The PPA. . . represents basic geometry . . . of a scene . . . with these representations being intolerant to low-level shifts in information (ellipse in this case signals what I’d take out of the original sentence)
    Without the “with,” the sentence might be seen as further away from the spoken. While we do speak in fragments, our use of absolute clauses, for instance, seem to me to be one step further removed from the spoken word. When I have written something like “. . . these representations being intolerant to low-level shifts in information,” most science colleagues would rephrase into a complete sentence—making the entire quote into two complete sentences.
    Summary:
    a. Eliminating “with” does not seem to make the sentence more like the way people actually speak
    b. The use of the word “being” in this sentence might also be “heard?” or “perceived?” as to be too vague or too slow in connecting the plural “representations,” while the use of “are” instead allows one to read the sentence with little struggle, smoothly, albeit a boring construction

    I have one last question regarding your course ENGL3B04: Science & Technology in Literature. Have you used the poem “Experiment” by Wisława Szymborska?
    Thanks,
    Todd

  2. Thanks, Todd, for your helpful thoughts. They prompt me to be a bit clearer about what I’m trying to show and do in these posts. My idea is not to say that “with-linked phrases” are bad or need to be eliminated; nor am I saying that writing should mimic speech. What I *am* saying is that patterns like “with-linked phrases” are “symptoms” of deeper issues in a sentence; they may not be the problem in themselves, but their use often indicates a sentence that might benefit from some revision, often by changing sentence structure and/or by adding more verbs (as I do when I replace “with” with a -ing verb). The advantage of targeting this and other such “symptoms” is that they offer authors something relatively objective to help them identify places where readers may experience difficulty. This is better than muddling through the more subjective feeling: “I don’t something here isn’t quite right, but I don’t know what it is or what to do about it.”

    In time, we’ll cover more such patterns. You’ll find that they often have to do with verbs–their nature, their placement, or their frequency….

    As for the “does it sound like speech” test, that is more complicated. I often resort to the speech test because speech, unlike written prose, is typically formulated with the audience’s communicative needs in mind. Reading a sentence aloud, then orally trying to revise it, is a pretty effective strategy.

    Finally, thanks for alerting me to Szymborska’s “Experiment.” I know and greatly admire some of her poetry, but I didn’t know that one.

    Hope this helps!

    • Thanks. Looking forward to reading more about sentences and symptoms.
      I think it is interesting that we don’t see many absolute clauses in science writing. Would you agree? (and would you use “absolute clause” as a shorthand for replacing “with” with a -ing verb?) If so, I’m wondering whether another way to look at patterns might be to consider “with-links” as a solution to a different pattern–not using absolute clauses or phrases (which may be a symptom of some type of bias in science writing?).
      Anyway, I’m finding this discussion interesting.

  3. You’re totally right. Scientists probably do use the “with-links” as an alternative to absolute phrases (I avoid clause for these because it complicates the definitions I work with in my teaching), and scientists definitely overuse absolute phrases (though they often combine them with “with-links”!) That said, I think absolute phrases are a very good tool.

    For readers out there who may not be familiar with “absolute phrases/clauses,” these are phrases that use a -ing verb, for example the first six words of “Multiple mutations having emerged since 2019, the coronavirus may now be better at evading existing vaccines.”

    It’s a funny thing about my approach that treating one symptom often results in the use of another. But this just goes back to my belief that the symptom is not itself the problem. The key is to use these structures and patterns in a way that complement your purpose and makes the reader’s life easier.

    Anyway, I think that a “with-link” used to avoid an absolute phrase is probably not going to help much. There are many alternatives to absolute phrases that might actually do much more to invigorate or clarify the prose (e.g. dependent clauses, non-verbal phrases, etc). So, going back to my example, “Because multiple mutations have emerged since 2019, the coronavirus may now be better at evading existing vaccines” or “Multiple mutations have emerged since 2019, so the coronavirus may now be better at evading existing vaccines” or “Thanks to multiple mutations since 2019, the coronavirus may now be better at evading existing vaccines.”

    My next academic writing post will probably be on a different pattern: the middle-heavy sentence.

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