Writing Well

The Perfect Couple: Cause and Effect

Write Angles

The details in cause-and-effect essays are most often presented in chronological order, reverse chronology, or order of importance.

Question: Why are there so many Smiths in the phone book?

Answer: They all have phones.

A perfect example of a cause-and-effect relationship. The cause is why something happens; the effect is result, what happens due to the cause. Therefore, cause-and-effect essays establish a relationship between events.

Cause and effect usually (but not always) happen in time order: The cause comes first, creating an effect. The following chart shows this order of events:

Cause Brings About Effect
door slams brings about picture falling

But with complex relationships, you'll likely be dealing with multiple causes and effects. An effect may have more than one cause, as the following diagram shows:

Cause 1
Cause 2bring abouteffect
Cause 3
people skills
ability to network bring about a job in real estate
professional license

A cause may also have more than one effect. For example:

  Effect 1
Causeresults inEffect 2
  Effect 3
Tim misses the train.
Tim oversleeps results in He's late for work.
  The 9:00 meeting is off.

The cause always takes place before the effect: Something happens, which leads to a result. But the cause and effect don't have to be presented in time order in the passage. The effect may be presented first, even though the cause occurred earlier.

Check It Out

How can you make sure you're on target when you write cause-and-effect papers? Use this checklist:

  • I've shown a clear cause-and-effect relationship between events.

    Just because one event occurred before the other doesn't mean that causality exists. Perhaps there's another explanation for the events—coincidence, accident, and so on. Here's false causality: “24 hours in a day … 24 beers in a case … coincidence?” The answer is, yes, it is. Don't push the envelope; if there's no causality, don't invent it.
  • The cause-and-effect relationship I describe is valid.

    Just because something happened once doesn't mean that true causality exists. For the relationship to be valid, it has to be repeated. That's why you wait at least a week before you take that toilet-trained toddler out of diapers.
  • I've included all relevant causes and effects.

    Look beneath the surface to find every factor that affects your analysis. When you omit one or more pertinent causes and effects, you weaken your writing (but you do keep your readers busy poking holes in your thesis).

Chain Gang

Write Angles

An immediate cause is an event that comes directly before an effect and helped bring it about. A underlying cause is not immediately apparent; a remote cause is distant from the effect.

Writers often use transitions to signal specific relationships among ideas. Following are the transitions most often used to signal cause and effect relationships. Like well-timed flowers and candy, the right transitions can help you cement relationships.

as a result because
consequently due to
for this (that) reason for
if … then nevertheless
since so
so that therefore
thus this (that) is how

As you read the following passage about the Titanic, see if you can find the causes and effects. Then fill in the chart that follows:

A Night to Remember

  • Just before midnight on April 14, 1912, one of the most dramatic and famous of all maritime disasters occurred, the sinking of the Titanic. The Titanic was the most luxurious ship afloat at the time, with its beautifully decorated staterooms, glittering crystal chandeliers, and elaborate food service. In addition, it was supposed to be the safest ocean liner ever built. The hull of the 46,000 ton White Star liner was divided into 16 supposedly watertight compartments. According to the ship's manufacturer, four of the 16 compartments could be flooded without threatening the ship's buoyancy. That April, the majestic ocean liner was on its first voyage ever, traveling from Southampton, England, to New York City. The evening of April 14, the ship was sailing 95 miles south of Newfoundland when it collided with a gigantic iceberg. No one saw the iceberg until it was only about 500 yards away, a distance the ship would travel in 37 seconds. The ship sank because the iceberg ruptured five of the 16 watertight compartments. The “unsinkable” Titanic vanished under the water at 2:20 A.M., April 15. There were about 2,200 passengers aboard, and all but 678 died. The tragedy was made even worse by the crew's futile rescue attempts. Since there were not enough lifeboats, hundreds of people died who could have survived.
Cause Effect Signal Word
1.
2.

Did you get these answers?

Cause Effect Signal Word
1. The iceberg ruptured five of the 16 watertight compartments. The Titanic sank. because
2. Not enough lifeboats Hundreds of people died who could have survived. since
Author! Author!

Beware of “conventional wisdom,” or what everyone says, when you construct cause-and-effect relationships in writing. Sometimes popular opinions are correct, but not always. A generation ago, for example, red meat, butter, and whole milk were considered healthy foods.

Here's another model. As you read it, notice the multiple effects from a single cause.

A Tragic Crop

  • The potato has had a major historical impact on Ireland. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the average Irish citizen planted potatoes and ate about 10 pounds of potatoes a day—and little else. Potatoes are nourishing: On this diet, the Irish population nearly tripled from the middle of the eighteenth century to just about the middle of the nineteenth century. But depending on only one food was dangerous. When the potato blight hit Europe in 1845, the results were devastating in Ireland. There, the potato famine meant more than starvation that year. It meant no seed potatoes to use to grow the next year's crop. It meant that the pig or cow that would usually have been sold to pay the rent had to be slaughtered, because there was nothing to fatten it on. No pig or cow meant no rent. No rent meant eviction. As a result, homelessness and disease followed on the heels of hunger. Almost a million Irish people died as a result of the potato blight. Another million moved to the United States.

Now, let's turn to another type of exposition, the classify-divide method of organization.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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