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(This question has been moved from English Language Stack Exchange on account of relevancy.)

In my mission to improve my writing, I have come across a concept called 'topical progression' (discussed here). This concept frequently comes up in articles discussing cohesion and coherence in text (predominantly academic, as opening any fiction novel throws this concept out the window), and while I understand the basic idea and agree that it has value, the way that it's presented seems inconsistent, if not entirely false.

It's too prescriptive.

The basic forms of topical progression are Parallel Progression, Sequential Progression, Extended Parallel Progression, and Extended Sequential Progression. Parallel Progression is where the topic (usually the subject) is repeated in the following independent clause, whereas Sequential Progression is where something mentioned in the comment (usually the predicate) becomes the subject of the following independent clause. The extended versions simply have another independent clause with a different subject before the sequence begins or resumes.

An example of Parallel Progression is this:

I left the bedroom. I needed to find something in the kitchen.

If we inserted another sentence with a different subject in the middle (for example, 'The door opened with a creak'), this would become Extended Parallel Progression.

An example of Sequential Progression is this:

I left the bedroom. The room was too cold.

As before, if we inserted another sentence with a different subject in the middle (for example, 'I needed to put the heating on'), this would become Extended Sequential Progression.

Now, according to a lot of these 'topical progression' articles, we should be following these structures religiously to ensure logical progression. That's all well and good in theory, but even in these very same articles, this principle isn't consistently adhered to.

On pages 74 to 75 of the paper linked above, there's a table that outlines the subjects of a piece of text about someone called Vanessa. The author of the paper says that the example paragraph is a good example of topical progression because it maintains focus, yet we can clearly see that sentence number 4 contains an independent clause beginning with the word 'money' (a word that has no semantic link to 'Vanessa,' unlike other subjects in the paragraph, such as 'her parents and her grandparents'). This very obvious anomaly is never addressed. The same is true for every article I've read on topical progression. They either provide perfect examples that follow their structures or conveniently ignore the anomalies.

The given-before-new principle, also mentioned in the article, would allow the insertion of a select number of random topics, such as 'money,' because there are plenty of concepts that the reader would be familiar with. However, across all of the articles, I've never seen anyone state that given-before-new supersedes topical progression; it merely acts as one justification as to why this structure is logical from a reader's perspective.

To get to the point, how do you think this inconsistency can be explained? Can it even be explained? I feel there must be a reason why outliers like 'money' aren't being mentioned, perhaps because it's a known concept (following given-before-new) and topical progression is less prescriptive than it is made to seem, allowing for certain non-linked diversions.

I am eager to find an answer because I want to make sure my understanding is sound for my own benefit and the benefit of someone whom I'm helping improve their writing at work.

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  • To add to this, I wonder if 'money' in this sense follows parallel progression because it's synonymous with 'their money' instead of 'money' as a concept. Similarly, where the connection between the subject of a new clause and the previous one isn't so clear, I wonder if the subject can semantically relate to the whole clause, like a demonstrative (this or that) but less overt. For example, 'He was sweating. The sun was beating down.' Here 'the sun,' though not mentioned previously, follows the parallel structure by referring to 'Him sweating' and the inferred heat.
    – MJ Ada
    Feb 2 at 14:29
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    I think you should ask this on Linguistics.SE if you want a more scholarly answer.
    – Ben
    Feb 4 at 16:16
  • Good suggestion. I'll ask there.
    – MJ Ada
    Feb 5 at 12:16

1 Answer 1

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In the example you cite (about Vanessa), from Vanessas perspective, money could be considered an aspect of her mother (who the author of the paper considers to be the topic of the paragraph) in the same way that her parents and her grandparents are an aspect of her mother.

Personally, I wouldn't analyze that paragraph in the same way. There is no doubt to me that the topic of the paragraph is not Vanessa's mom but that Vanessa's mom did better. The rest of the paragraph describes in which way Vanessa's mom did better, and that money was always tight is part of the argument of whether and how Vanessa's mom did better.

The inconsistency, in my opinion, comes from a faulty analysis of what the topic of the paragraph is. Once you correct that misperception, the inconsistency disappears.


As a side note, I would strongly object to your assessment that fiction novels throw topical progression out the window. On the contrary, topical progression is the basis for the coherence of any kind of writing!

That, of course, does not mean that every paragraph represents a progression from the preceding one. Information is not linear, and forcing it into the linear structure of a written text often entails creating breaks and discontinuities: "And now to something completely different."

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  • Interesting! Would you say that these 'topical progression' structures are being oversimplified, then, to help novice writers? The advice they give would be useful for someone who struggles to create coherent paragraphs. Your perspective aligns with other analyses that are rare, such as this one (rilale-uac.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/…). I have yet to read it, as it's quite complex, but the idea of 'topic' is broader. Regarding fiction, I agree that progression exists, but not in the same format as this, not on topic sentence level.
    – MJ Ada
    Feb 2 at 12:39
  • @MJAda I don't follow the discussion of topical progression and cannot say who describes it in what way and for what reason. I studied linguistics and as I learned it the topic of a paragraph isn't necessarily a simple noun phrase (such as Vanessa's mom), but often a more complex statement or idea. –– And, again, I disagree with your view on the topical structure of fiction.
    – Ben
    Feb 2 at 13:12
  • That is completely valid. I've always adopted a similar approach.
    – MJ Ada
    Feb 2 at 13:35

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