Sidebar: The Two Kinds of Old Information

Most readers will find your sentences easier to understand when they begin with old information. But how do you know what information will be old for your readers? You can’t assume that what’s old for you is old for your readers—by the time you begin to write on a topic, most of the information about that topic will be old for you. Here is a quick guide to the two kinds of old information that you can (usually) trust your readers to recognize.

1. Words and Concepts They Have Just Read

The most reliable kind of old information is information readers remember from the rest of your paper. Readers will recognize as old information most of the words they just read and the concepts those words name.

When you use repeated words and concepts keep in mind these two principles:

  • Nearby words and concepts are easier to recognize than distant ones are. Readers are more likely to remember—and so recognize as old information—a word or concept you mentioned recently, in the previous sentences, paragraphs, or pages. If you want to use a word or concept that you mentioned pages ago as old information, try to reintroduce it at or near the end of a nearby sentence.
  • More important words and concepts are easier to recognize than less important ones. Readers are more likely to remember—and so recognize as old information—a word or concept that has been connected to your main ideas. They are less likely to remember one that has been less central. So you may not have to reintroduce an important word or concept that you have not mentioned for a few paragraphs, but you should reintroduce a minor one.
  • For an example, click here.<

    The example below is taken from an article titled “The Suffragist as Playwright in Edwardian England” by Claire Hirshfield. (A suffragist was a person, female or male, who supported giving women the right to vote.)

    In the first sentence of her article, Hirshfield introduces several new terms that she will later use as old information. Old information is green<, new is red<.

    Perhaps no single aspect of women's history has received more of the attention of contemporary scholars than the campaign waged by British feminists to secure the franchise in the final years before the outbreak of World War I.

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    For most of Hirshfield’s readers, “women’s history” will be a familiar concept, but they may not be aware that British feminists waged a campaign to secure the franchise (the right to vote) in the years before World War I. But, now that Hirshfield has established that fact, she can treat it as old information that her readers will recognize. She can also use it to introduce new information.

    Perhaps no single aspect of women's history has received more of the attention of contemporary scholars than the campaign waged by British feminists to secure the franchise in the final years before the outbreak of World War I. One vital element of this campaign, however, has been little noted: the involvement of men and women associated with the theater in the great crusade for the vote.1


    1Hirshfield, Claire. “The Suffragist as Playwright in Edwardian England.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2 (1987), pp. 1-6.

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    Click on the words in green< to see how readers will treat them as old information they have just read.

    By using the new information in the first sentence as old information in the second sentence, Hirschfield is able to give her readers new information about the campaign for the vote: that men and women associated with the theatre were important to the overall effort to enfranchise women in England.

    Done<

    2. Things and Concepts Readers Know and Might Associate with What They Just Read

    Depending on how familiar they are with your topic, readers can usually recognize as old information things and concepts that are implied by the topic your argument covers. If one sentence talks about stock market trends, then readers who know about business will not be surprised if the next sentence treats bull market as old information even if that term has not come up in the paper. If your topic is gun control legislation, then readers who pay attention to the news will not be surprised if a group of paragraphs treats the National Rifle Association as old information. But if a linguist writes about the patterns of choosing subjects in sentences, only readers with a great deal of knowledge about linguistics will recognize the technical term Silverstein hierarchy as old information. The amount that your reader knows about your subject determines how much related information he or she will recognize as old information.

    When planning your argument, think about whether your audience is made up of novice readers, who are largely learning about your topic for the first time; expert readers, who will know a great deal about your topic; or somewhere in between: readers who will know a bit about your topic and its associated terms but will not necessarily be able to define all of these terms up front. (When writing a paper for a course, you can usually assume that you are writing a paper that should be pitched at the level of discussion you’ve been having with your peers in the classroom.)

    Brainstorm all the terms that are related to your topic and that might appear in your argument. Which ones did you already know, before you started researching this topic or learning about it in a class? Which ones were new to you? Which ones are you still struggling to grasp? You can use your own growing familiarity with your topic to help you assess which ideas are old information for novices, and which ones are only old information for the most informed readers.

    For an example, click here.<

    In this article for Scientific American, David Dobbs uses associated old information in two prominent spots to introduce the idea of mirror neurons. He begins his article by alternating between the first-person I (which all readers would recognize as the writer) and various words for his second child:

    Sometime just before my second child was born, I read that if you stuck your tongue out at a newborn, he’d do the same. So in young Nicholas’s first hour, even as my wife was still in the O.R. getting stitched up (40-hour labor, C-section, epic saga), I tried it. Holding the gooing, alert young lad before me in my hands—he was no bigger than a ball of pizza dough—I stuck my tongue out at him. He immediately returned the gesture. I hadn’t slept in 40 hours. I laughed till I cried.1


    1David Dobbs, “A Revealing Reflection: Mirror Neurons seem to effect everything from how we learn to speak to how we build culture,” Scientific American (May/June 2006), available from David Dobbs: Writing on science and culture, http://daviddobbs.net.

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    Finding old information for your first sentence can be a challenge, since you have no other sentences to refer back to as old information. In a scientific article, nothing would lead a reader to expect to hear about the author’s son. However, most readers who know about studies of the brain also know that such studies focus on young children; so, Dobbs reasonably expects his readers not to be surprised or confused to hear a story about his infant son’s ability to imitate—mirror—dad sticking out his tongue.

    Toward the end of the article, Dobbs starts a section with a heading and opening sentence that treat something he has not yet mentioned or implied as old information:

    When the Mirror Fogs

    Faults in a system so central should create profound problems. And indeed it appears that dysfunctions or deficits in mirror-neuron systems may help account for problems ranging from personal coolness to autism.

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    Before this point, Dobbs has only discussed the capabilities of mirror neurons, so when he uses faults, dysfunctions, and deficits as old information, he relies on his readers to see why these concepts are associated with his topic. He can reasonably count on readers of Scientific American to know that research on the brain’s failures is just as informative as research on its capabilities. Those readers will not be surprised to find faults as the first word in the section because they usually associate the study of brain failures with the study of brain capabilities.

    However, if Dobbs had jumped right into the idea of the “premotor cortex”—one of the parts of the brain where the activity of motor neurons takes place—he could not expect his readers to treat this term as old information. Only expert scientists, rather than the readers of a general interest science magazine such as Scientific American, could be expected to know this term. Dobbs would have to introduce it to his readers, as we did above, in order for it to become old information.

    Done<