Don’t you think we deserve an explanation? The limits of generic ‘explaining’ writing frames for constructing historical causal arguments


In a previous post, I argued against ‘sentence starters’ such as ‘I believe…’ being labelled as the ‘language of the historian’.[i] I now want to consider another manifestation of this phenomenon: ‘explaining’ writing frames such as;




First, let me specify what I mean by ‘historical explanation’. In everyday language ‘explain’ is often used synonymously with ‘elucidate’, ‘make clear’ or ‘explicate’. [ii] In historical discourse, however, ‘explain’ tends to have a more precise meaning. As Megill noted ‘for many historians ‘explanation’ particularly means to say what caused it.’ [iii] To ‘explain’ in history, therefore, usually means to provide an argument in response to a question focused on the second-order concept of causation.[iv] An example of such a question might be;

‘It was the unusual political conditions operating in Massachusetts in 1692 that explain the extraordinary events in Salem’. How far do you agree with this explanation of the Salem witch hunt of 1692? [v]

As this example shows, ‘explain’ here does not (only) mean ‘make clear’. Instead, the student is first expected to recognise the densely abstract cause given in the question (the unusual political conditions in Massachusetts in 1692).  Second, the student must identify further causes of the crisis that might be similarly abstract. Such causes could include: the trauma caused by setbacks in King William’s War against the Wabanakis and New French; the puritan elites’ anxiety at declining religiosity in their theocracy; or the legitimising role that powerful male societal gatekeepers played in endorsing the afflicted girls’ accusations. The student would then be required to argue which of the causes was most important in bringing about the witch-hunt.

One consequence of generic definitions of ‘explanation’ is that sometimes writing frames such as ‘…this shows that…’ are labelled as historical ‘explaining’ language. Such frames might be appropriate for ‘explication’ but I would argue they lack the specificity required to enable pupils to meet the particular demands of ‘historical explanation’ as defined above.

But even if we are more precise about focusing on ‘causation’ and winnow out ‘explicating’ language we still might encounter difficulties. Many historians in the historiography of Salem do occasionally use ‘so’, ‘therefore’, and ‘because’ for explaining causation. The trouble is that most of these historians use this language for different types of causation that are not specifically historical.

First, some historians such as Bernard Rosenthal might use such language to make clear their processes of logic. For example;

One need not press the issue that the kind of testimony offered against Burroughs was less than adequate for a civil libertarian; but one cannot easily let go of the discrepancy between the rigorous standards of evidence set by Increase Mather and his willingness to embrace the conviction of Burroughs. So we have something of a puzzle; why did Mather make such an eloquent case against spectral evidence, a case for strict criteria in the discovering of witchcraft, and yet conclude, on the basis of evidence that defied his criteria, that George Burroughs had been tried fairly?[vi]

Here, Rosenthal wanted to show the processes he went through in deciding the questions he wanted to investigate. Generally speaking, the influential puritan minister Increase Mather argued against the admission of spectral evidence (the notion than an afflicted person seeing an apparition of a ‘witch’ could be used as evidence that the accused had made a diabolical pact). Puzzlingly, however, Mather wrote approvingly of the conviction of the unorthodox minister George Burroughs despite the fact that it was mainly spectral evidence used to convict him. This conundrum therefore caused Rosenthal to investigate and identify what he considered to be a key cause of the Salem witch trials: a desire by the puritan elite to purge religious nonconformity. For our purposes, however, the point is that Rosenthal is not using ‘so’ here to argue the relationship between abstract historical causes and consequences but instead to lay out his chain of logic.

Second, when substantiating an abstract historical cause with evidence, some historians of Salem might use ‘so’, ‘therefore’ or ‘because’ in a fashion similar to ‘everyday’ usage: cause-and-effect between individual participants. For example;

When the girls spoke, adults listened, in part because they believed in witches and the girls seemed genuinely troubled, in part because Betty (Parris) was the minister (Samuel Parris’) daughter and Ann (Putnam Jr’s) kin nearly monopolised local office’.[vii]

Here, Peter Hoffer used ‘because’ to provide personalised examples of a broader, abstract historical cause: the unusual amount of credibility that societal gatekeepers gave to the girls’ accusations.  Before they start their secondary schooling, most pupils will probably already be practised in using ‘so’, ‘therefore’ or ‘because’ in this way for explaining causation in their everyday life – such as when they explain they don’t have their homework because their dog ate it.

While I do see a rationale for labelling ‘so’, ‘therefore’ or ‘because’ for the particular purposes described above as the ‘language of the historian’, I personally wouldn’t. This reticence is because I don’t see how using this explaining language to outline processes of logic or personalised causation is particular to academic history compared to other disciplines or everyday speech. That particular debate, however, is somewhat moot because history teachers often don’t model ‘so’, ‘therefore’ and ‘because’ for these goals.

I do also sympathise with the argument that in pupils’ early schooling the abstract nature of historical causation initially needs to be couched in the language of pupils’ lived experience. But a witting and grudging short-term compromise such as this is very different from claiming that using ‘so’, ‘therefore’ or ‘because’ for explaining historical causation represents ‘the language of the historian’. In fact, pupils will quickly need to discard such frames to explain historically. Ultimately, a deadening, homogenising and distorting effect will be the consequence of the longer-term use of frames such as;

There was a witch hunt in Salem in 1692 because…

Far from being the ‘language of the historian’, most historians from the historiography of Salem avoid using ‘so’, ‘therefore’, or ‘because’ in this way because it strangles argumentation at birth. Counter-intuitively, rather than using ‘connectives’ most of these historians instead often realise historical causal relationships in ‘uncommonsense’ ways by using prepositional phrases, verbs, and nouns.[viii] By doing so, these historians are able to argue regarding the role and relative importance of causes that essentially neutral words like ‘because’ do not allow. [ix] Consider the following examples;

With the loss of Maine and the ill-fated Quebec expedition, New England suffered its worst humiliation. In the tinder box of inevitable and angry recrimination, the witch hunt caught fire. [x]

The foundation of the witchcraft crisis lay in puritan New Englanders’ singular worldview, one they had inherited from the first settlers of Massachusetts Bay more than sixty years earlier.[xi]

There had been New England witch trials before, but none precipitated by a cohort of bewitched adolescent and preadolescent girls.[xii]

In these examples, Mary Beth Norton, Enders A. Robinson, and Stacy Schiff provided and characterised mostly abstract causes of the crisis: the desperation to identify scapegoats for the succession of humiliating defeats to the allied Wabanakis and New French (precondition); the suspicion of nonconformity in the puritan worldview (root); and the ‘afflicted’ girls’ accusations (precipitant). None of this characterisation is possible with ‘so’, ‘therefore’ or ‘because’.

As I hope these examples have demonstrated referring to ‘explaining frames’ as ‘language of the historian’ is often an inappropriate label. But what explains such frames being used in this way? As I argued here,[xiii] one reason might be that the frames and their recommended use are vestiges of centralised initiatives such as the ‘National Literacy Strategy in History’ (2002). [xiv] While this resource claimed to be history specific in reality much of the language provided was generically applicable to any ‘non-fiction’ genre. [xv] As I have tried to show, ‘so’, ‘therefore’ and ‘because’ are wholly appropriate in general explanations of processes of logic or in everyday speech. They might also have a place in disciplines in which causal explanations only involve isolated variables and therefore do not require characterisation or prioritisation (for example, perhaps, ‘the apple fell to the ground because of gravity’).

But ‘historical explanation’ has its own distinctive characteristics. Its ‘uncommonsense’ nature means that it will be very difficult for pupils to pick up its linguistic features without specific guidance. If we accept that schooling is, in part, designed to move students from the realm of lived experience toward disciplined modes of thinking then there seems little point in explicitly modelling the language of the ‘everyday’ longer-term. But the issue is deeper than that. Using language that is not fit for argumentative purposes has a stunting effect on one’s scope for historical argument. Ultimately, unless we model language genuinely rooted in historical discourse then pupils’ historical explanations will almost certainly have a deadening, artificial, and non-argumentative quality. Language intended well-meaningly by teachers as an introductory leg-up to the pupil might all too quickly become a shackle tethering them to the floor. On the other hand discipline-sensitive linguistic scaffolds might, to borrow James Woodcock’s phrase, actually serve to ‘release the conceptual’ and emphasise the importance of characterising and prioritising abstract historical causes.[xvi]




[i] What follows is a critique of common sentence starters that I have either a) used or seen being used in my practice or b) seen shared on social media or sold on resource websites. I have not included images or links of the specific examples because I do not want to personalise any critique.

[ii] Megill, A. (2007). Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice. The University of Chicago Press: London p.79

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Marwick, A. (2001). The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language. London: Palgrave.

[v] Pearson Edexcel (2016a). Specification Pearson Edexcel Level 3 Advanced GCE in  History (9H10) First Teaching from September 2015 First Certification from 2017 Issue 2 London: Pearson. p.133 Retrieved from

[vi] Rosenthal, B. (1993). Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.142

[vii] Hoffer, P. C. (1996). The Devil’s Disciples: Makers of the Salem Witch Trials. London: John Hopkins University Press.  p.103

[viii] Halliday identified this phenomenon in academic writing which he termed ‘grammatical metaphor’.  Halliday, M.A.K. (1998). Things and relations. Regrammaticising experience as technical knowledge. In Martin, J.R. & Veel (Eds.) Reading Science: Critical and Functional Perspectives of Discourses of Science pp.185-237) London: Routledge; Halliday, M.A.K. & Matthiessen C.M.I.M. (1999). Construing Experience through Meaning. A Language Based Approach to Cognition. London: Cassell.

[ix] Martin, J. R. (2007). Construing knowledge: a functional linguistic perspective. In Christie, F. & Martin, J. R. (Eds.), Language, Knowledge and Pedagogy (pp.34-64). London: Continuum.

[x] Robinson, E. A. (1991). The Devil Discovered: Salem Witchcraft 1692. New York: Hippocrene Books p.189

[xi] Norton, M. B. (2002). In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p.295

[xii] Schiff, S. (2015).The Witches: Salem, 1692. London: Little, Brown & Company.

[xiii] Carroll, J. E. (2017). ‘From divergent evolution to witting cross-fertilisation: the need for more awareness of potential inter-discursive communication regarding students’ extended historical writing’ The Curriculum Journal 28(4) pp.504-523

[xiv] Department for Education and Skills. (2002). Key stage 3 national strategy – literacy in history. London: DfEaS p.21 Retrieved from

[xv] Ibid p.19

[xvi]Woodcock, J. (2005). ‘Does the linguistic release the conceptual? Helping Year 10 to improve their causal reasoning’ Teaching History 119, 5-14. Retrieved from


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