ENGL 101
English Composition I
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This is the explanation of this type of essay. For the actual essay assignment, go here.

The primary word that identifies an essay as a cause/effect essay is the word “because.” Any essay where the thesis either does or could contain the word because is a cause/effect argument.

Because consumers aren’t buying as much, companies have had to downsize.
This is a cause/effect argument emphasizing the effect of consumer purchasing (or lack thereof).

Companies have had to downsize because consumers aren’t buying as much.
This is a cause/effect argument emphasizing the cause of the downsizing.

The difference between whether something is a cause or an effect is often just a matter of how the argument is presented and focused. Every cause creates an effect, and every effect has a cause. The cause/effect essay simply tries to explain that relationship in terms of the writer’s particular purpose/focus.

While many cause/effect essays will make judgments and present certain causes or effects as being more or less important than others, it is not an essential part of this type of essay. Cause/effect essays can, and often are, simply informative in nature, with little to no argumentation involved.

Causes tell us what has led up to the particular subject being discussed:

Effects tell us what has happened after or because of the subject being discussed: Notice that all of these examples tend to focus on causes OR effects. While it is possible for an essay to deal with both sides of the equation, most writers will focus on one or the other in order to keep things focused. Most subjects will have numerous cause and effects that COULD be used, so the writer’s main task is often to decide which are the most important in terms of the point that is being made in this particular essay.

One difficulty with cause/effect essays is that the author is usually forced to make guesses. We can guess what effects will be, but unless it’s a historical situation, we don’t really know for sure. Even in historical situations, we can argue that something was a cause or effect, but we’ll never know for absolute certain. Thus, avoid absolute language whenever possible. Don’t state that something IS or HAS TO BE a cause or effect. Use careful language like COULD BE or MIGHT BE instead.

Multiple cause/effect: This particular approach is used when the writer wants to emphasize that there are many different causes creating a situation, or that many different effects can, or will, rise out of a situation. An essay trying to explain the rising number of college students nationally would use this style to show that it is a combination of things causing this phenomenon, but no one item in particular.
EXAMPLE:
There is a rising number of college students nationally:
Higher numbers of youth
More need for life-long learning in industry
New technology in workplace requires education
Lower wages make standard jobs less attractive
Etc.
Primary cause/effect: This approach to cause/effect is used when the writer understands that there are many different causes or effects, but also realizes that certain ones are more significant than the others. This writer will carefully select the causes or effects that have the most impact and then write an essay arguing for the importance of those particular choices. This particular approach requires specific explanations, usually with examples and data. The more the writer knows or has researched the subject, the more effective this approach becomes.
EXAMPLE:
There is a rising number of college students nationally:
America is moving to service industries which require degrees
Society defines success differently than it used to

Chain cause/effect: This form of cause/effect takes a chronological approach to the subject. This approach recognizes that every effect becomes a cause for a new effect, which becomes the cause for a new effect, and so on.

EXAMPLE:
Slowing economy causes lower tax receipts

Lower tax receipts cause University budget cuts

University budget cuts cause hiring freeze

University hiring freeze causes classes to get cancelled

Classes being cancelled causes you to not graduate

The chain style of cause/effect essay picks up on these linked causes/effects, usually to show a remote cause or effect. If the writer wants to show long-term effects of oil spill on a coral reef, the writer needs to use this method. If the writer wants to show how losing the 1960 election caused Nixon to order the Watergate break-ins, the writer will need to use this method. There’s a strong element of the process essay here, but the focus is on the meaning and importance, not just the process itself.

What the writer needs to do is determine what the multiple causes and effects for the subject are. Then trace some of the more significant causes/effects out in chains. Determine which method of organization best fits the purpose/focus of the essay. Determine the best order to present the information: most important to least? Least important to most? Chronological? Causes, then effects? Effects, then causes? The order should be what’s necessary to best emphasize the purpose/focus/meaning of the overall essay. Be sure to have the necessary evidence/examples to back up the claims. Don’t just tell the reader that a cause is important – be able to prove it.