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Writing Cause and Effect Study Guide

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Updated on Aug 25, 2011

Practice exercises for this study guide can be found at:

Writing Cause and Effect Practice Exercises

LESSON SUMMARY

"One thing leads to another"—that's the principle behind cause and effect. This lesson explains these two important concepts. You'll learn how to tell the difference between cause and effect, how they're related, and how to judge opinions about cause and effect.

Much of what you read is an attempt to explain either the cause of some action or its effect. For example, an author might try to explain the causes of global warming or the effects of a diet with too much sugar. Or an author might explore the reasons behind a change in school policy or the effects that an injury had on an athlete. As you might expect, authors describing cause and effect often use one of a few general patterns to organize their ideas.

Distinguishing between Cause and Effect

"For every action," said the famous scientist Sir Isaac Newton, "there is an equal and opposite reaction." Every action results in another action (a reaction). Or, in other words, for every action, there is an effect caused by that action. Likewise, each action is caused by a previous action. In other words, each action has a cause—something that made it happen—and an effect—something that it makes happen. Cause and effect, then, work together; you can't have one without the other. That's why it's very important to be able to distinguish between the two.

Cause: a person or thing that makes something happen or creates an effect

Effect: a change created by an action or cause

A passage about cause explains why something took place. You might ask, for example: Why did Elaine decide to quit the basketball team?

A passage about effect, on the other hand, explains what happened after something took place. What happened as a result of Elaine's decision? How did it affect the team? How did it affect Elaine?

Thus, we might identify a cause and effect from the previous example as follows:

Because Elaine quit the team, she was able to join the drama club.

What happened? Elaine quit the team (the cause). What was the result? She was able to join the drama club (the effect).

Transitions and Other Clues

You probably had a lot of success with Exercise 1 because of the clues the writers left for you. Just as certain key words indicate whether you're comparing or contrasting, other key words indicate whether things are causes or effects. Here is a partial list of these important clues.

Chain Reactions

The difference between cause and effect may seem clear, but it's not always easy to separate the two. For one thing, the two work very closely together. For another, effects often become causes for other events. Here's an example. Imagine that you lost your house keys (cause). As a result, you might have to stay in the school library until one of your parents can pick you up (effect). But that effect could then cause another event. That is, getting stuck in the library might give you two hours of uninterrupted time to get started on your research paper assignment. And that might mean that you can go to the baseball game this weekend instead of doing research.

Thus, A caused B, B caused C, and C caused D.

A causes → B effect (becomes) cause → C effect (becomes) cause → D effect

Effects, then, often become causes for other effects. So one event could be described as either a cause or an effect. It's often important to be able to tell which stage the writer is talking about.

Here's an example of a short chain of cause and effect. Read the passage below carefully and actively. Notice the clues that indicate cause and effect. Underline these transitions as you read.

Yesterday my mother told me I was grounded for life. I was supposed to pick up my sister from her playdate at Ellie's house at 4:00. But I was playing JudoMaster-Extreme at Charlie's house, and I'd actually made it to the fourth level for the first time. So I decided to keep playing. I figured Rosie would enjoy the extra playtime. But Ellie's mom had an appointment and couldn't leave until someone picked up Rosie. She had to call my mom, who had to leave an important meeting to get Rosie.

Notice that this paragraph's purpose is to explain why the narrator was grounded for life. This idea is expressed in the topic sentence that begins the paragraph. This sentence reveals that this passage will explain cause. But the paragraph talks about several different causes. And it also talks about several different effects.

Like most events, the narrator's trouble wasn't caused by just one thing. Instead, it was caused by a series of actions and reactions—a chain of cause and effect. This particular chain began when the narrator reached the fourth level in JudoMaster. Because of that, he decided to keep playing instead of picking up his sister as he was supposed to do.

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