Explanation or Cause: Definitions & Examples

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Virginia has a Master's degree in Curriculum and Development and a Ph.D. in English

Persuasive writing often focuses on clearly presenting the relationships among ideas, facts, and opinions. This lesson will help sort out the differences between an explanation and a cause when you encounter each in reading a text.

Cause or Explanation?

Identifying a cause of an event or circumstance is quite similar to offering an explanation. Yet, there is a bit of difference as well. For a moment, think about a real-life situation rather than what we find when we read.

You come home one day to find your roommate in the kitchen. There is flour all over everything, and the cat is drinking from a large puddle of milk on the floor. You are not sure whether to laugh or cry, but the first thing you do is: ask what happened! Your friend then tells you that the neighbor's dog ran into the house chasing your cat, while he or she was starting to bake a cake. The noise frightened your roommate, who threw the pan of flour in the air. The cat then ran across the counter, knocking over the carton of milk. So now you know.

Did your roommate explain how the kitchen got to be such a mess, or did he or she tell you what caused the commotion? In this case, both labels fit. The dog and cat chase was the cause, and telling you this story does give you an explanation.

Yet, there is a slight difference in logic that we need to recognize in complex, academic writing. The actual cause of the kitchen fiasco was the neighbor's dog.

The Ultimate Cause?
Dog and Cat

Or, if you go back a step further, you might say the cause was your roommate leaving the door open. But if you want an explanation when you walk in the door, you probably won't be satisfied with, ''I left the door open to get some fresh air.''

An explanation, then, requires all the pertinent information that will cover why the current event or circumstance is the way it is.

Beware of Logical Fallacies

Sometimes when you read a factual text, there are elements of opinion or bias embedded in the argument. This is when it helps to recognize statements of cause and effect, explanations, and problems with each of these. As we discovered with the kitchen example, cause is not always easy to determine, and explanations can also be specifically personal.

A logical fallacy is a flaw in reasoning, almost like a trick your mind plays on you to convince you of something you want to see a certain way. When you are reading a text written by an accomplished author, it is easy to make assumptions about what the author seems to be saying.

One fallacy that addresses cause and effect is called post hoc ergo propter hoc, a Latin phrase that means: after this, therefore resulting from it. Another way to think of this reasoning is that we are assuming that event A caused event B simply because B occurred after A.

An example would be to say that, because you fell off your skateboard and hurt your ankle just after you ate a snack, the apple you ate caused you to take a tumble.

Caused by an Apple?
skateboard fall

Of course, this is not sound reasoning; it is almost certain that the two events are unrelated except as one happened before the other in time. Unfortunately, authors, trying to convince you of a certain point of view, will often use this false view of cause and effect to make their point.

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