Friday, April 21, 2023

What's it all about?

When I'm teaching students how to approach text analysis questions (like Paper 1 Questions 1 and 2 and Paper 2 Question 3), I often advise them to take a look at the bigger picture first, before diving into the analysis. So looking back at yesterday's blog about tackling the In Defence of Good Grammar article, I probably should have taken my own advice as I have definitely dived into that before discussing what it's actually about. 

One way of doing this is to have an initial read and just ask yourself a few basic questions:

  • What's it about? This might be as simple as identifying the specific language issue that's being focused upon and working out how that relates to the language study you've been doing on the course. 
  • What's it actually about? There's often a subtext to these pieces: something that starts with language but hints at a concern about something else - standards or fashions changing, young people doing something different to previous generations, a group in society having more prominence than they did a while ago, a technological change causing concern. Sometimes it's not so subtle - less a dog whistle than a miserable man in a suit, standing behind you shouting "I hate working class people and the way they use language". 
  • What is the point? This is where you need to get to grips with what views are actually being expressed. What's being said about the language issue/s? What opinions are actually being offered? Pinpoint some key parts of the text/s so you can come back to these and really pull them apart. 
  • Who is this guy? Who is writing this piece and why do they feel they have something worthwhile to say? At some point, you're going to need to look at how the text producer represents themselves to the reader and how they try to pitch their position to you. This is slightly more tricky if you're presented with a news or feature article, as opposed to an opinion piece as you might have to unstitch the different positions presented to you and work out what the overall picture is. 
  • Where is this leading? So, this might be the last big question to ask. Given that the article is about x and this writer is telling us y, where does that take us? What's the agenda? How might we be expected to react to this view? What are we expected to do about this knowledge we've gained? About this persuasion we might have undergone? This could open up a few points for Question 4 too because it might get you thinking about the evaluation you can offer here, the assessment of the ideas that have been presented. 

If you start with a few questions like these, then the analysis can actually be pinpointed a bit more closely on the really important parts of the text/s. I've tended to adopt a hotspots approach with these questions (and those on Paper 1) and having that bigger picture and sense of what's going in is vital when you're trying to build an analysis of the whole text rather than just isolated moments. 

Another way to do this is to produce a summary of the text. Imagine that you've just read the article and someone says "What are you reading?". You've got two or three sentences at most to explain what it is and what's being said. If you can't do that, then you probably need to go back and read again to unpick the information you need. 

So, why not go back to this post from a couple of days ago and try these approaches on the three texts I've suggested there? 

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Tackling 'in defence of good grammar'

One of the text extracts that I linked to in this post, was a piece called In Defence of Good Grammar, written by James Innes-Smith for The Critic website, which bills itself as a "monthly magazine for politics, ideas, art, literature and much more". 

The language pieces on there are not very frequent but, when they do appear, seem to me to be a mixed bag. Some of them recycle quite common prescriptive positions. So there's this one from April 2023 which starts off by complaining about supposed Americanisms in the English language before firmly aiming its fire at just Americans more generally.  It even manages to include a language discourses greatest hits in this paragraph: 

Turn on the wireless at any hour, and you may think this country has been infected by a linguistic virus. Words and phrases that were once regarded as intrusive Americanisms have become commonplace. Curveball (what’s wrong with bouncer?) and stepping up to the plate (taking a fresh guard?) are daily horrors which merit six firm strokes of the cane.  

Then there's this one which focuses on language and class through the lens of Angela Rayner's non-standard grammar. But then you also see a few others - like this one on accommodation, class and downwards convergence - which are a bit more linguistically descriptive in their outlook. 

But it's the other article on Angela Rayner and language 'standards' that I want to focus on here, so what follows is an attempt to offer a few things: a bit of analysis, some discussion of some of the techniques and language choices being used and a couple of suggestions about where this article and some of its ideas might sit within wider discourses about language. 

You can probably tell that I've taken quite a critical stance towards it but you may well want to look at it from other perspectives and see if some of its arguments can be supported linguistically or if they might be seen as being more coherent and well-supported than I thought. Towards the end, there are also a few suggestions for other extracts in the article that you could analyse and evaluate. Anyway, here goes...

Sub-editorial features

Title immediately suggests a discourse of conflict: a defence is being made against some kind of attack.

The standfirst presupposes that Angela Rayner is torturing our language and the only question up for debate is why she needs to be stopped.

Interesting choice of verb in ‘torturing’: language is being represented as the victim of a painful process. 

Who is the ‘we’ in ‘our language’ and why has this possessive determiner been chosen? What might be the implications around the portrayal of those who are not part of the 'we', 1st person plural, group?

The image (from 1954) is in black and white and presents an elocution lesson. 

Is this the era the writer wants us to return to? A post-war utopia where people were happy to be taught how to speak ‘properly’? A simpler time when rules were rules and everyone followed them? 

Opening paragraph

  • What is the language issue and how is it being represented here? 
  • Interesting modifiers in this noun phrase: clear, educated English. Why choose these? 
  • And what do we make of these choices of abstract noun? class division, snobbishness and elitism

The second sentence uses a coordinating conjunction as a discourse marker to establish a counter-argument to the position in the first sentence. The idea here seems to be that clear, educated English isn’t ‘exclusive’: it’s welcoming and inclusive. I wonder what the writer of this piece would think about the varieties and styles of English used by many of those close to a billion people…

Selected extracts: 1

…and yes, I do believe “speaking well” has value however unfashionable that may sound.

Have a look at the positioning being used here. 

How is the author representing himself to his readers? Bravely out of touch with modern society? Proud to be out of step with modern, ‘woke’ sensibilities? Traditional, conservative and proud to be upholding standards? 

But what is this fashion that he’s out of step with? We see, on a few occasions in this article, that he makes reference to what it’s supposed to be like these days, but we don’t see a lot of empirical evidence for that. 

Selected extracts: 2

In the UK there remains an underlying sense that speaking well is the sole preserve of a posh elite, which may explain the lack of educational rigour when it comes to teaching the language.

So, where’s the evidence for this claim? It sounds very certain: look at the modality of that first sentence – ‘there remains…’ – as if this is an undeniable fact. 

And in the next clause (speaking well is the sole preserve of a posh elite), it's the the same use of the declarative mood. The adjective choice too (‘sole’) seems to accentuate the exclusivity he claims to be opposing. 

And what about the final clauses. Does that ring true? Ten- and eleven-year-olds in the UK do grammar tests… you’re doing an A level that involves some quite hardcore grammar. But no, this is a lack of ‘educational rigour’. 

And what of the emerging discourses? We started with one around conflict and now we’re into ones around rigour and permissiveness, good versus bad, right versus wrong. It’s a fairly familiar prescriptive discourse.

Selected extracts: 3

By this paragraph, we are well into some fairly common anecdotes about young people these days…

You may have noticed the extent of adolescent inarticulacy when listening to school leavers struggling to construct a coherent sentence without having to fall back on verbal ticks such as “like”, “innit” and “you know what I mean?” Yet this pummelling at the foundations of communication is by no means limited to the less well educated.

The use of ‘pummelling at the foundations of communication’ seems quite hyperbolic as well: as if the very basis of communication is being attacked by young people’s ill-educated language choices. 

And a few lines later, you could analyse the representation of ‘street’ language – whatever that might mean in this context – through the adjectives used in the examples of ‘mangles phrasing and sloppy grammar’. 

Selected extracts: 4

By the time we get to the rather predictable George Bernard Shaw quotation and the author’s assertion that ‘this embarrassment about the way we speak has become endemic’, we are firmly into the kind of language discourse you’ll have seen many times before: language styles and variations as a disease. 

‘Endemic’ has less wide-ranging connotations than ‘pandemic’ but still implies that something has become widespread in a certain community and that’s quite an interesting theme in this article, because the author reflects quite a lot on this problem that he’s identified as being an English thing: a modern English disease, perhaps? 

Does this suggest that his theme - that 'we' are squeamish about 'good grammar' is a modern development and one we should jettison?

Other sections to look at

There’s plenty more to analyse in this article but I’ll leave you with these final extracts to think about.

Look how opposing ideas have been represented here, the metaphors being used and their implications if you take them to their logical conclusions. 

How fair or accurate do you think this might be, when you think about some of the linguistic arguments you’ve explored on your course? 

Instead of lowering standards to meet ideological whims and cultural and class sensitivities we should be lifting young people out of the prison of low expectation and equipping them with the tools they need to live a rich and communicative life.

And what about the discourses conveyed through the metaphor choices in these two extracts? What kind of arguments about language and society are being advanced?

What language deconstructionists fail to acknowledge is that without these vital literacy skills, children will always struggle to find purpose and meaning. By allowing language to become part of the culture war we deny children access to the great works of literature as well as limiting their chances of gainful employment.

Angela Rayner may have lucked out but millions of working class people remain trapped in systemic disadvantage brought about by a lack of will on the part of teachers and parents to instil a love of language.

...without fluency of language, they will remain trapped in a cycle of ignorance and poverty...

Analysing texts about language

While I'm doing posts about Section B of Paper 2, I'd better mention the kinds of texts that appear here and that you have to analyse and respond to. They're often (but not always) articles from newspapers and online sources, but can also be book extracts or something like, as was the case of the 2019 paper, an article from an accent tutoring website. I've summarised a few of the others below: 

  • An extract from an online piece equating political correctness with ‘thought control’ and a blog post complaining about ‘Orwellian’ language reform.
  • A feature article from the Mail Online focusing on young women’s speech and a feature article from The Guardian complaining that young women won’t be taken seriously unless they change the way they speak.
  • An extract from The Telegraph reporting on the use of emojis in writing making people appear ‘incompetent’ and an extract from an online student newspaper complaining about emojis ‘destroying’ the language.
  • An extract from a 2002 Independent article about English as a world language and an introduction to a book from 2017 complaining about American English. 

What you'll probably see from these texts is that many of them come from a position of criticising or complaining about an aspect of language change or diversity, often with a prescriptive slant to them, and that they are often open to linguistically-informed criticism and challenge. Not all of them are totally unreasonable rants; in fact some of them are carefully assembled to foreground opposing and contrasting views. The 2022 paper even had a text that included a 'head to head' style article as one of its texts, where two opposing language commentators argued their cases. 

Bear in mind too, that you're being assessed using 3 AOs in Question 3, so you'll need to be approaching these texts from a few different angles, such as:

  • what aspects of language the texts are focusing on
  • what arguments and views about language are being presented to the readers and what we might be supposed to make of that
  • how these views about language might fit into the bigger picture of language discourses we see in debates about language out there in the world all the time
  • how the text producers are using language to represent the issues 
  • how the text producers represent themselves and try to convince the reader of their views
  • how the texts might be connected: how are they handling the theme, approaching it similarly/differently etc?
Here are a couple of recent texts that might make for some good material for analysis. I've chosen ones that I think link nicely to wider discourses about language (perhaps you can spot a few of those discourses straight away and dig deeper for others) and ones that have a pretty clear view. I'll post a few more in days to come where it's a bit more subtle, as I think you need to be prepared for that too. 

If anyone is interested in discussing these texts and what you make of them, I'll start a thread on the @EngLangBlog Twitter feed so you can reply with observations, points and questions. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Specialist knowledge for non-specialist readers

Yesterday, I posted a few links to articles that I thought were pretty good examples of opinion pieces about language. There's always a bit of a caveat with this kind of advice though, because the activity you're engaged in during the exam is basically an exercise to secure marks from the available assessment objectives, rather than actually write something for publication and payment. 

That's why you need to be a little bit careful about using anything as an exact style model; while there are really informative and linguistically-informed pieces out there (and I think there's lots of good stuff in the ones I posted), they can also be a little bit thin on language detail and you need to provide that to get your 20 marks from AO2. 

What you might want to do - as well as looking at how those opinion pieces work - is have a mosey on over to The Conversation website, where linguists (and psychologists and many other experts) write about their research for non-specialist readers.  What you'll be able to see from many of the excellent articles there is how complicated and technical ideas can be explained clearly to people who don't necessarily work in the field. 

Some of my favourites also happen to be from some of my favourite linguists...

Rob Drummond on regional accent attitudes

Grammar pedants and fashion victims

Amanda Cole on attitudes to working class and ethnic minority accents

Posh Spice and accent change

Devyani Sharma on accent attitudes in the workplace 

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Opinion pieces for exam revision

 As you get ready for the exam season this summer, it's a good idea to read lots of opinion pieces to soak up the features of the genre: the style, structure, sub-editorial choices and the ways that arguments are constructed, among them. 

It probably helps too to focus most of that reading and preparation on opinion pieces about language, because that's the course you're studying and what you're going to be writing about. So, here are a few suggestions for recent pieces about language that you might find useful. 

It's worth bearing in mind that in your exam, AO5 is worth 10 marks and AO2 20 marks, so you probably want to err on the side of caution with the language content and maybe offer a little bit more knowledge about language and ideas from language study than a few of these, while also making sure that every bit of language knowledge and research that you introduce is made accessible to your target readers. 

London Evening Standard piece on MLE

The i on MLE

Indy Voices on regional accent pride

A Nov 22 piece on the language round migration

An older (2015) Guardian piece on the language associated with migration

Next time round, I'll suggest a few recent pieces that could be useful for a bit of analysis for Question 3 on Paper 2. 

Black British English vs MLE

The latest episode of Lexis is out and it features an interview with Ife Thompson about lots of issues connected to Black British English, i...