Monday, 5 January 2015

The truth about British tag questions

why do we use tag questions?

I bet you`ve heard about tag questions (TQs) before, haven`t you? But, apart from knowing what kind of question they are, have you actually thought about what these TQs actually do? You might think that the primary goal of the person who utters a question is to ask for some knowledge that they previously didn’t have – and you would be quite right. However, is there something more to TQs than just questions?

The thought that there might be more to questions than just a request for information has previously crossed a number of minds, some of them belonging to professional linguists. For instance, Ditte Kimps, Kristin Davidse and Bert Cornillie set out to create a typology of the basic functions of English TQs in speech. They trawled through two corpora of spoken British English – because TQs typically occur in spoken language. The corpora were the London-Lund Corpus of Spoken English and the Bergen Corpus of London Teenage English.

Overall, the researchers came up with five functions that a TQ can perform. Apart from being a question i.e. a linguistic strategy for seeking information, TQs can function as:

·       a statement
·       a statement-question blend
·       a response
·       a command or an offer (e.g. a TQ can negotiate a desired action)

The criteria used in the categorization procedures were the intonation on the tag (whether the last part of the TQ is pronounced with rising or falling intonation), the polarity of the tag (for example, in he`s fine, is he? there is constant polarity, as opposed to in he`s fine, isn`t he? where there is regular polarity, meaning that the tag is negative but the preceding clause is not). The authors also considered whether the TQ was the last item preceding a response (so-called turn-final TQ) or whether the same speaker continued his or her turn in the discussion after asking a TQ (so-called turn-medial TQ).

Surprisingly enough, only 20% of all occurrences were categorized as questions. The examples include (the TQs are underlined):

B:  he says the contraction makes it quite normal, but the other doesn’t
A:  you’re sure of that, are you?

Here you see all the typical ‘textbook’ features of questions: rising intonation, expectation of a response, lack of knowledge on the part of A. Interestingly, constant polarity is more frequent in questions than in any other function types of TQ.

What about the other function types? 21% of the data consisted of TQs that were statements not usually expecting a response. As a rule, these are turn-medial and uttered with falling intonation on the tag. For example:

A: er heˈs not gonna give it to you twice, though, is he? cos, I donˈt reckon he would give it to you twice 
B:  he donˈt, he donˈt give it to you twice

The most common function (44%) of the TQs was a statement-question blend; that is, the TQ states a specific proposition, but the speaker expects a response. 88% of this type of TQ did get a response, usually confirming the proposition. The speakers usually positioned themselves as more knowledgeable, hence the statement part. A typical example of a statement-question blend is:

B:  and he makes this hideous giggle, doesn’t he
A:  yes, he does

Finally, a tiny (3%), but peculiar part of the data contains TQs initiating an exchange where the speaker is demanding or offering a desired action, as in this example:

you know, Pat, don’t say that, will you?

These are usually pronounced with rising intonation on the tag, which indicates uncertainty and thus softens the request that the addressee complies with the command.

So although these forms are known as tag questions, question’ doesn’t seem the right word to use, does it?

Kimps, Ditte; Davidse, Kristin; and Cornillie Bert (2014) A speech function analysis of tag questions in British English spontaneous dialogue. Journal of Pragmatics 66: 64-85.

This summary was written by Marina Myntsykovska

Thursday, 4 December 2014

"Uh-huh. Mhm. Wow": How Backchannels influence the Story

Reproduced with permission:

When we hear someone telling a story or narrating an event, it is not uncommon to hear listeners responding with mhm, uh-huh, wow, oh, and the like. At face value, these words or short phrases may not seem to contribute to the conversation. Sure, they indicate attention and agreement, but how much do they actually influence the story being told? In a recent study on such responses, researchers Jackson Tolin and Jean E. Fox Tree argue that these backchannels, as they are called, actually do influence the narrative.

Tolin and Fox Tree obtained recordings of 30 conversations between undergraduate students. Conversations were 12 minutes in length and freely structured, but began with bad roommate experiences (because we all know complaints generate the best stories). Several relevant interactions were then extracted.

In their data, the authors distinguished between generic backchannels and specific backchannels. While both signal the attention of the listener, generic backchannels typically display comprehension and reception. Words like mhm and uh huh are considered generic backchannels: after using these, speakers often continued their story by providing new information. On the other hand, specific backchannels convey added information, showing the listeners' reaction to what was just said. Specific backchannels include oh my god, wow, and yeah. When a listener responded with a specific backchannel, the speaker was observed to then elaborate on whatever the listener was responding to.

The researchers then conducted an experiment using 20 short written dialogues from the data. These dialogues captured short narratives, but with an interesting twist—the parts after the backchannel were missing. Participants thus never knew what the storyteller said after the backchannel. The backchannels were also altered to be either generic or specific. Participants then guessed how the story would unfold by writing what they thought the storyteller would have said next.

Despite being unaware of the full original contexts of these recordings, the participants displayed some surprisingly consistent patterns. When a generic backchannel was presented, the participants were more likely to simply continue the story by presenting new information. To do so, they also used words such as well and so. However, when a specific backchannel was presented, participants were more likely to elaborate on the previous point in the story. They were also more likely to explicitly acknowledge the backchannel itself by saying things like yeah.

These differences show that participants actually perceive the backchannels to be important in determining their choice of what comes next. The backchannels therefore have a role in shaping the story telling. When you use a specific backchannel such as wow, you actually invite an elaboration, thereby steering the story, allowing the storyteller to add emphasis and elaboration. Accordingly, the type of backchannel gives a sense of predictability about what kind of information would follow it. This might make it easier for people to follow a particular conversation.

To conclude, backchannels are not simply passive, but do actively influence the outcome of =storytelling. For example, the researchers suggested that audiences who provide less specific backchannels could result in a storyteller telling a... well... boring story. So perhaps if you get bored by someone carrying on and on, you might like to try a specific backchannel every once in a while!

 Tolins, Jackson and Fox Tree, Jean E. (2014) Adressee backchannels steer narrative development. Journal of Pragmatics 70: 152-164.

This summary was written by Hum Chong Kai, Darren

Friday, 21 November 2014

Sensationalism unmasked: how to design newsworthy headlines

Have digital media made news headlines more sensational?

Once upon a time, when the press was the queen of the media, professional standards demanded news reports to be an accurate, objective and precise accounts of events. Since then, TV and digital media have stepped in, and the objectives of the media have been transformed. The competition for information has been replaced by the competition for attention. The larger audience base you have, the better, and the best way to gain an audience is to create a sensation –a report about an unusual, extraordinary incident – or to reveal a secret.

However the vast majority of news stories have little to do with our personal lives, so why should we spend time reading about a scandalous imprisonment of yet another maniac?   Katarzyna Molek-Kozakowska has analysed the special linguistic techniques used to grab the readers` attention, making a headline seem interesting and relevant and revealing some sort of a mystery.

Some topics are inherently more sensational than others, no doubt. Juicy gossip about Angelina Jolie`s special pyjamas is likely to attract a greater audience than a sombre report on bitter living conditions in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the main focus of Molek-Kozakowska`s research was on the linguistic packaging of news: not on what we report, but on how we report it in order to hook some extra readers. She picked a total of 120 headlines, subheadlines and lead-ins from the most read Daily Mail articles, and compiled a survey asking participants which of the headlines seemed the most sensational and what made them so. Later, the sensationalizing strategies were discussed in focus groups in more detail.

The research identified several features of sensationalism, pertaining solely to language use, not to the topic. Technique number one hinges on the narrative structure. Fairly sensational headlines are built in a peculiar way. The climax – the part of the story with the greatest suspense – goes first, followed by the complication – a technical term for bits of narrative that say what happened. The resolution, or the ‘how it all ended’ bit concludes the list. Beginning with the climax arouses  the reader’s curiosity and makes them want to find out more about this story. For example:

(1) [Humbling of MISTER Goodwin]: Four years [after the biggest banking disaster in    British history], [the man who caused it sees his knighthood shredded] (1 Feb. 2012)
[climax] [complication] [resolution]

The next way to make an attention grabbing headline is to use emotive and evaluative vocabulary, as well as strategies such as puns or idioms adapted from names of films. Consider the following:

(2) Elf and safety threat to blood donors: Nurses banned from tapping skin to raise veins (13 Jan. 2012)

(3) ‘Schettino’s a braggart, a show-off and drove the Costa Concordia like a Ferrari’, claims his former captain as ship slips even further into the sea (18 Jan. 2012)

The words in italics in (3) evoke mostly negative connotations – well, that`s because in the media negative items usually have a greater news value than positive. Hence the extensive use of negative emotive vocabulary.

In short, if you happen to be a budding journalist, it`s worth skimming through Molek-Kozakowska`s paper before writing your news item – maybe that will help you to turn a mundane report into a sensation!
Molek-Kozakowska, Katarzyna (2013) Towards a pragma-linguistic framework for the study of sensationalism in news headlines. Discourse & Communication 7(2) 173 –197.
doi. 10.1177/1750481312471668

This summary was written by Marina Myntsykovska