LINGUIST List 14.174

Fri Jan 17 2003

Review: Corpus Linguistics: Westin (2002)

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  1. Gerhard Leitner, Westin (2002), Language Change in English Newspaper Editorials

Message 1: Westin (2002), Language Change in English Newspaper Editorials

Date: Fri, 17 Jan 2003 14:10:56 +0000
From: Gerhard Leitner <>
Subject: Westin (2002), Language Change in English Newspaper Editorials

Westin, Ingrid, 2002. Language change in English newspaper
editorial. Amsterdam: Rodopi. xvi+202 pp. ISBN 90-420-0863-6 (bound).
EUR 50 / US$ 50

Book Announcement on Linguist:

Gerhard Leitner, Institut fuer Englische Philologie, 
Freie Universitaet Berlin

''An editorial, in British journalism also referred to as a 'leading
article or 'leader''', Westin says, ''is a newspaper article
expressing the opinion of the editor or publisher of the newspaper on
some topical issue. A distinction is often made between personal
editorials, which are by-lined with the writer's name, and
institutional editorials, which are not.'' (p 7). Editorials thus are
important parts of the dailies and have, obviously, been at the centre
of interest in mass communications, text and discourse linguistics
(e.g. Dijk 1998), in so-called Critical Discourse Analysis (Fairclough
1995), and, more recently, corpus linguistics. A historical analysis
has not yet been published and Westin is, therefore, a first. She
expects to find ''a drift towards more informal styles ... during the
period studied'' (p 1). Such a drift has been identified in many
studies on English worldwide and it would be interesting to see if,
when and how it manifested itself in editorials. She also believes
that ''[T]he editorials [also] appear to have lost some narrative
touch they had at the beginning of the century in favour of a style
that is more matter-of-fact.'' (p 1). That would also be an
interesting finding, if confirmed. If editorials became less
narrative ''whatever that means'' reports clearly have
become more so. So, one would notice an increasing cleavage between
not unrelated print media text types. Her study divides into ten
chapters. Westin begins with goals, expectations and a brief review of
past research (chapter one) and ends with a summary that argues that
the language of editorials is an agent in language change in general
(chapter ten). A review of the shortcomings of available computer
corpora, of methods used in the compilation of the ''Corpus of English
Newspaper Editorials'' (CENE), and of analytical techniques is in
chapter two. The remaining chapters fall into two parts. Chapters
three to eight cover the details of her investigation, chapter nine
re-integrates what was separated for analytical purposes and aims at a
comprehensive account of the language of editorials. There is a
sizeable bibliography and an appendix with all relevant statistical
details. An index is missing. Westin looks at the language of
editorials over almost the entire 20th century, hoping to identify
change and continuity in what she calls up-market British newspapers
editorials. The Times, The Guradian and The Daily Telegraph clearly
fit that definition of 'up-market' and, moreover, appeared at and
before the period she studies, which makes them truly
comparable. Dividing the period into decades and using the principle
of the 'constructed week', which means that a Monday is taken for
January, a Tuesday in February, etc., she assembled a corpus of 864
editorials and a total of nearly 600,000 words. The data were tagged
for automatic searches, which did not eliminate the need for manual
editing. The quantities were normalized to 1,000 words each to
eliminate imbalances in the corpus and then processed for decades, for
all papers, for each one and submitted to validity and variance tests
to permit valid inferences. The major linguistic background is Biber
(1988) and Biber's and Finegan's other diachronic genre analyses. She
selects 42 of Biber's features and uses his communicative-functional
clusters, i.e. - Personal Involvement (PI), 17 features (chapter
three) - Information Density (ID), 8 features (chapter four) -
Narrative Discourse (ND), 6 features (chapter five) - Argumentative
Discourse (AD), 5 features (chapter six) - Abstract Discourse (AbD), 6
features (chapter seven) - Explicit Reference (ED), 4 features
(chapter eight) She added imperatives and questions and sentence
length and subordination as expressions of PI and ID, respectively,
and re-constituted the communicative clusters to some extent when she
turns to an integrated analysis (chapter nine). Her analyses are
detailed, with brief introductory sections, examples, normalized
frequencies, validity data, tables and diagrams that mirror
developments over 90 years (for each paper and the total) and comments
that aim to provide reasons for change or continuity or else to argue
other relevant matter. Table 1 sums up her findings, ordered by
statistical significance ''by increase, decrease and
continuity'' and communicative-functional clusters; it also
includes the terminological and other changes she made in chapter
nine: 01 Infinitives S+ Argumentative Discourse, reclassified as
Infor. Density 02 Nouns S+ Information Density 03
Attribute. Adject. (incl. Noun Phrases, NPs) S+ Information Density 04
Present participle clause WHIZ deletion (NPs) S+ Information Density
05 Word length S+ Information Density 06 Type/token ratio S+
Information Density 07 Nominalization S+ Explicit Reference,
reclassified as Information Density 08 Present tense verbs S+ Personal
Involvement, reclassified as Informal Discourse 09 Not-negation S+
Personal Involvement, reclassified as Informal Discourse 10 Questions
S+ Personal Involvement, reclassified as Informal Discourse 11
Imperatives S+ Personal Involvement, reclassified as Informal
Discourse 12 Contractions S+ Personal Involvement, reclassified as
Informal Discourse 13 Agentless passives S- Abstract Discourse 14
Who/which S- Explicit Reference 15 Pied piping S- Explicit Reference
16 Prepositions (and Prep.'al Phrases) (NPs) S- Information Density 17
Sentence length S- Information Density, reclassified as Sentence
Complexity 18 Subordination S- Information Density, reclassified as
Sentence Complexity 19 Past tense verbs S- Narrative Discourse 20
No-negation S- Narrative Discourse 21 Adverbial amplifiers S- Personal
Involvement, reclass. as Vagueness/uncertainty 22 Private Verbs S-
Personal Involvement, reclass. as Vagueness/uncertainty 23 First
person pronouns S- Personal Involvement, reclass. as
Vagueness/uncertainty 24 Pronoun it S- Personal Involvement,
reclass. as Vagueness/uncertainty 25 'Detached' present paticiple
clauses = Abstract Discourse 26 Past participle WHIZ deletion =
Abstract Discourse 27 Conjuncts = Abstract Discourse 28
'Subordinators' with mutliple functions = Abstract Discourse,
reclass. as Argumentative Discourse 29 By-passives = Abstract
Discourse 30 Conditional subordination = Argumentative Discourse 31
Suasive verbs = Argumentative Discourse 32 'Predictive' modals =
Argumentative Discourse 33 'Necessity' modals = Argumentative
Discourse 34 Relative that = Explicit Rerference 35 'Detached' past
participle clauses = Narrative Discourse 36 Perfect aspect verbs =
Narrative Discourse 37 Public verbs = Narrative Discourse 38 Third
person pronouns = Narrative Discourse 39 Demonstative pronouns =
Personal Involvement, reclass. as Vagueness/uncertainty 40 Possibility
modals = Personal Involvement, reclass. as Vagueness/uncertainty 41
Second person pronouncs = Personal Involvement, reclassified as
Informal Discourse 42 Indefinite pronouns = Personal Involvement,
reclass. as Vagueness/uncertainty 43 Causative subordination =
Personal Involvement, reclass. as Argumentative Discourse 44 Discourse
particles = Personal Involvement, reclassified as Informal Discourse
45 General emphatics = Personal Involvement, reclassified as Informal
Discourse 46 General hedges = Personal Involvement, reclassified as
Vagueness/uncertainty Table 1: Features ordered by significance (and
communicative-functional domains) This table is based on data on all
papers, though there are statistically valid patterns for some papers
and/or periods. With nearly half the feature not changing at all,
there is, obviously, a high degree of continuity, which, she says, is
often ''linked with sets of features that have either increased or
decreased in use'' (p 149). Continuity thus masks change
elsewhere. Clearly, Information Density (ID) and Personal Involvement
(PI) (5 features) are increasing in use. Two other features increase,
one from Argumentative Discourse, the other from Explicit Reference,
but both are reclassified as ID (see fourth column). As she replaces
the term PI by that of Informal Discourse (for features 08 to 12), she
can convincingly argue that ''[C]onsequently, two conflicting
linguistic paradigms are at work in the editorials: the aspiration for
informality and the aspiration for information density and [a new
term, GL] lexical specificity, the former probably the result of an
adjustment to a new broader reading public, and the latter the result
of an adjustment to the special 'house styles' that developed over the
years.'' (p 164) That is well put, except that it remain unclear about
the goals of house styles. Why should media write manuals that lead to
odd results? One might think of such terms as addressee-orientedness
and message-orientedness ''a term that would refer to
professional jargon (Leitner 1980)'' and argue that both have
been increasing. They lead to an unresolved conflict that is
particularly acute in the structure on Noun Phrases, see features 04,
05 and 16 (chapter 4.3), where she notes a move from post-modification
to premodification (cf. also Bell 1991). But she now has a problem
with sentence length and sub-ordination, which had been treated as ID
on the understanding that ID means 'high' density of information. But
the drift to shorter sentences and less subordination creates less
density and she feels compelled to separate the two out into a novel
category, Sentence Complexity, which remains unexplained and which
does not get rid of the conceptual problem either. As sentence co!
mplexity is decreasing, does that not signal a higher level of
addressee-orientation, of informality? That would suggest that the
notion of Personal Involvement would have to be reconsidered, which
she does (see table 1, column 4). Her solutions, e.g. to reclassify
demonstrative pronouns to Vagueness, do not appear convincing, though
most of the other changes do. One could add comments here and there
on findings that corroborate the trend she argued for. I will only add
one further remark. She finds a shift towards informality for a number
of features to occur during and after World War II, which may reflect
an AmE influence earlier than is often assumed. I will proceed to an
evaluation of what she says about differences between the three papers
studied, which, while up-market, do not target the same
readerships. She does find many differences between the papers, but
most of them do not built up to statistically significant ones, she
says (p 158). The ones that do are summed up in Table 2 (cf. chapter
Informal Discourse ('PI')	Information Density 	Vagueness	
Narrative Discourse	Argumentative Discourse Times	
- present tense
- questions
- contractions	+ attrib.adj., nomin., PP
- type/token
- subordination	- it
- dem. pron.	- 1st p. pron.
0 past tense	0 predict. mod.
- condit. subord
- causat. sub.
+ conjuncts
Daily Telegraph	+ present tense
+ questions
- contractions	0 attrib.adj., nomin., PP
+ type/token
+ subordination	- it
+ dem. pron.	+ 1st p. pron.
- past tense	- predict. mod.
- condit. subord.
- causat. sub.
+ conjuncts
Guardian	+ present tense
+ questions
+ contractions	- attrib.adj., nomin., PP
0 type/token
0 subordination	+ it
+ dem. pron.	+ 1st p. pron.
+ past tense	+ predict. mod.
+ condit subord.
+ causat. sub.
- conjuncts

Table 2: Generalizations of communicative clusters by papers (+ means
'increase', - means 'decrease', 0 means 'no change') (see chapter 9.4)

She summarizes these findings in this way: ''When the features were
compared across the newspapers analyzed, a clear distinction was
noticed between The Times and the Guardian. The language of the
Guardian is the most informal and the most narrative while that of The
Times is the least so. The information density is the highest in The
Times, and the lowest in the Guardian. In these respects the Daily
Telegraph this takes an intermediate position. The editorials in the
Guardian are the most argumentative.'' (p 161) That may well correlate
with the social profiles of the papers' readerships, but would still
have to be argued in detail for now and the past. It is therefore
interesting to add the other generalization, i.e. that the three
papers do treat editorials as a fairly homogeneous type of text. A
few closing remarks. Biber's diachronic genre analysis is the
undisputed basis of her study, though Westin would have done well to
be more critical of it. For instance, she maintains that the simple
present is a reflection of PI or of Informality, that it serves to
refer to what she calls 'topical issues' ''the focal themes of
editorials (see definition quoted above). Issues may be topical for a
variety of reasons. ''September 11'' is a long time past and yet is
clearly 'topical'. Do we have to expect the simple present? Linguists
are generally agreed that the simple present has little to do with
present time, some argue it is not even a tense, but an aspectual
marker. Does it show PI, then? Certainly not. If anything does, it is
the present progressive, which she lumps together with the simple
present but should have been separated out. (Moreover, though she
refers to the different uses of the simple present, she ignores that
''for pragmatic, but indefensible reasons'' in her analysis.)
Westin's study is a sound contribution to historical genre analysis
with many interesting facets. In relation to methods used and data
analysis there is nothing that causes serious criticisms. What does is
a certain amount of mechanical reproduction of a model on new data and
unexplained changes that are made in the course of re-integration and
interpretation. Another aspect is the fact that she has nothing to say
in relation to other approaches to editorials'' recall Critical
Discourse Analysis, text linguistics and studies of ideology and
opinion formation. Also, does corpus linguistics have anything to
offer to such other research paradigms? Westin may have felt that to
be beyond the intents of a doctoral dissertation but, at least, the
reviewer can raise that question. 


Bell, Allan (1991) The language of news media. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 

Biber, Douglas (1988) Variation across speech and writing. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Dijk, Teun A. van (1998) Opinions and ideologies in the press, in:
Allan Bell, Peter Garrett, eds, Media discourse. Oxford:
Blackwell. 21-63.

Fairclough, Norman (1995) Critical discourse analysis: the critical
study of language. London: Longman.

Leitner, Gerhard (1980) BBC English and Deutsche Rundfunksprache. A
comparative and historical analysis of the language on the radio'',
International Journal of the Sociology of Language 26, 76-100.


Gerhard Leitner's research interests and publications come from the
fields of the sociolinguistics of mass media, varieties of English
worldwide, Australia's language ecology and corpus linguistics. He is
the editor of GASt Newsletter, the newsletter of the (German)
Association of Australian Studies (ISSN 1617-9900), co-editor, with
Brian Taylor and Clemens Fritz, of Language in Australia and New
Zealand. A bibliography from 1788 to 2001, CD-ROM. Berlin: Mouton de
Gruyter (forthcoming: autumn 2003).
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