LINGUIST List 14.256

Thu Jan 23 2003

Review: Corpus Linguistics: Modified Issue #14.174

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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: Thu, 23 Jan 2003 10:24:25 +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).

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. She 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. I will sum up her findings, ordered by
statistical significance, either increases, decreases or continuity,
and order them by communicative-functional clusters; I will add in
brackets terminological and other changes Westin makes in chapter
nine: (A) STATISTICAL INCREAESES - Information Density, i.e. Nouns,
Attribute. Adject. (incl. Noun Phrases, NPs), Present participle
clause WHIZ deletion (NPs), Word length, Type/token ratio -
Information Density, i.e. Nominalization (reclassified from Explicit
Reference) - Information Density, i.e. Infinitives (reclassified from
Argumentative Discourse) - Informal Discourse, all reclassified from
Personal Involvement, i.e. Present tense verbs, Not-negation,
Questions, Imperatives, Contractions (B) STATISTICAL DECREAESES -
Abstract Discourse, i.e. Agentless passives - Explicit Reference,
i.e. who/which, Pied piping - Information Density, i.e. Prepositions
(and Prep.'al Phrases) (NPs) - Sentence Complexity, all reclassified
from Information Density, i.e. Sentence length, Subordination -
Narrative Discourse, i.e. Past tense verbs, No-negation -
Vagueness/uncertainty, all reclassified from Personal Involvement,
i.e. Adverbial amplifiers, Private Verbs, First person pronouns,
Pronoun it. (C) CONTINUITY - Abstract Discourse, i.e. 'Detached'
present paticiple clauses, Past participle WHIZ deletion, Conjuncts,
By-passives - Argumentative Discourse, reclassified from Abstract
Discourse, i.e. 'Subordinators' with mutliple functions -
Argumentative Discourse, i.e. Conditional subordination, Suasive
verbs, 'Predictive' modals, 'Necessity' modals - Explicit Rerference,
i.e. Relative that, Causative subordination - Narrative Discourse,
i.e. 'Detached' past participle clauses, Perfect aspect verbs, Public
verbs, Third person pronouns - Vagueness/uncertainty, reclassified
from Personal Involvement, i.e. Demonstative pronouns, Possibility
modals, Indefinite pronouns, General hedges - Informal Discourse,
reclassified from Personal Involvement, i.e. Second person pronouns,
Discourse particles, General emphatics Table 1: Features ordered by
significance (and communicative-functional domains) This summary 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 complexity 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 can be summed up in these terms. The
three papers differ regarding the way they exploit features that are
allocated to either Informal Discourse, Information Density,
Vagueness, Narrative Discourse and Argumentative Discourse. For
instance, ''The Times'' stands out for its minor use of present tense,
questions, and contractions (ID), while the ''Daily Telegraph'' does
use present tense and question, though it has few contractions. ''The
Guardian'', finally, use all three features. ''The Guardian'',
incidentally, also turns out to be most 'argumentative' in that it has
statistically more predictive modals, conditional and causative
subordination, but few conjuncts. The other papers use of mix of
these features, but are less argumentative. More interestingly still
is the finding that ''The Guardian'' is also more 'narrative' in terms
of 1st person pronoun use and past tense, and it is
'vaguer' having more it and demonstrative pronouns. Westin
summarizes her 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 conclusion 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. In particular, it is
peculiar that ''The Guardian'' should be both most argumentative and
narrative. Has there been a style shift? It is interesting to add 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


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

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; 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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