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Review of  Allusions in the Press

Reviewer: Jan Chovanec
Book Title: Allusions in the Press
Book Author: Paul Lennon
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 16.97

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Date: Wed, 5 Jan 2005 19:19:32 +0100 (CET)
From: Jan Chovanec
Subject: Allusions in the Press: An Applied Linguistic Study

AUTHOR: Lennon, Paul
TITLE: Allusions in the Press
SUBTITLE: An Applied Linguistic Study
PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter
YEAR: 2004

Jan Chovanec, Masaryk University, Brno


Allusions in the Press is an applied linguistic study of the form,
function and usage of echoic allusions carried out on a corpus of non-
literary texts - British newspapers. The defining characteristic of
allusion is the existence of an 'echo' between one unit of language in
praesentia (the alluding unit) and another unit in absentia (the target).
We are thus dealing with a device which has a primary reference to the
present text and a secondary reference to an absent text. Owing to this
property, allusion yields a double meaning: "a primary, textual meaning in
accord with the context and co-text of the manifest text, and a secondary
associational meaning, suggested by the remembered context and co-text of
the source text" (p. 5). As such, it is a cover term for a number of
language-use phenomena which cannot be described solely with regard to
their form. They must also be described with respect to their pragmatic
and functional characteristics.

The author's primary aim is to argue that allusion is "a far more central
ingredient of linguistic activity in the written mode (...) and that the
ability to recognise, process and understand allusion is an important part
of reader competence" (p. 6). Allusion, in his view, is not to be treated
as a literary device, but a fact of everyday linguistic life on quite
mundane levels.

In Chapter 2, allusion is placed within numerous theories of indirect
language comprehension. It begins with the identification of meaning as
deriving, within the framework of functional and structural linguistics,
from the differences within sets of linguistic items rather than being
located within the linguistic items themselves. Texts are thus seen to
contain pragmatic presuppositions which exist at the paradigmatic level,
i.e. in absentia (p. 24). In cognitive terms, they refer to shared
background knowledge - schemata, frames and scripts - which are activated
and accessed by means of inferencing. The extent of 'common ground'
differs in various cultural communities. Such background knowledge also
includes intertextuality - the knowledge of other texts, crucial for the
theory of allusion.

In pragmatic terms, indirectness is discussed with reference to Gricean
principles and the theory of conversational implicature. However, such
a 'Standard Pragmatic Model', which considers figurative language as an
instance of flouting the Co-operative principle, is reinterpreted in terms
of Sperber and Wilson's (1995) relevance principle: in the case of
ambiguous, formulaic and nonce language, "the context is used to infer the
propositional meaning from the start" (p. 38). Indirectness, of which
allusion as purposive ambiguity (p. 39) is an instance, is seen as the
norm rather than the exception in many situations.

Allusion is also considered in relation to other instances of indirect
language - irony, metaphor, idioms and innuendo. Thus irony, among others,
is described as a form of 'allusional pretence', metaphor is seen in terms
of 'properties of attribution' which are alluded to, idioms are
interpreted as allusive when not reported verbatim but with a degree of
productive variation, and innuendo is understood as still another example
when contextual knowledge is alluded to and drawn on. The theoretical
discussion is concluded by considering the role of consciousness in
understanding allusions and the construction-integration model. It is
argued that this framework of cognitive linguistics is well suited to the
understanding of the processing of figurative language.

Chapter 3 provides an overview of previous work on allusion, concentrating
on linguistically-oriented descriptions. It notes that allusions and
quotations can be perceived in terms of a scale of lexicalization, which
has a subjective nature - Lennon emphasizes that "what is allusive for one
reader may be merely a commonplace metaphorical idiom for another" (p.
67). Existing studies of allusion in the press are assessed and the
discussion goes on to consider the placement of allusion among other
common foregrounding techniques, such as allusive punning and allusive

The analysis of allusions in the corpus assembled by the author is carried
out in Chapters 4 and 5. Six analytical categories are identified
according to the character of the target unit: quotation, title, proverb,
formulaic text, name, and set phrase. The analysis compares and contrasts
the use of allusion with respect to these six categories in broadsheets
and tabloids and in the individual papers. It proceeds to consider the
frequency distributions across newspaper sections, providing a complex
cross-comparison between the particular variables. The analysis of the
sources of allusions reveals the degree to which allusions are culture-
based and how much they draw on the presupposed shared background
knowledge of the target audience: the sources are taken not only from the
area of 'high' culture (Shakespeare - 21%, the Bible - 20%, other
literature - 20%) but also from the field of 'low' or 'popular' culture
(the allusive recycling of words from advertising slogans and pop songs
etc.) The findings show that although the broadsheets tend to prefer
literary allusions and the 'tabloids' look to the popular culture for
target texts of allusions, there is no simple dichotomy between the two
traditional types of papers. As the data about the frequency of allusion
also show, we should rather think of the particular broadsheets and
tabloids as arranged on scales which may, with respect to various
linguistic phenomena, be partially overlapping.

Chapter 5 is devoted to the alluding and target units. First, the
syntactic status of the alluding unit is discussed (with the finding that
the noun phrase is the most frequent). Second, the complex nature of the
relationship between the alluding and target units is explored. The focus
is on surface identity, morpho-grammatical adaptation, lexical
substitution (on a slot-and-filler basis), expansion, and deletion. The
author concludes that the high correspondences of a lexico-grammatical
nature can be explained with reference to "language users' internalized
competence and ... the shared knowledge of writer and reader" (p. 181).
Finally, attention is paid to allusions contained (embedded) within
reported discourse. It is noted that writers frequently manipulate the
status of an allusion, which is particularly the case in tabloids where
pseudo-quotes are frequent.

In Chapter 6, the author develops a model of the process whereby allusions
are recognised and understood by readers. The author proposes a multi-
stage processing model of allusion which is based on two compulsory stages
(recognition and inferencing) and one optional stage (appreciation of the
writer as alluder). The reader's recognition may be aided by graphological
marking or stylistic differences of lexis, grammar and spelling of the
alluding unit.

The book concludes with a chapter on the functions of allusions.
Altogether fifteen functions are identified and classified into five
functional domains: intratextual, inter(con)textual, metatextual,
processing, and interpersonal-affective. The section is supplemented by
examples of allusion from yet another perspective: the mutual relationship
between foregrounding and implicature present in the alluding units.


Lennon's book is a particularly valuable contribution to the study of news
discourse, offering a fresh view from a multi-disciplinary perspective. In
choosing his materials, the author makes the valid point that computerized
searches of a corpus are problematic mainly with regard to the
identification of instances of modified allusion and chance resemblance
which are disambiguated by the context and the surrounding co-text. A
personal analysis, though necessarily subjective and imperfect, is thus
preferred, as its benefits (such as the analyst's awareness of socio-
cultural and historical context) outweigh the problems connected with
computerized searches (a closed set of targets, the choice of targets, the
modifications of targets, the impossibility to assess co-text and context,

The monograph skillfully combines the approaches of literary stylistics,
pragmatics and cognitive linguistics. One will thus be forced to consider
allusion with reference to such concepts as foregrounding (originating in
the functionalist tradition of the Prague School - Mukarovský 1983[1932]
and successfully applied in the study of media discourse by e.g. Fowler
1991), relevance (developed by Sperber and Wilson 1995 and applied to the
study of news headlines by Dor 2003, for example), implicature,
inferencing, and shared knowledge. More generally, the study of allusion
is also seen within the framework of existing theories of indirect
language and treated alongside metaphors, idioms and word play.

The theoretical part is impressively well founded. The analysis is
likewise thorough with the author paying meticulous attention to cross-
comparisons not only between the individual papers themselves (as is
common practice in news discourse analysis, cf. Fowler 1991), but also
between different sections of one and the same paper (because the location
at which a particular form occurs in a newspaper has a direct relevance
for its validity, cf. Jucker 1992). Moreover, the author takes into
account the additional complication of the occurrence of allusions in
reported discourse - such embedded forms have to be treated differently
from the surrounding co-text because they are attributable to another
voice (real or fictitious).

The analysis combines a minute analysis of linguistic forms on all levels
(phonological, morphological, lexical, as well as syntactic) with an
elaborate functional analysis. The author emphasises that allusion is
multi-functional. To paraphrase his findings in terms of Halliday's (1978)
functions, allusion can be seen as operating on all three levels:
ideational, interpersonal and textual. Ideationally, it communicates
meaning (which sometimes may not be communicated directly, e.g. for
political reasons). Interpersonally, allusion depends on the co-
construction of this meaning by the reader, relying on his or her
recognition of the allusion which triggers the process of inferencing and
drawing parallels between the alluding text in praesentia and the alluded
text in absentia. Textually, such a process is based on an intertextual
comparison and the drawing on background and shared cultural knowledge.
The interactive aspect of allusion is also indicated by the possibility of
a bond between writer and reader being created (sometimes evoking what the
author calls a groan response on the part of the reader after recognising
and appreciating an allusion), and may have a strong aesthetic function
(cf. Jacobson 1990).

Last but not least, the theoretical issues discussed in the book are
supplemented with a wealth of well-chosen examples which are explained in
full detail with reference to their context and the target texts. As a
result, the book makes for fascinating reading and those interested in
this area will certainly want to come back to it. The only slight drawback
is the absence of an index to help locate the many issues (puns, word
play, morphological adaptation, blends, non-words, etc.) which, as a
result of the author's complex cross-analysis, appear in different
sections throughout the book.


Dor, Daniel (2003) 'On newspaper headlines as relevance optimizers'.
Journal of Pragmatics 35: 695-721.

Fowler, Roger (1991) Language in the News. Discourse and Ideology in the
Press. London and New York: Routledge.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1978) Language as a Social Semiotic: The Social
Interpretation of Language and Meaning. London: Edward Arnold.

Jacobson, Roman (1960) 'Closing statement: linguistics and poetics' in
Sebeok, Thomas A. (ed.) Style in Language. Cambridge, Mass: the MIT Press,
Jucker, Andreas (1992) Social Stylistics: Syntactic Variation in British
Newspapers, Walter de Gruyer.

Mukarovský, Jan (1983[1932]) Standard Language and Poetic Language. In:
Vachek, Josef and Libuše Dušková (eds.) Praguiana. Amsterdam: John
Benjamins Publishing Company, 165-185.

Sperber, Dan and Deirdre Wilson (1995) Relevance: Communication and
Cognition. 2nd ed. Oxford UK / Cambridge USA: Blackwell.


Jan Chovanec teaches linguistics at Masaryk University's Department of
English and American Studies in Brno in the Czech Republic. He completed
his Ph.D. thesis on the description of the case of the British nanny
Louise Woodward as reported in the British press, with a focus on the
manifestation of the interpersonal function. His primary research interest
concerns the language of print media (cohesion analysis, naming analysis,
language play in tabloids, involvement phenomena in the press).