Style and genre in the English language
syllabus
Hilde Hasselgård
Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages
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Abstract of talk
The new English syllabus has an increased emphasis on
the learners’ ability to distinguish between formal and
informal language use and to adapt their own usage and
their texts to different genres and media. Through text
examples I will illustrate some linguistic features of
formal and informal English and personal and impersonal
style and relate these to genre.
Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages
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From the general “Objectives of the
subject”
To succeed in a world where English is used for international
interpersonal communication, it is necessary to master the English
language. Thus we need to develop our vocabulary and our skills in
using the systems of the English language; its phonology, grammar
and text structuring. We need these skills to listen, speak, read and
write, and to adapt our language to an ever increasing number of
topics, areas of interest and communication situations. We must be
able to distinguish between spoken and written styles and informal
and formal styles. Moreover, when using the language in
communication, we must also be able to take cultural norms and
conventions into consideration.
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Communication I
• The main area of communication focuses on using the English
language to communicate. Communication is achieved through
listening, reading, writing, prepared oral production and spontaneous
oral interaction, including the use of appropriate communication
strategies. It also includes participation in various social arenas, where
it is important to train to master an increasing number of genres and
forms of expression. Good communication requires knowledge and
skills in using vocabulary and idiomatic structures, pronunciation,
intonation, spelling, grammar and syntax of sentences and texts.
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Communication II
• New media and the development of a linguistic repertoire
across subjects and topics are an important part of this
main area. Knowing how to be polite and taking social
conventions into consideration in any number of linguistic
situations are also important skills to master. This goes
hand in hand with adapting the language to the recipient
and the situation, including distinguishing between formal
and informal, written and spoken registers.
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Programfag
• VG1, Internasjonal engelsk: ‘bevissthet om språklige virkemidler i
ulike sjangrer.’ ‘Tilpassing av språkbruk i ulike sosiale, kulturelle og
faglige situasjoner står sentralt i hovedområdet.’
• VG2, Samfunnsfaglig engelsk: ‘bruk av språklige virkemidler i ulike
typer tekster.’ ‘Tilpassing av språkbruk til ulike sosiale, kulturelle og
samfunnsfaglige sammenhenger inngår i hovedområdet.’
• VG2, Engelskspråklig litteratur og kultur: ‘bruk av språklige
virkemidler og stilistiske trekk i litterære tekster.’ ‘Tilpassing av
språkbruk til ulike sosiale og faglige situasjoner knyttet til litteratur og
kultur står sentralt i hovedområdet.’
Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages
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Some findings from learner language
research
Advanced Scandinavian learners of English tend to
• Write in a relatively informal style, irrespective of genre
–
–
–
–
–
Use of contracted forms
Informal sentence connectors (and, but, so, then)
Use of approximators (and so on, kind of)
Underuse of non-finite clauses
Incomplete sentences
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… they also tend to…
• Write in an involved, interactive style
– First and second person pronouns
– Questions and imperatives
– Explicit expression of personal opinions (subjective stance); I think, I
guess, I feel …
– “Conversational” discourse markers; well, you know …
• Mix styles – i.e. show a lack of style / genre awareness
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Some ‘conversational’ features in
Norwegian learner writing
Frequency per
10,000 words
NICLE
Native students Conversation
you
61.7
0.9
228.3
I/me
95.0
19.2
404.1
Well (discourse
marker)
1.8
0
40.7
You know
0.8
0
40.2
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The use of subjective stance markers of the type ‘I think’
(per 10,000 words)
40
35
30
25
20
15
10
5
0
NICLE
SWICLE
NS student writing
Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages
NS academic writing
NS conversation
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A text example from NICLE
Essay question:
Some people say that in our modern world, dominated by
science, technology and industrialisation, there is no
longer a place for dreaming and imagination. What is your
opinion?
Extract from the end of an essay on handout.
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Informal features
Things have changed. Having the girl, or boy, and a job isn't enough
anymore. We want more now, don't we? Instead of 'going steady' with
the love of our lives, we like to stay single and free agents, don't we?
Then we'll have more time to spend on ourselves and we don't have to
worry about the other person, children etc. Instead of faithfully
working at the same place for year after year it's better to change jobs
biennially, isn't it? Because if you stay in the same place for a long
time you'll lower your chances for self-realization, right?
I'm not meaning to be reactionary about anything. Actually, you
know, I'm not a reactionary kind of a (modern) man. But I honestly
think that we tend to accept this 'life in the fast lane' kind of
development without giving it any greater reflection.
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Interactive features
Things have changed. Having the girl, or boy, and a job isn't enough
anymore. We want more now, don't we? Instead of 'going steady' with
the love of our lives, we like to stay single and free agents, don't we?
Then we'll have more time to spend on ourselves and we don't have to
worry about the other person, children etc. Instead of faithfully
working at the same place for year after year it's better to change jobs
biennially, isn't it? Because if you stay in the same place for a long
time you'll lower your chances for self-realization, right?
I'm not meaning to be reactionary about anything. Actually, you
know, I'm not a reactionary kind of a (modern) man. But I honestly
think that we tend to accept this 'life in the fast lane' kind of
development without giving it any greater reflection.
Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages
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Mixing of styles
•
•
•
•
Formal features
Use of non-finite participle clauses
Noun phrases with generic reference: the average modern
man
Nominalization: self-realization, development, reflection,
impersonality, industrialization, commercialization …
Some formal vocabulary; biennially (‘bianually’), selfrealization, reactionary, reflection, opening remarks …
Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages
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A model for register analysis: Halliday’s
concepts of field, tenor and mode
• Field refers to ‘ the field of discourse’, what kind of social action is
actually happening, what the participants are engaged in.
• Tenor refers to ‘the tenor of the discourse’, who the participants are,
the roles they are adopting at any point, what their social relationships
are to each other.
• Mode refers to the ‘mode of discourse’, the kind of role the language
is playing, its function in the particular context, the channel used
(spoken or written or some combination of the two) and also ‘the
rhetorical mode’: ‘what is being achieved by the text in terms of such
categories as persuasive, expository, didactic and the like’.
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A simplified model: Questions to ask
before preparing a text
• What is the text going to be about?
• Who are we speaking/writing to?
–
–
–
–
How well do we know them?
How old are they?
Do they have the same social/professional status as ourselves?
Are they familiar with the topic?
• Is the discourse private or public?
• What is the purpose of the text? (Do we want to make social
contact, argue a case, sell something, apologize, describe
something, tell a story, issue a warning or something else?)
• Does the text need to fit into a particular format?
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What is genre (register)?
• Genres = different configurations of field, tenor and mode (Halliday)
• Registers are varieties of language that are associated with different
circumstances and purposes (Biber et al)
– Some variables: spoken/written, interactiveness and real-time production, shared
situation, main communicative purpose, audience)
• The context of language use, the purpose of the speaker or writer, the
subject matter of what is being said or written – these are some of the
other factors which influence the form language takes. (Chafe &
Danielewicz 1987: 84)
• (The term ‘genre’ is often used about ‘outward’ criteria, and register
for linguistic characteristics)
Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages
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Chafe & Danielewicz 1987: A study of four different
genres of English: conversations, lectures, letters,
academic papers
Some main findings re. vocabulary:
• Speakers tend to operate with a narrower range of lexical choices than
writers.
– Speakers also tend to use more approximators, such as sort of, kind of, like …
instead of looking for a more precise word. (lectures and conversations did not
differ much from each other, but both differed from writing.)
• Writing is typically more explicit than speech; full noun phrases rather
than pronouns
• Speakers and writers do not choose from the same supply of
vocabulary (i.e. colloquial vocabulary tends not to be chosen by
writers, while literary vocabulary tends not to be chosen in
spontaneous speech)
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Some findings re. grammar and syntax
• Written clauses tend to be longer than spoken clauses
• Information density is higher in writing than in speech
• Prepositional phrases as noun modifiers, nominalizations and
attributive adjectives are more frequent in writing.
– lectures and letters are rather similar as regards the frequency of these features,
while conversation has very little and academic papers very much of them.
• Conjoined phrases are more frequent in writing (she tried to help the
children focus and structure their discourse)
• Participles (as adjectives or as verb in non-finite clauses) are more
frequent in writing.
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More findings re. grammar and syntax
• Co-ordination (of main clauses) is more frequent in speech
(particularly conversation)
• Subordination (complex sentences) is more frequent in writing.
• Features of involvement and interaction belong to spoken –
particularly dialogic – genres (e.g. responses and you know, use of
first and second person pronouns).
• Abstract subjects and passive constructions were more frequent in the
two academic genres, less frequent in letters and conversation
(formality level independent of the speech/writing dimension)
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Conversation about cooking
Ann It's lovely Joyce it's really nice
Joyce Mm
Ann do it with mince meat and it's cheap and erm, but my, erm <..> chopped
onions, I can't, I'm allergic to mushrooms, it's nice with mushrooms in, if you
like mushrooms
Joyce Oh yeah
Ann erm chop my oni-- onio-- onions er onions up and erm, what do they call it?
<pause> It's sort of like cucumber
Joyce <-|-> Oh er <-|->
Ann <-|-> green stuff <-|-> not <unclear >
Alec courgettes
Ann Yeah, courgettes <-|-> do a little brown frying <-|->
Joyce <-|-> Yeah, yeah <-|-> yeah
Ann and then cut some bacon up, put that in saucepan just let it brown a bit
Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages
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Informal / interactive features
• Dialogue – turn-taking  response markers (mm, yeah)
• Repetition (of own and other’s words), pauses, incomplete
structures
• Approximators (sort of like), metatextual comments (what
do they call it), vague expressions (green stuff)
• Short (main) clauses, co-ordination
• Active voice
Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages
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Academic text about cooking
No doubt this perception – of cooking's creative potential – is also
influenced by advertising and by the attention devoted to cooking in
women's magazines and similar literature. The object of the exercise
as presented in such channels of communication is not how to get the
most nutritious meals prepared in the shortest possible time but rather
how to go beyond the usual range of meals with time-consuming
inventiveness and culinary skill. The aim is not simple efficiency.
Instead it is an elaboration of the task, designed to subtract it from the
category of "work" and add it to the creative pleasure dimension. This
treatment of cooking, reflected in the comments of these housewives,
is a particularly clear demonstration of how the social denial of
housework as work operates.
Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages
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Formal features
• Examples of formal vocabulary: perception, creative potential,
similar, nutritious, inventiveness, culinary, elaboration, social denial.
• Formal grammar: non-finite clauses (devoted to …, as presented in …,
designed to subtract …, reflected in …); long and complex noun
phrases (cooking’s creative potential, a particularly clear
demonstration of how the social denial of housework as work
operates …); no contracted forms; nouns that are formed from verbs
or adjectives (perception, inventiveness, efficiency, elaboration,
treatment, demonstration, denial), conjoined phrases (e.g. timeconsuming inventiveness and culinary skill).
• No signs of interaction with addressee.
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Notes about style and register
• Since Norwegian learners normally master informal registers of
English better than formal ones, they should be aware that a more
formal style is often required, e.g. in academic essays, reports, and
texts that are intended for publication.
• Correct spelling and grammar are important in more formal registers.
• A varied and precise vocabulary is (even) more important in formal
(written) English than in informal (spoken) English.
• Formal written English has few interactive features.
• Some registers of spoken English are formal. When speaking
formally, e.g. in formal presentations, public speeches / debates or job
interviews, one should avoid slang and swearwords and excessive use
of other informal phrases, such as you know, I mean and you see.
Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages
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Examples of exercises to train style and
genre awareness
• Go through a text that is typical of a genre and identify
some stylistic features (e.g. look at pronoun use, use of
passive, use of non-finite clauses, use of questions,
literary/informal vocabulary). Use those features to write
parallel texts (‘pastiches’)
• Rewrite a text in different style.
• Let pupils/groups write texts in different genres on the
same topic. (Example: picture of a dramatic event, e.g. car
crash: write short newspaper notice, postcard, insurance
claim, eyewitness report, story to tell in pub, propaganda
for road safety)
Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages
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Last but not least…
• It is impossible to teach all individual genres
• It should be possible to master a number of genres by
being aware of features of informal and formal language
use and coupling them with the purpose of and the
audience for the text.
THE END
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Some books/articles that include notes on
style and genre/register
Biber, Douglas, Susan Conrad, Geoffrey Leech. 2002. Longman Student
Grammar of Spoken and Written English. London: Longman.
Magne Dypedahl, Hilde Hasselgård and Berit Løken. 2006. Introducing
English Grammar. Bergen: Fagbokforlaget.
Hillier, Hilary. 2004. Analysing Real Texts: Research Studies in Modern
English Language. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Chafe, Wallace, Jane Danielewicz. 1987. Properties of spoken and written
language. In Horowitz, R. and S.J. Samuels, Comprehending Oral and
Written Language. San Diego: Academic Press, 83–113.
Hasselgård, Hilde. Thematic choice and expressions of stance in English
argumentative texts by Norwegian learners. To appear in K. Aijmer, Corpora
and Language Teaching (Amsterdam: Benjamins)
Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages
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Style and genre in the English language syllabus