Pronouns, academic blogging and making a stance

So this is going to be a blog post about pronouns.

Which is one of those opening sentences that is quite likely to send people running for the hills for at least two different reasons.

Anyone still here? OK, good. Yes, well, it’s going to be about pronouns, but not immediately. It’s also probably not going to be about pronouns in the way you think it is going to be about either.

Bear with me.

A while back I got invited to give a talk about academic blogging. I’m not an academic, of course, but I am a blogger and there is crossover. Online, communication, yeah? Plus, you cannot be an English teacher and teacher trainer for *cough splutter* years and not have dabbled in trying to improve people’s academic English at some point.

It was an interesting rabbit hole to go down, the difference between writing an academic paper for a journal and writing an academic blog post, and resulted in this summary for the Moscow HSE Academic Writing Centre’s blog. Which I think contains some quite useful food for thought if you are contemplating starting an academic blog, or even a professional one. Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I? I wrote it.

But while I was looking into this topic, I came across some discourse analysis research directly comparing the genre of academic blogging with that of academic journal articles. So I’m going to tell you about some of it. Pronouns come into it, I promise.

Ken Hyland has apparently made his name as a leading researcher mapping the academic writing genre*. In the papers I came across**, he’d teamed up with Hang Zou (or possibly she’d teamed up with him, as she seems to be the lead author here) and they’d decided to contrast all this with academic blogging in places such as the LSE’s collective Impact blog, chosen because a) they are some of the bigger group academic blogs out there b) a reasonable number of the posts are, in fact, scholars setting out to turn academic journal articles into blog posts. Direct comparison of the same writer working in the two genres was therefore possible, and a reasonably wide pool of different writers could be included.***

What they were looking at specifically were discourse features relating to engagement with the reader, and stance. Which is a discourse analysis way of saying how you, as a writer or a speaker, show your attitude towards the statements you are making. Do you believe in them? How strongly? And so on and so forth.

There were a number of differences they found.**** I’m going to talk about two of them.

Firstly, hedging.

This is when you soften what you say, making it less direct and more palatable. So, not ‘you are an idiot!’ but ‘that was not, perhaps, the most optimal decision in the circumstances’.

Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay

You can also use hedging to reduce the assertiveness of your claims. Now, go on, which genre has the bolder approach, do you think? An academic research paper or a blog post?

If you said blog post, you would be wrong. Academics writing blog posts hedged more, not less, when stating their conclusions than they did when they wrote their papers.

Which surprised me a bit, if I am honest.

The suggestion was that blogging and online communication in general has the reputation for attracting trolls, or at least people willing to push back in a fairly aggressive manner against your pronouncements. And this perception has an effect on the way bloggers write. Mmmmmmmmmm.

On the other hand, the blog posts were a little bit heavier handed in using what Zou and Hyland called boosters, especially to make it a bit clearer what the significant findings were. Words, in fact, like ‘significant’ came up more. Signaling a slight lack of trust in your average blog reader to get the point without a bit of extra help, compared to your average academic journal reader. Hmmmmmmmmm.

So far so mildly interesting. What I found really fascinating, though was the bit about reader engagement, and the ways blog posts referred to readers.

The fact that bloggers are more likley to refer to their readers was not particularly surprising, of course. I mean, if there is one thing that characterises a blog post, I would say it is that a blog aims (or should aim) to give the impression that the writer is talking directly to the one person (in all likelihood) actually bothering to read their post.

But Zou and Hyland also compared different fields to see if their language differed. They chose softer sciences –in this case, education and linguistics – and pitted them against harder sciences, which were biology and physics.

And what they discovered is that the former tended to use more ‘you’s, and the latter, more ‘we’s.

Yes, we have reached the pronouns I was talking about. Only took 750 words. Well done for sticking with it.

What Zou and Hyland concluded here was that this reflected who the blogs were written for, or rather, who the researcher imagined their typical reader might be.

Basically, either correctly or incorrectly, writers of the harder science blog posts are probably assuming a reader who is joining them with a good degree of specialist knowledge from within the hard science academic community, whereas the softer science bloggers assumed they might be writing for non-specialist, idly interested readers.

There are other clues suggesting this, by the way. It’s not a theory built just around pronouns. Not sure where the tendency for the hard science posts also having more personal asides fits in, mind you. Still. Pronouns. More than just basic grammatical nuts and bolts words.

Cool, huh?

Except that in my very brief time as a history teacher, I spent time in a school where the children were split into groups (called sets in the UK) according to academic ability.

But of course they were not setted for their ability to grasp historical concepts. The grouping tended to be based on their marks in core subjects like English or maths. As a result, there were kids in the top group who didn’t understand the nature of cause and consequence, what counts as evidence, that the march of historical events was not inevitable and doesn’t necessarily correspond to progress, and that people in the past were not necessarily stupid or acting irrationally nearly as well than some of those in the lowest group. Although they tended to demonstrate their misconceptions more articulately.

So, here’s the thing.

I suspect that the bloggers are right. People are more likely to dip into blogs or newspaper articles, or documentaries about education, linguistics, or, in fact, history with a non-specialist’s knowledge because, on the face of it, these subjects can be explained without needing to disappear off into advanced mathematics in the first minute or so. And, of course, they feel much more in the realm of our everyday experience. Everybody’s been to school, right? And everybody’s got something to say.

I do wonder, however, if this superficial accessibility isn’t really rather misleading. It might be helpful if lay people sometimes assumed that they know as little about teaching, to take an example entirely at random, as they do about how the second law of thermodynamics works.

Mind you, if you want a maths blog***** that is well written, accessible and interesting, I can highly recommend this one.

Must go and examine its pronouns.

*Thus I have masterfully dealt with the literature review in one short sentence. This is how you turn an academic research paper into a blog post, baby!

** Hang Zou and Ken Hyland (2019). Reworking research: Interactions in academic articles and blogs. Discourse Studies, 21(6), 713–733 and Hang Zou and Ken Hyland (2019) “Think about how fascinating this is”: Engagement in academic blogs across disciplines Journal of English for Academic Purposes 43

*** That’s the methodology portion of the papers out of the way.

****Complete with the sort of statistical analysis that makes me think that I do not, perhaps, want to be a formal discourse analyst as much as I think I do. Luckily, not quite so necessary in a blog post. Look, I’ve given you the citations. Go and look it up if you need convincing.

***** Well, blog adjacent. I can’t get used to this modern trend of eschewing blog sites and using social media in lieu.