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.

Indexicality, Expertise and Twitter

It surely comes as no surprise that we use language differently depending on who we are talking to. Or where we are. And whether we are tapping away with our thumbs on a smartphone, using a fountain pen on our best headed notepaper, speaking face to face, or screaming at our other half on the phone over the roar of public transport.

Some of this is to do with the constraints of the method we are using. But a lot of it is to do with making sure that we are being sufficiently polite and paying enough respect to our interlocutor’s status and relationship with us.

While not overdoing it. Because that would be weird. And come across as sarcastic.

So, how do we know which version of all the available phrasings to use?

I mean, quite often the context is, or should be, enough. You don’t need any special cues to be super polite to every person you encounter in the building where your super important job interview is taking place.


Who knows whether that woman or that man might turn out to be the interviewer and not the intern, despite their apparent youthfulness.

And whilst people used to make fun of the ‘sent from my iPhone’ signoff, it was a way of signalling that the production circumstances were less than ideal. Which might account for any miss-match between the way the message was expressed and what you might have thought was due to you.

I came across a reference recently* to the way that Korean telephone opening sequences are a bit longer and involve more phrases back and forth, because, it was speculated in this book, it gave the listener a bit longer to tune into the way of speaking of the other person when no visual clues are available. And this increased the chances that the participant would be able to use the appropriate form of polite address in a language where this is hardwired into the grammar and important to get right.

It’s easy to condemn the concept that we are swayed into assuming the social class, likely educational background and status in relation to you of someone you are talking to because of their accent. It’s a lot harder to say it doesn’t actually happen, that we don’t do it all the time.

This is the nice thing about moving to a completely new country. The intricacies of social positioning are largely a mystery, at least at the beginning. I still can’t pick out a Muscovite accent from a St Petersburg one or that of someone even from further away from the centre of civilisation, although I’ve internalised some of the visual stereotypes.

Which brings me to how we signal expertise in the relatively anonymous arena of Twitter, where everyone certainly does not know your name unless you are a truly global superstar.

Image by Karen Arnold from Pixabay

Of course, the first rule of being an expert on Twitter is to avoid being a woman. It is extremely noticeable that experts of the unfortunately female persuasion have a distinct tendency to add ‘Dr’ to their Twitter handles. Yes, I am aware it was one of those collective social media episodes from a while back. The fact that it has stuck does rather suggest that it is slightly easier for a lady nuclear physicist to comment on nuclear physics without having a relatively large number of people come and tell her to read her own authoritative book on the subject before she dares make such wrongheaded statements.

The blue ticks you say? Well indeed. That can backfire though if you say something and people note the blue tick and decide you are insufficiently famous or expert to have such a mark of distinction. It’s not quite the invulnerable shield, although it’s interesting that people tend to react as though it is a (wrongly given) blanket endorsement of any and all views by Twitter. Even though it’s been given for notability in a particular area.

But what prompted this post was the discovery of this perfect example of a linguistic trick. Or rather this perfect example of someone taking the piss out of a linguistic trick being used to signal expertise in a suddenly interesting field. To muscle their way to the top of the punditry pile in a mass of billions of voices on social media, presumably.

Text reads: one of the absolute, surest signs that somebody is about to start talking bullshit about China (zhongguo, or the Middle Kingdom') is when they start unnecessarily putting the Chinese in when addressing a foreign (waiguo) audience

This sort of thing is called indexing, by the way, in case you thought there wasn’t actually a discourse analysis connection.

Indexicality is the idea of language having contextually bound meaning, although as far as I can tell, when one uses the verb form, one is able to talk about people using language in a particular way so as to construct an identity in a particular context. Such as the identity of an expert.

So, what flexes do you use to index your expertise, and when do you find yourself needing to do it?

* In Barbara Johnstone’s Discourse Analysis.

Hello World

My name is Heather. I am a native Brit, and I have been an English as a Foreign Language teacher since 1996.

I started out volunteering as a teaching assistant in Moscow. Having discovered to my complete surprise I really liked teaching, I got qualified in EFL instruction, moved to Russia full time and never looked back. Except that time I taught History to teenagers.

Since then I have worked in both the UK and Russia, in private language schools and the state sector, as a teacher, an academic manager and a teacher trainer.

This blog isn’t really about that though. It’s my love letter to discourse analysis, social media and online communication.

Image by Free Photos from Pixabay

What discourse analysis is can be quite hard to define. Whole books have been written on the topic, but let’s have a stab, shall we?

Discourse analysis is the study of language at text level, with text being defined much more widely than neatly complete written articles in newspapers or whole novels. It’s a fairly interdisciplinary sort of field involving everyone from linguists, the language teaching profession, sociologists, anthropologists, to computer scientists trying to programme AI, and that’s not even an exhaustive list.

To me, it’s super interesting because it’s where sentences or words stop and communication begins. It’s about the choice of phrasing. What intonation does to the message. It’s about the aspects of language which cannot be described by a grammar reference book. And it’s about the nature of how we cope with trying to construct utterances in real time, and what happens when we can wield words with more consideration.

And it’s about why it all goes wrong and we have cut all ties with Auntie Vera because of the way she used ‘well’ on WhatsApp.

I will mostly be writing about whatever I have last been reading on the topic, possibly illustrated with stuff people have said on social media. I love online communication. I happen to think that because it is an interesting blend of spoken and written language, it has turned us all into discourse analysts. Moves that people might have got away with in ephemeral speaking get clocked much more easily by casual onlookers on the Internet. Plus, of course, some of the gloves are off in a medium which transcends the need to get along with your neighbour for the foreseeable future.


But I couldn’t figure out how to fit that neatly into a URL. Or come up with a version of the name that would not get me an immediate reputation on Twitter.

So Those Sharp Words it is. Thanks to my friend who is much better at snappy titles than I am.

I am highly unlikely to have an original thought on this topic. I am not going to be doing formal discourse analysis myself. But I hope there are other people out there who find this as interesting as I do, and I am looking forward to connecting with them.