The representation of gender through speech verbs (research digest)


Reading time: 8 minutes


Authors can show aspects of characterisation in many ways. For example, authors may describe how characters look and act and the ways in which others think and talk about them. Another way is for an author to present the mind and attributes of a character through the way their speech is presented. This digest summarises a study by Maeve Eberhardt from the University of Vermont, who looks specifically at the distribution of direct speech reporting verbs (verbs used to frame a character’s exact words, such as ‘said’, ‘replied’, ‘argued’) in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. Eberhardt draws on a corpus of 1.1 million words across all seven books to examine the direct speech reporting verbs from two of the series’ main characters, Ron and Hermione. This study explores not what is said but the ways in which characters’ words are framed and how these portrayals may evoke and reproduce cultural gendered stereotypes.


Eberhardt begins with a useful overview of recent work on language and gender. On the one hand, she reminds us about some myths and stereotypes about male and female talk such as ‘women speak more than men’ and ‘men are more confrontational’. These fall under the heading of the ‘Men are from Mars, women are from Venus’ myth after the book of the same name by John Gray (1992). As Eberhardt outlines – there are actually far more similarities than differences in male and female talk. Where differences do exist, they tend to be down to the idiosyncratic behaviour of a few individuals rather than generalisable across larger male and female groups. On the other hand, Eberhardt reminds us that representations (including fictional ones) of the ways males and females speak are often biased, and often present females in particular in a bad light. For example, she quotes a study that examined the verbs used to describe the speech of male and female politicians in Canada which found those used to describe the speech of females were far more negative.

Eberhardt also suggests that children’s literature is a particularly interesting genre for the study of gender representation since the ways it portrays male and female characters may influence how young readers see the world. This may, in turn, reproduce crude gender stereotypes such as the ideas that female characters are weak and emotional, and that male characters are strong yet lack emotion.

The study

Eberhardt’s study builds on previous work by Sally Hunt (2015) on gender representation in the Harry Potter series. Hunt found there were some differences in how actions of male and female characters were presented, and discovered that, generally, female characters were presented as more passive than their male counterparts.

Eberhardt analyses all instances of direct speech attributed to Ron and Hermione (including instances where the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ are used to introduce the reporting verb). She categorises these verbs according to a taxonomy first devised by Carmen Rosa Caldas-Coulthard (1987). The taxonomy classifies:

  • Neutral– simply reporting that speech occurs with little colouring eg ‘say’, ‘tell’.
  • Structuring– building and developing a dialogue, eg ‘ask’, ‘inquire’.
  •  Metapropositional– showing degrees of force which include assertive. eg ‘suggest’, ‘correct’; directive e.g. ‘urge’ ‘instruct’; expressive ‘accuse’ ‘complain’.
  • Metalinguistic– relating to the act of telling, eg ‘narrate’ ‘quote’.
  • Prosodic– describing pitch, loudness or duration, eg ‘scream’.
  • Paralinguistic– showing the manner of speech, eg ‘whisper’, ‘sob’.
  • Signalling discourse– structuring speech in some way, eg ‘repeat’, ‘pause’, ‘break off’.


1. Groups of verbs

Eberhardt finds:

  • Ron has more reporting verbs than Hermione (2,154 and 1,937 respectively).
  • The characters have almost the same number of reporting verbs of different types based on Caldas-Coulthard’s taxonomy (80 for Ron, 82 for Hermione).
  • Ron has more neutral verbs than Hermione (77% compared to 73%).

Eberhardt argues that the greater number of non-neutral reporting verbs for Hermione demonstrates that Rowling colours and mediates readers’ possible interpretations of Hermione’s speech more than she does Ron’s. Eberhardt uses the term ‘manufactured’ (2017: 241) to describe Hermione’s speech, arguing that this greater focus on how she speaks follows a trend in popular media and fiction to specifically focus on how females look, speak and act.

Eberhardt also uses statistical tests to show that Ron has more expressive reporting verbs than Hermione but that overall there is little difference in the way characters are represented with their use of any particular type of verb. Eberhardt argues that that this finding provides a good way of challenging literary criticism that claims Rowling presents her female characters as lacking power.

2. Unique verbs

Eberhardt finds a different pattern in her exploration of the unique reporting verbs used by Rowling for Ron and Hermione. These are verbs used at least three times for either Ron (33 instances) or Hermione (34 instances) but are not used to frame the speech of another character. Interestingly, Hermione’s unique reporting verbs are related to a high-pitched voice (such as ‘scream’, ‘squeal’, ‘shriek’ and ‘squeak’) or show degrees of sadness and/or helplessness (such as ‘wail’ and ‘whimper’). Ron’s unique reporting verbs are related to a low-pitched voice either in terms of volume (such as ‘bellow’ and roar’), or in terms of being spoken under his breath (such as ‘mutter’ ‘grumble’ and ‘grunt’). Eberhardt suggests these show emotional disengagement. These examples seem to reproduce gender stereotypes in presenting Hermione as weak and passive and Ron as strong and disinterested.

3. Verbal modification

Finally, Eberhardt explores how each character’s speech is modified through the use of adverbials– words such as ‘loudly’ or ‘quietly’ that tell us more about how speech is performed. Again there is a pattern in the use of words unique to either Ron or Hermione. Modifiers of Hermione’s speech tend to be related to ones such as ‘shrilly’, ‘briskly’, ‘timidly’ and ‘sadly’ which are related to feelings, whereas modifiers of Ron’s speech are largely related to what he knows rather than what he feels. These include ‘incredulously’ and ‘doubtfully’. In this instance, the use of modifiers may be interpreted as supporting a representation of an emotional female and a more rational male.


Overall, Eberhardt’s article shows some interesting similarities and differences in the way the speech of Ron and Hermione is presented, and her corpus-based approach means she is able to identify patterns across long stretches of text rather than just from a few extracts. As Eberhardt claims at the end of her article, patterns of words across a whole novel may well reinforce binary notions of gender and associate male and female characters with certain traits and behaviours. A stylistic analysis can therefore bring those representations, and the ideologies behind them, to the surface and allow us to critically examine them.


Caldas-Coulthard, R.C. (1987) ‘Reported speech in written narrative texts’, in M. Coulthard (ed.) Discussing Discourse. Birmingham: University of Birmingham Press, pp. 149-167.

Gray, J. (1992) Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus: The Classic Guide to Studying the Opposite Sex. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Hunt, S. (2015) ‘Represenations of gender and agency in the Harry Potter series’, in P. Baker and T. McEnery (eds) Corpora and Discourse Studies: Integrating Discourse and Corpora. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 288-284.

This is a digest of the following article:

Eberhardt, M. (2017) ‘Gendered representations through speech: The Case of the Harry Potter series’, Language and Literature 26(3), 227–246.

Using this in teaching and learning

You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s AS and A-level Language and Literature specification. Below are some suggestions.

Examine representation of male and female characters

Students could examine the representation of male and female characters in the novel they are studying (Imagined worlds, A-level; Views and voices, AS-level) Questions could include:

  • Are there patterns in the ways the speech of characters is presented through the use of direct speech reporting verbs and modifiers?
  • How does this relate to gender and its representation in the novel as a whole?
  • Does this representation change across the novel at all? For example, is there a difference between the presentation of a character’s direct speech at the beginning and the end of a novel? If so, why might this be?
  • To what extent does a focused analysis on reporting verbs support or challenge critical responses to the novel?

Conduct an A-level NEA investigation

For their NEA investigation (Making Connections, A-level), students could explore the use of speech verbs in the representation of gender in a literary and a non-literary text. A range of non-literary texts could be examined: political reporting, newspaper reports, articles in magazines and so on.

Examine presentation of gender for a younger readership

Students could take an example of children’s or young adult (YA) literature and examine how the text presents gender for a younger readership (see also our blog post on Peter Stockwell’s article The positioned reader). This would provide a good opportunity for students to consider the merits of choosing a children’s/YA literary text for their NEA investigation (Making Connections, A-level) together with some non-literary material that represented children and gender in particular ways.

Use CLiC to explore data

Students could use corpus software to explore patterns in larger stretches of data and across whole texts. The tool is a good place to start. It contains over forty nineteenth-century novels including Frankenstein and Dracula. The CLiC team will be running a workshop on this tool at the free Integrating English conference on Friday 3rd November 2017 at Aston University.

Reading suggestions

1. Baker, Paul (2014) Using Corpora to Analyse Gender. London: Bloomsbury.

This offers a very useful introduction to both corpus methods and the concept of representation, specifically in the study of gendered discourse. It also includes chapters analysing the language use of male and female academics, male bias in gendered paired words (eg man/woman), the representation of gay people in articles in a middle-market tabloid and representation and gender in personal dating ads.

2. Leech, Geoffrey and Short, Mick (2007) Style in Fiction: A Linguistic Introduction to English Fictional Prose, 2nd edn. London: Longman.

This is the second edition of a classic text on the language of prose fiction. Chapter 10 offers a seminal introduction to the presentation of speech and thought.

3. Stephens, John (1992) Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction. London: Longman.

Stephens’ book is a fascinating study of how literature written for children projects ways of seeing the world and themselves as individuals within it. It argues that writing for children necessarily involves presenting (often indirectly) clear messages about how to behave, think and act.

4. Sunderland, Jane (2010) Language, Gender and Children’s Fiction. London: Continuum.

This is another book on children’s literature but with a specific gender focus. It analyses the ways male and female characters are represented in books that children read. Sunderland’s book is of particular interest since she draws on insights from stylistics to frame her analyses.

Close reading: prose fiction (classroom activity)


Reading time: 8 minutes


Close reading is a big part of exams, as well as an essential, everyday part of studying and developing an understanding of a text. These five steps offer just one way of doing close reading. This five-step approach, designed for students, draws on four really helpful concepts from stylistics about the process of interpretation, and takes care to avoid some common problems. It is designed for extracts from prose fiction, but can be easily adapted for other kinds of texts.

Five steps in close reading for extracts from prose fiction

1. Read through for initial impressions

Start by noticing your initial impressions, rather than by looking for big themes straight away. Themes are often broad and complex, like ‘a critique of capitalism’ in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or ‘warning against totalitarianism’ in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In novels, themes can arise through lots of small, sometimes subtle suggestions interspersed throughout the whole text. If you’re dealing with just a couple of paragraphs from a novel, looking for broad themes can be a struggle. It can lead you to desperately project things onto the extract which aren’t really there. Focusing only on themes can also lead you to miss or neglect the less obvious, often less specific or definite aspects of interpretation which contribute to those themes. Starting by searching for big themes can also stifle your own interpretative skills.

It can be easier, and often ultimately more insightful, to begin with initial impressions. Impressions can be less fully formed, more abstract and less precise than the kinds of themes we often focus on when discussing texts. Initial impressions can include aspects of atmosphere (eg ‘gloominess’, ‘confusion and disorientation’, ‘a sense of innocence’ or ‘a sense of mystery’, etc), setting (eg ‘a vastness, desolation’) and character relations (eg ‘cold and uncooperative’), etc. These kinds of impressions are the very beginnings of interpretation, and it is these aspects which usually add up to the fully formed themes: it is through these impressions that those themes are constructed, developed and communicated. 

Start your close reading by asking yourself what initial impressions arise for you in your reading. This will keep your close reading grounded in the text and will help you pay proper attention to your own interpretative responses.

2. Annotation and analysis

The next step is to go back through the extract with those interpretative impressions in mind, and try to locate where, and how, in the text they arise. What do you notice, sentence by sentence? Underline the parts which stand out to you, including those which seem to be fueling those interpretative impressions, and any others you might have. For everything you underline, draw an arrow out into the margins and note down the following:

a) What kind of feature of language is it? Use terms and concepts you have learnt about to help you be detailed and precise.

b) What is it doing, in this context? What is it contributing to the meaning of the extract?

c) Does it relate to or connect up and with any other features and features of the extract?

It is here that four useful principles of interpretation come into play.

  • Foregrounding: Foregrounding is the relative prominence (as consciously or subconsciously perceived by the reader) of particular features (through patterns and deviation). An important part of the study of literature, and particularly close reading, is the act of paying attention to prominence, and making what might at first be subconscious impressions become conscious – bringing them into focus and conscious attention. Features are foregrounded through parallelism and deviation, and they work to create meaning together through ‘cohesion of foregrounding’.
  • Parallelism: According to Short’s (1996) ‘Parallelism rule’ for interpretation, paralleled structures suggest meaningful connections. So, paralleled features like repeated sounds, or metaphors, or structural repetition such as each adjective in a list of three adjectives, lead us to look for and create connections between each repeated element. Each repeated element gains associations of the other in the pair or set. Their associations combine to create a whole, integrated impression made up of its parts.
  • Deviation: Deviation is departure from a norm, convention, system or pattern. For example, you might encounter a list of adjectives all two syllables long, and then the list closes with one which is three syllables long. The deviation from the parallelism (the repeated pattern of two-syllable adjectives) makes the three-syllable adjective stand out, and seem or become more meaningfully significant.
  • Cohesion of foregrounding: ‘Cohesion of foregrounding’ is a phrase coined by Geoffrey Leech, in Style in Fiction (1970), to describe the way in which we try to link up foregrounded features and find meaning in the ways they function together. A good example is the way in which we see a constellation in an array of stars, drawing a connecting shape between the stars that shine the brightest. Themes arise through our process of ‘connecting up the(foregrounded) dots’.

These are processes of interpretation which underlie close reading, and which help to explain what we notice and how we find meaning. If you’re struggling to ‘see’ anything meaningful in a close reading text, focus on the parts which have triggered your initial interpretative impressions, and look for foregrounding, patterns and deviation.

Tip: The reason the interpretative impressions you started with are called ‘initial’ interpretative impressions is because they are likely to evolve and change, as you start exploring them, into fuller and deeper interpretative impressions and analytical insights.

3. Reflective relation to themes

In some tasks, you’re given a close reading extract which is an extract from a bigger text, like a novel, which you’ve studied and are familiar with. The fourth step in this process is to reflect on the kinds of things which you see at work in the close reading text, and explore connections between these and the themes and workings of the whole novel.

4. Selection and planning

As your interpretative skills and confidence develop, you’ll get better at seeing more and more in a close reading text. Not all of it will be hugely interpretatively significant, and you may not have time to cover all of it in an exam. Select your key points based on how interpretatively significant they are. If something at work in this extract is closely tied in with one of the novel’s broader themes, it’s probably worth including, but only if you’ve got something to say about how it’s working here. If you’ve noticed something but you can’t get beyond naming and describing it (that is, you can’t go beyond description to analysis), think about leaving it out.

Once you’ve chosen your key points, select the best (most illustrative) example(s) to quote and discuss when making that point. Again, you might not have time to include everything that illustrates that point: be selective.

Remember, a response to a close reading exercise needs to be structured carefully, just like any other kind of essay. Decide on a sequence for your points. You could order them in a way which follows the extract’s sequential development, or you could start with the points which bear the most interpretative significance and work on to those which are interesting but which you find less deeply meaningful. Alternatively, you could begin with points discussing aspects of the extract which are interpretatively interesting but which don’t seem overtly connected to the themes of the novel as a whole, and then move on to the elements of the extract which do relate and contribute to the novel’s broader themes.

5. Writing your response

Now it’s time to write your response. Don’t forget to include an introduction and a conclusion, just like any other essay. The paragraphs which make up the main body of the essay need to do the following:

  •  Each main paragraph should clearly communicate one point, through illustrative examples and analytical argument.
  • That central point should explain the relationship between a feature of the text and its interpretative effects. If you find yourself devoting a paragraph to describing a feature without talking about its effects, or describing interpretative effects without talking about how the text creates those effects, that paragraph needs to be developed or cut.
  • Always provide and discuss illustrative quotations to explain the relationship between the feature and effect.

A main paragraph can do more than this, of course, such as considering other possible interpretations, but these are the essential elements.

A last tip: Communicating clearly is more important than sounding intelligent or ‘academic’. If trying to write in a very sophisticated style results in your phrasing becoming confused and confusing and your meaning getting lost, step back to a more simple and straightforward style. There’s no point in using lots of long words and complex sentence structures if the person reading your essay can’t understand what you mean. Clarity is always the priority.


This five step process is just one approach. There are lots of other ways of doing close reading. Some will suit you and your thinking and planning processes more than others. This approach does, though, cover some of the crucial bases, and helps you to avoid the risks of trying to map big themes onto extracts awkwardly or inauthentically, and instead make convincing, text-based arguments explaining your interpretation. Underpinned by four key stylistic concepts, it offers a structure for paying close attention to and interpreting the extract itself, always holding firmly onto the relationship between features and interpretative effects. Try it out with some extracts from texts you’re studying and see what kinds of close readings it helps you create.

Further reading

For more on foregrounding, parallelism, deviation and cohesion of foregrounding, see Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose by Mick Short (Longman, 1996) and ‘Ling131’, an online stylistics course created by the same author (you can find a description and link in the ‘Online Resources’ entry in our Reading Suggestions category).

Analysing Iago’s weasel words using rhetoric and pragmatics (research digest)


Reading time: 7 minutes


• Summary of the paper
• Keller on Iago’s weasel words
• Using this in teaching and learning
• Reading suggestions

Summary of the paper

Stefan Keller combines ancient rhetoric and three contemporary linguistic theories – speech act theory, relevance theory and politeness theory – to explore Iago’s language in act 3, scene 3 of Othello. These linguistic theories have been introduced in some of our previous blog entries. Links to these posts can be found at the end of this section. Keller illustrates how these theories can be used alongside an understanding of classical rhetoric to analyse the language of Shakespeare and to gain insight into his characters, their communication styles and their relationships.

Keller on Iago’s weasel words

The sophistication and breadth of Shakespeare’s use of rhetorical figures suggests, according to Keller and others, that Shakespeare was among several Renaissance writers who were well-versed in these classical models (handbooks of which, such as Henry Peacham’s The Garden of Eloquence (1593), were very popular at the time). As Keller notes, classical rhetoric focusses on techniques available to monologic oration. Pragmatic models of communication, though, can also accommodate conversational dialogue, and pay attention to the communicative context. Pragmatic models are therefore in some ways more appropriate for analysis of drama, and provide a useful addition to classical rhetoric in the study of Shakespearian dialogue. This is particularly the case for Othello, where Iago’s disturbing manipulation of Othello, through conversation alone, is at the heart of the play.

As Keller writes, the ‘challenge for Iago is to achieve his appalling goal while appearing to be helpful and unobtrusive’ (405). His success relies on his ability to guide Othello to infer meaning from what he says (and doesn’t say), while the surface meaning of his speech allows for plausible deniability. Keller cites Grice’s co-operative principle (within speech act theory): “Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.” (Grice 1989: 13) Speakers can (and very often do) purposefully and meaningfully violate this principle, by being obscure or by overtly exaggerating, for example, to invite inference. Inference essentially works through the hearer

a) noticing that the what the speaker has said isn’t as clear, informative, honest or relevant as one might expect (in accordance with the co-operative principle);

b) assuming that the speaker is therefore trying to communicate something more through this obfuscation; and

c) trying to work out (led by what the speaker has said) what else the speaker might be trying to suggest.

Often inference works through the hearer trying to make sense of how the speaker’s words are relevant to the topic of conversation.

Keller draws out some illustrative examples of Iago’s style of conversational manipulation, and analyses them in relation to classical rhetoric, the co-operative principle, and ideas from relevance theory and politeness theory. He gives an example of Iago’s self-interruption (the rhetorical figure of aposiopesis) in which Iago overtly denies the import and relevance of what he has said, refusing to directly answer Othello, leaving Othello to wonder about and try to infer why Iago is being obscure.

IAGO:           Ha, I like not that.
OTHELLO:  What dost thou say?
IAGO:           Nothing, my lord; or if – I know not what. (3.3.34-6)

Othello continues, ‘Was that not Cassio parted from my wife?’, to which Iago responds:
Cassio, my lord? no, sure, I cannot think it
That he would steal away so guilty-like
Seeing you coming. (3.3.38-40)

Both of Iago’s responses here also involve paralipsis, which Keller defines as ‘pretending to pass over a matter in order to give it more emphasis’ (403). Iago could simply have replied ‘Yes’ or ‘I think so’ to Othello’s second question here. Instead, Othello is directed by the length of Iago’s reply to infer that Iago feels this extra detail is important. Significantly, ‘I cannot think it’ is not ‘I do not think it’, which allows for the inference (among other possible inferences) that maybe he does think this, but something stops him from wanting to. Iago also adds a description of the manner of Cassio’s supposed departure, ‘steal[ing] away’ (neatly evoking associations of theft), ‘guilty-like’ on (and therefore implicitly in reaction to) ‘seeing [Othello] coming’. As Keller says, ‘by denying the relevance of Cassio’s behaviour, Iago makes it all the more relevant for Othello’, that is, by implying that it would make no sense for Cassio to behave that way, Iago leads Othello to consider why Cassio might behave that way – to infer the contextual relevance of such behaviour (403).
Iago begins his second response here by partly echoing Othello’s words (‘Cassio, my lord?’). This rhetorical figure is called anadiplosis, and it occurs twice as often in Othello as it does in Hamlet, and three times as often as it does in King Lear (Keller, 404, n.). Keller cites the following exchange:

OTHELLO:   Is he [Cassio] not honest?
IAGO:            Honest, my lord?
OTHELLO:   Honest? Ay, honest.
IAGO:            My lord, for aught I know.
OTHELLO:   What does though think?
IAGO:            Think, my lord?
OTHELLO:   Think, my lord! By heaven, though echo’st me
As if there were some monster in my thought
Too hideous to be shown. (3.3.103-11)

On the surface, direct repetition does not add meaning, but only repeats it. The meaningfulness of repetition therefore lies in what can be inferred from the act of repetition itself within the context of the conversation. The exclamation at the end of Othello’s repetition of ‘Think, my lord!’ leading into his direct comments on Iago’s echoing, serves to signal his frustration, for example. Iago’s responses here, though, are more controlled: they could be an act of double-checking he has heard Othello correctly, but this in itself suggests Iago does not believe or understand what he is hearing, hence the need to check. Othello picks up on this implied incredulity, and the sub-textual suggestion, in turn, that his own thinking is too deviant to be easily understood or shared.

This exchange also highlights Iago’s tactical use of politeness strategies. Keller notes that this scene involves ‘the highest frequency of “my lord” vocatives from Iago in the play’ (406). These vocatives serve as ‘on record’ (overt) ‘positive politeness’, affirming that the addressee is liked, and that his or her wants are shared and supported, etc. Iago also often uses ‘negative politeness’, apologising and making excuses for possibly causing offence (through lines such as ‘my lord, pardon me’, 3.3.13, and ‘I do beseech you … [to ] take no notice’, 3.3.147-53). He also suggests potentially offensive things only indirectly, or ‘off record’ – that is, ‘in such a way that it is not possible to attribute only one clear communicative intention’ to the utterance (Brown and Levinson, 1994: 70). Keller describes Iago’s strategy here as ‘suggestive obscurity’ (Keller, 407).
As in the previous extract, Othello increasingly names and makes explicit what he perceives to be Iago’s implicit suggestions. He even states

Exchange me for a goat
When I shall turn the business of my soul
To such exsufflicate and blown surmises,
Matching thy inference. (3.3.183-6)

It would appear, in moments such as these, that Iago has failed in in his attempts to stay on the side of subtle suggestion and have Othello feel responsible for his own inferences. These moments are fleeting, however, as suggested by Othello’s subsequent plea that Iago speaks ‘With franker spirit’ (3.3.198). Iago’s deniability remains just plausible enough for Othello to be torn between self-loathing and suspicion.

Keller’s article usefully illustrates how some contemporary linguistic theories can take textual study beyond labelling rhetorical figures to analysing how the utterances these figures actually function to create the play’s powerful effects.

Brown, Penelope, and Stephen C. Levinson. Politeness. Some Universals in Language Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Grice, Paul, Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

This is a research digest of the following article: Keller, Stefan D., ‘Combining Rhetoric and Pragmatics to Read Othello’, English Studies, 91.4 (2010): 398–411.

Using this in teaching and learning

The ideas below suggest how you can use this research digest to support your teaching of Othello on AQA’s A-level English Language and Literature specification. You could also adapt the ideas to any of the other plays studied on Dramatic Encounters and to supporting students preparing for NEA (Making Connections).

1. As a starting point in exploring inference and politeness in Othello, students can

a) look at one exchange where a response is not directly relevant to the preceding utterance, and list the possible inferences that are available, thinking about how it could be relevant to the conversational context. These inferences can then be put in order from ‘strong’ (most plausible inference) to ‘weak’ (least plausible inference), and the students can discuss and justify their ordering. This activity will help students to better understand the process of inferencing and different degrees of inference.

b) look at one instance of politeness in the play, and discuss what aspect of the hearer’s personality or position is being overtly or covertly appealed to or protected. This will help students understand how characters use language to relate to each other, and to position themselves and each other in relationships.

2. Keller points out that ‘strictly speaking, “off-record” utterances are impossible in drama, as the audience is always fully aware of Iago’s intentions’ (406). Students can explore the added complexity of conversational implicature and inference in the context of drama, where there is a double layer of communication (character to character, and playwright to audience), and at least two communicative contexts – here one in which Othello knows certain information, and one in which the audience knows far more. These different communicative contexts guide inference differently for different hearers. Students can visually map out these layers/contexts of communication. They can then go further to explore the relationships between inference and ‘dramatic irony’ in this play and others. This will help students understand how meaning is communicated in drama.

3. Othello himself, in shining the spotlight on the subtext, is shown in this scene (and elsewhere) to speak frankly, in marked contrast to Iago. Keller begins and ends his study of this play with attention to the plain speaking of Desdemona and Emilia, which is similarly cast as all the more admirable in contrast to Iago’s sophistry. Desdemona and Emilia do speak with rhetorical skill (employing a range of classical figures), but, Keller implies, with none of the insidious and off record strategies of Iago. This is not to say that their communication does not involve and invite inference (as most communication does), but that their explicit and implicit communication is working in a different balance, and to different ends. In this light, the communication styles of Desdemona and Emilia could offer a route into the gender politics of the play. Students can investigate literary criticism which discusses the play’s gender politics, including feminist readings, and can explore how far and in what ways the communication styles of Desdemona and Emilia can account for these readings.

Reading suggestions

Some of the related blog entries listed at the top of this research digest provide suggestions for reading on these pragmatic theories (relevance theory, politeness theory and speech act theory).

  • A research digest on ‘Implicature and literary texts’, summarising an article by Adrian Pilkington on ‘Poetic Effects’ from Lingua1 (1992): 29-51 (posted on 28/09/2016)
  • A research digest on ‘Impoliteness and entertainment’, summarising an article by Jonathan Culpeper, ‘Impoliteness and entertainment in the television quiz show: The Weakest Link’ from Journal of Politeness Research 1 (2005): 35-72 (posted on 06/04/2016)
  • Classroom activities on ‘Understanding implicatures’ (posted on 17/11/2016)
  • Reading suggestions on ‘Politeness and impoliteness’ (posted on 17/06/2016)

Keller points readers towards other works specifically on politeness theory and Othello:

  • Brown, Roger, and Albert Gilman. ‘Politeness Theory and Shakespeare’s Four Major Tragedies.’ Language in Society 18 (1989): 159–212
  • Busse, Ulrich. Linguistic Variation in the Shakespeare Corpus. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2002
  • Kopytko, Roman. ‘Linguistic Politeness Strategies in Shakespeare’s Plays.’ In Historical Pragmatics, edited by A. H. Jucker. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1995
  • Magnusson, Lynne. Shakespeare and Social Dialogue. Dramatic Language and Elizabethan Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999

For work using speech act theory and the co-operative principle to explore Shakespeare’s work, see

  • Fish, Stanley. ‘How to do Things with Austin and Searle: Speech Act Theory and Literary Criticism.’ Modern Language Notes 91 (1976): 983–1025
  • Gilbert, Anthony. ‘Techniques of Persuasion in Julius Caesar and Othello.’ Neophilologus 81 (1997): 309–23

Analysing Implicatures (classroom activity)


Reading time: 4 minutes


This is the second of two posts with ideas for developing understanding of ‘implicature’ (discussed in a previous research digest on ‘Implicature and literary texts’ ).

These activities apply the notion of implicature in analysing texts and understanding some of their effects. This could support students interested in:

  • Implicatures across literary and non-literary material (Making Connections, spec section 4.3).
  • Exploring interaction (Exploring Conflict, spec section 4.2).

First: identifying and exploring implicatures in texts

Ask students to look at any text and identify some of its implicatures.

They should also make a note of thoughts which might be about implicatures, but which they are not sure of. These will be a basis for later discussion.

Students begin working individually and then work in pairs or small groups to compare answers. Comparing notes will almost always lead individual students to have new thoughts about the text.


  1. Find a text or use a set one from Exploring Conflict (spec section 4.2) and make a note of as many possible implicatures of the text as you can.
  2. Compare your list with other students, considering each possible implicature and commenting to what extent you are sure it is an implicature.
  3. Try to sort the implicatures into types: which ones are stronger? which ones are weaker? Which ones leave you unsure about whether or not they were intended?
  4. Consider who might be intending to communicate each of these implicatures:
    • is it the author of the text?
    • a narrator?
    • characters?
    • somebody else?
    • are there any you are not sure about?
  5. Now focus on one fairly strong implicature of the text. Suggest further lines of reasoning so that you might derive a wider range of weaker implicatures starting from it.
  6. Discussion: “to what extent do you think what you have been doing contributes to (or counts as) developing a fuller interpretation of the text?”

Then: comparing texts

Following on from the previous task, this compares texts and how many stronger or weaker implicatures they give rise to.

Any texts could be compared, but one idea would be to start with two texts, including one which clearly gives rise to a wider range of weaker implicatures. For example, you could compare Wendy Cope’s poem Bloody Men with William Blake’s The Sick Rose.

Students can repeat this activity to explore further texts, or compare two parts of the same text. Consider the ‘gun’ simile at the beginning of Seamus Heaney’s Digging and the ‘dig’ metaphor at the end. This example is discussed in a previous digest post, ‘Implicatures and literary texts’.


  1. Select your texts.
  2. List some strong implicatures of each text.
  3. List some weaker implicatures of each text.
  4. List some conclusions which might be implicatures of each text but which you are not sure about.
  5. Now compare the two texts to consider: which one has a greater number of stronger implicatures and which one more weaker one?
  6. Discussion: “what does this suggest about the two texts?”

Finally: rewriting

This task develops understanding by intervention, i.e. by rewriting texts to give rise to more or fewer stronger and weaker implicatures. This can support students thinking about their own re-writing as part of Writing About Society (spec section 4.2.2).

  1. Revisit a text from the previous task.
  2. Make a note of some strong implicatures of this text.
  3. Make a note of some weaker implicatures.
  4. Comment on your overall impression of the text with regard to how many stronger and how many weaker implicatures it suggests.
  5. Now rewrite some passages to change the status of particular assumptions, i.e. either to make some weaker implicatures stronger or to make some stronger implicatures weaker.
  6. Look at a different text and compare it with the one you have been working on.
  7. Suggest some rewrites to one or both texts to make them more like each other.
  8. Discussion: “what does this suggest about the texts you have been looking at?”

Applying These Ideas to NEA

A student who has worked through these will have developed their understanding of implicatures and how they can vary across texts. They will also have developed their understanding of how to create and edit texts while thinking about the implicatures they are likely to generate. This can be useful for the NEA, and help students generate their own data for comparison with their chosen literary text.

Understanding Implicatures (classroom activity)


Reading time: 7 minutes


This is the first of two posts with ideas for developing understanding of ‘implicature’ (discussed in the previous research digest on implicature and literary texts), including the ideas that implicatures can be stronger or weaker and that texts vary with regard to how many implicatures they suggest. It mainly targets the Non-Exam Assessment (NEA).

The ideas suggest how texts can be compared in terms of the kinds of implicatures they are likely to give rise to. So they could form the basis of comparison between a literary text and a non-literary text.

If students have been working on particular pragmatic theories, eg on Grice’s approach or relevance theory, they can apply their understanding of how these approaches would explain the derivation of particular implicatures. However, these activities show how the notion of ‘implicature’ can be used in analysing texts even without focusing directly on particular theoretical approaches.


The term ‘implicature’ was coined by the philosopher Paul Grice to refer to indirectly communicated assumptions, eg to the assumption Bella communicates here that she is planning to read Scott’s new book:

Andy:                Are you going to read Scott’s new book when it’s out?
Bella:                I read everything he writes.

The first set of activities here contains tasks to help students focus on what implicatures are and what kinds of implicatures utterances can convey. The activities in Part 2, which will be posted separately, aim to develop understanding of specific texts by exploring some of their implicatures. While the examples presented below have been chosen to illustrate particular ideas, the activities could focus on examples taken from texts created by students.

Understanding Implicatures

In introducing implicature, it’s important to start with some fairly straightforward examples like the one above about Bella planning to read Scott’s book. A good starting point is simply to present a number of examples and ask students to identify possible implicatures.

a) Identifying implicatures

Students are asked here to look at the final utterances in these exchanges and to identify an implicature which they think the speaker is likely to communicate.

(Andy is asking Bella about an essay which she has been struggling with for a long time)
Andy:                How’s the essay going?
Bella:                Lovely weather just now, isn’t it?

‘Three for two’
(In a shop, Bella has taken two tins of beans to the counter and is about to pay for them)
Assistant:        They’re three for two just now.

‘Good worker?’
(Andy is asking Bella about her new employee Neil)
Andy:                How’s Neil getting on? Is he a good worker?
Bella:                Well, he always arrives in good time.

When using examples like this, it’s important to clarify that these have underspecified contexts, meaning interpretations might vary depending on other aspects of the context. Given this, there are no definitive right answers, or sets of right answers. Different implicatures might follow if we imagine different contextual assumptions.

b) Different implicatures

Having established that students have a reasonable understanding of what an implicature is, this task then considers how implicatures vary depending on particular contextual assumptions.

If students haven’t all made the same suggestions for the examples above, they can begin to explore this by considering what would make different implicatures more or less likely. If students generally agree about implicatures in the previous examples, consider instances where further contextual assumptions are needed to work out the speaker’s intended to implication (with no contextual gloss).

Here, instructions  should make clear that Bella’s individual responses could be understood differently depending on the contextual assumptions available to Andy. Students are then asked to make two suggestions about possible implicatures and to identify contextual assumptions which would make each one likely.

Andy:                Do you know if Scott’s going to Ellen’s party?
Bella:                Jake’s going.

Andy:                Would you like a coffee?
Bella:                Coffee would keep me awake.

Andy:                Do you fancy seeing that new Crocodile film with me?
Bella:                It’s a horror film.

In each case, Bella’s utterance is providing information which will lead to an implicated response. To see what kind of answer she intends, we need to know a bit more. The most likely assumptions we will think of are: whether Scott likes or tries to avoid Jake, whether Bella wants to stay awake or not, and whether Bella likes or hates horror films.

Students can explore this and other examples, considering how different sets of contextual assumptions make particular implicatures more or less likely. These could form the basis of some data generation for NEA.

c) Stronger and weaker implicatures

Having established a reasonable understanding of what an implicature is, these tasks ask students to consider two ideas mentioned in the research digest on ‘Implicature and literary texts’: first, that utterances typically convey more than one implicature; second that we can be more or less sure that certain implicatures are intended, i.e. they can be ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’.

A good starting point is to ask students to look at one of the previous examples and consider other implicatures which might be conveyed at the same time as an implicature they have already discussed. This should work for any of the ‘party’, ‘coffee’ or ‘crocodile’ examples. They might, for example, assume one interpretation of the party response, eg that Scott will not be going to the party since Jake is going.

Further implicatures?

If we assume that Scott will not be going to the party since Jake is going, what other conclusions might we draw from this?

Possible answers include: that Scott does not like Jake, that anyone who would like Scott to come to their events should not invite Jake, that Scott might have a negative attitude to anyone who likes Jake, speculations about why Scott does not like Jake, and so on.

Students can then move on to consider other things which Bella might suggest by indicating that she likes or hates horror films. This might include assumptions about relative closeness to others based on their attitude to horror films, or other things which the refusal or acceptance of an offer of coffee might suggest (note that this is likely to raise the idea that an invitation for coffee can be a disguised sexual invitation; in my classes, this often leads to discussion of the phrase ‘netflix and chill’).

The aim of this discussion is to establish:

a. that utterances typically have more than one implicature

b. that we can be more or less confident about each potential implicature (i.e. they can be ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’)

c. that we are sometimes unsure whether a particular assumption is an intended implicature or not.

Students can then go on to consider other examples (again possibly forming the basis of some data generation for the NEA), and experiment with them by imagining different possible utterances which would make particular implicatures stronger or weaker, eg Bella might have said ‘I hate horror films’ in response to the question about Crocodile.


Here are some sources to help with understanding implicature and these activities:

Chapman, Siobhan. 2011. Pragmatics. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke. An accessible introduction to pragmatics.

Clark, Billy. 2013. Relevance Theory. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. An introduction to relevance theory which also discusses Grice’s work and the idea that implicatures can be stronger or weaker.

Clark, Billy. 2016. Pragmatics. In Marcello Giovanelli and Dan Clayton (eds.) Knowing About Language: Linguistics and the Secondary English Classroom. Routledge, London: 64-76. Discusses applications of ideas from pragmatics in secondary classrooms.

Implicature and literary texts (research digest)


Reading time: 9 minutes

Poetic effects

This post digests Adrian Pilkington’s influential paper on ‘poetic effects’, which shows how ideas from pragmatics can be used in exploring literary texts and in accounting for literary interpretations. The paper refers to Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Digging’.

Pilkington focuses on the notion of ‘implicature’, originating in the work of H. Paul Grice. Grice coined the term to refer to what we indirectly communicate. We can illustrate this using an exchange discussed in the paper by Pilkington:

Alan:                    Drink?

Beth:                    I’m a Mormon.

Implicature:     Beth does not want an alcoholic drink.

Here Beth directly communicates that she is a Mormon and indirectly communicates (‘implicates’) that she does not want an alcoholic drink. This follows as long as Alan access the following contextual assumption:

Mormons do not drink alcoholic drinks.

Grice developed an approach which aimed to explain how implicatures are communicated. Pilkington’s paper focuses on more recent ideas, developed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson in their work on relevance theory. They suggest that utterances typically communicate a range of implicatures with varying amounts of evidence for each one. While Grice’s approach would have focused on the implicature that Beth does not want an alcoholic drink, Pilkington points out that Beth’s utterance also makes it possible to infer further conclusions, including:


Beth does not want to drink other alcoholic drinks.

Beth does not drink coffee.

Beth does not smoke.

Beth might practise polygamy.

These depend on Alan accessing and using the assumptions that Mormons don’t drink coffee, don’t smoke, and that they can be more likely to practise polygamy. There are other possible conclusions which Alan might arrive at (depending on whether appropriate contextual assumptions occur to him) and which he is likely to be less sure of, such as:

Possible implicatures:

I will not have much in common with Beth.

Beth might be offended by my way of living.

These are weaker implicatures than those about coffee, smoking and marriage, which are in turn less strong than the implicature that Beth would not like an alcoholic drink. In fact, it might be hard for Alan to decide whether Beth intends to convey an assumption about her attitude to Alan’s way of life at all. Two key ideas developed within relevance theory are: first, that implicatures can be stronger or weaker; second, that there is not always a clear distinction between intentionally communicated implicatures and conclusions for which the addressee is wholly responsible.

Pilkington goes on to consider how weak implicatures can contribute to what have been termed ‘poetic effects’, which are often thought of as vague, impressionistic and hard to capture. Relevance theorists have suggested that poetic effects involve the communication of a relatively wide range of relatively weak implicatures. Pilkington discusses the effects of repetition in the Biblical utterance:

Oh Absalom, my son my son!

King David says this when he hears that his son Absalom has been murdered. The repetition encourages thoughts about David’s relationship with his son and his emotions on hearing of his son’s death. Pilkington suggests that this repetition gives rise to poetic effects because we can access a wide range of assumptions about their relationship, how it might feel for David to have lost his son, and so on. By contrast, repetitions such as the following will seem pointless or ridiculous in most contexts because we cannot access such a rich set of possible implicatures:

Oh Anna, my colleague, my colleague!

The pubs have closed, closed.

The relevance-theoretic account suggests that poetic effects arise when an utterance communicates a rich set of weak implicatures.

Pilkington’s discussion of ‘Digging’ focuses in particular on the ending of the poem. He suggests that this gives rise to a fairly wide range of implicatures because the rest of the poem has made this possible. The poem is ‘spoken’ by a poet (who clearly has a lot in common with Heaney himself) sitting at a table near a window and writing. The poem begins:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Outside, his father is digging in the garden. The poem leaps back in time to when his father was younger and digging in potato fields. His father ‘could handle a spade’ and comes from a long line of men who dug the land. The poem contrasts the father with the poet who has not joined in this tradition. The poem ends back at the window:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

What inferences do readers make at the end of the poem? Pilkington focuses on the key metaphor evoked by the use of dig as something the poet will do with a pen. He suggests that the earlier mention of the father and his digging in potato fields, along with other contextual assumptions, make it possible for us to access a wide range of relatively weak implicatures. Pilkington cannot come close to listing all of the possibilities but he lists a small set as a starting point, including these:

Digging is how the poet’s forefathers earned their living

Digging is an activity with a long tradition in the community.

Digging involves hard work.

Digging involves intense concentration.

Digging is a manly occupation.

Digging is a worthy occupation.

Digging involves taking things from below the surface.

For each one, he suggests, we can go on to think about ways in which writing poetry is similar or different to the kind of digging his father was engaged in. This poem is successful because the effort involved in thinking about the broad range of implicatures it suggests is rewarded by the relatively rich interpretations this leads to. He also considers how deriving this set of weak implicatures might lead to emotional responses and to what extent this approach might account for more broadly aesthetic experiences.

A key feature of the paper is that it shows how ideas from pragmatics are useful in accounting for literary interpretations and in exploring literary texts. Exploring the implicatures of texts is a fairly accessible way of beginning to explore texts and interpretations of texts more fully.

This is a digest of the following article:

Pilkington, Adrian. 1992. Poetic Effects. Lingua 87.1: 29-51.

You can read ‘Digging’ and hear Seamus Heaney reading it at the Poetry Foundation website here.

Using this in teaching and learning

You can use the ideas in this paper in the following ways to develop understanding of pragmatics and literary texts:

  1. The notion that implicatures can be stronger or weaker is a key notion in relevance theory. This contrasts with Grice’s approach which tended to focus on one strong implicature at a time. Students can explore this contrast by looking at short texts and analysing them in three stages:

a. identify one strong implicature of the text

b. make a list of other implicatures which might follow from the same text

c. for each implicature, identify contextual assumptions which give rise to the implicature

This activity could lead to broader discussion of what kinds of texts are more likely to be read for a wider range of weaker implicatures and which are more likely to be read for a narrower range of stronger ones (see activity 4 below).

  1. Students can develop their own spoken and written communication by rewriting utterances to adjust the likelihood of particular inferences being made by hearers or readers of their utterances. This might also focus on the extent to which different versions give rise to stronger or weaker implicatures. They could explicitly explore the effect of this in their recreative writing (Writing about society, A level; People and places, AS level)’
  1. Students can explore the novel and poems they are studying (Imagined worlds and Poetic voices A level; Views and voices, AS level) by making a list of possible implicatures which they think the text suggests and organising them into stronger or weaker implicatures. Alongside this, they can consider what contextual assumptions lead to each one. Which conclusions depend only on assumptions derived from the text? Which derive from more general contextual assumptions? Do some of them depend on knowledge about the author? Or the context in which the text was produced?
  1. Students can aim to develop richer or shallower interpretations of particular texts across the specification and on the NEA (Making Connections, A-level) by focusing to a greater or lesser degree on stronger or weaker implicatures. A fairly shallow interpretation of a text might focus mainly on ‘what happens’ in the text. A richer one would focus on broader themes, the psychology of characters, the emotional impact on audiences, and so on. Students can reflect on this explicitly by comparing different kinds of interpretations of texts and different kinds of reading practices. What would a very shallow interpretation of a particular text look like? What would a much richer one look like? Are there texts which are more likely to give rise to richer interpretations than others?
  1. Students can also compare different parts of particular texts and alternative possible versions of the same text. This might inform the study of any text on the AS and A level specifications. Pilkington suggests that the connection between the pen and a gun at the start of ‘Digging’ (where the pen rests ‘snug as a gun’) does not lead very far and so has a much less rich interpretation than the notion of the pen as something to dig with at the end. Students could explore this in greater detail, listing possible implicatures of both parts. Alternatively, they might consider other utterances which lead to weaker interpretations. Pilkington suggests, for example, that the simple sentence ‘The poet digs with his pen’ would be far less evocative or interesting than Heaney’s poem. Students could discuss why this is so.

Reading suggestions

There has been a huge amount of work on pragmatics since Grice developed his ideas over 50 years ago (his key texts began to be shared in the 1960s and published in the 1970s but some of the work predates this). Here are some sources on pragmatics in general, on relevance theory in particular, and on pragmatics and literary interpretation.

Chapman, Siobhan. 2011. Pragmatics. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

An accessible introduction to pragmatics, covering Grice’s approach and other approaches developed from that, including discussion of relevance theory.

Blakemore, Diane. 1992. Understanding Utterances. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

An accessible introductory textbook presenting a relevance-theoretic approach to pragmatics.

Clark, Billy. 2013. Relevance Theory. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

A more comprehensive accessible account of relevance theory, including discussion of how it developed from the work of Grice.

Dan Sperber’s website, here.

This site provides access to downloadable versions of a wide range of work by Sperber, including work with Deirdre Wilson.

Relevance Theory Online Bibliographic Service, here.

This site gathers all academic sources which discuss or apply ideas from relevance theory. This is probably not the most helpful place to find sources when beginning to study pragmatics but it is interesting to see just how much work has been published on this approach to pragmatics.

Pilkington, Adrian. 2000. Poetic Effects. John Benjamins, Amsterdam.

A book-length study of poetic effects from the perspective of relevance theory. Develops further the ideas in the paper discussed in this digest, including the limits of how far this approach can go in accounting for emotional and affective responses to literary and artistic works.

Chapman, Siobhan and Billy Clark (eds.) 2014. Pragmatic Literary Stylistics. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

A collection of chapters applying ideas from pragmatics in accounting for interpretations of literary texts. It includes an introduction with general comments on different approaches to pragmatics and their relevance in approaches to literary texts.


What makes a narrator ‘reliable’? (Research digest)


Reading time: 5 minutes

Reliable and unreliable narration have been widely debated within literary scholarship over the last half century. However, as Terence Murphy notes, significantly more attention has been paid to trying to figure out how an impression of narratorial unreliability is constructed than has been paid to working out how and why a narrator might be believed to be reliable. Murphy also refers to Wayne Booth’s seminal book The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) which contains Booth’s discussion of narratorial reliability and unreliability.  Here, Booth suggests that Nick Carraway, the first-person narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1922), is a good example of a reliable narrator. On this basis, Murphy offers a brief discussion of the key critical debates around the concepts of reliability and unreliability, and also of the relative scope for perceived un/reliability of first-person narration in contrast to third-person narration, which is usually considered more distant and objective. Picking up the example of Nick Carraway, Murphy then suggests that there are five ‘determinants’ of reliable narration in first-person fiction, and argues that unreliability is created through departure from or absence of those determinants. He presents these five determinants as a model which can be used as a critical tool to discuss the relative reliability of any first-person narrator.

Murphy’s five determinants of reliability

1) Narration from a place of security, at the place where the narrator was born or has settled. Murphy points out that Carraway narrates from “back home” (Fitzgerald 1990 [1922]: 167), which, Murphy suggests, is testament to Nick’s maturity and freedom.

2) Use of the ‘middle’ style of standard English (as according to classical rhetoric), neither colloquial and marked by representation of accent and dialect, nor poetic, ornate, sophisticated and opaque. Nick’s language is of this ‘middle’ style.

3) Observer-narrator status. Nick Carraway is an example of a narrator who is not the main character in the story, but instead tells the story of that main character. Nick’s own role in the plot is limited.

4) Ethical maturity and a conventional moral stance. Nick Carraway has been through the trials of the First World War, which has tested and developed his moral beliefs, and which earns him respect.

5) Retrospective re-evaluation or re-interpretation of another character. Murphy contrasts plot structures which centre upon a hero’s journey, or upon a new self-realisation on the part of the first-person narrator, with plot structures which centre upon the observer-narrator’s re-evaluation of another character. In The Great Gatsby, Murphy argues, the climax of the plot is Nick’s re-interpretation and new understanding of Gatsby, which replaces Nick’s prior impressions.

Murphy’s discussion of each of the five determinants exposes some complexities and caveats within the model. Problems include issues arising in the case of the narrator who is reliably conveying his or her perspective, but whose perspective is naïve, or whose stance is psychologically or morally deviant. At the heart of these issues is the broader problem of the relativity and subjectivity of perspectives on events, and the relationship between notions of perceived reliability and the possibility of a single ‘truth’, or ‘true’ rendering of events. Murphy presents his own views on these issues, and coins some terms to help him handle them (such as ‘standpoint limitation’, related to multiple narrators). The model, and the critical complexities with which it engages, offer a useful springboard for exploration of narratorial un/reliability.

This is a digest of the following article: Murphy, T. P. (2012) ‘Defining the reliable narrator: The marked status of first-person fiction’, Journal of Literary Semantics 41, 67-87.

Using this in teaching and learning

You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s AS and A level English Language and Literature specifications in the following ways. 

  1. Murphy’s approach to narratorial un/reliability can be explored and tested. Here is one set of activities through which a class can explore his ideas.
  • Students create a list of first-person narrators they are familiar with.
  • Students then rank those narrators according to how reliable they feel each to be.
  • Next, students rank them according to how many of Murphy’s determinants are present or departed from in each case.
  • Finally, students compare the two ranked lists to explore correlations and differences, and reflect on whether the relationship between the two lists of rankings supports or undermines Murphy’s claims.

2. An alternative method of exploring Murphy’s model would be to creatively recast the narration (AS level ‘Remembered places’, A-level ‘Writing about society’).

  • Students take the example of the narrator at the top of the second ranking created in activity 1 – that is, the narrator which most closely follows Murphy’s list of determinants – and identify a passage in a text where the most determinants are present.
  • Students then creatively rewrite that instance of narration in one of two ways:

i) Half of the students take care to systematically depart from each of Murphy’s determinants, to aim to create the impression of an unreliable narrator.

ii) The other half of the students rewrite the narration with the same aim – to create the impression of unreliable narration – but without attending to following or departing from Murphy’s determinants at all. Rather, they can follow their intuitions, and experiment with other possible strategies for creating an impression of unreliability (for example, flouting Grice’s maxim of quantity).

  • The students then compare their recast versions, discuss the stylistic choices they made in changing the narration from reliable to unreliable, reflect on how far they achieved their goal of creating an impression of narratorial unreliability, and consider what strategies or ‘determinants’ were most significant or successful in achieving that impression.
  1. Novels can have multiple narrators, as in the case of the frame narratives in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In such cases, two or more different characters might offer their perspective on the same event. Even in fiction with one single narrator, and also in drama with no narrating character, there are often multiple ‘tellers’: characters other than a narrator figure who relay to other characters short narrative reports of particular events. Two characters might narrate the same event at different times to different audiences, or might (collaboratively or competitively) co-narrate an event (AS level’Views and voices’, A-level ‘Telling stories’).

Students can explore instances of an event ‘told’ by multiple tellers, and can:

  • compare the relative impressions of reliability conveyed in each telling, and
  • reflect on the impact upon their interpretation (of the characters and the event) of the author’s choice to provide two tellings, and the choice of presenting them in the particular order given.