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).