Me, myself and I: the language of egocentric points of view (research digest)


Reading time: 7 minutes

One aspect of the language of point of view is what is known as deixis. Deictic words ‘point’ to entities, places or moments in time, but, notably, in doing so signal the subjective position of the speaker in that instance of pointing. Words like ‘I’, ‘here’ and ‘now’ are deictic. The special characteristic of deictic words is that in order to understand which person, thing, place or time the words are referring to, you need to know the context in which the words were used – who by, where, when, etc. For example, if you opened a charity fundraising letter which began with “As I stand here looking at this family now”, the words ‘here’, ‘now’ and ‘I’ are only meaningful and interpretable if you know who the speaker is, where their ‘here’ is, and the date/time at which they spoke. ‘This’ suggests a referent near (or ‘proximal’) to their ‘here’ (as opposed to ‘that’, which suggests distance). This contextual information – the spatiotemporal co-ordinates of the subjective position of the speaker – is known as the deictic centre. Deictic words communicate the person, thing, place or time they are referring to in relation to that subjective deictic centre, and so signal that subjective centre as much as they signal the person or thing etc. that they are referring to. There are three main categories of deixis:

  • Person deixis, e.g. personal pronouns ‘I’, ‘you’, and ‘we’, etc.; demonstrative pronouns ‘it’, ‘this’, ‘that’, etc.
  • Spatial deixis, e.g. locative expressions ‘here’, ‘there’, ‘nearby’, etc. and verbs suggesting direction towards or away from the speaker (‘come’ and ‘go’).
  • Temporal deixis, e.g. temporal adverbs ‘now’, ‘then’, etc., and other temporal expressions such as ‘tomorrow’, ‘next year’, ‘a while ago’, etc.

In fiction, deictic language helps to build the spaces and temporal settings of fictional worlds, and helps to determine the positioning and orientation of narrators and characters within worlds.

In her article ‘Deixis and Fictional Minds’, Elena Semino looks at how the subjective viewpoints of protagonists are portrayed through their use of deictic language. She focusses on two unusual minds: that of the poetic persona of Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Wodwo’, and that of Christopher, the first person narrator of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. She reveals some distinct peculiarities in the way the characters use deictic language. The linguistic details of these peculiarities corroborate some of the literary criticism about the two texts, and enrich our understanding of exactly how these fictional minds are constructed as unusual.

The poetic persona of Hughes’ poem, the ‘wodwo’ of the title, is a wild, sprite-like creature. Semino begins her analysis of the poem by pointing out that the poem’s free verse form, non-standard punctuation (including capitalisation only of ‘I’) and fragmented syntax create an effect of disorientation, anxiety and rushed, chaotic movement. She perceives a lack of boundaries and an impression of the speaker as primitive and self-focussed. She observes repeated references to lack of roots and to searching, suggesting themes of origins and identity. Semino then reflects on how the deictic language contributes to these impressions. She reveals:

  • the unusual frequency of the speaker’s reference to itself (13% of the words are the person deictic words ‘I’ or ‘me’).
  • the frequency of spatial deixis referring to places near the speaker (proximal deixis), in contrast to use of only ‘that’ and ‘go’ to refer to things or places further away from speaker, or to movement in that direction (distal deixis)
  • the use of present tense verbs only, reflecting the immediate ‘now’ of the speaker, with no reference to a past or future outside of that immediate context.

Semino argues that the lack of distal deixis works with the free verse structure and lack of punctuation to make it hard for the reader to distinguish between the different times and places of the speaker’s action, creating a sense of confusion and lack of boundaries. She also argues that the wodwo focuses on itself, and its ‘here’ and ‘now’, without reference to or distinction in relation to other places, times and beings. This all contributes to sense of a mind unable to differentiate the world beyond its own immediate experience.

Semino next analyses the deixis of Christopher, Haddon’s narrator, and explores how the deictic patterning here contributes to the impression of a mind with autism. She starts by noting some salient linguistic features of Christopher’s narration, such as his (generally) limited vocabulary. She then turns to Christopher’s inability to use deictic pronouns (like ‘he’ or ‘it’) to refer to people or things he’s just mentioned, instead repeating full noun phrases (such as ‘the man’ and ‘the window’), arguably reflecting a difficulty in comprehending his environment. She also foregrounds Christopher’s unusually high use of the deictic pronoun ‘I’, and his unusually low of use of ‘you’ (apart from, occasionally, a general ‘you’, as in ‘one’) and of ‘we’, suggesting a limited will or ability to talk about, and relate to, the mental states and beliefs of others.

Semino cites the interpretative impressions of several literary critics who talk about the speakers of these texts as having unusual minds. She uses her analysis of the deixis in the two texts, and its integration with other salient features, to show the linguistic bases of these interpretations of the speakers’ nonstandard and egocentric ways of seeing their worlds.

This is a digest of the following article: Semino, E. (2011) ‘Deixis and fictional minds’, Style 45(3), 418-440.

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. Semino explains, in her article, that when discussing ‘Wodwo’ with her students, she asked them to pick out some of the lines in which they felt the deixis was unusual and challenged them to change the wording to a version they felt was closer to that which they’d expect – something more standard. She gave the example of lines like ‘… if I go / to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees’ (lines 21-22). By intervening in and rewriting extracts, students become more aware of the particular effects of the words used. Deictic language is frequent in the poems studied in Poetic voices (AS and A level). Students could be guided through examining the effects of the deictic patterning in the poetry of John Donne, Robert Browning, Carol Ann Duffy or Seamus Heaney through rewriting some of the more deictically dense lines. By comparing alternative versions, students can explore how the subjective points of view of the poetic personas are constructed as more or less standard and as more or less egocentric.
  1. Deixis is used in literary narration to construct and convey the parameters of a fictional world and the position and perspective of a speaker within it. We use deixis in spoken discourse, too, to depict remembered places, to enable a hearer to imagine and orient themselves within the surroundings. However, places can be described equally vividly without any use of orienting deixis – without reference to a particular perspective. In looking at the anthology of texts explored in Remembered places (AS and A level), students could investigate which speakers tend to convey remembered places with little or no deixis, and which speakers depict a place through reference to a perspective within it. In the latter case, students could explore whether that perspective is the speaker’s own remembered position or a ‘projected’ position. Students could also explore collaborative use of deixis, in conversational interactions, whereby speakers negotiate and clarify subjective positions and orientations within their respective imaginative conceptualisations of the place.
  1. Within her article, Semino reports how she compared the frequency of the wodwo’s and Christopher’s uses of ‘I’ with the frequency of ‘I’ in the ‘Imaginative Writing’ section of the British National Corpus Sampler (which contains approximately 233 000 words). In doing so, she verified her intuition that the wodwo and Christopher use ‘I’ much more frequently than is standard in imaginative writing, providing clear evidence of their comparative egocentricity. CLiC 1.0 (see is a freely available online corpus tool which can be used by students for personal investigations like these within their work on Making connections (A level).
  2. As mentioned above, Semino looks at how Christopher’s limited vocabulary contributes to her impressions of his mind. Authors construct a character’s personal vocabulary, at the level of lexis, and combine this with personal styles of expression at higher discourse levels, such as styles of phrasing, of conversational interaction, and so on, to convey a fully-fledged, believable and individual ‘mind’. Students can explore how authors create characters’ mind styles through this combination of personal vocabulary and expressions in their study of their set novel Imagined worlds (A level) and use this to construct their own voices when completing textual intervention tasks Writing about society (A level).


Positioning readers (reading suggestions)


Reading time: 2 minutes

This reading list is designed to guide teachers towards further reading related to the digest on Peter Stockwell’s article ‘The positioned reader’.

  1. Michael Toolan (2001)

Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction, 2nd edn., London: Routledge.

This is an excellent introduction to narrative and so would be of interest to teachers generally. Chapter 3 offers an introduction to the relationship between author, reader, narrator and narratee, which would be useful for the study of Imagined worlds (A level), Views and voices (AS level).

  1. Peter Stockwell (2002)

Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, London: Routledge.

This is the best introduction to the field of cognitive poetics, offering detailed explanations of a range of topics with suggestions for further reading. The opening chapter also explores the concept of literary reading from a stylistic perspective and offers some interesting insights on context and meaning that teachers might find useful to explore with their classes.

  1. Peter Stockwell (2009)

Texture: A Cognitive Aesthetics of Reading, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

This is a more advanced discussion of some of the topics in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, including an analysis using the concept of deictic braiding (chapter 4) and mind-modelling (chapter 5).

  1. Joanna Gavins (2007)

Text World Theory: An Introduction, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

 Gavins’ book is the best and most accessible introduction to Text World Theory, a model that aims to account for the ways in which readers are positioned to navigate various mental stances in the act of reading. The early chapters give a good overview of cognitive poetics and are also useful for their discussion of the role of contextual factors in various acts of communication.

  1. Marcello Giovanelli (2013)

Text World Theory and Keats’ Poetry: The Cognitive Poetics of Desire, Dreams and Nightmares, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

 This book is a detailed Text World Theory study of four of Keats’ poems. Chapters 5 and 9 in particular explore the ways that a detailed analysis of the text can demonstrate the kind of reader positioning that Stockwell argues for in his article.

Just where do I stand? How do texts position their readers? (Research digest)


Reading time: 5 minutes

Who decides what a text means? The writer? The reader? The text itself? This depends on how you view the act of reading!

Some schools of thought regard the writer of literary fiction as the ‘authority’ over its meaning and give prominence to readings that attach a biographical significance to texts, place them firmly within a historical, social and cultural content of production and foreground authorial intention. On the other hand, reader-response theories highlight the importance of a reader’s belief systems, experiences and competencies in bringing the text to life through interaction – sometimes downplaying the role of the author completely. Then there are those theories and frameworks of reading that focus on the text itself, viewing it as a self-contained entity that simply requires close analysis to unlock its meaning.

Peter Stockwell addresses the question of meaning within the parameters of recent work in stylistics, arguing that a reader is positioned to adopt a particular vantage point towards events and characters in a fictional world. Stockwell begins his paper by distinguishing between two types of reading: everyday reading that is focused on the text itself (‘direct consciousness’); and a more scholarly and inward-looking analytical reading that is focused on trying to explain how a reader engages with a literary work (‘self-consciousness’). This latter ‘thinking about reading’ is, Stockwell suggests, the focus of stylistics as a discipline. In the context of his discussion, he draws largely on a branch of stylistics called ‘cognitive poetics’ that has been influenced by advances in cognitive science, linguistics and psychology.

Stockwell is interested in a way of re-establishing what he terms the ‘ethical dimension’ of literary reading. That is, he argues for viewing literature as a ‘rhetorical act of communication’ between writer and reader. He sees reading as a combination of text-driven constraints and a reader’s own disposition, a stance that draws together aspects of both author-centred and reader-centred theories. Stockwell also suggests that readers will often attempt to assign some kind of authority/agency to their imagined version of the author (he calls this process ‘mind modelling’), arguing that the claims that “an author thought this…” is often a kind of readerly short-cut where the notions of a real life person and implied author are conflated. In other words, readers will naturally try very hard to see a reading experience as an interaction between two people.

To explain the importance of a text-driven approach, Stockwell uses the terms ‘preferred’ and ‘dispreferred responses’ (borrowed from interactional sociolinguistics) as a way of differentiating between types of reading. He argues that most literary works have a ‘text-driven preferred response’ – for example, it would be very hard (but not impossible) to read Nineteen Eighty-Four and feel attracted to the political system and government of Airstrip One. Whilst a preferred response can be very defined (e.g. the message in Nineteen Eighty-Four) or clear but undefined (e.g. when a reader feels a sense of chaos in absurdist fiction), Stockwell suggests that all literature will contain textual patterns that motivate certain kinds of interpretations and impose constraints that make others dispreferred.

In the final part of his paper, Stockwell shows how readers navigate various ethical positions, adopting mental stances that are textually realised by shifts in time, place, modalised expressions that make suggestions about how things should be or might be, metaphors, reported speech and thought, negation, and hypotheticals. Using a combination of two cognitive poetic models, Text World Theory and Deictic Shift Theory, he argues that several versions of the reading-self (or what are termed ‘enactors’) can be tracked as part of the reading process. This in turn can account for the idea that reading has a ‘transformative effect’ and readers feel moved by the narrative, shifting their attitudes towards characters, events and concepts.

Stockwell ends his discussion with a detailed analysis of three extracts from Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte), Emma (Jane Austen) and Cat’s Cradle (Kurt Vonnegurt). In each of these, he uses the concept of ‘deictic braiding’, a kind of complex patterning around the various types of deixis 1 (person, time, space, social relations and textuality) to explain how these texts position their readers.

Overall, Stockwell is careful to point out that although it is readers, rather than texts, who create meanings, we should be mindful of the ways that textual imposition and readerly disposition work together in the complex act of meaning-making. This acknowledges the potential of texts to evoke meaningsthe relationship between author and reader and provides a motivation for rigorous stylistic analysis. Stockwell is clear to point out that that it is simply not enough to say that a reader is positioned by a text but that it is also ‘essential to observe and analyse how that positioning has occurred’.

This is a digest of the following article: Stockwell, P. (2013) ‘The positioned reader’, Language and Literature 22(3), 263–277.

Using this in teaching and learning

You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s specification in the following ways

  1. The term ‘preferred response’ can also be understood as the kind of reading that is most commonly held about a particular text. Ask students to explore literary criticism and the responses of other readers (using online reviews) on their chosen novel (Imagined worlds, A level; Views and voices, AS level). What do they notice? How can they account for any radical readings (‘dispreferred responses’)?
  2. John Donne, Robert Browning, Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy (Poetic Voices, A level; Views and Voices, AS level) have all been described as poets who offer strong moral messages. How might students use the terms positioned reader, preferred response and dispreferred response to discuss their work? One interesting exercise would be to take one poem that appears to have a very clear message and try to read it in alternative terms. How difficult is this? Does the language mean that some interpretations simply are less possible (or even impossible)?
  3. Stockwell’s paper concentrates solely on literature but students could also explore these ideas with non-literary material and apply this to non-literary material from the AQA Anthology as well (Remembered Places, A and AS level)
  4. The activities above could motivate a personal investigation on a literary text and some non-literary data (Making Connections, A level). Students could explore material that has a very strong moral message and undertake a fine-tuned analysis of the ways in which the texts impose certain points of view. This would work particularly well, for example, with science-fiction and political discourse. Can they explain how that positioning has occurred?

Using corpus linguistic methods in the classroom: A one-day workshop for A-level teachers


Reading time: 1 minute

Corpus linguistics uses computer software to study large collections of data. In the classroom it can make exciting and enabling links between traditional language and literature teaching and ICT. This one-day workshop will offer practical hands-on activities and take-away exercises specifically for extension activities and independent study.

In the morning session we will give a broad introduction to corpus linguistics relevant to both language and literature topics. In the afternoon we will focus in particular on exercises for narrative fiction. In addition to acquiring skills that can directly be applied to support students in their preparation for non-exam assessment (NEA), participants will also take away pre-prepared exercises for the classroom to support innovative corpus-based work with a range of texts.

The workshop will focus on freely available and easy-to use tools and does not require any previous experience. It will be particularly useful for those teaching AQA’s AS and A-level English Language and Literature and Language specifications but will also be of interest to those teaching on other AQA specifications.

The workshop will be led by Professor Michaela Mahlberg (University of Birmingham) and Professor Peter Stockwell (University of Nottingham), who are both internationally-renowned for their work in applied linguistics and stylistics.  They are currently working on the AHRC-funded project:  “Characterisation in the representation of speech and body language from a corpus linguistic perspective”. As part of this project they are developing the free online tool CLiC to support the corpus linguistic study of 19th century fiction.

Day: Monday 16th November, 2015

Time: 10.30 – 4.00

Venue: University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT

Registration:  Register to attend here.

Deadline for registration: 12 November 2015

Cost: free

Authors: Michaela Mahlberg and Peter Stockwell

Introductory reading on stylistics (reading suggestions)


Reading time: 2 minutes

Here, we give details of a recently-published research report that explores the nature of integrated lang-lit work in schools/colleges and higher education and of three books that we feel teachers would find useful and interesting as they begin to teach AQA’s specification. All of these books cover topics in stylistics generally and so would be of use to teachers working on any of the AS and A-level units.

1. Billy Clark, Marcello Giovanelli, and Andrea Macrae (2015)

‘Language and Literature: From A Level to BA: 
Student Backgrounds and First Year Content’, available here.

This report is a recently published and very useful overview that explores and compares the nature of integrated lang-lit work at Post-16 and in higher education. We completed this initially as part of research carried out for the Higher Education Academy in 2013 and before the current specification was developed and launched.

2. Paul Simpson (2014)

Stylistics: A Resource Book for Students, 2nd edn., London: Routledge.

Simpson’s book (now in its second edition) is part of the excellent Routledge English Language Introductions (series editor Peter Stockwell). It provides a thorough overview of the subject together with activities, commentaries and extracts from some key readings. This is highly recommended reading for all Post-16 teachers.

3. Geoffrey Leech and Mick Short (2007)

Style in Fiction: A Linguistic Introduction to English Fictional Prose, 2nd edn, London: Longman.

This is a classic text (again now in its second edition). There are plenty of practical examples of stylistics at work through detailed analyses of a range of prose texts. Chapter 10 offers a seminal introduction to the categorisation of speech and thought presentation, which would be really useful to teachers working on Imagined worlds (A level) and/or Views and voices (AS level).

4. Christiana Gregoriou (2012)

English Literary Stylistics, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

This is a relatively more accessible book that covers stylistics in all three literary genres, including two very good final chapters on drama. There are also dedicated ‘practice’ chapters full of tasks and commentaries, many of which could be used with AS and A level groups.

“Well, quite!” Gendered language in the novels of Jane Austen (research digest)


Reading time: 4 minutes

In this digest, we look at how one researcher has explored the use of a particular lexical item in the speech of male and female characters in Jane Austen’s novels.

The question of whether men and women speak differently is one that’s been hotly debated for many years. Current thinking in linguistics suggests that male and female speech styles are not driven by biological differences. Instead it is argued that speakers construct and perform gendered identities for themselves, which may either draw on or challenge perceived stereotypes. The idea is that gender is something that speakers and writers ‘do’ as part of a more or less deliberate projecting of identity. But how might these ideas be explored in literary representations of gendered language? In a recent study on the use of the adverb ‘quite’ in three Jane Austen novels, Victorina González-Díaz of the University of Liverpool demonstrates how Austen plays on eighteenth and nineteenth century stereotypes of female speech in the construction of her characters.

González-Díaz starts by tracing how research in linguistics has demonstrated that there are five main functions of ‘quite’:

  • as a manner adverb, indicating how something happened (this use of ‘quite’ disappeared in the Middle English period)
  • as a maximiser, synonymous with ‘entirely’, ‘completely’ eg ‘That is quite true’
  • as a scalar degree modifier, suggesting a point on a scale eg ‘He is quite old’
  • as an emphasiser indicating a writer or speaker’s opinion on an expression, synonymous with ‘honestly’, ‘truthfully’ eg ‘That is quite what happened’
  • as a response particle commenting on something that has already been said eg ‘Teachers should be paid more’ said the Secretary of State ‘Quite!’ replied the union leader.

González-Díaz explores late eighteenth and early nineteenth century uses of ‘quite’ and finds that the maximiser function of ‘quite’ tends to occur most frequently, while use of ‘quite’ as a scalar-degree modifier, emphasiser or particle response are less frequent. Reviewing the prevailing eighteenth century attitudes towards standards, notions of correctness and prescriptivism, she concludes that ‘quite’ used as a maximiser would have been considered the default and therefore ‘correct’ function, whilst the others would have been viewed as linguistic novelties and therefore corruptions.

Gender - well quiteGonzález-Díaz then analyses frequencies of each of the functions of ‘quite’ across narration and characters’ speech in Pride and Prejudice (early career), Mansfield Park (mid career), and Emma (later career). Her analyses show that across all of the novels there is frequent use of maximiser, scalar degree and emphasiser forms of ‘quite’ with relatively few if any examples of response particle use. However, and more interestingly, González-Díaz highlights the difference between use of ‘quite’ between male and female characters. While male characters used ‘quite’ on fewer occasions and where they did, used the conventional maximiser function, female characters not only used ‘quite’ generally more frequently, but often used the more novel scalar degree and emphasiser functions. They therefore could be said to use more linguistic novelties but crucially, also display a greater versatility in using ‘quite’ in functionally different ways depending on the contexts they spoke in.

González-Díaz contextualises these findings by explaining that the novels work as literary representations of gendered identity since in the eighteenth century, standard and correct forms of language were often associated with male speech; in contrast, linguistic novelties would have been associated with female language. So, we have the beginning of the kind of gendered stereotyping that persisted well into the late twentieth century – and some might argue still persists in the twenty-first!

To conclude, González-Díaz argues that Austen was probably very conscious of this kind of stereotyping and exploited this for her own literary effects. Rather than drawing on her experience of natural speech, Austen was able to integrate contemporary stereotypes about male and female language into her novels in order both to draw attention to them and, given the versatility of female characters, to provide some ironic comment on these crude distinctions about male and female speech!

This is a digest of the following article: González-Díaz, V. (2014) ‘’I quite detest the man’: Degree adverbs, female language and Jane Austen’, Language and Literature 23(4), 310-330.

Taking it further

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. Ask students to explore the distribution of a particular lexical item or discourse marker across male and female characters in the novel they are studying (Imagined worlds, A-level; Views and voices, AS). What patterns emerge? Do authors play on stereotypes of male and female speech? What interpretative effects might these have?
  2. When studying dialogue, either represented (Imagined worlds, A-level; Writing about society, A-level; Dramatic encounters, A-level) or natural speech (Remembered places, AS and A-level), students could look at male-female interaction. You could introduce them to some of the main ideas from sociolinguistics around gendered language and ask them to explore any connections between real and literary representations of discourse.
  3. Remembering that explorations of language and gender can also focus on male language, explore the construction of male identities in the poetry of John Donne or Robert Browning (Poetic Voices, A-level; Views and Voices, AS), in material from the AQA Anthology (Remembered Places, AS and A-level) or in any of the dramatic texts on the specification (Dramatic encounters, A-level).
  4. The activities above could form a personal investigation on a literary text and some non-literary data (Making Connections, A-level) that explores representations of gender, speech styles, idiolects, the construction of identity and so on.