LINGUIST List 14.2658

Thu Oct 2 2003

Review: Discourse Analysis: Scheibman (2002)

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  • Julia Penelope, Point of View and Grammar

    Message 1: Point of View and Grammar

    Date: Wed, 01 Oct 2003 19:06:08 +0000
    From: Julia Penelope <>
    Subject: Point of View and Grammar

    Scheibman, Joanne (2002) Point of View and Grammar: Structural Patterns of Subjectivity in American English Conversation, John Benjamins Publishing Company, Studies in Discourse and Grammar 11.

    Announced at

    Julia Penelope, unaffiliated scholar.


    Beginning with an observation common among linguists who work with language use -- that there seems to be little substantive information passed among participants in conversations -- Scheibman asks why speakers use a limited number of conventionalized structural patterns in interactive discourse when linguists know that, theoretically, language users have access to an infinite number of structural combinations. She responds by positing that, in actual language use, grammatical structures function more to indicate the speaker's point of view, not to provide propositional information, as many theories of language assume. In support of the thesis that the import of conversational use is subjective, Point of View and Grammar presents an analysis of the language of 33 adult speakers of American English (21 women and 12 men) recorded in nine audiotaped informal conversations. In all, 80 minutes of conversation were coded for analysis, resulting in 2,425 utterances. Chapters 3 through 4 present the results of the statistical analysis of those utterances. Appendix A provides readers with the transcription symbols used to code suprasegmental and metalinguistic elements of the utterances, and Appendix B lists the 32 intermediate function verbs (e.g., ''be going to,'' ''be supposed to,'' ''need,'' ''ought to,'' ''wanna,'' etc.) in the database.

    Chapter 1, ''Linguistic subjectivity and usage-based linguistics,'' introduces the theoretical background for the study and provides a brief survey of scholarly research on how speaker point of view is signaled by various grammatical elements (for example, the progressive and perfect aspect, modals, tense and clause chaining) and specific collocations such as the English verb ''remember,'' which is used most frequently with ''I'' + ''don't.'' Her review of the literature contextualizes the major thesis of Scheibman's study -- that the use of specific grammatical structures, and even some lexical choices, reflects the speaker's subjectivity -- and her challenge to the privileged role of propositional transmission in theoretical linguistics, assumed to be the primary function of language. Arguing that there are entire subfields of linguistics that attend to the expressive functions of language, she turns to the developing field of usage-based linguistics and its emphasis on the interactive and prosodic features of spontaneous conversation, features often treated marginally, if at all, by linguistic theories that start by assuming that the primary function of language is referential (presenting propositions that transmit information about the world) rather than focusing on how language functions expressively (providing information about how speakers position themselves in the world and their perceptions and evaluations of people, objects, and events). Subsequent chapters present the evidence that the structures that occur most frequently in conversation are those that express speaker point of view.

    Chapter 2, ''Classification and coding of conversational data,'' describes some of the problems with treating spontaneous conversation as linguistic data (e.g., ''units of grammar are not necessarily units in conversation,'' 18), the sources of the data that she analyzed, and how the conversational utterances were coded for analysis. Noting that one limitation of the study is the inaccessibility of gestural and other kinesthetic information (because the data were collected on audiotapes), Scheibman points out that such visual information, although inherently significant to conversational interactions and the expression of speaker subjectivity, does not bear directly on her project, describing how speaker stance is communicated by ''the frequency and cooccurrence of lexical and grammatical elements'' (20). The remainder of the chapter describes in detail how the 2,425 utterances were coded and the kinds of decisions that had to be made about how specific elements were to be understood. Coding the utterances for analysis was not as straightforward as one might think, and Scheibman's discussions of the role of interpretation in making such decisions are detailed illustrations of why understanding language use cannot be ignored in theoretical expositions. The coding system was used to test hypotheses about how linguistic elements in English signal speaker subjectivity and to make it possible to engage in more open- ended exploration.

    Chapter 3, ''Patterns of subjectivity in person and predicate,'' begins with a restatement of two theoretical assumptions introduced in Chapter 1: (1) language, particularly conversational language, is subjective because speakers use it to express their point of view; (2) grammar -- conventionalized linguistic structures -- emerges from the repeated use of lexical and grammatical elements in natural discourse. Scheibman joins these assumptions to suggest two general hypotheses: (1) the linguistic elements that occur frequently in conversational use should be those that express speaker subjectivity (for example, adjectives such as ''great'' and ''good'' that express valuation); (2) there should be found a higher cooccurrence of items in combination that express speaker subjectivity than those that do not. She goes on to say that, in fact, the most commonly occurring combinations of subjects and predicates in the database are those that enable speakers to note their contributions to conversations, evaluate, and mark attitude and situation. The remainder of the chapter is organized by subject (1s, 2s, 3, 1p, 3p); within those sections, she discusses the predicates that occur most frequently with each subject (for example, ''think,'' ''know,'' and ''guess'' are the cognition verbs that occur most frequently with first person singular subjects, and ''know'' is the most frequently occurring verb in the present tense group). Twenty-seven tables present the statistical analysis of the types of verbs that cooccur with different subjects in the conversational database.

    Chapter 4, ''The evaluative character of relational clauses,'' focuses on the largest group of third person singular subjects, those that occur with relational predicates, a majority of which are copular clauses. Relational clauses occur the most frequently in the database, accounting for 30 percent of the data tokens in Scheibman's study and, she points out, describing the kinds of relations that speakers usually express bears directly on her hypothesis that the most frequent structures used in conversation are those that express speaker subjectivity. Fifteen tables present the statistical analysis of third person singular subjects by predicate type, tense, and animacy of subject type, and so on. Scheibman concludes, on the basis of this analysis, that a majority of third person singular utterances do not describe the properties of people and events in the world; rather, such utterances ''endow events, ideas, and entities with characteristics'' based on speakers' evaluations'' (158). And, because such utterances are not marked as first person, their use to convey subjective information is covert, making it likely that they will be accepted as objective descriptions unmediated by speaker point of view.

    Chapter 5 presents Scheibman's conclusions drawn from her analysis in Chapters 3 and 4: (1) the conventional classes and categories used to describe linguistic elements, for example, subject and predicate, are not as paradigmatically autonomous in interactive, spontaneous discourse; (2) the functions of language -- the expression of subjective valuations and the provision of objective propositions -- are not discrete and are best understood as a continuum; (3) in contrast to authoritative speech, which assumes the consensus of participants in o rder to present a stabilized reality, interactive speech, which is filled with explicit markers of subjectivity, creates a space that allows for the negotiation of meaning among participants.


    Do not allow the numerous tables and statistics to keep you from reading this book. It is one of the most exciting linguistic texts I've read in years. The tables provide a visual presentation of the statistical results, making it possible for Scheibman to devote large portions of the text to exploring the implications of her findings. In Point of View and Grammar, she brings together research done by some of the best minds in linguistics over the past 40 years and presents a synthesis, grounded in usage-based analysis, that promises a broader, more fruitful approach to language and cognition and how language use reflects our understanding of ourselves and others in the world.


    Julia Penelope is now a freelance lexicographer and copy editor. While actively engaged in linguistic research, she focused on language use, in particular the variety of agentless passive constructions available to English speakers and instrumental metaphors, and the interpretive strategies such linguistic structures forced on hearers, and the ways misogyny is expressed in English and in grammars of the language.