LINGUIST List 21.5041

Mon Dec 13 2010

Review: Sociolinguistics: Richardson (2010)

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        1.     Jessie Sams , Television Dramatic Dialogue

Message 1: Television Dramatic Dialogue
Date: 13-Dec-2010
From: Jessie Sams <>
Subject: Television Dramatic Dialogue
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AUTHOR: Richardson, KayTITLE: Television Dramatic DialogueSUBTITLE: A Sociolinguistic StudySERIES: Oxford Studies in SociolinguisticsPUBLISHER: OxfordYEAR: 2010

Jessie Sams, Department of English, Stephen F. Austin State University


This book was published in the Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics Series. As thetitle and subtitle suggest, Richardson's primary goal is to study dialogue intelevision shows from a sociolinguistic perspective, and she presents her studyin three sections: (1) an analysis of what the term ''television dramaticdialogue'' means and previous research in the field; (2) how to study suchdialogue from a sociolinguistic perspective; and (3) more specific analyses fromtwo television shows, 'Life on Mars' and 'House'.


Richardson begins her study by defining TV dramatic dialogue ''asonscreen/on-mike talk delivered by characters as part of dramatic storytellingin a range of fictional and nonfictional TV genres'' (p. 3). Her definition of TVdramatization includes more than those shows that would typically fall under thegenre 'drama', pointing out that even ''[g]eneric categorization is no guaranteeof similar language use'' (p. 15). Studying dialogue to understand the overallimpact of TV shows on audiences is particularly important, as ''speaking voiceshave a potential hold on viewers' attention that is qualitatively differentfrom'' other types of auditory input (p. 17).

The first chapter not only defines the type of dialogue Richardson will beconcerned with throughout the book but also focuses on the variety of purposesdialogue can serve in TV shows. When looking at dialogue, she does not solelyfocus on linguistic content, per se, but rather on the linguistic structure ofthe interactions and their contextualization, and she notes the differencesbetween vocal and verbal meanings of dialogue.

After defining TV dramatic dialogue and its purposes and importance in TV shows,Richardson provides an overview of previous studies that are relevant to thesociolinguistic analysis of dialogue. Her survey covers ''[g]eneral attempts tounderstand the communicative basis of screen dialogue'' and studies more focusedon ''particular kinds of dialogue'' or ''communicative forms'' (p. 40). Her surveyalso includes cognitive approaches to TV dialogue; she writes that such studiesserve ''the useful function of drawing attention to social meanings brought *to*the text *by* the audience, as well as those that might be taken away from thetext by them'' (p. 41).

Moving on from definitions and previous studies, Richardson examines differingapproaches to studying dialogue, including looking at dialogue fromscreenwriters' and audiences' perspectives, as well as thinking about dialogue'splace in studies of social interaction and cognition. She first focuses on thedifferences between TV dialogue and characteristics of the types of dialoguefound in conversational speech, written genres, and nonscripted journalism. Forinstance, when comparing characteristics of TV dramatic dialogue to those ofconversational speech, she points out that comprehensibility is a major factorof TV dramatic dialogue; if there is too much overlap of utterances in theinteraction, audiences may not be able to understand or follow the interaction.While TV dramatic dialogue differs from conversational speech, it is trendingtoward realism; that is, screenwriters are attempting to make dialogue morerepresentational of what audience members might hear on a daily basis. Thistrend toward realism is showing up in formulaic utterances in dialogues, andRichardson points out that ''[f]unctionally basic dialogue in television … neednot be uninteresting or poorly written'' (p. 57).

Richardson also focuses on the separation of screenwriter from actor, actor fromcharacter, and representation from audience interpretation, pointing out that''[i]t is instructive to learn about how and where the lines are drawn betweenwriting, acting, and directing, and the effects of these demarcation lines onthe product'' (p. 85). She states that screenwriters, actors, and audiencesunderstand that drama is a representation; as a representation, TV dramaticdialogue simulates everyday dialogue without being everyday dialogue (i.e., TVdramatic dialogue is moving toward realism, not necessarily naturalism).

One way that Richardson separates the screenwriters' responsibilities from theactors' is that the writers are expected to provide words for the utterances butthe actors are expected to put realism into those utterances. One way suchrealism can be injected into dialogue is through the insertion of disfluencies:''… expressions of disfluency are not part of *the (verbal) meaning* but insteadare performance *errors*. Writers are meant to manage meaning only up to thisparticular water's edge'' (p. 65). In other words, writers provide what theactors need to say, leaving how those words will be performed to the actors.

While focusing on the separation of duties in creating realistic TV dramaticdialogue, Richardson states that the duties are understood but not oftenexplicitly stated; in fact, she notes several times that there is not a wealthof guides available for writing quality dramatic dialogue. Instead, goodscreenwriters are often those who are thought to implicitly understand whatincorporates realistic dialogue and how to write such dialogue withoutoverdramatizing: ''Screenwriters do, consciously, know about such things ashesitation phenomena, discourse markers, and hedges, and about some of thefunctions these can serve in spoken interaction. … They know how to use dialogueas a way of advancing the narrative, and they also appreciate that such usagecreates a source of problems for the naturalism they are also obliged tosustain'' (p. 83).

Richardson also looks at how audiences respond to dialogue through threads,blogs, review columns, and fan fiction, and considers different types ofaudiences, including the professional review, the fan, and the ''ordinary''viewer. One way that TV dramatic dialogue takes on a life outside the TVimagined world is through catchphrases -- those phrases that become soassociated with a particular character that audience members repeat the phrasein similar real-world situations where the character might say it. One thingRichardson notes about catchphrases is that they are oftentimes made up of quiteordinary language. One example of such a catchphrase is Joey's ''How you doin'?''from 'Friends', which is ''unremarkable, linguistically'' (p. 101).

Richardson continues her survey of possible methods for using TV dramaticdialogue in sociolinguistic studies by looking at dialogue as social interactionand then analyzing characters and their dialogue through theories of socialcognition. When audiences cognitively process characters, they have the optionof top-down processing (i.e., schemata) or bottom-up processing (i.e., buildinga picture of who someone is through linguistic cues in the dialogue). Richardsonnotes that with dramatic language, there is a ''… double articulation of itsdiscourse architecture (communication *among* characters embedded as part ofcommunication between author and audience *via* characters)…'' (p. 147). Thatdouble articulation is what makes studying dramatic dialogue so intricate -- thenumber of possibilities for analyzing any given interaction is quicklymultiplied when the sociolinguistic layers are separated.

Richardson concludes her study with two in-depth analyses of television shows:'Life on Mars' and 'House'. The 'Life on Mars' study focuses on analyzing thedialogue as ''quality'' dialogue and its place in the ''ethnography ofcommunication'' (p. 167). In other words, that particular study is concerned withanalyzing the interaction between the actors and audience. The 'House' study, onthe other hand, focuses on the pragmatics of interactions, specificallyanalyzing the interactions through politeness theory (or, rather, throughimpoliteness theory).


Richardson's book is, at its core, a survey: eight of the ten chapters are morefocused on the breadth of linguistic analysis (i.e., looking at all the possibleways TV dramatic dialogue could be studied within sociolinguistics) while onlytwo chapters focus on the depth of linguistic analysis (i.e., looking atspecific case studies and putting analyses into practice). It is important toapproach the book as a general reference book and not as a solidified case study(an example of a more in-depth case study on TV language is Quaglio 2009).

One of the strongest chapters in the book is the second, which focuses onproviding a solid background of previous sociolinguistic studies: It couldpotentially serve as a stand-alone paper to help students understand the fieldof sociolinguistic research as it applies to media. Throughout the book,Richardson relies on a strong base of diverse sources, including ''pop culture''sources like blogs. The reliance on so many types of sources strengthens herpresentation of how dramatic dialogue can further sociolinguistic study. Anotherstrength of the book is its appendix and notes section; these will benefitstudents and scholars who are interested in furthering their own pursuit ofsociolinguistic study and TV language.

The only concern with the book is that it could be too ambitious in terms of theamount of material being covered in so few pages; with so much ground beingcovered (especially in the breadth analyses), it might be disorienting forstudents who do not have a strong background in sociolinguistic theory. However,this book would serve as a good text for a course studying media throughlinguistics, where each chapter could then serve as the backbone for materialwhich will be covered from week to week.


Quaglio, Paulo. 2009. Television Dialogue: The sitcom 'Friends' vs. naturalconversation. John Benjamins Publishing Company.


Jessie Sams is an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, TX. Her primary research interests include the intersection of syntax and semantics, genre studies based on linguistic features, and English quotatives.

Page Updated: 13-Dec-2010