22. Reading Obstacles 10: Multiple Speakers in a Text



It is important to recognise whether a point in a text comes from the writer or somebody else


Sometimes the writer of a text is the only “speaker” in it: nothing is presented as having come from any other person. At other times, however, there are other “speakers” in a text besides the writer: in one or more particular places, the writer indicates that s/he is not the originator of what is being said.

Recognising speakers – the people responsible for particular information or beliefs in a text – is an important reading skill. There is a wide range of English words and structures that readers must be familiar with in order to master this skill. In this post I aim to highlight some of the most important of these words and structures.



1. Names or Descriptions of another Originator

Associating an idea with the name or description of another originator is an obvious way of dissociating it from the writer. Names might be ordinary or academic, e.g. Ghandi or Smith (2013), while descriptions might refer to individuals like an advocate, or groups like experts or policy makers.

All of these are easily linked to their relevant idea in a classic direct or indirect speech way, with either a verb of saying or thinking like ARGUE (Gandhi argued that …), or an equivalent such as according to … (According to Gandhi, …). For details, see 127. When to Use Indirect SpeechDirect speech has an additional clue that distances it from the writer: the special punctuation called quotation marks.

One common equivalent of a verb of saying or thinking is a related noun (often followed by that). Such nouns will usually be of the “action” kind, made by making a small change, or even none at all, to the spelling of a verb e.g. argument, belief, claim, idea, statement and suggestion (see 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns).

With nouns of this kind, a speaker’s name can be added by means of an apostrophe ending (e.g. Gandhi’s argument that …) or a by phrase (the argument by Gandhi that …). For details, see 85. Optional Apostrophe Endings and 49. Prepositions after Action Nouns 2. Speaker descriptions, on the other hand, are likely to be communicated through adjectives (e.g. common consent, expert opinion, academic argument, the popular imagination, widespread condemnation) or nouns used like adjectives (government advice, university regulations).

One other way of linking a speaker’s name to an idea is possible only with academic references like Smith (2013). These can simply go directly after the reported point, with the brackets repositioned, like this:

(a) Film violence encourages antisocial behaviour (Smith, 2013).


2. Implied Existence of another Originator

Quite often, instead of naming or describing a different originator of an idea, a writer will merely imply their existence. One way of doing this is by inserting special adverbs like reportedly, reputedly or by all accounts into an ordinary statement. Another way is by using a passive reporting verb without by, often after an introductory it:

(b) Film violence is said TO encourage violent behaviour.

(c) It is said THAT film violence encourages violent behaviour.

Note the need for that when the sentence starts with it, and to otherwise. The former means report verbs that generally do not allow that (e.g. CRITICISE – see 79. Grammar Problems in Quotation Writing) cannot be used after it. For more on sentences like (c), see 103. Postponed Subjects in “It” Sentences.

Report nouns too can be used without any naming of an originator. They might be combined with there is (there is a belief that…; see 161. Special Uses of “There” Sentences), or perhaps an adjective indicating agreement or disagreement, such as convincing or naive (see 152. Agreeing and Disagreeing in Formal Contexts). For example, a convincing case implies that the writer has listened to someone else making the case before agreeing with it.

Combining a verb with may can also, in the right circumstances, imply the responsibility of other people for an idea. Consider this:

(d) Coal MAY be a cheap fuel, BUT it harms the environment.

The message here is that the cheapness of coal as a fuel has been raised in its support by someone other than the writer. It is not just the use of may that suggests this: the subsequent but helps too. In addition, this but says that the idea after it is more important for the writer. Full details about the meaning and alternative wording of this often confusing combination are in the Guinlist post 51. Making Concessions with “May”, while there is information about its use in 168. Ways of Arguing 2.

A very different way of merely implying that an idea is not the writer’s is the use of quotation marks without any mention of who or where the quoted words come from, like this:

(e) It is simplistic to blame every social and economic problem on the “population explosion”.

Quotations like this are very different from the kind mentioned above that have a named originator: as well as attributing the quoted idea to somebody other than the writer, they indicate an attitude of the writer’s to it – either positive or negative depending on the context. In (e), for example, the writer could be unhappy with either the wording of the underlined idea or the idea itself. A positive attitude might arise, by contrast, because the quoted words are somehow cleverer than the writer’s ones could ever be.



The main means of linking a fact or opinion with the writer of a text is simply the absence of any language making a link with anyone else. However, writers do also have some means of more clearly asserting their ownership of an idea. Sometimes they will use a reporting verb with I or we, but not often because those words are usually felt to be inappropriate in professional writing (See 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”). Reporting verbs might be used without I or we like this:

(f) Common sense suggests that inefficient firms lose money. (WRITER-DISCOVERED FACT)

(g) Constructing new roads, it can be argued, increases rather than cuts traffic. (WRITER’S OWN OPINION)

There do not seem to be many ways in which a reporting verb might accompany a fact without I or we. Others besides that in (f) include is easily seen/shown (that/to …). Alongside opinions, on the other hand, it is quite common to find it can be with argued, maintained or said. Note the need for can be rather than is (see 107. The Language of Opinions). Other possible opinion-showing expressions include one can argue (that), it is not unreasonable to argue (that), appears (that/to …) and seems (that/to …).

A rather different way in which writers show ownership of a fact or opinion is by means of adverbs. Fact adverbs include clearly, obviously, manifestly and patently. Any of these could replace the underlined words at the start of (f). Opinion adverbs, which could replace the underlined words in (g), include arguably, in all likelihood, perhaps, possibly, probably and seemingly (see 96. Hedging 2, under “Potentially False Statements”, 107. The Language of Opinions and 121. Sentence-Spanning Adverbs).

One other way in which writers emphasise ownership of an opinion is by means of the above-mentioned combination of may and but. At the same time as may is attributing the first part of a sentence (and its implied opinion) to somebody else, but is linking the second part/opinion with the writer.


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