22. Reading Obstacles 10: Multiple Speakers in a Text

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multspeak

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

THE CONCEPT OF SPEAKERS IN A TEXT

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.

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CLUES THAT AN IDEA DOES NOT ORIGINATE WITH THE WRITER

One basic clue that an idea comes from someone other than the writer is an indication of the other person or people with whom it should be linked. This can be very explicit, or just a slight hint. Explicit indications will often be a name, such as Ghandi or Smith (2013). They may be linked to the relevant point in a classic direct or indirect speech way, with a verb of saying or thinking like argues or equivalent such as according to … (see 127. When to Use Indirect Speech). Alternatively, academic references like Smith (2013) may be found directly after the relevant point, with their brackets repositioned, like this:

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

Another kind of explicit pointer to other people than the writer is a mention of a type of people, such as experts or policy makers. These can make ordinary direct and indirect speech constructions, but cannot normally be used like (Smith 2013) in (a).

Less explicitly, a writer can associate an idea with other people through language that merely implies them. One way is by inserting special adverbs like reportedly or reputedly into the relevant statement. Another way is by using a passive reporting verb, 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. Report verbs that 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. Using “it” for a Subsequent Verb.

Similar to the passive form of a reporting verb is a related noun, such as belief, claim, definition or suggestion (see 131. Uses of “Action” Nouns). Two ways in which these can suggest other people are by following there is (there is a suggestion that …), and by being combined with a people-indicating adjective, as in by common consent or in the popular imagination. Similar adjectives include academic, expert, governmental, occasional, frequent, widespread and universal.

Adjectives suggesting agreement or disagreement – words like convincing and naive (see 152. Agreeing and Disagreeing in Formal Contexts) – can also be used with a report noun to imply other people. For example, a convincing case implies that the writer has listened to someone else making the case before agreeing with it.

A very different basic clue that an idea comes from someone other than the writer is the presence of special punctuation – so-called “quotation marks” – around the relevant words. If these are accompanied by a direct speech or quotation structure, they are likely to have a simple reporting function (reasons why reports might use quotes rather than paraphrases or summaries are considered in the Guinlist post 127. When to Use Indirect Speech).

However, quotation marks can also be used by themselves, with a rather different function. Consider this:

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

This quotation of somebody else’s words within a statement of the writer’s own, without any report verb or speaker reference, does more than just attribute the quoted idea to somebody other than the writer: it also indicates an attitude of the writer’s to it – either positive or negative depending on the context. In (d), for example, the writer could be unhappy with either the way the underlined idea is worded or the idea itself. A positive attitude might arise because the quoted words are somehow cleverer than the writer’s ones could ever be.

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CLUES THAT AN IDEA ORIGINATES WITH THE WRITER

The normal 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:

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

(d) 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 (c) 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 (c). Opinion adverbs, which could replace the underlined words in (d), 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 a special construction combining may with but, as in:

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

These are actually two facts about coal. The opinion that they indicate is the one implied by the words after but: that coal should not be used as a fuel. It may or may not be made explicit elsewhere in the text. Readers are able to understand it purely from the presence within the facts of may and but (or various synonyms of them).

May associates its part of the sentence with people other than the writer. It also shows the writer’s reluctant agreement that the statement made with it cannot be dismissed. In technical terms, may shows “concession”. But, on the other hand, clearly signals the writer’s attachment to what follows. It also shows the writer considers the statement made with it to be more important than the may statement, and hence that the opinion implied by it is the one that the writer holds.

Failing in sentences like (f) to associate may statements with people other than the writer is a common reading error. For a more in-depth examination of this use of may, see 51. Making Concessions with “May”.

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