English In The Mass Media

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Part I: English Language Skills for the Broadcast Media

1.         The nature and primacy of spoken language:

According to Weinert (2010; see also Thorne, 1997), spoken language has the following attributes: It is primary in physiologically and mentally normal human beings, it is usually spontaneous and unplanned and it over laps with written language in some areas but differs substantially from it in structure. Spontaneous spoken language has specific grammatical structures as well as interactional features which can be analyzed in relation to the conditions of spoken language production.  Therefore, typical features found in spoken language are not considered deviants because of performance limitations. While written language is complex with long sentences and several subordinate clauses, spoken language tends to have lots of repetitions, incomplete sentences, corrections and interruptions, with the exception of formal speeches and other types of scripted speech, such as news reports and scripts for plays and films.Spoken language is the most dominant mode of communication in any human society as many people use speech to communicate, using an assortment of registers, in different contexts for diverse reasons.

In written language, writers usually do not receive immediate feedback from their readers except

in computer-based communication.  As a result, they cannot rely on context to explain certain things.  This in turn gives rise to the need to explain more clearly and unambiguously than in spoken language.  In contrast, speech is usually an active interaction between two or more people.  Therefore, context and shared knowledge play a major role.  It is therefore possible to leave many things unsaid or indirectly implied. In written texts, writers use devices such as punctuations, headings, layouts, colours and other graphical effects to provide emotional context.  Since such things are unavailable in spoken language, emotional context is added through the use of timing, tone, volume, timbre, non-verbal signals and interaction.

Spoken language is usually short-lived, unless it is recorded.  Also, speakers can correct themselves and change their utterance as they continue.  This is in contrast to writing which is usually permanent and cannot usually be changed once written or printed out. Like written texts, spoken language can have a variety of purposes.  It may be informative; in a lecture (that is, referential function); social, in an informal conversation (that is phatic communion); it may be aimed at getting something done, as in a telephone call to an electrician (transactional purpose); or to reveal the speaker’s personal state of mind or attitude at a particular time (expressive purpose).  In each instance the context, the audience and the speaker’s intention determine the linguistic and prosodic choices to be made.

2.         The supremacy of spoken language

For several centuries, the written language was considered superior to spoken language because it was the medium of literature, and, therefore, the means of establishing standards for linguistic excellence.  This was because it was believed that written language gave language performance an authority.  Consequently, the rules of grammar were illustrated mainly from written texts. However, there was random disapproval of this perspective throughout the 19th Century.  By the

20th Century, an alternative approach had become common.  The new method suggested that speech predates writing by many thousands of years; children develop speech first and do it naturally (but have to learn to write artificially), human beings; during their lifetime, speak much more than they write; and that writing systems are based on speech sounds.  It has also been suggested that since speech is the key medium of communication among different nationalities, it should be the major focus of linguistic investigation (Crystal 1997).  Syal and Jindal (2010) also argue that language is primarily made up of vocal sounds which are produced by the vocal organs of a speaker and that writing which is the graphic representation of the sounds of a language must have come much later.  They argue further that there are several languages in the world which continue to exist in the spoken form only.


3.         A check list for analyzing spoken discourse:

The following checklist which can be used to identify key features of a spoken discourse is adapted from Thorne (1997).

General questions:

-           Who are the participants and what are their roles?

-           Are they equal in status?

-           What is the purpose of the conversation?

-           How does the context affect the discours?


-           What is the mode? – spoken

-           What is the manner? – Is the relationship between participants formal or informal?

-           What is the field? – The vocabulary will show the theme of the dialogue

Topic Management:

-           Is there one clearly focused topic or are there several unplanned topics?

-           How are the topics chosen? – Are they directly linked to the context (job, interview, lecture)? Or are they related to the pursuits or experiences of the participants in the discourse.

-           Are there any topic shifts? – Who introduces the new topics? ?

-           Are new topics introduced logically from preceding topics or are they unconnected?

-           When a speaker tries to return to a previous topic, are there any linguistic signals after an interruption?

-           How is the end of a topic marked?


-           Are they any examples of adjacency pairs?  Questions and answers? Greetings?  A command and a response?

-           What kind of opening is used? – Neutral? Self-related comment?  Other-related comment? Social greetings? Hospitality tokery? Are vocatives used to personalize the discourse?

-           How is the turn-taking organized? – dominant speaker? equally shared turns? latching on? Overlaps?

-           What kinds of speaker moves are used in the main body of the discourse? – framing? initiating? focusing? supporting? challenging?

-           What kind of closing is used? – is there reference to something outside the speech encounter? repetition? delaying tactics? formulaic utterances?  Self- or other-related remarks?

Prosodic features:

-           Does the speaker vary his interaction patterns to show his attitude? to mark the end of grammatical utterances? to distinguish between new and old information? to indicate the end of a turn?

-           Is there a link between the interaction and the semantics of an expression? – rising? (question); falling? (statement or completion); rising-falling? (reprimand or denial).

-           Does the speaker vary his pitch to indicate his participation in the discourse? – high? (execitment or enthusiasm); low? (formality or seriousness); midway? (everyday conversation)?

-           Are key words highlighted with emphatic stress?

-           Does the volume change significantly to enhance the meaning of utterances?

-           Does the pace change?

-           Does the style of delivery change?

-           What are the functions of the pauses? – to create emphasis? to dramatise an utterance? to make the conversation informal? to let the speaker search for a word? to mark the grammatical end of an utterance?

-           Is the text marked with any vocal effects or para-linguistics?  How do these relate to the actual words spoken/


-           Is the language formal or informal?

-           It is general or focused on a particular subject

-           Are there examples of high-frequency conversational clauses such as: you know, I see, I mean, as in

-           Are there any colloquial idioms or collocations?

-           Is there any evidence of an abbreviated code based on shared knowledge or shared expertise?

-           Are there any ambiguities?

-           Is modification used to create an atmosphere?


-           What kind of clauses are used? – simple? compound? complex? A mixture?

-           Are loosely co-ordinated clauses more frequent than subordinated ones?

            Are there any minor sentences? – Which clause elements are omitted?

-           Are clauses simple or complex? How do they relate to the topic and manner of the speech encounter?

-           Are different grammatical structures used to add variety? – direct speech? reported speech? quotations? changes in mood? changes in voice?

-           Are there any ungrammatical or incomplete expressions ? do other participants show awareness of these?

-           Are there any marked themes?

Normal non-fluency features:

-           Are there any overlaps in the speech turns? – For how long do they last? What causes them? How do the participants respond? Do the overlaps mark an intentional challenge, a supportive minimal vocalization, or a misreading of linguistic clues?

-           Are they any voiced hesitations? – are they preventing interruptions? prolonging a turn? providing thinking time?

-           Are there any false starts? or repetitions?

Dealing with problems:

            Are there any repairs? – self corrections or other corrections?

-           Is any topic reintroduced? after a minimal response or a negative evaluation? Which topic is reintroduced? Why is it considered a safe topic?

-           Is the speaker aware of listener responses?

-           Are there any silences? lack of response to a question? failure to introduce a new topic? utterances misheard?

4.         Features of spoken language:

The term spoken language refers to various types of verbal communication processes, each with distinctive linguistic features. However Thorne (1997) suggests that there a number of characteristic features that set it apart from other types of language. (See also Lucas, 2001).

The Manner: This has to do with whether the speech encounter is formal or informal.  That the speech encounter is formal or informal is usually dependent on the status of the participants.  The inequality in a classroom conversation between teacher and student means that the tone will be formal. In contrast, the equality between two friends talking about their busy weekend means that the tone will be informal.

The speakers: It is important to take into consideration, the relationship between the speakers and their relative status.  While things like the educational, social or economic status of the speakers are fixed, other features are not.  Speakers may take turns in selecting topics or one of the speakers may be more dominant than others.  Sometimes, the focus of the discourse may change, thereby making a different participant the expert.

The topic: The topic and purpose of a speech encounter is usually linked to the manner and participants involved in the encounter.  If the purpose is clearly stated, then the conversation or talk is likely to be a formal one.  While a formal speech is usually written down first with content that is already fixed, the topic of spontaneous casual speech encounter is usually haphazard with no clear pattern or indication that it is deliberately planned.  In a casual spoken encounter, a speaker can introduce an assortment of information or ideas and move from one topic to another but in a formal situation, the topic is less flexible. For instance, a feature on The role of English in Nigeria for a group of undergraduates will be far more organized and content less adaptable than a discussion among friends in the dormitory. In spoken discourse, key points are marked by topic shifts (that is, point where speakers transit from one topic to another). The speaker responsible for introducing new topics is usually the one in charge of turn-taking.  Topics are introduced randomly with participants trying to introduce them as if they come up naturally. In informal discourse this may mean that the main reason for the discourse does not come first.  In informal discourse, the end of topic can be identified by linguistic pointers like by the way, incidentally, that reminds me – In formal discourse the end of a topic can be signaled by expressions such as lastly, to conclude, last but not the least, etc. In formal discourse, the topic of discussion can be changed by using expressions such as: that reminds me incidentally that’s a good question, by the way where was I? Concluding a topic in an informal context can be signaled by expressions such as: so it goes, that’s life, makes you think, doesn’t it? Let’s wait and see (Crystal, 1997).

The structure

Because formal spoken language is often organized on paper before being spoken, it usually adopts structural styles unique to written language. In contrast, informal spoken language has its own idiosyncratic structural features:

Adjacency pairs: These are series of utterances. Adjacency pairs create an identifiable structural pattern, they follow each other, they are produced by different speakers, they have a logical connection and conform to a pattern.  Examples of adjacency pairs are questions and answers, greetings, a command followed by a response, etc.

Question/ Answers:     A:        Are you ready?

B:        Yes, I am

Command/Response   A:        Turn off the light now.

B:        I will right now.

In formal

Turn-taking: In spoken discourse, participants take turns when speaking.  In written or pre-structured conversations like play scripts, interview transcripts and debates, turns are easy to

recognize because a turn begins when a speaker starts speaking and ends when he or she stops

speaking. However, turn boundaries are not always easy to identify because speakers do not

always wait for a previous speaker’s turn to end before they start talking.  That is, in many

conversations (especially informal discourse) there are many instances where more than one

person is speaking at the same time.  In other words, there is an overlap  (Johnstone, 2008)

speakers tend to instinctively know when a turn is about to end that there is hardly ever an

overlap.  For a speaker to stop before another speaker is ready to pick up the conversation,

resulting in a silence, can be just as embarrassing as when a speaker starts before a previous

speaker ends his turn.  Smooth turn-taking is enhanced by speakers’ knowledge of grammar as

speakers know when an utterance is grammatically complete.  Non-verbal clues like changes in eye contact, a gesture intonation, volume, etc can also help to indicate the end of a turn.



 Opening and closing: A number of options are available to a speaker when opening a conversation.  A speaker may open with social greetings such as: Good morning, lovely day! Sorry to trouble you, Can you spare a minute?;hospitality tokens such as: Have a drink, Would you like something to eat or drink?; neutral topics or self- or other-related remarks such as: I found the book you gave me very interesting, Can’t wait to finish with my term paper!  The conversation can also be opened with a topic that reflects the interests and experiences of all the participants such as; What do you think of that phonology class?  I’d really like your help with the syntax assignment. The speech encounter can be rounded off in different ways.  It is quite common to use self- and other-related expressions such: It’s been nice talking to you, I’m sorry, but I have to go now, I’ll give you a call, I’ll see you on Monday, I don’t want to keep you any longer, I can see you’re busy, but it was good to see you. Goodbye, I wish I could talk some more but I have to go, This was fun but I’m running late. In the main body of the dialogue, specific actions or decisions of the speaker known as speaker moves such as framing (in which the overall structure is created by the openings and closings), initiating (which establishes the topic), focusing (in which the direction of a topic is determined by the types of comments made in order to ensure the development of the topic), supporting or following-up (in which discussion of a topic is encouraged) and challenging (in which topics are attempted or new ones introduced without mutual agreement of participants).

Prosodic Features: The human voice is produced when air expelled from the lungs or chest cavity passes through the larynx or voice box where it is vibrated to generate sound.  This sound is reformed and augmented as it resounds through the throat, oral and nasal paths.  This sound is finally sharpened into specific vowel and consonant sounds by the movement of the tongue, lips, teeth, and the soft and hard palates.  The sounds which are formed from these activities are combined to form words and sentences.  When these sounds are put together in connected speech, certain features such as intonation, stress, rhythm, appear.  These features are known as prosodic features.

Stress: In connected speech stressed and anstressed syllables form a pattern which is directly related to the rhythm of an expression.  Stress in connected speech is largely influenced by the meaning the expression is expected to convey.  In other words, a change in stress can result in a change in meaning.

For example:

David likes fish; focus of sentence: David rather than someone else.

David likes fish; Focus of sentence: likes rather than hates.

David likes fish; focus of sentence: Fish rather than beef or chicken.

Pitch: According to Lucas (2001) pitch refers to how deep or high-pitched a speaker’s voice is.  In spoken language, meaning of words or sounds may change depending on the pitch of the speaker’s voice. Changes in pitch are known as inflections.  Inflections can make your voice sound friendly and lively. Change in pitch is what tells whether you are making a statement or asking a question, being sincere or sarcastic.  It also reveals whether you are happy or sad, irritated or thrilled, active or lethargic, anxious or calm, attentive or indifferent.  A high pitch is usually an indication that the speaker is happy and eager while a low pitch may suggest that the conversation is about to end or a disappointment of some sort.

Intonation: Matthews (1997) defines intonation as a distinguishing pattern of pitches over a stretch of utterance usually longer than a word.  It is the way in which pitch rises and a falls in speech.  For instance, there is a difference in meaning between the sentences in (a) and (b) resulting from a difference in intonation.

(a)        That’s IT. (I’m finished)

b)         That’s IT? (Is that all?)

By changing the intonation pattern, speakers can express a wide range of grammatical moods and attitudes such as excitement, boredom, pleasure, surprise, friendliness, reserve, protest, astonishment.

1.         You made it! (excitement)

2.         I’d like some food   food! (protest)

3.         You really  will? (astonishment)

4.         It is? (surprise)

Intonation has variety of different functions – expression of various attitudinal meaning, marking of grammatical contrasts, differentiation between old and new information, organization of language into units that are more easily understood and memorized and identification of speakers as belonging to different social groups and occupations.

Loudness and Pace: Loudness has to do with the volume of the speaker’s voice – whether loud or quiet; increasing or decreasing in volume.  The loudness of the speech can also affect the meaning conveyed and show the relative importance of what is being said by varying the volume of the speech.

Forte: It’s so sunny (.) I have to take an umbrella

Cresc: and it’s a goal (.) Mikel scored for Chelsea for the first time (.) and what a

Dimin:  goal it was

Pauses: A pause is a brief stop in the verbal delivery of speech. This implies that the rhythm of the speech is irregular. It is commonly used in spoken discourse especially in informal contexts. It can also be used in formal deliveries to give an idea enough time to sink in and offer dramatic impact to an utterance. In formal contexts, however, the rhythm is often more even stylized. This type of rhetorical style is usually found in speeches written to be spoken.For example:

I’ll make this precise and to the point (.) My marriage (.) is none (.) of (.) your (.) business (.) President Fitzgerald in the TV drama series Scandal

Sometimes, voiceless hesitations, voiced pauses and word searching are deliberately used in spoken language by speakers to give the impression that they are equals with their audience or other participants and to prevent themselves from being viewed as experts. Note that in written language, the end of a sentence is signaled by using a full stop while in spoken language it is indicated by using a pause.

Vocal effects: The meaning expressed by spoken language can either be strengthened or negated by effects like giggling, coughing, throat clearing; and paralinguistic features like gesture, eye contact, posture, facial expression, etc.

Lexis: Lexis (or vocabulary or words) used in spoken discourse is usually more casual than those used in written texts. Crystal (1997:52) explains that the vocabulary of every day speech tends to be informal and domestic, limited and inexplicit, as speakers cope with difficulties of memory, attention and perception. Even in formal contexts, where a topic needs official subject-specific diction, unless speakers are speaking as experts the tendency is to minimize the important words by introducing expressions (by the way, you know, incidentally, sort of); colloquial idioms (right away, no laughing matter, as far as I can see, pros and cons); clichés (All ‘s well that ends well What goes around comes around); hyperbole (million times, tons of money); and phatic communications and vocalizations (How’s it going?, You’re welcome, Have a nice day, Some weather we’re having, Thank you, I’m sorry, please, Excuse me).Where speakers know each other well enough to have found a common code as a result of having the same perception of the world, abbreviations like OMG (Oh my God), LOL (Laughing out Loud) BFF (Best Friend forever) ASAP (as soon as possible), AM (ante meridiem – in the morning), RSVP (respondez s’il vous plait), VIP (very important person); FYI (for your information).


Because speakers often use language vaguely, there is the tendency for spoken discourse to be ambiguous.  However such ambiguity is easily resolved as participants can always depend on the context and non-verbal communication for additional information. Other types of words used in spoken discourse include deictic expressions such as, that one, right here, I, you, come here, this country, this evening, whose full meaning depends on the context in which it is used.  It is also possible to rethink an utterance while it is still in progress in spoken discourse.  Therefore, vague utterances such as mumbling and tailing off can be remedied.

Grammar: The grammar of spoken discourse is usually more relaxed and incoherent than that of written language.  Spoken language in informal contexts is normally characterized by regular use of minor sentences or sentence fragments (For example: nine in the dialogue: Speaker A: When is the phonology test? Speaker B: nine); coordinated clauses (John cooked the food and Mary washed the dishes); phrasal verbs (call off, turn on, set up) and contracted forms (can’t, won’t, didn’t).In contrast, the grammar of formal discourse usually conforms to standard forms.Generally, spoken language uses simple phrases.  The Noun phrases are usually made up of pronouns and where they are complex, they are likely to contain one determiner plus a noun (post modification is not common). The noun phrases tend to become more complex when the topic becomes more serious and the manner more official. Adverbial intensifiers such as very, a bit so, far more carefully, totally not occur. The verbs, also structurally simple, usually comprise of an auxiliary plus a main verb or the main verb alone.  However, a wide variety of tense forms and aspects are used if the manner is official. Colloquial ellipses and contracted verbs are quite common in spoken discourse but use of passive constructions is restricted.

Clauses in spoken encounters usually consist of SVO/CA.

  S      V          C            A                     S         V        A

 (I)   (Had)    (fun)    (yesterday)  –     (I)    (went)   ( to the cinema).

Determining the structure of expressions in spoken discourse is not always an easy task because it is difficult to establish precisely where each one starts and finishes.  Sentences are mostly of varying lengths and minor sentences are commonly used as responses to questions or in summary statements.  Spoken discourse tends to accommodate grammatically incomplete expressions much more than any other variety of discourse while longer expressions are linked to an argument or anecdote that is developing.  The tempo of spoken discourse is sustained by tag questions and phatic communication.  The use of vocabularies in the initial position helps to establish rapport and encourage interaction between speakers. Because spoken language is very flexible, a variety of grammatical styles can be used – reported speech, direct quotations, first person accounts of events, etc.  The imperative mood is less common than interrogatives while changes in modality are quite common.  Most speech encounters are regulated by co-operative principles.  For example if the speakers are using different kinds of structures, One standard (How are things?) and the other a dialect (How’s things?), the difference is usually over looked because such deviations are considered an expression of the speaker’s uniqueness and background.  It is also possible for a speaker to be inconsistent, using both standard and non-standard grammatical forms within a single dialogue.

Non-fluency features: One of the major differences between written and spoken language is that the latter is expected to have some degree of non-fluency features like false starts, hesitation noises, (er, um), pauses, repetitions, and other performance errors.  The more official the context, the less likely there are to be instances of slips of tongue, hesitancy, simultaneous speech, etc.  Even where transcripts of formal events like interviews, news programmes or formal debates show evidence of non-fluency; such inaccuracies are ignored or taken for granted. Although non-fluency features are usually credited to imperfections linked to informal spoken language, they can also be used deliberately to regulate turn-taking, and to guarantee that all participants are listening.  For instance, in formal contexts, speakers can use filler like um er oh to prolong their turns and prevent others from interrupting while they think.

5.       Forms of Radio Commercials

It is pertinent for advertisers to know that form must be considered irrespective of the kind of advert. There are 7 forms of broadcast commercials – Straight-selling or description, testimonial educational, multi-voiced, dialogue, humorous, musical.

Straight-selling: This is the most common and most widely used. Principally, the advantages are directness and the unified development of a single appeal. It depends on the announcer and cut for the ear. The question which is often raised about this form of radio or TV commercial is the identity of the announcer i.e. should announcers giver commercials as a personal recommendation?The practice is not to delegate such jobs to announcers on duty at that particular time. But they may be permitted to do soon personality shows. Statements such as: come to our store, we’ve been doing business at same location tend to confuse the listener. Hence, they should be avoided.

Testimonial: This may be a personal recommendation by a programme star or announcer e.g. Abiola on Nigeria Airways; Zebrudaya on UTB. Testimonial can have additional impact owing to the feeling of gratitude many listeners have towards the star.If this appeal is not tactfully presented, it can induce negative reaction. For example a star who rides a SKODA recommending a VOLVO, etc. The indirect method is used by many comedians.

Educational: This is used when the writer is using “long circuit of reason why” appeal. A writer on advertising, Albert W. Frey, says that educational commercials “provide information to the consumer who does deliberate enquiries before he makes a purchase, comparing values and weighing pros and cons: they are most used in the advertising of products which are rather high in price and consumed only over a relatively long period of time.

Multi voice: This may consist of a series of alternative voices in a climatic arrangement, a question & answer frame that permits an abrupt beginning, a device for pin-pointing attention on a slogan or phrase, or reinforcement through repetition.

Dialogue: These commercials may be simple in form or little production complete with sound effects and music. An announcer may engage in conversational banter with the performer. Some sponsors use the playlet idea by incorporating the boy-meets girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl formula into the commercials.Dialogue commercials win attention and interest but listeners resent commercials that are too far-fetched or too glowing in the claims made for the product. The humorous form is an outgrowth of the dialogue technique.

Humorous: There has been an increasing use of humour in commercials of recent vintage. The main reason for humour is to make the commercial as palatable as possible for the audience. Even commercials that are serious for most of their length often end with a humorous twist.

Musical commercials: These are widely used.  Some of them have original music; others are based on popular songs or themes from the classics.  The audio tracks of films and taped TV musical commercials are sometimes used as radio commercial.

6.       Writing a Copy for Radio

Copy writing is a business of words.  The copy writer must have a mastery of language.  Words are the stepping-stones on which selling ideas are carried to the customer. The copy writer should learn to economize words.  The primary step in making commercials is writing the copy. Since the objective of the advert is to sell, it is important that the advert must interest, inform involve, motivate and direct for it to be effective. In broadcasting houses, radio producers may be called upon to produce commercials. The points to consider are: the target audience, the product or service (specific quality), the writing i.e. the content and appropriate style, voice(s) which reinforces the style and the background music or sound effect. The producer must also be conversant with the policy of the station regarding commercials.


Planning and writing: Decide or devise the following – presentational framework,key selling pointand how to emphasize it.Write your copy with well-chosen words. You cannot use pictures to communicate the message because radio is not a visual medium. The first step in planning a commercial is to gain as much knowledge of the product or company as much as possible.The questions to ask the sponsor are:

1.   What are the peculiar advantages of this production?

2.   Does it have any unique quality on which the communication can focus?

3.   What is its major appeal? Is it the price, the quality, the packaging?

4.   Is it primarily an item of intrinsic value?

5.   Does it have any major short-comings which must be taken into consideration?

In writing copy, there are 5 fundamentals in writing a good advert:

1.   The advert must get attention. How do you get attention on a radio commercial? You can use voice, music, or sound effect. Any of these must be cately to get attention.

2.   Show the audience the advantage(s) of the product.

3.   Prove the advantage

4.   Persuade people to grasp the advantage

5.   Ask for action e.g. the product is available nationwide, our office is at so & so place.

The two greatest challenges are achieving memorability and persuasiveness in the radio commercial. How can you achieve these? (a) This involves writing your copy with well-chosen and appropriate words (b) using pictures to communicate the message because radio is a visual medium. In using the dramatic technique, it is advisable to put the drama first. Then bring in the message. The copy writers also devise the key selling point and decide how to emphasize it.


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English In The Mass Media