Grammar matters
Grammar matters

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Grammar matters

4 Interpersonal meaning – interacting with and relating to others

In this section we will look at interpersonal meanings by considering a communicative situation with which many of us are familiar: that between a teacher who marks a piece of written work and the student who has written it. As anyone who has received feedback on their writing will know, it’s not just the information that is conveyed – e.g. about the strengths and weaknesses of a piece of work – that is vital to the success of this interaction. How this information is conveyed is also very important, particularly because of the sort of relationship it sets up between the teacher and the student.

Activity 8: Communicating relationships in writing

Timing: 15 minutes

Read the following lecturer feedback comment on an undergraduate essay then answer the following questions:

  1. What does this comment communicate about the social roles and relationship between student and teacher?
  2. Can you identify any aspects of the language that create this relationship?
  3. If you received this comment as a student, how do you think you might feel? Would you accept or resist such positioning?

You really have a problem with this essay, mainly for the reason that it is so incoherent. It has no beginning, middle and end, no structure, no argument … May I suggest very strongly that you go to the Study Centre and make more enquiries about essay-writing clinics.

(Example taken from Lea and Street, 1998, pp. 166–7)

Discussion

  1. This comment clearly constructs the lecturer (the feedback writer) as an expert, being in a position to judge the student’s work with little need for the polite language we often use when we wish to give advice or feedback to others. It also positions the student-reader as subordinate, and as someone with a ‘problem’ who needs to seek a cure at the ‘essay-writing clinic’.
  2. The language used here is very blunt. For example, the descriptive comment is made up of a series of plainly-worded statements (You really have a problem, it is so incoherent, It has no beginning … etc.) with no softening or hedging language. These bare assertions are presented confidently, with the assumption that the teacher’s evaluation of the text (and of the student) is beyond question – a matter of fact, rather than opinion. To help you see this point, imagine how different the effect of the comment might be if the teacher had written I think you may really have a problem… or I find the essay lacks structure. In these cases, the evaluative statements are preceded by the first person pronoun + a verb group which explicitly frames the teacher’s views as one possible opinion or response.
  3. I think most people would feel very deflated to receive this sort of comment on a piece of writing, though they might also feel a sense of resistance: I’m not sure this feedback would be guaranteed to get the student to pay a visit to the Study Centre. So the interpersonal meaning conveyed in this comment is likely to make it ineffective as well as disheartening.

This example illustrates how, even in a short text, the interpersonal metafunction can be a very significant element of meaning. It’s worth pointing out that the research on feedback comments from which this example was taken was conducted some time ago. In many institutions, including The Open University, this sort of interpersonally unhelpful feedback would no longer be considered acceptable, partly as a result of the work of researchers like Lea and Street, who collected this example.

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