Author logo Language and occupation

What do the examiners say?
What has language to do with occupation?
Forms and functions of talk
Language interactions
Special lexis and meanings
Register and lexis
Recognizing special lexis
Examples of special lexis
The importance of context
Language development in occupations
Registers and styles of writing
Historical and contemporary change
Interpersonal language in speech
Discourse features
Occupations to consider
Investigating occupational language
Outline for revision
Printing and copying this guide


This guide is written for students who are following GCE Advanced level (AS and A2) syllabuses in English Language. This resource may also be of general interest to language students on university degree courses, trainee teachers and anyone with a general interest in language science.

On this page I use red type for emphasis. Brown type is used where italics would appear in print (in this screen font, italic looks like this, and is unkind on most readers). Headings have their own hierarchical logic, too:

Main section headings look like this

Sub-section headings look like this
Minor headings within sub-sections look like this

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What do the examiners say about this subject?

Candidates will be expected to have studied in detail texts and data exemplifying language use and issues, and to have studied the relevant theory and research.

In preparing this topic area candidates should study: the forms and functions of talk; registers and styles of writing; historical and contemporary changes, where appropriate. In particular, they should examine:

  • everyday functions and activities (e.g. the role of interpersonal language)
  • discourse features.

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What has language to do with occupation?

Occupations are an important feature of society. Any analysis of how society works is likely to consider occupations - these are a very common feature of social organization, more or less universal in economically developed societies and throughout recorded history. Occupations could not really exist without language, especially those in which many people work together, and need to pass on information about how to do things, or about current tasks.

Occupations develop their own special language features, and use those of the common language in novel or distinctive ways. Occupations are a source of language change, while attitudes to language may in turn be causes of change in the way occupations work (as in moving from hierarchical or pyramid to flat management structures; balancing individual enterprise against team work; or altering attitudes to social groups within the occupation - such as women, older people or disabled workers).

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Forms and functions of talk

In studying language and occupation, you should consider particular forms (instruction, interview, discussion, conference, briefing, appointing, disciplining) in relation to their functions. We can understand forms

  • in an explicit sense as those kinds of activity that we can name (job interview, team briefing, disciplinary tribunal, conference, marriage ceremony) or
  • in a looser descriptive sense (discussing a problem, telling a manager about an incident, asking an expert for guidance).

It is in the nature of some occupations to make every language interaction have a formal character so that it fits a system, while others may need more flexibility. These differences may relate to particular occupations but they are also influenced by culture - so the HSBC bank claimed, in a 2002 advertising campaign, to be sensitive to the different ways people do business around the world - calling itself “the world's local bank”. Innovators or management consultants will often claim to solve the alleged problems of some occupational group by importing ways of working - but also of speaking and writing - from some other occupation.

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Here are some general functions of language in occupational contexts:

  • communicating information
  • requesting help
  • confirming arrangements
  • instructing employees or colleagues to do something
  • making things happen or enacting them

Can you think of others? What are the appropriate forms for these, in a range of contexts?

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Activity - understanding forms and functions of talk

Look at the examples below. In each case, try to explain what kind of language interaction is taking place and what form of utterance the speaker is using:

  • Come in.
  • And is that the verdict of you all?
  • Is it convenient to speak now, or shall I call back later?
  • This is due to points failure at Bristol.
  • We'd like to offer you the job.
  • Cabin crew, seats for landing.
  • Could [name] go to checkout 15, please?
  • Dearly beloved, we are gathered together...
  • You have the right to remain silent.
  • Have you got the results of Mrs. X's scan?
  • One club sandwich and one mushroom stroganoff.

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All right - so this is a bit unfair. You are missing all sorts of information about the speaker, the listener or audience and the context of utterance. As an alternative, next time you are in the supermarket, at the dentist's, doctor's or vet's surgery, on public transport - or anywhere, listen to what people are saying, and try to categorize it. Do they use particular forms? Are these forms specific to their occupation? What kinds of language function do these forms carry out? On the other hand, you may find that, for most of the examples here you are fairly sure of some things - like who the speaker is or where this might have been said. In these cases, you should consider what part of the utterance tells you this and how. Is the information simply contained somehow in the words spoken or does your understanding rely also on your prior experience or cultural knowledge? Would an intelligent Martian understand it?

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You can also predict what some speakers will say. For example when an announcer at a station informs the public of a delay to a train service we may hear. “This is due to...” and guess what will come next - “a dispute”, “staff shortages”, “points failure at Bristol” or [the writer of this guide really heard this one] “storm damage in the eastern counties”. Can you think of other forms of utterance that you can complete in this way? If you are in a town or city, you will never be far from people engaged in some occupation - and they will be using language in this context. Keep your ears open and remember what you hear - or keep a pad of Post-It® notes handy and jot down things you notice.

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Language interactions - who is interacting with whom?

Language interactions may occur between or among those within a given occupation, or between those inside and those outside (customers, clients, the “general public”). This distinction will affect significantly a speaker's (or writer's) language choices.

Some uses are exclusive, because they shut out people who do not know them. This happens when doctors share a common lexicon (think of things like ECG, CAT-scan, myocardial infarction, prima gravida). It is opaque to outsiders, and meant to be. (Increasingly, outsiders are aware of this medical lexicon, thanks to TV drama - you won't learn to be a doctor by watching ER or Casualty, but you may learn to understand the doctors' code.) Some occupations are notorious for promoting neologisms (newly-invented words or compounds). These may be used for competition or individual advancement within an organization (knowing the latest “buzz words”) rather than for linguistic efficiency.

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You should also look at how speech interactions reveal hierarchies, and changing attitudes to these. Do not assume that greater explicit courtesy is shown to those of higher status - often the reverse is true. In a school, senior managers will address the cleaners, lunchtime supervisors and clerical staff as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” while using first name for an established teacher. To address someone by surname (family name) only is usually a mark of great familiarity (and thus of closeness, even friendship). It is common in the UK among those who have attended independent (public) schools or held commissions (served as officers) in the armed services.

You should be aware of phatic tokens. These (described below) are ways of showing status by orienting comments to oneself, to the other, or to the general or prevailing situation (in England this is usually the weather).

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A superior shows consideration in an other-oriented token, as when the Queen says to the factory worker: “It must be jolly hard to make one of those”. The inferior might respond with a self-oriented token, like “Hard work, this”. On the surface, there is an exchange of information. In reality there is an offering and acceptance of a hierarchy of status. The factory worker would be unlikely to respond with, “Yes, but it's not half as hard as travelling the world, trooping the colour, making a speech at Christmas and dissolving Parliament”. In many occupations those of higher status will show their standing by other-oriented tokens: “How are you getting on with the new photocopier, then?” The response may show acceptance of the hierarchical relationship, in a self-oriented token: “I prefer it to the old one, thanks”.

It is accepted, without question, that those of higher status will display interest in the work, and perhaps personal lives, of those whose status is lower. But the reverse rarely happens - the clerical worker may be less likely to ask the finance director how he or she is managing with the business's five-year plan or how the wife and children are doing.

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Special lexis and meanings

Almost every occupation has its own special lexicon - a vocabulary that is specific to the occupation generally (the legal profession, the Merchant Navy, teaching) or more narrowly to the particular solicitors' practice, ship or school. That is, there will be

  • forms used only in the occupation, or
  • forms in the common lexicon but used with meanings which are special to the occupation: justify means very different things to a printer or typesetter and to a priest.

So a ship's master may refer to kentledge, gunwales and quarterdeck (forms peculiar to naval language) or to the heads, port and roads (forms in the common lexicon, but with different special meanings - on a ship the heads is a name for the toilet).

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You may well be familiar with such special lexis, from your reading or knowledge of some occupations - those of your parents or family, those you have met in weekend or holiday jobs. Think of an occupation (accountancy, law, the armed services) or a general occupational area (IT, media, retail) and you may be able to think of its lexicon.

For an example, look at these words that appear on the Web site of the UK Army Cadet Supply Department ( - here you can find descriptions of epaulettes, brassards, bashas, bivis, bergans and pace sticks. (Do you know what these are?)

Teachers, as another example, refer to their charges as kids, and talk about Baker Days, SATs, the Threshold or OFSTED. And once a new term appears, it is rapidly subject to grammatical conversion so

  • what begins as a noun-phrase (Office for Standards in Education)
  • becomes an acronym, using two letters of each element (OFSTED) and
  • turns (by grammatical conversion) into a verb: The school was OFSTED-ed last week. (Far more common in speech than writing.)

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To think of examples in an exam may be difficult (you will lose time, searching for what is just out of reach), so it's best to prepare some in advance: think of the things you learned to do when you first used a computer, or started a holiday job - what people said to you will have included some of the special lexis of the occupation. Listen to family or friends speaking about work. Or simply ask someone to tell you about his or her job - don't ask directly about the lexicon (you will make your informant self-conscious) but just let it appear! Although the language data you meet in an exam will almost certainly come from a different occupational context, this is no problem. You can use your prepared examples by way of comparison, showing how the same language feature - special lexis - appears in a range of different occupational contexts.

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Register and lexis

You may think that register is more or less the same as special lexis - but this is not the case. Lexis is one (admittedly an important one) of various language features that might go to make up a register, which is, in Professor Crystal's phrase “a socially defined variety of language”. This means that, while you may refer to many language features as part of the register of, say, legal English, academic sociology or the plumbing trade, this does not necessarily show that you know what kind of features they in fact are, nor how they work. It is perhaps only helpful to introduce the idea of register, if this leads to an account of the different things that make up the (particular) register in question, or an observation of a particular feature - say that the register of

  • professional orchestral music includes a lexicon of Italian loan words (forte, andante, allegro, pizzicato and so on) with cross-cultural meanings;
  • soccer players (and managers and commentators) allows use of the perfect tense in a specific way (he's gone past the defender and given me a good pass, and I've knocked it in);
  • particle physicists includes a lexicon of old forms with novel meanings that we cannot describe verbally, but can represent only mathematically, like spin, strangeness and charm.

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So with these examples alone, we see that register as a description includes notions of lexis, semantics, etymology and grammar. As soon as we place any real language data in context, we will also wish to consider pragmatics. You should note that "register" is not a universally accepted description among linguists - for example, it does not appear (in the glossary or the index) of Howard Jackson's and Peter Stockwell's Introduction to the Nature and Functions of Language.

To see special lexis as a feature of register a good approach is to look at job advertisements. Try these extracts. Both come from job adverts in supplements of the Guardian newspaper. They appeared on consecutive days (31 May/1 June 2000).

Extract 1

As part of our Quality Projects plan we have established an Initial Assessment Team to provide a first point of contact service through undertaking initial assessments of need, initial child protection enquiries and providing an early response for users.

This is a new team which became operational in November 1999 and has a key role in ensuring our services meet our Quality Protects initiatives.

We need a [job title appears here] to complete the team who can demonstrate high levels of practice competence of [noun phrase which identifies job] work.

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Extract 2

The [job title appears here] will be responsible for the commissioning of training events and outreach services, formation of teams with the appropriate expertise to deliver these services and co-ordinating the Help Desk. Candidates must have at least three years' experience in supporting the use of [adjective identifying job] resources, including JISC-funded services, in an education environment and experience of organizing or delivering training and awareness events.

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One extract is from an advertisement for a “User Services Manager” for Information Technology in a university, the other from one for a social worker. How quickly can you work out which is which? You probably took only seconds to do so. What are the clues? One extract has repeated references to a team and initial assessment (with no indication of who is assessing whom or what, or what sense of "initial" is meant). Two big clues are key role and high levels of practice. In the lexicon of social work (and sometimes now of education) good practice abounds - as if the label were a guarantee of quality. The second extract also refers to teams, but has distinct clues in training events and Help Desk (the then-current metaphor in many UK universities for the IT support systems used by staff and students). (In case you are still unsure, Extract 1 is from the advert for the social worker; Extract 2 is from that for the User Services Manager for IT.)

You can use this a teaching and learning activity - take any newspaper or magazine supplement (or Web site) that has multiple job advertisements. Make a list of the jobs, or occupational sectors, to which the adverts apply, cut out extracts and (on your own, or with other students) see if you can match the extract to the job. You can make the task easier or harder - by increasing the length of the extract (easier) or reducing it (harder).

If you understand theories of meaning in language (semantics), you can easily apply what you know to any occupation. Don't confine yourself to nouns and verbs - try to find qualifiers, phrases and collocations that have meanings specific to the occupation. If you hear "The accused was proceeding in a northerly direction when I apprehended him" what kind of speaker are you looking for? If you hear "Company, by the left - wait for it - qui-ick march!" who is speaking to whom? And if the speaker says, "I'm afraid you've caught a nasty bug which has upset your tummy", where are you being patronised?

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Recognizing special lexis

One of the good things about special lexis is that you can find it out by what you don't know. If you have language data (spoken - as on an audio or video recording, or a live broadcast - or written), then you can make lists of the things that seem not to make sense - either because you are sure you have never seen them before (say that an article for ships' masters refers to kentledge) or because you think you are seeing them used in a new way - you know friend and you are familiar with learned, but you suspect that the barrister (or politician) who calls someone my learned friend does not imply the existence of any friendship, nor even that he or she knows how knowledgeable this "friend" really is.

In a language investigation or other coursework or exam preparation, you can, of course, find out what things mean. If you meet them for the first time in an exam, then you can expect the examiners to give you a gloss (an explanation) for each one - usually in a glossary (nothing to do with being shiny or glossy - it's a collection of glosses, which are explanations or definitions). If anything is in a glossary, then you can be sure that the examiners are explaining meanings that they think you may need to know - so you might wish to use some of the information supplied in this way. However, some exam boards try not to give too many glosses, as these can reduce the way in which example texts discriminate among candidates.

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So what is special about special lexis? It's "special" simply in having a denotation different from, or narrower than, that in common use. But if the text is meant for an audience of insiders then the author may assume that they will infer the special meaning from the context and purpose of the text.

It is possible that a typesetter in referring to fonts will be thinking of the containers of water used for baptism, but an audience of typesetters will assume that fonts refers to typefaces. When typesetters talk of serifs, there is little room for ambiguity. In 1977 journalists of the Guardian newspaper exploited this special lexical knowledge in publishing an April Fool's day supplement, which was a report on the fictitious island of Sans Serriffe (sic.) - despite the non-standard spelling of sans serif (a type style), the name would give away the joke to anyone with even a moderate knowledge of printing and typography.

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Examples of special lexis

Rather than making a collection, which will gather dust and go out of date, you can find examples more or less as and when you need them. How? By looking at junk mail, local free sheet newspapers, the business section ("Yellow Pages") of a phone directory, or by tuning into specialist TV and radio broadcasting channels (from BBC Parliament to Simply Jewel). A very easy way, that enables you to find passages of text in their raw or natural condition, is to search the Web, using a search term that names or describes an occupation. The extract below comes from the Web site of the North Texas Blacksmiths Association - which I found by entering the term "blacksmiths" into a search engine. The passage comes from an article about a lightweight coal forge (designed to be portable, for "remote demo locations").

An optional machinist vise is attached for light-weight work. The vise frame is held in place by pins welded to the frame. Hitch pins secure the base, making for easy removal (See below). The lower shelf is also 16 gauge sheet. It strengthens the frame and may hold a toolbox or heavier tools for better stability of the forge.

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(Note that the spelling of "vise" is the standard US form - the spelling is not specific to blacksmiths.) As you look at this example, you should try to identify which lexical words or phrases are special forms or common forms used in special senses - and which are wholly in the common register of what we might call everyday speech. You might show this in a table form, and place a mark to show where you think a given term fits - you can either copy and paste the table into a word processor, or use it online by clicking in the check boxes:

Lexical term Special form and meaning Common form with special meaning Common form with common meaning
machinist vise
hitch pins
16 gauge sheet

Click on the button on the right to clear the form.

Note: this is not a dynamic form - the checkboxes are only for display and will not submit the information anywhere.

There is no single right answer to this - so it is helpful for a group to compare views on this. If you are a Texan blacksmith you may think that there is less special lexis than otherwise. If you have never done any metalwork or woodwork, you may think there is a lot of special lexis. Your answers might differ with age, sex and cultural experience.

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The importance of context

Context is important for understanding meaning, especially the kind of special meanings that you will meet in occupational or other specific language varieties. Take, for example, the nouns trainers and beachmaster. Without any other clues, you may think of the first either as a person (a soccer team's trainer, or personal fitness trainer), though increasingly the US English term coach is replacing this usage. Or you may think of it as a kind of footwear, previously called a training shoe. Beachmaster is less common - though if you have watched wildlife documentaries, you may have heard this term as a description of a bull sea lion (or other kind of seal), the dominant male in a social group. Both terms occur in the spoken commentary to an episode of The World at War (first broadcast in 1973-4). This episode is about the war in the Pacific - the beachmaster was the officer organizing the landing of troops and equipment on the beach (in this case at Iwo Jima). The trainer was neither a person, nor a shoe, but a type of aeroplane. In describing Kamikaze missions, the commentary states that: “Many [Kamikaze pilots] flew their missions in obsolete equipment, even trainers.” In this case, the accompanying film footage may or may not be helpful, as the viewer is expected to know that the aeroplane shown is a training model. Of course, the writers in 1970-something could not foresee the development of leisure footwear or the popularity of wildlife documentaries in the near future, nor, indeed, that people would even be watching The World at War thirty years later.

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Language development in occupational contexts

Kamikaze, another term used in the commentary, is a word that shows how complex language development can be. The noun means "divine wind" or "wind of heaven". Specifically, it named the powerful typhoons that in 1274 and 1281 destroyed the Mongol fleets that were set to invade Japan. The Japanese, late in the Second World War, adopted the name for a campaign of suicide attacks, in which pilots crashed bomb-laden aircraft onto US naval ships. The name appealed to the Japanese pilots' sense of history and national pride, suggesting that they would be part of a new miraculous delivery of their people. Although the kamikaze missions did little to slow down the American advance, the psychological effect of the attacks was considerable. The term quickly passed into general usage as a noun that denotes any kind of reckless or self-destructive action. Many English speakers may recognize the word as Japanese, but will not know the very precise historical explanation for its entry into English usage.

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Thanks to grammatical conversion, the word is now also used as an adjective so we might refer to “kamikaze attacks” or even “kamikaze drivers/ motorcyclists”. In this case the meaning has become metaphorical - the reckless motorist is not a member of the Japanese air force, nor even committed to a suicidal attack, but shows a recklessness for life that explains the hyperbole here. Indeed, there are relatively few words for which we can give the etymology with such precision - but war often helps us date things exactly. So we know that the Nazis coined Blitz in the 1930s and that quisling comes from the Norwegian Nazi collaborator, Vidkun Quisling (executed in 1945), and recorded in dictionaries almost at once (such as Funk & Wagnall's New Practical Standard of 1946).

The armed services have been particularly productive in bringing loanwords into English - this happens more where there is mass recruitment (as in war or where there is a system of National Service) - and these loanwords may come from friend or foe: so we have jeep and bazooka from the USA, resistance from France and quisling from Norway, as well as blitz and Nazi from Germany.

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Registers and styles of writing

Many occupations make use of writing to communicate. In any kind of writing you should have a sense of appropriate register or special lexis. A medical General Practitioner (GP) might (one hopes not) address an adult patient in terms of nasty bugs and upset tummies. Writing (probably a standard letter written by a secretary or practice manager but signed by the GP) to refer the patient to a hospital consultant, the doctor would certainly use a different register - full name of patient, technical description of the examination and diagnosis, and so on.

The same writer would use a different style for a report to a scientific journal - some things would remain (essentially the same medical lexicon) but he or she might replace first-person pronouns with impersonal passive voice (the examination revealed rather than I examined her and found that).

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A writer will have a sense of formality, which should be relative to his or her purpose. It will also reflect the writer's status and that of the readers of what he or she writes.

You should note that formality is not an absolute or “either-or” quality of speech or writing: it is relative. If you claim that a text is formal, you should be able to identify particular forms within it - don't use formal merely to indicate that the speaker or writer was trying hard to impress or that you think it's a bit “posh”. Formality may be a way of expressing deference or politeness, but it is not synonymous with politeness Formality is often found at the beginning and end of a text - in the salutation (Dear Mrs. Clinton) and the closure, as in the 19th century form: I remain, Sir, your most humble and obdt. Servt.

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Because writing is different from speaking, some writers avoid the directness and immediacy of the common or demotic lexicon in which they speak, substituting polysyllabic (having many syllables) and Latinate lexemes for shorter forms, especially those of Anglo-Saxon provenance (origin). It is perhaps a persistence of 18th century Poetic Diction - as if classical lexis (from Greek or Latin) is more dignified and authoritative.

Consider this example (from a real letter received by the author of this guide):

“In order not to let this situation drag on any further I am proposing to meet with those colleagues who are committed to taking this matter forward for accreditation.”

From Latin come these nouns (situation, colleagues, accreditation) and verbs (proposing, committed). Also prominent are demonstratives (this, those) to refer to things previously mentioned. Demotic meet has acquired a preposition acting adverbially (with). Meet with until recently was reserved for the special sense of suffering some adversity - he met with a terrible fate. Now meet with is used as an alternative to meet, as if the preposition (with) served a useful function in qualifying the verb. Strictly, it is redundant - but for some writers it gives extra weight without extra meaning.

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Readers of the letter (all of them schoolteachers) may want to pass an exam or receive a certificate. Taking this matter forward for accreditation turns out to be quite useful because it fits a number of different possible meanings, any of which might apply to an individual reader. If the reader visualises the metaphor of taking this matter forward however, it seems strange. Is the metaphor an image of travel, or of moving to some place where a reward or benefit is conferred? Of course, the reader is not expected to visualise the metaphor - but to understand the abstract meaning of which the metaphor is a vague illustration.

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Letters in business and management may also be marked by use of

  • subordinate clauses (Following further discussions...),
  • passive constructions and impersonal forms (It was felt that.../There are...) and by
  • using both singular and plural first-person forms for different meanings: we for a business or collective decision, I only when the writer wishes to emphasise an individual decision or attitude.

In an e-mail or memo the same writer is much more likely to use a demotic (popular) register, contractions (I'm for I am, and so on), and incomplete sentence structures - using the loose syntax of spontaneous spoken English or what Professor Crystal calls “minor sentence types” (Cambridge Encyclopedia of English Language, Cambridge, 1995, p. 216).

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Historical and contemporary change

New media and technology have created new forms (or radically adapted old forms) of communication. These are fascinating to linguists (they are quite easy to study - the data are readily available, and already in computer text form) and a popular subject for students to investigate. You should certainly consider electronic mail (e-mail), instant messaging and net meetings.

Where the (old style) letter has a structure petrified (fixed) by custom (it uses the sender's address, recipient's name and address, date, salutation and so on), e-mail has yet to achieve this. Writers of e-mails can be unsure how to open or close a message. Typically they disregard conventions of spelling and punctuation, especially case-sensitivity, which apply to postal mail. Emoticons (“smileys” or “smilies”) - like this: :-) are much more likely to appear in e-mail than in letters. Instant messaging and message boards (bulletin boards) usually have an option for displaying smilies as images, perhaps coloured yellow.

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As language in society reflects general social attitudes and ideas, so, as the 21st Century begins, the recent trend to use language less formally continues. But the change has not always been from more to less formal. Over longer time this may go into reverse - language history shows movement in both directions.

In the mid 18th Century literary English embraced formal poetic diction derived from the classical languages and prescriptive syntax - though we do not know how much this affected the common speech of uneducated people. And in the 19th Century a massive increase of written business communication demanded a high degree of formality. Why? Because letters and contracts needed a long shelf-life: they might refer to products and services which would be delivered years from the date of writing, or which would carry guarantees for the life of the purchaser. Consumer protection has today made some of this redundant. There are (and will be in future) reasons for written forms to move closer to, or further away from, spoken forms. If you are alert, you should be able to see and hear this happening.

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A quite different kind of change that occurs in all language but is very conspicuous in occupational language use is grammatical conversion. As soon as a new term enters the language, it is likely to move into a new word category. The most likely changes are noun to verb or verb to noun. Thus Hoover is now the generic noun for a vacuum-cleaning device, but has become a verb: I must hoover the car. The same has happened to e-mail: you receive e-mail (noun) but you also e-mail (verb) your friends and now you can txt or message them or spend time in messaging or txting.

For conventional postal mail US and UK English differ: in the UK we write to people, post letters and receive post; in the USA our friends write each other (there is no to), mail letters and get mail. But for electronic mail, the lexicon does not change as it crosses the Atlantic. There is an international form.

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You should also watch for verbs becoming transitive (taking an object) - so air-traffic controllers now speak of “descending” an aircraft - using descending not in the old sense of going down (descending the stairs or a mountain), but in the sense of causing or helping (something else - the object of the verb) to go down. (Source Today, BBC Radio 4, December 2002.) In the past this has been called “talking down” - but in popular usage “talking down” has come to mean expressing a low or negative opinion as in taking down a team's chance of success in competition, so the new phrase arises as much to replace an old one, as for its own sake.

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Interpersonal language in speech

Conversational maxims | Speech acts | Names and addresses | Face and politeness strategies | Phatic tokens | Taking turns

In exploring language use in occupations you may wish to analyse speech, which you or others have recorded and transcribed. In an exam, you may be given transcribed data to interpret. To do this well, you need to have a clear theoretical model for conversational analysis. This is a short version but for a more detailed explanation, look at guides to pragmatics and speech acts.

Conversational maxims

The “success” of a conversation depends upon the various speakers' approach to the interaction. The way in which people try to make conversations work is sometimes called a co-operative principle. We can explain this by four underlying conversational rules or maxims. (They are also named Grice's maxims, after the language philosopher, H.P. Grice.) They are the maxims of quality, quantity, relevance and manner.

  • Quality - this means that speakers should tell the truth, not say what they think false, or make statements without evidence.
  • Quantity - this means that speakers should be as informative as is required for conversation to proceed; say neither too little, nor too much.
  • Relevance - this means that speakers' contributions should relate clearly to the purpose of the exchange.
  • Manner - this means that speakers' contributions should be clear, orderly and brief, avoiding obscurity and ambiguity.

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Speech acts

Many utterances are equivalent to actions. When someone says: “I name this ship” or “I now pronounce you man and wife”, the utterance creates a new social or psychological reality. That is, people believe that the ship has this name and these two people are married. (In the case of marriage, some of us would add that the marriage is somehow fixed or favoured by God.) We can analyse these utterances in three categories: locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary acts.

  • Locutionary acts are simply the speech acts that have taken place.
  • Illocutionary acts are the real actions which are performed by the utterance, where saying equals doing, as in betting, plighting one's troth, welcoming and warning.
  • Perlocutionary acts are the effects of the utterance on the listener, who accepts the bet or pledge of marriage, is welcomed or warned.

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Some linguists have attempted to classify illocutionary acts into a number of categories or types. David Crystal, quoting J.R. Searle, gives five such categories: representatives, directives, commissives, expressives and declarations. (Perhaps he would have preferred declaratives, but this term was already taken as a description of a kind of sentence that expresses a statement.)

  • Representatives: here the speaker asserts a proposition to be true, using such verbs as: affirm, believe, conclude, deny, report.
  • Directives: here the speaker tries to make the hearer do something, with such words as: ask, beg, challenge, command, dare, invite, insist, request.
  • Commissives: here the speaker commits himself (or herself) to a (future) course of action, with verbs such as: guarantee, pledge, promise, swear, vow, undertake, warrant.
  • Expressives: the speaker expresses an attitude to or about a state of affairs, using such verbs as: apologize, appreciate, congratulate, deplore, detest, regret, thank, welcome.
  • Declarations the speaker alters the external status or condition of an object or situation, solely by making the utterance: I now pronounce you man and wife, I name this ship, I sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you be dead. (In this case, the alteration is not the execution of the sentence - which is in the future - but the convict's passing under sentence and becoming a condemned man or woman.)

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Names and addresses

Some languages have different forms for "you" (French "tu/vous", German "du/Sie", for example). These may originally have indicated number ("vous" and "Sie") used for plural forms, but now show different levels of formality, with "tu" and "du" being more familiar, "vous" and "Sie" more polite. In English this was shown historically by the contrast between "you" and "thou/thee". The "thou" form survives in some dialects, while other familiar pronoun forms are "youse" (Liverpool) and "you-all" (southern USA). Where it is possible to make the distinction, this is known as a T/V system of address.

In this system the V form is a marker of (it shows) politeness or deference. It may also be a marker of status, with the V form used to superiors, the T form to equals or inferiors. We also use T forms to express solidarity or intimacy. In English, we also express status and attitude through titles, first names and last names. Titles are such things as Professor, Dr, Sir, Dame, Fr. (Father), Mr, Mrs, Miss, Sr. (Sister). They include, too, honorific titles like your royal highness, your grace, your excellency, my lord. Perhaps more relevant to language and occupation are those forms that express a relationship between the speaker and listener, such as chief, boss, guv, sir, officer, sergeant, ma'am. In some contexts these are optional while other occupations have a more formal etiquette - so a private soldier addresses a commissioned officer as sir or ma'am, and an NCO (non-commissioned officer) by his rank: corporal, sarn't (for sergeant) or sarn't-major.

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Note that we abbreviate some of these in writing, but not usually in speaking - we write Mr. but say mister, we write Dr. but say doctor. We do sometimes abbreviate Professor in speech as well as writing, to Prof. First names include both given names (Fred, Susan) and epithets such as chief, guv, mate, man, pal. Last names are usually family names. In general, use of these on their own suggests lack of deference (Oi, Smith...) but in some contexts (public schools, the armed forces) they are norms. If one speaker uses title and last name (TLN), and the other first name (FN) only, we infer difference in status.

In schools teachers use FN (or FNLN when reprimanding or being sarcastic - Matilda Wormwood, what are you doing with that slug?) to pupils. Teachers receive T (Sir) or TLN (Miss Smith) in reply. Pupils address women teachers as Miss, even where the speaker knows the teacher to be married.

In English avoidance of address is often acceptable - thus where French speakers say "Bonsoir, Monsieur", English speakers may say merely "Good evening". (In French, bonsoir alone might seem slightly curt.)

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If you are looking at language data (as in an exam or investigation), then see how speakers use such forms in conversation - even where the forms are absent, you can comment on the omission of some form that might be expected. Are they merely social lubricants, or are the speakers using them to assume a higher or lower status, or reinforce authority or deference. Of course deference does not necessarily indicate lack of power or influence - we are all familiar with the situation (often shown in fiction) of the junior official, who uses the language of deference, while manipulating his supposed superior. Examples include P.G.Wodehouse's Jeeves and the civil servant, Sir Humphrey, in BBC TV's Yes, Minister While we should not rely on fictitious examples in place of real-world language data, comedy can be instructive. The BBC's comic TV series The Office derives much of its unsettling humour from the way the lead character (David Brent) tries to disregard conventions of etiquette, including language conventions, whereas the other staff appear to feel more comfortable with conventional courtesies.

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Face and politeness strategies

"Face" (as in "lose face") refers to a speaker's sense of linguistic and social identity. Any speech act may impose on this sense, and is therefore face threatening. And speakers have strategies for lessening the threat. Positive politeness means being complimentary and gracious to the addressee (but if this is overdone, the speaker may alienate the other party). Negative politeness is found in ways of mitigating the imposition:

  • Hedging: Er, could you, er, perhaps, close the, um , window?
  • Pessimism: I don't suppose you could close the window, could you?
  • Indicating deference: Excuse me, sir, would you mind if I asked you to close the window?
  • Apologizing: I'm terribly sorry to put you out, but could you close the window?
  • Impersonalizing: The management requires all windows to be closed.

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Phatic tokens
  • Self-oriented phatic tokens are personal to the speaker: "I'm not up to this" or "My feet are killing me".
  • Other-oriented tokens are related to the hearer: "Do you work here?" or "You seem to know what you're doing".
  • A neutral token refers to the context or general state of affairs: "Cold, isn't it?" or "Lovely flowers".

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Taking turns

Conversations are based on speakers taking turns to make an utterance. Ideally, these come in adjacency pairs - an initiation or request for information meets an immediate response. There may also be backchanneling to express satisfaction or thanks. There are various devices for claiming and keeping a turn.

  • Dropping intonation may signal that a point is made, so a response is in order.
  • Pauses for breath may also be taken as an opening for another speaker to claim and take a turn. In order to keep the floor, a speaker may take breaths in the middle of a clause, rather than at the end of it. This is using an utterance incompletor to retain the speaking turn.
  • Another device is to end a clause with a connective, such as and, therefore, so or but - which signals that the speaker has more to say.
  • Fillers (er or um) can be used to block others who wish to claim the turn. However a listener can use um or hm to display sympathy or endorsement and so to encourage a speaker to continue.

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If you are examining a transcript of conversation, you may be able to see how the speakers claim or keep turns. In his novel Lord of the Flies William Golding shows an understanding of how difficult this can be. He tells a story of a large group of boys, stranded on a desert island. To make their meetings orderly, they make up a rule for turn taking - whoever holds the conch (a large marine shell) is allowed to speak. It becomes like the mace - the symbol of the Speaker's authority in parliaments around the world. In time, some of the boys ignore the authority of the conch, and the island sinks into anarchy. One way to claim a turn is to raise a hand or catch the eye of the person chairing a meeting. One device that some speakers will use for keeping a turn is to signal extra importance in their utterances, or suggest that they are necessarily spelling out what the listeners have failed to follow, is to preface statements with “the fact of the matter is...” or “what I'm saying is...”

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Discourse features

Some (perhaps most) occupations have specific kinds of discourse and written texts. You can analyse these, especially looking at structural features which reflect the occupational purpose, context or origin of the text. Examples might include a priest's sermon, a manager's briefing or a conference speaker's "keynote" speech.

In looking at discourse, you look at the structure and the ways this is shown - what are the structure markers (pauses, spoken “headings”, questions leading to answers, enumeration of points, repetition or recapitulation, adverbs or adverb phrases, such as finally, and to conclude or and so, my fellow Americans). Look at stylistic devices and pragmatic features which indicate the genre of the discourse, the context in which it appears and the speaker's sense of the audience.

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Occupations to consider

If you find it hard to think of examples of occupations, you may use these suggestions. You are very unlikely to spot in advance of an exam all the potential occupations the examiners could use, to provide language data. But it is still worthwhile to “prepare” by finding out some of these, for several reasons:

  • You may use what you learn for purposes of comparison and contrast.
  • The same underlying principles that govern social interactions will be found in all occupational contexts, even though the particular ways in which they work in practice will vary widely.

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There are many ways in which we could try to categorize all occupations - from an A to Z directory, to a careers guide. The list below is meant to be easy to see at a glance, while covering most occupations of which you are likely to know anything.

  • Private sector and the professions - business, accountancy, surveying, finance, IT, law, management, pharmacy
  • Media - advertising, broadcast media, new media - e.g. Internet technologies and services, print media
  • Trades and crafts - building, farming, plumbing, electrical engineering, the motor trade, the rag trade
  • Retail - supermarkets, department stores, furniture shops, electrical good shops, boutiques
  • Sport, leisure and entertainment - the theatre, performing arts, galleries and museums, sporting clubs, leisure centres
  • Travel and tourism - airlines, train operators, ferry companies, bus and coach operators, hotels and resorts
  • Public sector - the armed services, the Church, education, the health service, fire brigade, police forces

Are there any jobs of which you have experience? What special language forms do these use? How did you learn to speak these?

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Investigating occupational language

If your course of study includes research, then it makes sense to choose to research a subject on which you will also have to write for an exam - in this way, you can discover data, come to know relevant theory and sort out your own ideas at the same time as you are doing your research.

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Outline for revision and exam preparation

What follows is a very rough and ready checklist - but in an emergency, it will give you a structure for analysing any text.

Forms and functions of talk
  • Functions within occupation - communicate information, request help, confirm arrangement
  • Insider to customer, client, outsider or peer to peer - inclusive and exclusive uses
  • Hierarchical speech interactions - use of phatic tokens to reflect status
Special lexis and meanings
  • Special lexicon - say, of computing, accountancy, medicine, teaching, the law (anything)
  • Semantics - denotations and connotations different from those in common register

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Registers and styles of writing
  • Register and style related to purposes of writing in reports, memos, faxes, standard documents
  • Degree of (in)formality in style of letter, fax, e-mail: address, salutation, closure and so on: NB formal and informal are relative; if you think a text is formal, look for the forms that show this!
  • Lexis - preference for polysyllabic or Latinate diction over shorter Anglo-Saxon forms
  • Pronoun choices - we or I for subject; referring to others in second or third person
  • Choice of active or passive voice; choice of verb mood and tense
Historical and contemporary changes
  • Influence of new media and technology - new modes of communication (e-mail, Net meetings)
  • General social move to less degree of formality
  • Grammatical conversion - such as noun (trial or OFSTED) to verb - The GM crops were trialled. The school was OFSTEDed

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Everyday functions and activities:
role of interpersonal language in speech
  • Conversational maxims (H.P. Grice) - quality, quantity, relevance and manner
  • Speech acts (J.L. Austin) - locutionary, illocutionary, perlocutionary acts, felicity conditions
  • Illocutionary acts - representatives, directives, commissives, expressives and declarations
  • Need for language features to reinforce occupational purpose - for example, team building
  • Names and addresses, face and politeness strategies, phatic tokens, turn taking
Discourse features (writing or speech)
  • Specific occupational discourse (as in a sermon, keynote speech, briefing, de-briefing)
  • General features of discourse - pragmatics, deixis, stylistics, structure markers

Don't forget this - it can make all the difference: the same speaker or writer will change how he or she does things from one situation to another, a speech for a mass TV audience, an email to an old friend or a spontaneous response to a social greeting.

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Can I print this guide and photocopy it?

This guide is free for individual users - for example, teachers or students working from home - in any part of the world. You can print out the guide, but it is not ideal for printing and photocopying, and may run to many more pages than you expect.

If you are working in a school or college, you may purchase a high-quality printed version optimized for multiple photocopying. The cost of the printed version includes permission for unlimited reproduction within your institution - if you expect to make multiple copies, this will probably save on your bulk photocopying and printing costs. To obtain the printed guide, contact:

  • ZigZag Education and Computing Centre Publications
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  • Tel: +44 (0)117 950 3199

Click on the link to go to the ZigZag Education Web site:

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