traditional news: an academic style

The rise of interactive media has directed attention to differences in communicative style.  “News is a conversation” and “conversational marketing” have become rallying slogans for new-media news reporting and advertising initiatives. Conversation uses words and grammatical constructs in characteristically different ways and frequencies than does traditional news reporting and public relations releases.

Experts in corpus stylistics and corpus-based linguistics can quantitatively differentiate communicative styles. Readability metrics, such as those implemented in this readability tester, indicate one aspect of communicative style. Quantitative linguistic metrics can also characterize informational purpose, interactional, affective orientation, narration, situational embeddedness, agent abstraction, and expressions of epistemic and attitudinal stance.[1]

Markers of epistemic and attitudinal stance occur much more frequently in conversation than in news reporting. Stance markers occur in conversation on average about 46 times per thousand words. The corresponding figure for news reporting is 30 stance markers per thousand words. Academic prose averages about 28 stance markers per thousand words.[2]  Hence, with respect to expressions of stance, news reporting is much more similar to academic prose than to conversation. Few persons read academic prose.  With the emergence of online, conversational forms for disseminating news, few readers may also be the destiny of traditional newspapers.

Since it was well institutionalized as a distinct communicative form in the seventeenth century, British news reports have expressed stance much less frequently than British personal letters.  In the second half of the seventeenth century, news reports and personal letters contained on average about 18 and 34 stance markers per thousand words, respectively. Expression of stance became more frequent over time in both news reports and letters, but the gap between them closed relatively little.[3]

An indirect expression of stance has increased in frequency in news reports much more than in personal letters.  A stance verb followed by a that-clause provides an indirect expression of stance.  Compare, for example, these reports:

Galbi confirms that purple motes is a leading communications industry analysis blog.

Galbi states that purple motes is a leading communications industry analysis blog.

Galbi alleges that purple motes is a leading communications industry analysis blog.

From the eighteenth century to the second half of the twentieth century, the frequency of “stance verb + that-clause” in news reports increased by about 5 instances per thousand words.  In personal letters, this stance form increased by only 1 instance per thousand words.[4]  The total of stance markers of all types increased across this period by about 16 and 13 instances per thousand in newspapers and personal letters, respectively.[5] Thus a smaller share of the stance increase in news reporting occurred in other stance forms, such as stance adverbials (“purple motes undoubtedly is a leading communications industry analysis blog”).

If news reporting is to be more like conversation, it should include more frequent expressions of stance.


[1] Biber (1988) developed multidimensional analysis in a pioneering, corpus-based quantitative study of linguistic variation.  Lee (2008) provides a critique.  Corpus-based quantitative linguistic analysis is likely to be an important aspect of web search-engine design. Xiao and McEnery (2005) show that a keyword analysis can approximate Biber’s more computationally complex multidimensional analysis.

[2] Biber (1999) Figure 12.1.

[3] Estimate from Biber (2004) Figures 4, 5, 7, 8, and 9.  Similar estimates of stance markers for 1950-99 are 28 and 41 instances per thousand for news reports and personal letters, respectively. Note that the y-axis in id. Figure 1 is mislabeled.  Here’s an example of sixteenth-century English news reporting.

[4] Estimate from Biber (2004) Figure 8.

[5] See n. [3] and related statistics.


Biber, Douglas. 1988. Variation across speech and writing. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press.

Biber, Douglas. 1999. Longman grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow, England: Longman.

Biber, Douglas. 2004. “Historical patterns for the grammatical marking of stance: A cross-register comparison.”  Journal of Historical Pragmatics 5:1 pp. 107-136.

Lee, David Y. W. 2008. Modelling variation in spoken and written English: the multi-dimensional approach revisited. Routledge studies in corpus linguistics. London: Routledge.

Xiao, Zhonghua and Anthony McEnery. 2005.  “Two approaches to genre analysis: three genres in modern American English.” Journal of English Linguistics 33:11 (March) pp. 62-82.

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