Discourse and Grammar

Discourse & Grammar

As regards discourse and grammar, ‘Life on Earth’ is surprisingly complex for an ephemeral text; the complexity of grammatical forms- from syntax to discourse- maintains the sophisticated tone created by the use of lexis. Aside from the phonological features of the piece, there are other devices which support the audience’s engagement with and understanding of these constructs- for example, the use of regular discourse markers gives the audience a clearer idea of the progression of the text, and ensures that a listener will not become ‘lost’. There is also clear separation between pieces of text which use the past tense, and those which use the present, often utilizing deictic reference to clarify this distinction; indeed, the later order of discourse seems to have been determined by chronological order- the information is presented as a ‘story’, the narrative element employing a form the audience is familiar with, and avoiding unnecessary complication. There is an isolated instance of the use of a rhetorical question, which promotes audience engagement and also clarifies the progression of the text. Certain collocations- usually in the form of ‘stock phrases’, if you will- are occasionally presented, both to further audience understanding (through familiarity) and to reduce unnecessary complexity; thus sophisticated ideas can be communicated relatively quickly, as in ‘dead on arrival’. The personal pronoun ‘we’ is the only pronoun to enter the text, and it appears to refer to the scientific community as a whole- subsequently implying that the audience is part of that community; this has an obvious effect on the tone of the piece, and the audience-narrator relationship, although it must be said that the device is used more sparingly than one might expect in a contemporary text.
As well as using a monotonous phonological scheme for the periods of informative discourse in ‘Realm of the Alligator’, the author has also chosen to use an impersonal voice for these same periods; presumably this is for similar reasons as the first device- i.e. in order to imply that the periods of informative text will not be prolonged- however, this is not wholly logical, and it may be that the text was simply poorly planned. Parallel to ‘Life on Earth’, the text uses both past and present tense to build an informative picture, and again the two are clearly separated within the piece in order to avoid confusion. A second similarity is the use of a long section of text towards the middle which follows a ‘storyline’ pattern- a narrative. Syntactically, sentence structure is manipulated; a passive construction is favoured, which subtly utilizes grammar to personify- ‘cypress [stands] brought an invasion of the swamp’ rather than ‘invaders were attracted to the swamp by stands of cypress’. A kind of rudimentary suspense, which might best be described as a sense of foreboding, is promoted by a number of features; there are instances of litotes and euphemism, and a pervading ambiguity of speech in the opening section- combined, these devices create a secretive tone which prompts the audience’s curiosity. For the first time we see ‘unplanned speech’ used to supplement scripted speech, in which many and varied personal pronouns are used- audience-narrator relationship is unclear at these points, as the use of this device is obviously in its early stages of development.
‘In the Wild’ chooses to open with a number of short, ‘unplanned’ utterances, which exhibit a very relaxed and informal construction, with frequent lexical omission. Indeed, we are only introduced to the purpose of the program after more than a minute of the program has passed. Pronoun use, and hence audience-narrator relationship, is clear from the outset; the narrator uses ‘I’ to tell the audience about himself, setting a tone reminiscent of the ‘video diary’, which furthers the audience’s engagement with the program. Sentences take a predominantly active structure- and there is even very little variation on sentence construction, which further emphasises the sense of action and development by placing the verb as close to the beginning as possible. The narrative voice seems to have a subtle duality; changing depending on whether McGregor is in shot, or present only in voice-over. The tone of the voice-over is slightly more authoritative and sophisticated, and tends to exhibit a less-pronounced regional dialect than that which is noticeable when McGregor is in shot; presumably to serve clarity of expression in the limited passages of informative discourse. Pronoun use remains the same, however, and so the difference is not necessarily noticeable to a passive audience. The past tense is almost entirely avoided in favour of the description of patterns- which incorporate the past, but can easily be expressed in the present tense, thus avoiding unnecessary confusion. When tense does change, it is usually for such a short time that no real supporting devices are required to aid clarity. In periods of ‘unplanned dialogue’ the audience is included through use of ambiguous pronouns such as the generic ‘you’ and non-specific ‘us’- these words include the audience vaguely, whilst preserving the impression that the audience is getting to look in on something private, with which they would not normally be included.
The generic ‘you’ appears in an isolated use also in ‘Meerkat Manor’, the only reference of any sort to the audience- and even here it is indirect. Interestingly, the past tense is used only once in the program, in the first utterance where the discourse marker ‘previously’ designates its appearance; from this point on reference to the past is absent- and hence verbs are universally infinite, creating a sense of immersion that is more to do with entertainment than information. The pronoun ‘they’ consistently refers to the animals, the only other party addressed is the production crew themselves, in ‘our cameras’- but this instance is simply a possessive pronoun; the absence of any further reference means that the audience is aware of the autonomy of the production team, but not of their actions- much like reality television shows such as Big Brother, and the Orwellian entity which lends the program its name. The passing reference also draws attention to the gap between the narrator and the subject, treating animals- and therefore nature- as something ‘other’ which man is intruding on- the intrusive aspect being, again, a component of reality entertainment. The use of grammar to personify is exemplified here particularly in the constant referral to animals by sexual pronouns- ‘him’ and ‘her’. This device creates a personification so pervasive that it sometimes strays to almost satirical levels. Finally, it is interesting to note that for the first time modifiers are in frequent use; normally used sparingly in informative texts, they highlight tension without making sentence structure overly complex.

Discourse and Grammar


Joined February 2008

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