A message to our graduating students

by James Murphy

You will by now have received your final results  – the outcome of three, or in some cases, four years’ hard work.  You can all be extremely proud of what you’ve achieved.  Not just in the form of the grade shown in black and white on your screen, but in terms of how you’ve grown in your time at UWE.  That growth is less tangible, but in no way less real.  You have developed into people who have a keen sense of what is just and fair, into people who put the interests of others before yourselves and into people who are unashamed to share your passions and feelings.  All of these aspects will set you in good stead – perhaps better stead than your grades – in the years to come.

You are graduating in perhaps the most challenging time for a group of students that I have known in my academic career – perhaps even in the longer careers of the more senior members of the linguistics team (no names mentioned…).  But this is a challenge which I know you are able to rise to.  Drawing on the skills you’ve developed in communication, analysis, synthesis and critical thought, as well as your evident care and compassion for others, I know that you will get to where you want to be in time.  That’s not to say that it will be easy or that the path will be straight, but showing resolve and resilience will help you get there.

Where ‘there’ is will be different for each of you, of course.  But every year I pass on to graduating students the words of wisdom which Kate Beeching shared with me when I first started at UWE.  Of work, she said that there are three important aspects: 1) You can enjoy what you do; 2) You can be making a difference with what you do; 3) You can earn lots of money.  And Kate says that the best you can hope for in a job is to have two of those three aspects.  And your priorities will change at different points in your life, such that you will likely be looking for a different two in your twenties than in your thirties than in your forties, and so on.  I won’t share which two I think I have in my job right now!  But what I wish for all of you is that at some point you reach the Holy Trinity!

So I am sending you this message with all my best wishes and with hope that we can celebrate all of your successes properly in the very near future.  Be proud of everything you’ve achieved and seek to do good in all your future endeavours.  Keep us posted with what you do next.

I shall be raising a glass to you all.

Summer Interns: An update from Megan

by Megan Crouch

I am a second year English Language and Linguistics student and am interning with Bristol Centre for Linguistics during the summer break this year. Currently, I’m three weeks in and already have learnt a huge amount that I will not only take forward with me for my final year of study but also forward with my career aspirations.

Working alongside Dr. Luke Rudge, I have been researching the use of gesture in interactions both when presenting as an individual but also with conversational partners. The first few days were heavily based upon my own learning and development. I began to delve into journals and books on gesture and how to use the gestural annotation software ELAN. This first reading was eye-opening, I was naïve to how complex gesture really is, the different conventions, annotation systems and analysis perspectives.

This internship so far has not just been a ‘do this task’ type of internship but instead I have been able to drive the direction of research myself (under the supportive eye of Luke) to explore the areas of gesture that interest me. In turn, this has led to hours of insightful reading discoveries, plenty of trips down rabbit holes uncovering new and interesting perspectives on ideas (which is never a bad thing!) and a new wealth of knowledge to take forward with me. As well as theoretical knowledge I have also developed practically to taking on ELAN where I have been segmenting, annotating and transcribing gestures using a bank of gesture conventions I collated from my reading. Don’t get me wrong, ELAN isn’t as simple as that brief sentence might sound it took a while to get my head around the system!

My research has directed me towards the beginnings of a cultural comparison in the use of gesture. I have been focussed on the different gestures used by British and American television show hosts while conducting interviews with their celebrity guests. Though the analysis so far comes from a very small pool of data I have found that the American interviewer is a lot more animated than the British, using far more gestures during an interview.

One thing I have read that I will remember forever… “The link between gestures and speaking is tight. This link develops in children even if they have never seen gestures. Congenitally blind children spontaneously develop speech-accompanying gestures though the frequency of gestures is not as high as in sighted children” (Kita, 2009).

Kita, S. (2009) Cross-cultural Variation of Speech-accompanying Gesture: A Review. Language and Cognitive Processes [online]. 24 (2), pp. 145-167.

PhD success for Helen Watts

Many congratulations to UWE stalwart, (Dr!) Helen Watts, who successfully defended her thesis in her PhD viva today and has been recommended for the award subject to some minor amendments.

The thesis, entitled ‘Discourses of Care: Enactments of relational work in two dementia care settings’, was a lucid and thorough analysis of how care workers build relationships with residents living with dementia through interaction.

The viva was an enjoyable affair reflecting the comments of the examiners who agreed that the thesis represented ‘an important piece of research, carried out with the utmost care and consideration’.

Many congratulations to all involved, including supervisors Dr Kate Beeching, Prof. Jo Angouri (formerly UWE, now Warwick) and Prof. Rik Cheston (of Health and Applied Sciences). But especially to Helen herself after nearly 6 years of hard work studying for the PhD part-time.

Bottom left: Helen Watts; Top left: Prof. Fiona Cramp (Independent Chair); Top Right: Dr Virpi Ylänne (External Examiner); Bottom Right: Dr Kate Beeching (Supervisor); Very Bottom Right: Dr James Murphy (Internal Examiner)

Celebrating Kate Beeching

At the end of this month, our dear colleague and Director of the Bristol Centre for Linguistics, Dr Kate Beeching, retires from UWE after almost 30 years of dedicated service. Here we attempt to do some justice to Kate’s contribution to linguistics, both at UWE and to the discipline at large.

Dr Kate Beeching

Kate Beeching has had a varied career, starting her academic life as a French and German student at Durham University.  It was probably there that she started to hide her Scottish brogue from the Southern Sassenachs.  She was known to escape the rarefied air and spires of Durham to experience real life in the more industrial towns of the North-East of England.  That probably set her up well for working as a modern languages teacher in a tough inner-city comprehensive in Coventry.  Whipping students into shape at UWE was a breeze in comparison!  Before those gigs, Kate spent time in Mexico City teaching English with the British Council.  She was able to revisit old haunts on a trip back to Mexico a couple of years ago.  No doubt her itinerary for life in retirement (and post-Covid) is lengthy.

Kate studied for an MA in Linguistics for Language Teaching at the University College of North Wales in the early 1980s.  This set her on the path to writing language textbooks, including: A Vrai Dire (a pioneering role-play dialogues textbook in that it was based on authentic data – a rarity in language learning materials of the time.  It was a book that still had currency when younger members of the linguistics team were learning French at school!); Ça se dit, ça s’écrit; Contrastes; and La Passerelle.  In creating those textbooks, Kate could be seen schlepping across France in the summer holidays, children and recording device in tow, collecting recordings of people playing Pétanque or ordering a coffee.  It speaks to Kate’s charm and wit (whether in French of English) that she rarely had problems co-opting people into being recorded.

Kate joined UWE in the early 1990s to teach on the French degree.  Throughout that time she has lived through various faculty mergers, reorganisations and closures, and has seen out fistfuls of Deans and Vice-Chancellors.  Indeed, it was Kate’s savvy which saw the creation of the Linguistics half-award, which later became a fully-fledged programme and the establishment of a number of research resources which were significant contributors to the creation of the Bristol Centre for Linguistics in the heady days of Howard Newby’s brief stint as VC.  She has since served as the Director of BCL and focussed on developing the Bristol aspects of the title and rooted the centre firmly within the community.  The closure of French offered an opportunity to Kate’s versatility and flexibility as a scholar.  Having completed her PhD in 2001 (under the supervision of Carol Sanders at Surrey and Françoise Gadet at Université de Paris) on French pragmatics markers (hein, quoi, enfin, etc.), Kate has increasingly worked on little English words.  This resulted in her magnum opus Pragmatic Markers in British English: Meaning in Social Interaction published by Cambridge University Press in 2016.  Her publication list is lengthy – and includes historical linguistic work (on politeness-induced semantic change – abbreviated to PISC – which has been widely adopted), sociolinguistic investigations (including on Bristolian as part of the Sounds Bristolian project she instituted), and contributions in corpus linguistics (indeed, the Beeching Corpus of Spoken French is a lasting legacy for scholars of French linguistics).  She retires as one of the UK’s leading scholars in pragmatics.

But in addition to her outstanding research, a second and important hallmark of Kate’s academic work is her generosity in supporting and working with others.  That can be seen in her work on French textbooks (include French Foundations with Annie Lewis formerly of UWE and which is widely used across UK universities), her various edited volumes (usually coming as a result of colloquia at conferences, and decided upon over a boozy dinner), and the fact that the special issues she has edited have always contained contributions from postgraduate students and junior academics.  Her co-founding of the iMean series of conferences provided an opportunity for collaboration between scholars working on meaning and social interaction – it is a legacy of which she can be proud.

And all the while, Kate has been collegial, supportive, generous with her time and keen to involve students and the community in her passion and enthusiasm for language.

Preparing for second year

Now that the assessment and marking period is over, and the first of the exam boards is out of the way — we can begin to turn our attentions to the next academic year. The list below gives students going into third year some ideas of things to be reading over the summer and/or some tasks you can be doing in preparation of starting back in September. All of these books are available online through the UWE Library (or are otherwise provided via links below).

Studying Speech Communities (compulsory)


  1. Chapter 1 of Meyerhoff (2019) Introduction to Sociolinguistics
  2. Chapter 8: Where’s the proof? of Cottrell (2011) Critical thinking skills: Developing effective analysis and argument
  3. Part I: Introduction in Mallinson, Childs and van Herk (2018) Data collection in Sociolinguistics: Methods and applications


  1. Reacquaint yourself with the IPA Chart (I cannot stress this enough – please be fluent)
  2. Sociolinguistics in action #1: Think about the people that you talk to through an average week and ask yourself:
    • Do you greet them all the same way?
    • Do you say goodbye the same way?
    • If there are differences, why do you think that these happen?
  3. Sociolinguistics in action #2: Think about your interactions with people again:
    • How often do you expect a full and honest answer to ‘how’s your day been?’ or ‘how are you?’
    • Is it sometimes inappropriate to tell someone the gritty details of your day?
    • Think about the different people you meet and what is expected in answer to this everyday question.

Language Acquisition (compulsory)

Language at Work (TB1 option)

  • For an overview of Conversation Analysis (CA), read Part 1 Introducing CA of  ten Have, Paul (2007). Introducing Qualitative Methods: Doing conversation analysis. London: SAGE.
  • For an introduction to workplace language – read Unit 1 of Koester, Almut (2004) Language of Work. Abingdon: Routledge. 

Language of Life (TB1 option)

  • Chapters 1 and 2 of Maynard, Douglas (2003) Bad news, good news: Conversational order in Everyday talk and clinical settings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press [You can access this here]
  • Familiarise yourself with the various formats which podcasts can take by listening to a variety on topics of interest to you.

Researching Language as Social Impact (TB1 option)

  • Familiarise yourself with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300)
  • Look around your local community or family/friend networks and see if there are projects or activities ongoing which promote one or more of the Sustainable Development Goals
  • Chapters 1 and 2 of Litosseliti, Lia (ed.) (2010) Research methods in linguistics. London: Continuum [You can access this here]

Preparing for third year

Now that the assessment and marking period is over, and the first of the exam boards is out of the way — we can begin to turn our attentions to the next academic year. The list below gives students going into third year some ideas of things to be reading over the summer and/or some tasks you can be doing in preparation of starting back in September. Except texts indicated with an * — all of these books are available online through the UWE Library.

Language Project

  • You should have been allocated a project supervisor — it may be useful to get in touch directly with them to discuss your project idea, and ways that you can refine this over the summer.
  • A good starting point for going about conducting a linguistics project can be found in Wray, A & A. Bloomer (2012) Projects in linguistics and language studies. 3rd edition. London: Hodder.

Gender, (Im)politeness and Power in Language

  • It would be well worth spending some time reading a range of articles in the Journal of Gender and Language  – https://journals.equinoxpub.com/GL/index (and available via the UWE library search page). This will give you a flavour of the range of research being carried out in this field. You will also find plenty of relevant research papers in the Journal of Sociolinguistics. 
  • In particular, you could look at the work of Lucy Jones – https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/english/people/lucy.jones 
    We will be discussing her research during the module. 

Language and Cognition

  • Chapters 1 & 2 of Traxler, M. (2012) Introduction to psycholinguistics: Understanding language science.  Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell
  • Listen out for any speech errors you hear or make and keep a log of them

Critical Discourse Analysis

  • *Charteris-Black, J. (2018) Analysing Political Speeches: Rhetoric, Discourse  and Metaphor. 2nd edition Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave-MacMillan. [This is the main coursebook and so it will be useful to have your own copy]
  • Charteris-Black, J. (2019) Metaphors of Brexit:No Cherries on the cake. London: Palgrave.
  • Gunderson, E. (ed) (2009) The Cambridge Guide to Ancient Rhetoric. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Wodak, R. & Meyer, M. (2015) Methods of Critical Discourse Studies. London: Sage

Languages in the Mind

  • Grosjean, F. (2012) Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. [Used in TB1]
  • Everett, C. (2013) Linguistic relativity: Evidence across languages and cognitive domains. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. [Used in TB2]


  • *Harmer, J. (2007) The practice of English Language teaching. 4th edition. London: Longman
  • Rebecca implores you please, please, please make sure you buy the 4th edition — there are plenty of second hand copies available from a major online retailer (you know the one), and Abebooks.co.uk

Creative Writing and the Self

  • Claxton, G. (2015) Intelligence in the Flesh: Why your mind needs your body much more than it thinks. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. [Selected chapters are set as homework in TB1, but it helps to have an understanding of the full argument, so good to read in full — it’s written for a lay audience, so accessible]
  • McGilchrist, I. (2009) The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. [Intro and Part I Chapter 2 especially useful, but do explore further. This video condenses McGilchrist’s ideas
  • The following interview will be required viewing in early TB1 but watching over the summer is recommended because Lynda Barry’s ideas about creative activities are central to this module

If these walls could talk: A sociolinguistic analysis of latrinalia

Lockdown means that we are missing various aspects of ‘normal life’. Reading the following student investigation from our second year Studying Speech Communities module made us almost nostalgic about trips to various pubs along the Gloucester Road. The following abridged essay demonstrates that you can investigate just about anything as a linguistics student! Taryn Davis’ close exploration of toilet graffiti reveals some interesting gender differences in the scrawling habits of (tipsy) Bristol residents.

Public bathrooms provide a unique opportunity for sociolinguistic research into language and gender. In gender-segregated public bathrooms, people can inscribe their thoughts and opinions on to the walls for an audience which is likely to be of the same gender as the author. These thoughts and opinions appear in the form of latrinalia, a term that Dundes (1966) coined to refer to all picture and writings that appear in bathrooms. Due to the dichotomized nature of public bathrooms, much of the previous research in to latrinalia has focused on the differences between men’s and women’s bathrooms (Bartholome and Snyder, 2004; Arluke, Kutakoff, and Levin, 1987; Dundes, 1966). This essay aims to add to the ongoing research but also focuses on a largely ignored aspect of latrinalia, the ‘tag’. Tags are a common form of graffiti, ‘broadly analogous to a signature’ and ‘usually written in one swift motion’ (Kindynis, 2018, p.513).  To the untrained eye tags may appear as simply scribbles or scrawls upon the walls, but they are in fact fascinating examples of graffiti subculture. Where many studies have excluded tags as a pertinent theme within the data, this project argues that ‘tags’ are a crucial theme within the realm of latrinalia studies and should not be disregarded from the data. 
Two research questions are proposed: what common themes appear within the data and how do the linguistic landscapes differ between the men’s and women’s bathrooms? 

These are explored by the careful examination of photographs of latrinalia taken in the men’s and women’s toilets of two live music venues in Bristol. The pictures were taken on the same date by the researcher and a female friend.

Figure 1: Comparing female (left) and male (right) latrinalia

Research Question 1. What are the common themes that appear in the data? 
Table 1 indicates the most common themes found within the data. These were tags, encouragement, sex, and politics/society. Tags were by far the most common theme of graffiti in the men’s bathrooms. Encouragement, like in Amevuvor and Hafer’s 2019 study was the most prevalent theme within the women’s bathroom. Sexual statements appeared 5 times in the women’s bathrooms but not once in the men’s bathrooms. This is contrary to previous studies which found that most common theme in men’s bathrooms was latrinalia of a sexual nature. 

Theme Total Male Female 
Tags 58* 86% (50)*14% (8)
Encouragement 18 17% (3) 83% (15)
Sex 0% (0) 100% (5)
Politics/Society 50% (4) 50% (4)
Pop Culture 33% (2) 67% (4)
Gender-related 0% (0) 100% (3)
Vegan/Vegetarian 0% (0) 100% (3)
Racial 100% (2) 0% (0)
Exasperation 0% (0) 100% (1)
Table 1: Broad themes of latrinalia in the toilets of 2 live music venues in Bristol (* given that tags can be placed over one another, it was difficult to discern a precise number, so this is a conservative estimate)

Research Question 2. How do the linguistic landscapes differ between the men’s and women’s bathrooms? 
The linguistic landscapes of the men’s bathrooms were undeniably dominated by tags. Tags appeared in both sets of bathrooms but the surface area coverage within the men’s bathrooms was enormous (see pictures below). Kindynis (2018) explains that when it comes to tagging, the name of the game is to get your tag up as much as possible. As one participant of Kindynis’ study succinctly states, ‘anyone that is doing graffiti and says they don’t care about any kind of props [kudos] in the graffiti scene is full of shit’ (Kindynis, 2018, p.531). Following this line of thought, one can interpret the linguistic landscape of the men’s bathrooms as a space to compete for notoriety and fame. Why is it then, that this occurs so much more in the men’s bathrooms and how does it relate to gender? As Meyerhoff (2018, p.248) explained, ‘gender is a social identity’ which ‘emerges, like all social identities, in the ways we interact with others’. If one’s social identity is rooted in masculinity, which in the space of a men’s bathroom it is likely (but not always) to be the case, then it could be argued that these bathroom walls represent an example of men enacting their masculinity through the medium of tagging.  

Although there were still 8 examples of tags in the women’s bathrooms this was a much smaller quantity than in the men’s. The absence of women within graffiti subcultures has not gone unnoticed. Macdonald (2001) provides a possible explanation. She argues that as the graffiti subculture is a site of masculine construction, which uses the risks and qualifications associated with graffiti as tools for constructing masculinity.

Encouragement  was the top theme found within the women’s bathrooms with a total of 15 examples.  The linguistic landscapes of the women’s bathrooms generally created a positive space encouraging self-love and self-acceptance, for example, ‘you are amazing just as you should be xxxx’. As Grabe, Ward and Hyde (2008) explain, modern media exposure and depictions of the ‘ideal thin body’ have been linked to women’s dissatisfaction with their own bodies, and a study in to the salience of the body in people‘s identities by Kling, Wängqvist and Frisén (2018) found that women, more than men were likely to describe experiences of identifying with their body. If women are more likely to associate their self with their body image, and the media persists on depicting unattainable body-images for women, then we might argue that the positive linguistic landscape of the women’s bathroom is both an acknowledgement and a rejection of the societal pressures placed upon a women’s identity. 
The findings from this study suggest that there are differences between the linguistic landscapes of gender segregated bathrooms. The men’s bathrooms contained numerous examples of tags which, due to the masculine constructions of the graffiti subculture, created a linguistic landscape of competition and notoriety. The women’s bathrooms contained some tags, but mostly written graffiti. Like Amevuvor and Hafer’s study (2019) the most common theme in the women’s bathroom was encouragement. The linguistic landscapes of the women’s bathrooms expressed positivity, and self-acceptance. This study suggests that women’s bathrooms can become a space to acknowledge and reject societal pressures upon the female identity.

Contrary to previous latrinalia research, this study found tags to be the main theme in the men’s bathrooms. The limited scope of this project makes it unreasonable to suggest that this is a common occurrence across all of Bristol. We need a much larger study undertaken to rule out the possibility that this is an anomaly within the linguistic landscape of Bristol’s latrinalia. Furthermore, it would be beneficial to delve deeper into the context of the establishment in which this latrinalia has been found. Perhaps there are links between the culture of the establishment and/or typical events that it holds which could further explain the differences found between the linguistic landscapes. Nonetheless, this study highlights the role that latrinalia studies could have in contributing to the of understanding how gender and identity is constituted through language.

Taryn Davis,

Year 2 English Language & Linguistics

Reflecting on the toppling of Colston and the importance of apologising

by James Murphy

On the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery in 2006, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a statement expressing his ‘sorrow’ at the role of Britain in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  It was a statement of regret, but not apology.  Whilst welcomed by some at the time, it was condemned by others.  The toppling of Colston’s statue reminds us that symbols matter. The symbolic gesture of apologising need not be an empty one.

The historian, lawyer and former Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption has argued at length against historical apologies. He suggests that:

when we castigate the sins of our forebears as immoral, we are saying,implicitly, that there are some moral principles which are absolute and eternal, not relative and ephemeral by which men may be justly judged in any age

But apologies do not make such claims – they simply highlight what our morals are now. An apology on behalf of the nation (or an institution) is an opportunity to draw attention not simply to the sins of the slave trade, but to the lasting legacy of discrimination and inequality. Dealing with this legacy is the most pressing of reparations. (Sumption is also wrong because this suggests that no-one at the time knew that slavery was immoral. I leave it to the historians to tell the stories of those abolitionists who vehemently condemned the actions of Colston and other slavers at the time.)

Sumption and others also reject historical apologies since they are not personally responsible for the wrongdoing. Speaking of Blair’s expression of sorrow about the role of Britain in the Slave Trade, Sumption argues:

Yet, in what sense am I responsible? I am descended from nineteenth century Englishmen, I live in the same country they did, and I speak the same language. But I didn’t do it! You didn’t do it! It wasn’t done on our behalf.

Once again, this rather misses the point. Firstly, historical apologies abstract away from the individual. The person producing the apology does not take on the guilt –- they represent something bigger than themselves or individuals (an institution or a nation). The objection is that guilt should not be inherited. But when the profits of slavery have been inherited – and one need not look far in Bristol to see that – that wealth must come with a recognition of its immoral source.

And so I suggest that apologies for the Slave Trade are not only legitimate but also a prerequisite before institutions with ties to enslavers can say that they truly believe that Black Lives Matter.

Vice-Chancellor’s Challenge Fund success for linguistics

Some good news for researchers in the Bristol Centre for Linguistics!

Minna Kirjavainen-Morgan and Anna Piasecki and a team of researchers from Education and Psychology departments at UWE and Warsaw and Helsinki Universities have secured funding from the UWE Vice Chancellor’s Challenge Fund for a research project investigating the effect of gender marking on (pro)nouns on native and non-native English, Finnish and Polish speakers’ perception and recall of gender information from photos seen.

This project fits into Minna’s wider research programme exploring the Whorfian hypothesis. This is the idea that the language(s) a speaker speaks may have an effect on their cognitive processes (such as memory, perception, categorization).

Work will start on the project in earnest in August.

Comparing public inquiries to the criminal courtroom

We’ve had the pleasure of reading some fantastic student work over this assessment period. One of the stand out pieces for me was the following essay by first year student Stephanie Williams on the Forensic Linguistics module. It combines clarity of expression and well selected examples from the ongoing Grenfell Tower public inquiry to demonstrate the very different nature of questioning at inquiries. Well done to Steph!


This essay will consider how the language of a public inquiry differs from that found in the criminal court. It will briefly discuss the difference in function between the two, the adversarial nature of a criminal court leading to a conviction and the inquisitorial nature of the public inquiry leading to recommendations. Both criminal trials and public inquiries are goal orientated processes and for counsel to achieve those goals, different linguistic devices are used.  Witness type and the aspect of blame will be considered, and how linguistic devices are used to apportion blame implicitly in a public inquiry.  To illustrate these points, extracts from three testimonies of the Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry have been interrogated for recurrent patterns. However, it should be stated that findings are limited only to these extracts due to the length of the full testimonies which would be beyond the scope of this essay.

Public Inquiry vs. Criminal Trial

A public inquiry, convened by a government minister, is a quasi-judicial body set up to investigate an event that has caused public concern and is tasked with providing recommendations. They are established under the Inquiries Act (2005) and consist of a chair, panel, lead counsel, notice parties and witnesses. According to Beer (2010), the purpose of a public inquiry is to establish what happened, why it happened and what can be done to prevent it happening again.  Beer (2010) also mentions that public inquiries are necessary to establish blame, however as argued by Murphy (2019), they are never explicitly tasked with finding blame, although blame is an expectation. The public inquiry is inquisitorial in nature and one counsel asks all questions to establish facts. This contrasts with the adversarial role of a criminal trial during which prosecution and defence counsel present their arguments. In a criminal trial the defendant is presumed to be innocent and the ‘burden of guilt’ (Lakoff 1986:99) rests with the prosecution, whilst the defence seeks to undermine this or cast reasonable doubt. Therefore, the aim of the criminal trial is to explicitly blame and convict.

Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry

The Grenfell Tower Public Inquiry was set up by the then Prime Minister, Theresa May on 15th June 2017. This is to investigate a fire in a newly refurbished 24 storey residential block in London, which occurred on 14 June 2017 and killed 72 people. The appointed chair is Sir Martin Moore-Bick, a retired judge. The inquiry is in two phases, the first of which has concluded with a report of findings published on 30 October 2019 and the second phase continues.  The transcripts used in this essay are extracts from the first phase and include resident Hamid Wahbi (Appendix A), London Fire Commissioner, Dany Cotton (Appendix B) and Neil Crawford, contractor (Appendix C).

Type of questions used in a public inquiry

In a criminal trial lawyers use strategies to construct a narrative and control the witness.  One strategy is the use of question types to elicit a particular response, as summed up by Archer (2005:85):

 “The question-answer format places severe constraints on how a ‘conversation’ between a witness and a barrister can proceed…barristers want to elicit information that is strategically valuable, and so frame their questions in a way that might influence the response. Witnesses and defendants, on the other hand, can only answer the question that is posed, and they must do so directly”.

The reason for this is to influence the outcome of a criminal trial to enable a conviction. In contrast, the outcome of the public inquiry is to gather evidence and make recommendations.  The use of open wh-questions and invitation questions in public enquiries allow the witness to explain what happened in their own words.

Example: Hamid Wahbi, day 62, page 33, line 13

Q: When you were holding the handle, was there anything happening with the window at that time?

However, there is still a degree of control exerted by counsel in the use of wh-questions that require a less open response. Woodbury (1984, cited by Archer 2005:79) argues that wh-questions should be classified into ‘broad, narrow and reduced’ depending on the ‘specificity’ of the answer required.

Example: Hamid Wahbi, day 62, page 34, line 8

Q: How far were you able to open the window?

Across all three extracts, a high number of closed yes/no questions have been used by counsel, however as opposed to a criminal trial, this type of question has been used as clarification of evidence from witness statements and maintain chronological order.

Example: Hamid Wahbi, day 62, page 37, line 17-21

Q. If we look at paragraph 53 now — and now we’re coming to the living room, Mr Wahbi — you say you left and went into the sitting room. Was that through the sliding doors that opened from the kitchen into the lounge?

In another example of the yes/no question, counsel is making the point that lessons were not learnt from previous fires. Luchjenbroers (1997) identifies this type of yes/no question as accusatory, more commonly found in a criminal trial.

Example: Dany Cotton, day 50, page 46, line 15-23

Q. Were you aware of the Shepherds Court fire on 19 August 2016?

A. I was aware of that, yes.

Q. Did you attend?

A. I didn’t.

Q. Were you aware of what lessons were learnt from that fire?

Tagged declarative questions are used in a criminal trial to coerce witnesses into following a narrative. The witness has a limited choice, either to agree or disagree with the proposition. They are not overly common in public inquiries because counsel is not building a narrative, however they are looking for culpability.

Example: Dany Cotton, day 50, page 46, line 7-9 (negative agreement tag)

Q. But you weren’t even in a position to make an assumption because you didn’t even know about those fires; is that fair? 

Example: Neil Crawford, day 11, page 87, line 24-1 (positive agreement tag)

Q. That would include, wouldn’t it, insulation contained within the voids behind the heads, jambs and cills [sic] of the windows; yes?

Other question types, often found in criminal trials, are alternative questions which are adversarial in nature. These give the witness a finite number of answers to choose from and do not appear in the extracts here. There are also a limited number of declarative questions and in public inquiries these are mainly used to highlight parts of the written statements for clarification.  In a criminal trial, this question type is used to construct a narrative by ensuring the witness can only answer with a limited response.

Example: Dany Cotton, day 50, page 45, line 13-14

Q. You didn’t take any comfort, then, from the failure of re-entry at the Dubai fire? 

Witness type and blame

Questions and other metadiscursive features depend on the witness type and whether counsel is sympathetic or alluding to culpability. This is comparable with the questioning of friendly and unfriendly witnesses in a criminal trial. Luchjenbroers’ (1997:492) states her analysis “revealed a general barrister strategy of directing a higher proportion of interrogatives and a lower proportion of declarative forms to sympathetic witnesses than to hostile witnesses” In the Hamid Wahbi testimony, counsel uses a range of wh-question types and yes/no questions to confirm and elaborate his statement and this is apparent in the responses. However, control is also noted in the form of discourse markers ‘and’ and ‘so’ to move the witness in a given direction. Sympathy is shown in the regular use of the words ‘can you remember’

 In the testimonies of Dany Cotton and Neil Crawford, although a high number of interrogatives are used, we can see declarative tag questions appear to control responses. However, they can expand their answers in response to ‘proper’ questioning by counsel often apparent in public inquiries in blameable matters. Blame is also implied in the use of negative wh-questioning resulting in a defensive response.

Example: Dany Cotton, day 50, page 51, line 21-25

 Q. We’ve been told by senior officers, I think as late as this week, that an operational firefighter would always expect the unexpected. Was this not the unexpected which you should be expecting?

A. I don’t think that’s a reasonable thing to say […]

Blame is also suggested in Dany Cotton’s testimony using expressions such as ‘failure’ and ‘negligible‘. Murphy (2019: 179) states these are “a cluster of lexical items which are utilised by the inquiry chair to highlight the negative actions which are blameable…the ‘lexical field of blame” Therefore although explicit blame is not a feature of a public inquiry as it is in the criminal court, it is implied through lexical choices.

This essay has discussed the role of different question types and other linguistic devices in a public enquiry and how they compare with those in a criminal trial. We can see from the three extracts that a high number of yes/no interrogatives have been used to clarify and expand points from the written statements and maintain chronological order.  Interrogatives are used in the criminal courtroom for a different reason, primarily to lead the witness through a narrative construction in order to gain a conviction. Some open wh-questions appear in the extracts to allow the witness to elaborate, but very few. Open wh-questioning is minimal in the criminal trial to avoid deviation from the narrative. However, there are forms of questioning used in these public inquiry extracts that are found in a criminal court, accusatory yes/no questions and tagged declarative questions. These have been used in the public inquiry context in addition to ‘proper questions’ to implicitly suggest blame. Therefore, although the nature of a public inquiry is inquisitorial, some culpability must be found in order to make recommendations and castigate those responsible which is why some forms of questioning may be like those used in a criminal trial where the goal is to find blame.

Stephanie Williams, Year 1 English Language and Linguistics