Language and Power
Quick revise

You could be asked to analyse either a spoken or written text. The framework below can be applied to a spoken or written text.

In preparing for this topic area candidates should study the way power is represented in spoken and written discourses, for example in official documents, media texts, advice leaflets etc. Candidates should also study the way participants in interactions position themselves and others, for example in interviews, debates, consultations, speeches etc.

Comment on language features by relating them methodically to an appropriate language level or framework. Here are some things you might want to consider:


What type of power is it?

  • Instrumental or Influential
  • Political/Personal/Social group


Formal, informal, colloquial, slang, jargon, archaic or dialect? Prestige / covert prestige? Lists? Repetition? Latinate? – semantic fields can be very influential. Mood and tone can be very persuasive. Metaphors, puns, irony and other types of figurative language used… are all highly persuasive as is ‘emotive’ language. emotive lexis, clichés, hyperbole, lexis with positive or negative connotations, simple of complex, humour, repetition, Are any words frequently used? Why? What is the effect of this? Naming – first name? Last name? Formal title? Insults? Jargon? Polysyllabic? Latinate? French? Standard English?


Standard or non-standard? Both can be powerful and persuasive in different contexts. Sentence construction? Short sentences can be very powerful. Imperatives and directives? ‘I think we need to sort this out’ means – pragmatically – ‘Sort it!’ Modals: ‘Chocolate is bad for your health…’ or ‘Chocolate might be bad for your health…’; ‘Would you mind keeping quiet?’ or ‘Shut up!’. Interrogatives? Can be an exhibition of power and very persuasive, e.g. rhetorical questions. Pronouns? ‘I’, ‘you’ and the oddly ‘all-inclusive’ or ‘all-exclusive’ we each have. Persuasive effects. Parallel grammatical structures? Rules of three? There are so many rhetorical devices that can add influence to language and help reinforce and create power differentials. consider use of different sentence functions (imperative, declarative, interrogative, exclamanative), sentence length, use of nouns (e.g. abstract nouns), use of pronouns (is the reader directly addressed using second person pronoun ‘you’, use of inclusive pronoun ‘we’), conjunctions, adjectives, verbs, ellipsis, non-standard grammar, tripling


Sound can add impact and persuasive effects: harsh or soft consonants, onomatopoeia, alliteration, sibilance, prestige, Received Punctuation,  accents; covertly prestigious local accents or stigmatized accents?


Presentation can add to content in important and potentially powerful ways. Use of logos and other pictorial devices can suggest instrumental power; layout can dress a text ‘instrumentally’ and mimic a powerful text with persuasive results. Many genres have particular graphological conventions that can be highly persuasive.

Conversational Features

  • Who leads the talk?
  • Who chooses/changes the topic?
  • Who interrupts/backs down?
  • Who comments on what is said?
  • Who uses politeness strategies?
  • Who uses ‘face-threatening acts’?
  • Who uses tags, fillers and hedges?
  • Who talks most?
  • Who uses directives and what kind?

The Dominant participant will...

  • Initiate the conversation
  • Set the agenda
  • Control the topics
  • Reinforce the required behaviour through positive feedback
  • Interrupt
  • Overlap

The submissive participant will…

  • Respond rather than initiate
  • Say very much less, even be largely silent
  • Follow the set agenda of the conversation
  • Use respectful, form of address, avoid familiarity
  • Avoid assertiveness by not interrupting
  • Use fillers and vague language


There are not many theorists that you can apply – so that makes it easier to remember them all! Always try to consider relevant theoretical insights and standpoints in your response:

  • IRVING GOFFMAN as well as Penelope Brown, Steven Levinson and Geoffrey Leech all show how politeness and impoliteness can show or create influence and persuasion. ‘Face Saving / Threatening Acts’ are particularly important.
  • PAUL GRICE shows that co-operation is the norm in conversations but that ‘conversational maxims’ can be flouted or otherwise not followed to suggest influence and power.
  • Remember that Grice can be applied to any text that is ‘conversational’ in style: ads are often written to ‘speak to us’, for example; many texts imply one half of a ‘conversation’: Grice has very wide application indeed.   
  • NORMAN FAIRCLOUGH shows that many interactions are ‘unequal encounters’; that language choice is created and constrained by certain social ‘power’ situations or ‘power type’ discourse of kinds accepted as ‘normal’ for that kind of encounter, e.g. a manager/worker or doctor/patient conversation (or, in a text, the use of stereotypes or other ideological ideas). 
  • Fairclough also shows how texts are persuasive because of the ideologies they rely upon for their effect, i.e. when the text makes ‘natural’ assumptions about its reader’s values and beliefs, about what is ‘normal’ or ‘common sense’.
  • Remember SYNTHETIC PERSONALISATION (only in advertising)

Language and Power Sample Answer

How is power evident in the text below?

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all. Thank you for that very gracious and warm Cincinnati welcome. I’m honoured to be here tonight; I appreciate you all coming.

Tonight I want to take a few minutes to discuss a grave threat to peace, and America’s determination to lead the world in confronting that threat.

The threat comes from Iraq. It arises directly from the Iraqi regime’s own actions -- its history of aggression, and its drive toward an arsenal of terror. Eleven years ago, as a condition for ending the Persian Gulf War, the Iraqi regime was required to destroy its weapons of mass destruction, to cease all development of such weapons, and to stop all support for terrorist groups. The Iraqi regime has violated all of those obligations. It possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons. It has given shelter and support to terrorism, and practices terror against its own people. The entire world has witnessed Iraq’s eleven-year history of defiance, deception and bad faith.

Student’s Response

This speech is a public address by the president of America to a group of Americans in Cincinnati although it would be given in the knowledge that it would receive far wider circulation through the mass media. The occasion is just prior to the war against Iraq.

The president opens with lexical choices chosen from the field of politeness such as “very gracious”, “honoured” and “appreciate”. These are not only typical of this genre but are important to this context because they work to develop a tenor in which the speaker is at one with his audience and to  garner a sympathetic response. The largely Latinate nature of the lexis is well-suited to a serious and formal occasion and has the added useful effect of boosting the audience’s sense of self-esteem.

To create a sense of importance for the occasion, a structural device is used to create an early sense of emotion and fear through the use of what has become a near cliché, “a grave threat to peace”. The speaker also tries to develop a sense of common ground through an emotional appeal, reminding the audience that they are a part of an important nation able to “lead the world”.

A more general aspect of the speech is the use of a metonymic mode, for example, the speaker uses synecdoche with the hypernyms “America” and “Iraq” creating a sense of inclusiveness that, crucially, is difficult to question.

Structurally, the speech is developed in a powerful way through an early amplification of the nature of the threat. Grammatically, this is done by the choice of a crisply short simple sentence: “The threat comes from Iraq”. This is immediately followed up by another direct assertion: “It arises directly from...”. Such grammatical choices allow no room for question but support for the statements is given nonetheless in order to create further emotion and fear through such lexical choices such as “aggression”, “arsenal”, and “terror”.

Examiner’s Comments

A reasonably good answer but somewhat short. More detail on features of planned speech, lexical choice, grammar, audience, purpose and context would give the student a higher mark.

Grade D


Average: 3.2 (9 votes)