Radio and Television

Commentaries on live events

How the medium affects the message

Sports commentaries are a well-established form of broadcast. They are necessarily spontaneous or instantaneous in some respects. The challenge for the commentator is to tell the audience what is happening for all periods of live action, to invite the summarizer to make further comments and judgements during breaks in play and briefly during the play and to bring in reports and score flashes from other grounds.


  • Often constructed partly as a conversation between the commentator and summarizer, separated by the (often longer) passages of commentary

  • The commentator may not address the audience directly after an introductory ‘Welcome’

  • Commentary may need continuous adjustment, as the action changes, so comments must be modified

  • The commentator assumes shared knowledge with listeners, so will use specific lexis, and phrases which imply meaning rather than explain it.

  • Register will be stylised, specialised, professional, colloquial


  • A commentary will use the special lexis and jargon of the sport/event in question.
  • Simple and undemanding vocabulary, typical of speech
  • Commentaries also make extensive use of the names of the participants, especially in team games, usually by last name only (Dyer, Shearer, Van Meir, Philips) - the commentator may have given the full name at the start, but the audience is expected to know them well enough anyway.
  • Sometimes, historical facts are given, perhaps as a mark of respect and.
  • The use of the names also has relevance to pragmatics since the audience knows not only that, say, Philips is Kevin Philips but that in this match he is playing at his club ground (he was a Sunderland player in 1999) and also that he is a forward, so that mention of his name suggests where the action is happening on the pitch.


  • May use elliptical forms and minor sentences - where the audience is expected to take some things as read. So "free kick given against Shearer" omits any articles ("a free kick") and auxiliaries ("is" or "has been" before "given"). A typical ellipsis occurs with "It's Philips" - we do not know from this what Kevin Philips is doing. "It's Philips" indicates either that this player has possession of the ball, or that he is running into a space where the commentator expects him to receive the ball imminently.  This ellipsis is used for speed and pace.
  • The commentator slips between present and past tense verb forms to create a distinction between what is happening now, and what has just happened.
  • Adverbs may add detail to action

Discourse structure

  • Where some kinds of discourse can vary in length, according to the authors' wishes, a sports commentary is quite clearly constrained by the event it shows to the audience.
  • The relevance of this to the extract is that the commentator cannot determine exactly when to start and finish - he or she describes the live and recent action, while being ready for the arrival of half time and full time, as indicated by the timing of the match and the addition of extra time at the end of each half.
  • Simple connectives may be used to connect action: ‘and’
  • Often, cohesion between clauses is lexical, rather than grammatical, with no connectives used.
  • Pauses separate clauses, rather than connectives.


  • Transcripts often give an indication of the pace of the commentary, and the frequency and length of pauses.
  • In this respect radio and TV broadcasts differ - in the latter case it is acceptable to let the pictures tell parts of the story, where the radio commentator cannot allow such long silences.

Live phone-in programmes

How the medium affects the message

A live phone-in programme happens in real time, and can create an impression of spontaneity and risk - one never knows what the caller is going to say. With the BBC's national networks, there is an unseen selection process for many broadcasts. Callers contact a producer ahead of the programme, which leads to the creation of a list of contributors whom the broadcaster calls back at the point where they are to speak.


In the case of a phone-in programme, this is likely to be a most important area of language theory - since the object of the host or presenter, broadly speaking, is to help people who have little or no experience of broadcasting to make a contribution to the programme, in conjunction with the other callers.  In looking at transcripts, try to focus on the areas of pragmatics that are covered by:

  • taking and keeping turns;
  • conversational maxims and the cooperative principle;
  • politeness theory;
  • phatic tokens.


  • In spontaneous speech it is not always easy for a speaker to sustain an even style, so you may find a mixture of the common register or "simple and undemanding vocabulary, typical of speech" with more learned or special lexis. The two transcripts in this guide challenge the suggestions that
  • Look for simple or sophisticated lexis, or a combination of these
  • Look out for accommodation - where a caller or presenter reflects the other's lexical choices.


  • Simple / complex structures
  • Elliptical forms
  • Pronouns
  • Consider all grammar areas and think whether the speaker’s grammar may differ when spoken and written.

Discourse features

  • For the presenter there is a sense of the whole broadcast into which the various callers' contributions fit. They may have a notional upper and lower time limit, which will allow them to vary the length of time for which each caller speaks. This may affect the structure of the call
  • Question and answer formats
  • Who leads the talk
  • Overlapping


  • Pauses.
  • Stresses (if given)
  • Elision, contraction, hesitation indicators
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