Reference : What they highlight is: the discourse functions of basic wh-clefts in lectures
Scientific congresses, symposiums and conference proceedings : Unpublished conference
Arts & humanities : Languages & linguistics
What they highlight is: the discourse functions of basic wh-clefts in lectures
Deroey, Katrien mailto [University of Luxembourg > Central Administration > >]
Corpus Linguistics Conference
20-07-2009 to 23-07-2009
[en] As part of a study of lecture functions in general and highlighting devices in specific, this paper presents the findings of an investigation into the discourse functions of basic wh-cleft clauses in a corpus of lectures. These clauses, such as What our brains do is complicated information processing, are identifying constructions which background the information in the relative clause (What our brains do) and present the information foregrounded in the complement (complicated information processing) as newsworthy. Corpus-based studies of this construction to date have mainly described its function in writing (Collins 1991, Herriman 2003 & 2004) and spontaneous speech (Collins 1991 & 2006). From his examination of wh-clefts in speech and writing, Collins (1991: 214) concludes that ‘the linear progression from explicitly represented non-news to news offers speakers an extended opportunity to formulate the message’, while Biber et al (1999: 963) note that in conversation, speakers may use this construction with its typically low information content as ‘a springboard in starting an utterance’. With regard to academic speech, Rowley-Jolivet & Carter-Thomas (2003) found that basic wh-clefts are particularly effective in conference presentations to highlight the New and that their apparent ‘underlying presupposed question’ (p. 57) adds a dialogic dimension to monologic speech. All these features suggest that wh-clefts may be a useful in lectures, which are typically monologic and mainly concerned with imparting information. So far, however, studies on the function of these clefts in lectures have generally focussed on the function of part of the wh-clause as a lexical bundle (Biber 2006, Nesi & Basturkmen 2006) and mostly discussed its role as a discourse organising device.

For the current investigation, a corpus of 12 lectures drawn from the British Academic Spoken English (BASE) Corpus were analysed. This yielded 132 basic wh-clefts, which were classified for their main discourse functions based on the presence of certain lexico-grammatical features, the functional relationship between the clefts and their co-text and an understanding of the purposes of and disciplinary variation within the lecture genre. Four main functional categories thus emerged: informing, evaluating, discourse organizing, evaluating and managing the class. These functions of wh-clefts and their relative frequency are discussed and related to lecture purposes; incidental findings on their co-occurrence with pauses and discourse markers are also touched upon. The study of this highlighting device in a lecture corpus thus aims to contribute to our understanding of what happens in authentic lectures and how this is reflected in the language.


Biber, D. (2006). University language: a corpus-based study of spoken and written registers. Studies in Corpus Linguistics 23. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Biber, D., S. Johansson, G. Leech, S. Conrad, & E. Finegan (1999). The Longman grammar of spoken and written English. London: Longman.
Collins, P. C. (1991). Cleft and pseudo-cleft constructions in English. London: Routledge. Collins, P. C. (2006). It-clefts and wh-clefts: prosody and pragmatics. Journal of Pragmatics, 38, 1706-1720.
Herriman, J. (2003). Negotiating identity: the interpersonal functions of wh-clefts in English. Functions of Language, 10 (1), 1-30.
Herriman, J. (2004). Identifying relations: the semantic functions of wh-clefts in English. Text, 24 (4), 447-469.
Nesi, H. & Basturkmen, H. (2006). Lexical bundles and discourse signalling in academic lectures. International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, 11 (3), 283-304.
Rowley-Jolivet, E. & Carter-Thomas, S. (2005). Genre awareness and rhetorical appropriacy: manipulation of information structure by NS and NNS scientists in the international conference setting. English for Specific purposes, 24, 41-64.

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