First Person Pronouns in Online Diary Writing

First Person Pronouns in Online Diary Writing

John Newman (University of Alberta, Canada) and Laura Teddiman (University of Alberta, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-773-2.ch018
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It is well-known that first person pronouns have a particularly important role to play in conversation. “Online diary” style of writing is less well understood and the role of first person pronouns in that style invites further study. In this chapter the authors explore these pronouns in UK and US online diaries, paying particular attention to frequency and collocational relations. In previous corpus-based studies of English genres, first person pronouns have tended to be considered as one larger set without differentiation. The authors find, on the contrary, that the differences between these forms can be very revealing in the way they distinguish online diary style of writing from other genres such as conversation and fiction writing. The findings underline the need to respect inflectional variants of lemmas as objects of study in their own right.
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Recent case studies of verbs in English have revealed interesting patterning around particular inflected forms, as opposed to lemmas, suggesting that investigating language at the inflectional level is a promising line of inquiry (cf. Newman & Rice, 2004; Newman, in press).1Scheibman (2001), in a study of informal conversation, found that first person singular (1SG) and second person singular (2SG) subjects occur with particular verbs of cognition with a relatively high frequency (I guess, I don’t know, you know, I mean) reflecting the particular pragmatic role played by these phrases in conversation. Scheibman (2001, p. 84) also emphasizes the need to examine ‘local’ patterns in grammatical research and cautions against relying just on the superordinate grammatical categories (person, verb type, tense etc.). In a similar way, Tao (2001, 2003) discusses the prominence of the simple present tense forms of the verb REMEMBER, used with a first person singular subject (I remember) or a null subject (remember), again demonstrating the importance of studying particular inflected forms of a verb, rather than just the lemma. The Scheibman and Tao studies both point to the subject form of the 1SG pronoun in English, I, as playing a particularly important role in conversational style.

In light of this previous research, we decided to explore the differential behavior of the first person pronouns in different genres in English. First person pronouns are well known as forms which indicate “an interpersonal focus and a generally involved style” (Biber, 1988, p. 225) and which play an important role in distinguishing spoken and written registers (see, e.g., Biber, 1988, p. 225 for further references). Not surprisingly, Biber (1988) identifies the class of first person pronouns as a “linguistic feature”, worthy of inclusion in the 67 features which form the basis for his corpus-linguistic analysis of stylistic variation in English. This class consists of I, me, we, us, my, mine, our, myself, ourselves, ours. Without disputing the value of grouping these forms together as part of Biber’s (1988) study, we believe that there is much to be gained, too, from investigating properties of the individual “inflected” forms of this class, in addition to studying these forms collectively, as it were, at the level of the lemma. For the purposes of this study we restrict ourselves to I, me, my, we, us, and our.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Lemma: A representation of a word that subsumes all its inflected forms. For example, the lemma verb sing includes the inflected verb forms sing, sings, singing, sang, sung.

Online Diary: A type of weblog (blog) that is used by the author as a personal journal but is publicly available for others to view and comment upon. Differs from other blog types in that the subject matter is grounded in the experiences of the author, and is not thematically based.

Collocate: Collocates of word x are those words that occur in the environment of x, within a text. For example, in the sentence It is time for me to go, go is a collocate of me at position R2 (second word to the right of me).

Corpus: A collection of written texts or transcriptions of spoken language. Now understood to be an electronic collection.

Boxplot, box plot: A standard graphical visualization of numerical variation in data, including 5 key statistics: median, 25th and 75th percentiles, and maximum and minimum values present in the data. “Notched” boxplots allow quick inspection of significant differences in variation between two or more datasets. Where the notches do not overlap, there are significant differences between the datasets.

Second person: In English linguistics, second person refers to the pronouns you, your, yourself, yourselves, yours.

First person: In English linguistics, first person refers to the pronouns I, me, my, mine, myself (singular), we, us, our, ours, ourselves (plural).

Genre: A group of texts collected for corpus-based studies. Typically, collected texts are drawn from a cohesive domain, e.g., press, religion, fiction, academic, private letters, and diaries.

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