Adverbial Marking of Stance in Speech and Writing

Over the last many decades, linguists have increasingly become interested in the ways that speakers and writers convey their personal feelings and assessments in relation to propositional content. To satisfy their curiosity, several corpus-based methods were adopted to study the differing ways in which speakers and writers use adverbials to mark their personal ‘stance’.

Stance refers to the expression of the speaker's or writer's’ “personal feelings, attitudes, value judgments, or assessments in relation to what he or she is saying” (Biber et al, 1999).

In this entry, we adopt Conrad and Biber’s corpus, which compose three collections of texts: one of conversation, one of academic writing, and and one of news reportage.

In their corpus they identify adverbials with a variety of grammatical forms: mainly adverbs such as probably, prepositional phrase such as in most cases, and subordinate clauses such as I think. These adverbials express meanings associated with the speaker or writer’s attitude, or stance, towards what he or she is saying. Three kinds of meaning are identified:

  1. epistemic stance, commenting on the certainty (or doubt), reliability, or limitations of a proposition. Basically, this indicates how certain the speaker or writer is, or where the information comes from (e.g.probably, according to the President);
  2. attitudinal stance, conveying the speaker’s attitudes, feelings, or value judgments about what is said or written (e.g. surprisingly, unfortunately);
  3. style stance, describing the manner in which the information is being presented. In other words, how something is said or written (e.g. honestly, briefly).

The study of stance is restricted to grammatical devices used to frame a proposition. For example, in Example 1, the stance adverbial maybe is used to express the speaker’s uncertainty about the following proposition (she put grease in it):

  • (1)  Maybe she put grease in it. (Conv)

The matrix verb of adjectival predicate controlling a complement clause can similarly be used to express speaker stance. Thus, in example 2 the adjective sure marks the speaker’s certainty about the following proposition:

  • (2)  I’m sure I’ve spoken to him. (Conv)
Important Hint!  

Note that all example sentences given in this entry are from naturally occurring discourse. The register of the example is given in parentheses: Conv (Conversation); Acad (Academic Prose); News (News reportage).

Other grammatical devices, such as modal verbsOpens in new window and some nominal expressions, can also be used to mark stance. However, in this entry, we'll be focusing exclusively on adverbial markers of stance.

Characteristics of Adverbial Stance Markers

Adverbial stance markers can be characterized with respect to three major parameters:

  1. semantic class,
  2. grammatical realization,
  3. placement in the clause.

In addition, most stance adverbials are similar in having scope over an entire clause and presenting the speaker’s attitude or framing towards the proposition in that clause. However, we also describe a special sub-class of stance adverbial that has scope over a phraseOpens in new window.

In terms of their meaning, stance adverbials can be grouped into the three major semantic classes (as identified earlier): epistemic stance, attitudinal stance, and style stance.

1.  Epistemic Stance

Epistemic stance adverbials provide speaker comment on the status of the information presented in the main clause. Under epistemic stance, it is possible to distinguish among several sub-classes.

(a)  Indicating the degree of certainty or doubt concerning the proposition

  • Well perhaps he is a little bit weird … (Conv)
  • About 12–20 pigs per pen is probably the ideal number … (Acad)
  • Some potentialities for bettering rice yields by this method undoubted exist, but their magnitude remains unknown. (Acad)

(b)  Commenting on the reality or actuality of the proposition

  • You can actually hear what she’s saying. (Conv)
  • You’re wise to lock it really. (Conv)
  • For a little while it was not clear that wave mechanics and matrix mechanics were different expressions of the same basic physical theory, but in fact that proved to be the case. (Acad)

(c)  Indicating that the proposition is somehow imprecise

  • It seems to clean it up if you call it that. (Conv)
  • We were both dancing and then she sort of fell over and went into a fit.’ (News)

(d)  Identifying the source of information, either specifically or by implication with words such as apparently and evidently

  • Egypt’s nuclear power industry is still in the design phase, but according to Mr. Kandil, nuclear power was the only clean energy alternative for Egypt … (News)
  • they just apparently built up huge quantities of dry bird droppings and these were staggeringly high. (Conv)
  • Durkheim’s emphasis upon the importance of constraint is evidently directed primarily against utilitarianism. (Acad)

(e)  Marketing limitations of the information or identifying the perspective from which the proposition is true

  • In most cases the stacking of bands is such as to produce a monoclinic cell similar to that in tremolite …(Acad)
  • From our perspective, movement success is paradoxical. (Acad)

2.  Attitudinal Stance

Attitudinal stance adverbials also include a wide range of meanings, conveying attitudes, feelings, value judgments, or expectations; but it is more difficult to group these into sub-classes. Examples include:

  • but fortunately I put it in a folder so the folder was destroyed. (Conv)
  • Most surprising of all, at a quarterly delegate meeting at the end of 1873, it was generally held that there could be no reasonable objection to their [women’s] employment … (Acad)
  • The extent to which insect flight-muscles are developed is, as one would expect, correlated with the capacity for flight. (Acad)
  • Unfortunately, IPC as proposed is applicable to only a relatively small number of pollutants. (News)
  • Sensibly the presenter, matinee idol-manque Richard Jobson, kept his dinner suit on. (News)
  • Amazingly, Adam walked away from the crash with just a graze on his left shoulder.

3.  Style Stance

Finally, style stance adverbials comment on the manner of speaking. That is, they state the way in which information is being presented or is meant to be understood, such as:

  • Honestly, I’ve got a headache. (Conv)
  • If his—desires were carried out we’d, well we’d be talking about thousands of pounds. Literally.(Conv)
  • More simply put, a feedback system has its inputs affected by its outputs. (Acad)
  • Briefly, the aim was to encourage particular schools to develop and implement learning resources plans … (Acad)

A cross-cutting descriptive parameter for stance adverbials is grammatical realization, as a single adverb, adverb phrase, noun phrase, prepositional phrase, finite subordinate clause, or non-finite subordinate clause. These are exemplified below.

(a)  Single adverb as stance adverbial (See Stance AdverbsOpens in new window)

  • A message actually belongs to exactly one communication act. (Acad)

(b)  Adverb phrase as stance adverbial

  • I assume you’re right Lynda, but quite frankly I don’t know. (Conv)

(c) Noun phrase as stance adverbial

  • The enthusiastic housekeeper will no doubt be pleased to hear that the carpet retailers are going back to the twist. (News)

(d) Prepositional phrase as stance adverbial

  • I’ll tell you for a fact that Steven won’t go for Ollie tonigh … (Conv)

(e) Finite subordinate clause as stance adverbial

  • She, she’s in hospital here I think. (Conv)

(f) Non-finite subordinate clause as stance adverbial

  • We feel that if we did not pursue this second transplant it would be like, to put it bluntly, pulling the plug on her. (News)

Finally, most stance adverbials can occur freely in different clause positions: initial, pre-verbal, post-verbal, and final. We illustrate the positions here with occurrences of actually in conversation. In initial position, the adverbial is placed before the subjectOpens in new window of the clause:

  • Actually I can’t blame her. (Conv)

In pre-verbal position the adverbial occurs between the subject and main verb, including placement between an auxiliary and main verb:

  • Well I actually said thank you for that. (Conv)
  • I’ll actually go round there. (Conv)
  • …he didn’t actually do them. (Conv)

Post-verbal position has the adverbial between the main verb and an obligatory final element such as subject predicative or direct object:

  • I’m actually cold. (Conv)

In final position, the adverbial follows all obligatory elements of the clause:

  • They look good actually. (Conv)

Certain stance adverbials are exceptional in often being restricted in their clause position. These adverbials, which are sometimes used on the clausal level, can also be used to have scope over a following phrase, and therefore must be placed just before the phrase. These include markers of imprecision, such as sort of, and even style adverbials, such as literally:

  • There’s such … you know … sort of appalling need. (Conv)
  • At the centre, visitors can see not only the trees flourishing on literally the world’s richest compost. (New)

We include these as stance adverbials because they mark stance, presenting the speaker’s assessment of imprecision or style, even though they have more local scope in these cases.

Register distribution of stance classes

The figure below displays the frequency of stance adverbials in conversation, academic prose, and news reportage. As this figure shows, there are almost twice as many stance adverbials in conversation as in the written registers.

Frequency of stance adverbials in three registers
Frequency of stance adverbials in three registers | Source: Susan Hunston and Douglas Biber

This distribution fits well with the expectation that conversational partners are personally involved with their messages and therefore commonly frame propositions with their personal attitudes and assessments. However, it is more surprising to discover that academic prose writers use stance markers almost twice as often as newspaper writers.

Epistemic stance adverbials are much more common than the other semantic classes in all three registers. In fact, the most common stance adverbials all mark epistemic stance.

Overall, attitude and style stance adverbials are much less common than epistemic stance adverbials. However, these classes are moderately common, with somewhat surprising distributions.

Style stance adverbials are similar to epistemic stance adverbials in being most common in conversation, among other things, ‘serious’, ‘hones’, ‘truthful’, ‘frank’, or ‘hopeful’:

  • No seriously, I can’t sing that song. (Conv)
  • Honestly, it’s so hard when you make him cry. (Conv)
  • I don’t think they’ll be enough nuts to tell you the truth. (Conv)
  • The hangers could in fact go, go in there because that looked to be rather a good hanger, frankly. (Conv)
  • Hopefully something better will come along. (Conv)

It is more surprising that style adverbials are also moderately common in news reportage. In this register, they generally are used in articles which review sports or entertainment performances, and in quotaions:

  • Frankly, few societies would have tackled even the choreographer of this week’s presentation, not to speak of the rest. (News)
  • Hopefully team owner Frank Williams—rumoured to be courting Ayrton Senna as Prost’s team mate for 1994—will have noticed. (News)
  • However, Mr Leeder said: ‘Quite honestly I don’t hold out much hope, but this is the first time the church has agreed to visit us …’ (News)

It is also surprising that attitude stance adverbials are moderately common in new reportage and academic prose, but relatively rare in conversation. In news, many of these occur in reviews, where the purpose of the text is largely to convey attitude:

  • As one might expect of such an assembly of talent, Sahara Blue is a stately, tasteful listen, but only at its best captures the poet’s urgency and potency. (News)
  • Here, unfortunately, no restaurant area is yet available to allow customers to eat what they buy where they buy it, but the time spent waiting for a takeaway sandwich will be an invaluable education in Italian food. (News)

Quotes from interviewees also contain attitude adverbials:

  • Instructor Graham Marley, 33, said yesterday: ‘It was a freak accident but fortunately Terry kept his bottle.’ (News)

However, attitude stance adverbials occur in some reports as well:

  • Ironically, before Monday night’s murder in north Belfast, the only other woman to be killed by terrorists this year was singled out at a flat a short distance away. (News)
  • …72 per cent of respondents think that a further cut in business rates would have a favorable effect on their company, though, surprisingly, 4 per cent believe it would have an adverse impact. (News)

Within academic prose, some author attitudes are overtly included in manuals and textbooks, and even technical reports may include comments about what is surprising or expected:

  • My account of political integrity takes the personification much more seriously, as if a political community really were some special kind of entity from the actual people who are its citizens. Worse, it attributes moral agency and responsibility to his distinct entity. (Acad)
  • Fortunately, reheat systems for commercial supersonic transports are only required to produce about 10 per cent increase in thrust … (Acad)
  • In general, somewhat stout, short-strawed varieties are more resistant, as may be expected, but some of the long-strawed varieties are also resistant. (Acad)
  • Somewhat surprising, there are more accidents occurring in clear weather and in daylight. (Acad)

Although stance adverbials can be realized by many different grammatical structures (as in ‘Characteristics of Adverbial Stance Markers’ above), only three of these are commonly used: single adverbsOpens in new window, prepositional phrasesOpens in new window, and finite subordinate clauses. Taken together, these three grammatical realizations account for over 90 per cent of all stance adverbials in these three registers.