The Virtual Theorist – a resource for studying literary theory

Over the summer I contributed to a project called The Virtual Theorist which aims to discuss and illustrate different approaches to the interpretation and analysis of literary texts. It introduces a variety of literary theories and shows how these theories can be applied when studying a specific literary text, in this case the poem ‘Goblin Market’ by Christina Rossetti.

My own contribution discusses the linguistic subdiscipline of Literary Linguistics or Stylistics and in the analysis of the poem I use a corpus stylistic methodology. While corpus stylistics is a methodology that has been applied, for example, in the study of novels and short stories, poems are a type of text that is usually not studied in this way. By using the tools available through WebCorp, I show how corpus linguistic means allow us to view a poem from a different perspective and add to our understanding of its themes, its use of word clusters or characterisation. You can find the introduction to Literary Linguistics, the analysis of the poem and a sample bibliography here:

(Note that this webpage was designed primarily for undergraduates.)


eMargin as an annotation tool for narrative analysis

This week I’m at the International Conference on Narrative at Manchester Metropolitan University. I will be talking about Early Modern English witness depositions and their narrative structure. Basically, I am studying the depositions given by witnesses which were recorded by scribes in written form, often before the actual proceedings were held in court. Now, while they were originally spoken texts, the scribes noted them down in written form and usually transformed them to some extent. For example, they would render them as third person narratives instead of first person ones and include different types of legal formulae and phrases in order to disambiguate certain references (see e.g. Kytö and Walker 2006, Kytö, Grund and Walker 2011).

For my study, I made use of the (collaborative) text annotation tool eMargin, which was developed by the Research and Development Unit for English Studies (RDUES) at Birmingham City University. eMargin is an online tool that is available for free and allows users to upload texts and then annotate them, for example, for qualitative linguistic analyses. It allows them to highlight parts of text in different colours, attribute functions to these colours and add comments to their annotations. In addition to colours, tags can be created and visualised in form of a tag cloud.

Now, while I am using eMargin for this project individually, it can also be used collaboratively through the function of groups. That is to say that several eMargin users can be added to the same group and then work on the annotation of a text collaboratively. While this is an option for specific research projects, it also lends itself very well for classroom activities. Thus, students could as part of reading and analysing a text, whether that is from a linguistic, literary or other point of view, annotate it together and thereby share their ideas on the use of particular constructions, themes, or passages.

Coming back to Early Modern English witness depositions, I used eMargin to annotate them specifically for their narrative structure. I started out from the Labovian (1972) narrative model which he derived from his recordings of spoken, first person narratives. While this model is based on contemporary data, I applied it to Early Modern English texts to see if the different sections of abstract, orientation, complicating action, resolution and coda can be identified in these primarly third person narratives too (see also Grund and Walker 2011). My main interest was, however, to find out what types of internal and external evaluation are attested in these texts and to draw some conclusions as to their purpose and use.


eMargin, developed by Andrew Kehoe and Matt Gee, Research and Development Unit for English Studies, Birmingham City University. Available online at

Grund, Peter J. and Walker, Terry. 2011. “Genre characteristics.” In Testifying to Language and Life in Early Modern England, Merja Kytö, Peter J. Grund and Terry Walker (eds), 15-56. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Kytö, Merja and Walker, Terry. 2006. Guide to A Corpus of English Dialogues 1560-1760. Uppsala: Uppsala University.

Labov, William. 1972. Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Stylistic analyses with WebCorp

WebCorp is a set of tools that allows the study of the world wide web as a corpus and while it was initially developed to fulfill exactly this function, it can do much more. In fact, it is an ideal means when it comes to carrying out stylistic studies. All that is needed is a text in electronic form.

I have been using WebCorp for this purpose for three years now in my module Literary Linguistics at BCU. It is a convenient tool to be used in teaching, obviously, as it is available for free online and as more and more literary texts can be accessed in electronic form, it lends itself for the analysis of their features from a linguistic perspective.

How so? Well, WebCorp includes, for example, the wordlist tool function which allows a list of all words included in a text to be created and ranked according to their frequency. This, of course, can give readers but also analysts a first indication of who the main characters in a text are, what activities they engage in and what the general topic of a text is. Subsequently, this may lead into more detailed studies of semantic fields or transitivity processes. The wordlist tool, furthermore, offers the option of studying Ngrams, that is the sequence in which words (between 2 and 5) occur in a text and the frequency with which they are attested. Thus, in addition to individual tokens, also the study of word clusters is enabled and can lead to insightful results, for example, in the field of characterisation.

Additionally, through the advanced options in the search function, WebCorp equally allows the search for collocations to be restricted to a specific site, which in the case of a stylistic study can be a chosen literary text. Through this tool, specific words can be search for in a text and the output will show them attested in context, which by default is fifty characters to the left and right of the chosen word. Now, while one may already know which word’s collocations might be interesting to study, it is equally possible that one approaches an unknown text and hence does not have a clue as to which words to search for. In the latter case, doing a wordlist of the text first can be advantageous, as it provides a list of examples ranked by frequency.

I like using the collocation search function to find out more about characterisation. I do so by choosing the name of a character as my search term and then sort the concordance list, that is my output, according to the words in first position to the right or left of a character’s name. This can indicate, for example, which adjectives are used to describe a character or which verbs are used to account for their actions.

Some of the main advantages of using WebCorp are that it is available everywhere, anytime, online, and for free. This of course speaks in favour of WebCorp compared to other software packages which need to be purchased and might not be a priority when it comes to a department’s budget. Furthermore, WebCorp does not have to be downloaded and stored on a device but can be simply used in a browser – an advantage if download rights are restricted to certain members of staff, who may not always be available to meet your spontaneous course planning needs. Specifically in the field of stylistics, WebCorp can facilitate the study of several different aspects of a text, including but not being limited to, characterisation, transitivity theory, lexical choice, collocation, or grammar and style. What I consider particularly fascinating is that it can be used for any type of text, may it be novels, chapters of novels, short stories, plays or even poems. The possibilities are endless… So, what are you waiting for?