Widdowsons book analysed

Aleksandar Carapic acarapic at sezampro.yu
Thu Mar 9 14:30:47 UTC 2006

I fully agree with Professor Wodak -- the review is excellent. I read 
somewhere that P. Bayley's referred to Beaugrande's critque of Widdowson's 
previous works, too.

Best wishes,
Aleksandar Carapic
----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Wodak, Ruth" <r.wodak at LANCASTER.AC.UK>
Sent: Thursday, March 09, 2006 2:34 PM
Subject: AW: Widdowsons book analysed

Very good review, thanks! Another review written by myself will appear in 
Language in Society in the fall.

Ruth Wodak
Professor in Discourse Studies
Department of Linguistics and English Language
Lancaster University
Lancaster, UK LA1 4YT
Tel: xx44 1524 592437
Fax:xx44 1524 843085


Von: Critical Discourse/Language/Communication Analysis im Auftrag von 
bea2gran at IDECNET.COM
Gesendet: Do 09.03.2006 11:35
Betreff: Widdowsons book analysed

The Case against Critical Discourse Analysis Reopened:

In Search of Widdowson's "Pretexts"

Robert de Beaugrande

Università del Litorale

Koper - Capodistria

Imagine if you will a most peculiar game of bowling. One contestant is the 
sole bowler; the others are all human bowling pins. And instead of an array 
of pins in the centre of the "alley", just one human pin at a time is set up 
in the "gutter" where the bowler cannot fail to knock it down. And so he 
does, on and on, with evident relish in his underpinned mastery.

Such a game seems to me a not altogether unfitting metaphor for H.G. 
Widdowson's (2004) latest and largest - and, one ardently hopes, last - 
assault on "(Critical) Discourse Analysis". Some of the targets are familiar 
from his "past ten years" (page x) of fulminations, which he esteemed highly 
enough to have collected in a special volume, Controversies in Applied 
Linguistics (Seidlhofer [ed.], 2003); and he frankly calls the new book 
"confrontational and uncompromising" ("waspish" would have been my word). 
Indeed it is; yet he does not seem deterred by the prospect that such a 
stance just might affect his own "rationality" and "logical consistency" 
(see below). The Preface demurely trivialises his verbal sallies of 
aggression, which he prefers to call "reservations" and the like: "no 
offence is intended, and I hope to be forgiven if any is taken" (ix). Yet 
much of it is hard for me to see as inoffensive; and the colleagues he 
attack and I have corresponded with did not sound exactly forgiving. Here is 
what just one of them e-mailed me after reading a draft of this piece:

[1] When he attacked me without warning in Georgetown he used as his text a 
short scrap I wrote up from a discussion at a British Council conference, 
rather than the other things, such as a book-length defence of the use of 
corpus evidence, which I had published more recently. (John Sinclair)

And that's not all he wrote. Responses from other prominent victims were, 
erm, considerably less adaptable to public citation.

 In personal discussions and later in written ripostes (e.g Beaugrande 
1998a, 2001 - mysteriously missing from Controversies), I have for years 
attempted to persuade Widdowson that his mission as a personage "renowned in 
the fields of applied linguistics and language teaching" (rear book cover 
blurb) should not be to harp on judging and dismissing alternative methods 
of language inquiry, but to go on and provide his own full-fledged theory or 
method to achieve what he complains they do not. When I heard he had signed 
a contract for a book on discourse analysis, such, I hoped, was his design. 
But the present book seems to leave to readers the formidable task of 
cobbling together his own method from a diffuse and often apodictic gallery 
of caveats of how not to proceed; and so few of the most eminent workers in 
discourse analysis and various related field remains unscathed or at least 
unslapped that one wonders what on earth is left for approval.

Evidently without affecting him, I have deconstructed his criticisms of 
Halliday, Sinclair, and Fairclough and their three respective fields of 
inquiry (Beaugrande 1998a, 2001). Curiously, I am (or was) a friend (and 
sometime boozing buddy) of all four gentlemen, though of course never at the 
same time and place; in a relaxed environment, they are genial chappies you 
wouldn't imagine in combat. For myself, I could see the point and viewpoint 
of each one; I didn't see any reason why they shouldn't go their separate 
ways in peace. Besides, I am practised a long-term synthesizer of work by 
broad fields and researchers (e.g. Beaugrande 1980, 1984), some of whom were 
not even on speaking terms with each other nor allowed any merit to each 
other's approaches. In my earlier years on the active conference circuit, I 
would at times be regaled in mutual succession with harsh reproofs by one 
against another, whilst I sat tranquilly with what I hoped was an owlish and 
inscrutable countenance; yet I remained determined to judge for myself on 
each one's own merits. The razor of my own polemics were aimed precisely at 
those who revelled in unfair or over-the-top polemics, as when Chomsky 
dismissed other academcis' work as 'uninteresting', 'unscientific', 
'obscure', 'unserious', 'puerile', 'banal', 'unsophisticated', 'gross', 
'careerist', 'propagandist', 'pretentious', 'dogmatic', 'distortive', 
'irrational', 'immoral', and 'vile' (cf. Beaugrande 1999b for his sources 
and my right and proper send-up).

So I was, so to speak, automatically activated by Widdowson's (2000) 
polemics against Halliday, Sinclair, and Fairclough, and undertook to show, 
via "discourse analysis" of a mini-corpus" Widdowson's diatribes, using 
actual quotes from all three scholars, that he was manifestly uninformed, 
misguided, or unfair. These papers freely available are on my website at 
www.beaugrande.com, and I need not unroll the lines of argument here again. 
I merely note with minor relief that Sinclair, is no longer a major Aunt 
Sally; yet in return, his list of supposedly misguided discourse-analysing 
"academics" of all cuts and stripes has mushroomed like a cluster-bomb.

In his own vision, this new "book is, in a sense, a reconceptualised and 
extended version of one that was unwritten thirty years ago", namely the 
"write-up" of his "PhD thesis" (Widdowson 1973) - a strange "sense" it must 
be, since most of the works he attacks with a ferocity that increases as 
they grow more recent and popular, were published after 1973. He now 
"immodestly acknowledges" that this hushed and darkling tome of his salad 
days was the "first" of all that "addressed and tentatively explored" "many 
of the issues in discourse analysis". True, it was based on the bare-bones 
and early structuralist "discourse analysis", limited to a handful of 
sentences, by Z.S. Harris (1952), who immediately and permanently abandoned 
it for a "transformational" approach (e.g. Harris 1957), which was promptly 
expropriated by his pupil Chomsky (1957) for a larger scheme with a smaller 
unit ­ - the "sentence", casually handled as either theoretical or practical 
unit. Harris edified us with the "analysis" that the phrase "satisfied 
customers" on a bottle of hair-tonic can be restructured as "customers will 
be satisfied", though I can't resist imagining that on the door of a massage 
parlour instead. This same Harris is now resurrected as a principal witness 
in the massive show-trial of recent "discourse analysts" and their kindred, 
apparently implying that "discourse analysis" jolly well ought to have 
pursued his lines. For the record, I recalls, that he seriously proposed to 
exclude "meaning" from a purely "formal" study of language (Harris 1951); 
yet even he couldn't manage that method, and used "meaning" on the 
hand-waving reassurance that it would arrive at the same results as a 
"purely formal" method.

When "discourse analysis", became fashionable, Widdowson now owns, he was 
"chagrined" that his own early efforts went unnoticed" "without a nod of 
recognition", though how one "nods" at "unwritten" work is a trifle hard to 
imagine. At all events, the 1973 "book" (i.e. thesis) is now offered for 
free download on the Internet, with unwonted generosity, by Oxford 
University Press and is on my master home computer. To call the new book a 
"reconceptualised and extended version" is a master stroke of British 

Still harder for me to imagine is how the "address and explore" of 1973 can 
have transmogrified to "indignantly rebuke and deplore", which I find a 
better description of what the 2003 write-up mostly does or tries to do. The 
book bristles with blanket dismissals in bold and broad terms, viz.:

[2] We are left with nothing that is secure enough to get our bearings from. 
It is difficult to see how CDA [Critical Discourse Analysis] [...] can be 
based on any secure guiding principles at all. (168)

[3] There is no grappling here with intellectual uncertainties, no 
confrontation of opposing paradigms. Nothing comes across as posing any real 
problems. (168)

Having myself published at least three thick volumes (also posted for free 
on the Internet and nowhere mentioned by Widdowson) that utterly belie these 
reproofs (Beaugrande 1991, 1997, 2004) I am frankly gobsmacked. I have 
presented resolutely secured and documented guiding principles by working 
upwards toward communication and discourse via the evolution of complexity 
and information through mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, neurology, 
anthropology, ethnography, and sociology, e.g., in the general linear 
principles that can operate complex systems and their interactions. Using 
only the tools of discourse analysis, I have grappled with such intellectual 
uncertainties as enshroud the Chapman-Kolmogorov equation and the 
Belusov-Zhabotinsky reaction as candidate models of linear-life-systems 
capable of information, and resolved, I believe, the superiority of the 
latter; I have confronted opposing paradigms inside and outside linguistics; 
and I have always insisted that the hardest problems for discourse analysis 
are just beginning to reach full force. And for the record, my new book 
(2004, Ch. III) applies a Halliday-style lexicogrammar to exactly 701 
samples of authentic texts, which Widdowson, citing mostly just the Preface 
of Halliday's (1994) Introduction, maintains cannot be done at all; Halliday 
(1973) himself famously did so for Golding's The Inheritors, which was a 
seminal inspiration piece for many, myself included.

Liberally interspersed in Widdowson's one-man bowling-game are assertions 
that CDA is not "analysis", and doesn't properly grasp what "discourse" is 
anyhow. He departs from a distinction that does taste rather like 1973, 
between text which can be analysed versus discourse which must be 
interpreted. In the early 1970s, linguistics was radically theoretical - 
arcane, formalist, and top-heavy - but reverently devoted to the "sentence". 
So when the "text" was grudgingly admitted, it was construed in some 
influential work (e.g. van Dijk 1972) as the theoretical unit, and 
"discourse" as the practical unit. Perhaps the dichotomies of "langue" 
versus "parole" and "competence" versus "performance" helped along as 
contumacious mandates that "language" can be "scientifically analysed" only 
by theorising, abstracting, idealising - in short, behaving as little as 
possible like ordinary participants in contexts of communication. But in my 
view, the outcome was merely a bizarre charade of camouflaged communication 
where the lion's share of the analyst's work was kept out of sight by 
invoking the "native speaker's intuition" and "introspection" (cf. 
Beaugrande 1998b). For the new Widdowson of 2003, "discourse analysis" must 
move beyond the "interpretation" "engaged in" by "ordinary interpreters", by 
"investigating" "how" they do it, but it dismally fails (155).

By the late 1970s, at all events, most large-scale projects to "theorise the 
text" (of which Widdowson seems unaware and which were mortally unreadable 
for me back then) had collapsed under their own weight in a unending morass 
of "rules" and "features" (e.g. van Dijk, Ihwe, Petöfi, and Rieser 1972), 
some numbering in the thousands. And, I maintained, for the simple but 
seemingly invisible reason that the text is more productively conceptualised 
as a practical unit intended as a contribution to a discourse (Beaugrande 
and Dressler 1981). Widdowson now seems to animate his own division: the 
"text" not so much as a theoretical unit hovering in some abstract nirvana 
of "competence" as an analysable unit according to a "rigorous theory", 
which I expected to discover from his book but found myself unable to do so. 
To be sure, especially in print, the text beguiles us as pure form with its 
seeming self-evidence, familiarity, and simplicity because we approach it by 
immediately and unconsciously performing what Widdowson calls 
"interpretation", which his book at times construes as some mode of 
intervention, commitment, even ideology - a "distorting influence" that 
"shapes and colours  analysis", as I said (155) - in short, the work of a 
"pretext" that compromises "analysis" along with "academic objectivity" and 

The rebuke is like that bowling pin knocked down in the gutter insofar as 
CDA workers like myself, van Dijk, and Fairclough (who is knocked down and 
reset the oftenest) regard "objectivity" and "rigour" themselves as real 
(but well-hidden) problems that can legitimise academic analysts in 
presenting "analyses" purified of social and political positioning - which 
may be fine for femtosecond technology using ultra-fast-pulse lasers to 
generate 'photo-dissociation' (the reverse of the celebrated 
'photo-synthesis'), but surely not for discourse. My latest book is 
emphatically clear on this point and supported with plentiful authentic 
discourse data (Beaugrande 2004), if 2,382 data samples may justly be called 
"plentiful". The ruthless global consolidation of power, wealth, and the 
media in the hands far-right "conglomerates" - some optionally disguised as 
"governments"- has been accompanied by a radical recentralisation or 
discursive evasion. Compare and contrast [4] with [5], and [6] with [7]:

[4] Since taking office, the Bush Administration has stopped work on dozens 
of important safety and health standards, withdrawn worker training grants 
and stopped important record-keeping rules that would require employers to 
identify which injuries are musculo-skeletal disorders. (AFL-CIO)

[5] Exposure to ergonomics-related injuries is not well-understood or easily 
measured, making regulations for all industries difficult. (US "Labor" 

[6] Eugene Scalia [nominated for "Solicitor of the Department of Labor" and 
the son of the "Supreme Court Justice" who helped inflict a "President Bush" 
on the world] refers to repetitive-stress injuries, which afflict 600,000 
American workers annually, as "junk science", [and] a "psychosocial issue" - 
in effect, calling those who suffer from it fakers [...] "who do not like 
their jobs." (Joshua Green in American Prospects)WWW

[7] The administration provides no proof or credible argument that the 
proposed rule [that the United Parcel Service pay for protective equipment 
such as respirators and gloves] will improve health and safety, and in fact, 
the rule will cause significant economic harm, will not promote health and 
safety, and may reduce personal protective equipment by reducing 
collectively bargained cooperation between union and management in the 
implementation of personal protective equipment requirements. (Scalia's own 

By this duplicitous discursive logic in [7], the obvious fact that gloves 
provide safety still needs to be "argued" and "proven"; company expenses 
constitute "economic harm"; and mandating "protective equipment" equals 
"reducing" safety by stirring up antagonism between "union and management", 
which would of course actually result from not getting it. Or, consider 

[8] "Junk science" is the term that corporate defenders apply to any 
research, no matter  how rigorous, that justifies regulations to protect the 
environment and public health; [...] "sound science" is used in reference to 
any research, no matter how flawed, that can be used to challenge, defeat, 
or reverse environmental and public health protections (Rampton and Stauber 
2001: 126f, 222f).

[9] "Junkman" Steven Milloy has made a career of lobbying for polluting 
industries, heading corporate front groups to deny environmental concerns, 
and ridiculing individual environmentalists. [...] Milloy defines "junk 
science" as "bad science used by lawsuit-happy trial lawyers, the "food 
police", environmental Chicken Littles, power-drunk regulators, and 
unethical-to-dishonest scientists to fuel specious lawsuits, wacky social 
and political agendas, and the quest for personal fame and fortune". (Boston 
1998: internet)

Never mind that it's Rent-A-Rants like Milloy who get paid a "fortune".

These are the sorts of discursive issues that CDA seeks to bring to light 
and confront without our own "counter-discourse", and therefore sees slight 
value, if not actual handicap, in the sort of academic window dressing 
Widdowson's rebukes us for lacking. He recognises this objection, but 
patronisingly enlightens all us ignoramuses that "academics engage in 
intellectual enquiry and do research", whereas "the promotion of the 
critical cause by persuasive appeal at the expense of academic rigour" "does 
the cause a serious disservice" (173).

If there is a really "serious disservice" involved, then it is the obvious 
failing of language study to promote and support critical awareness of 
discourse. But Widdowson seems to have some foreknowledge of that too, 
though only in the Preface - by far the book's biggest surprise:

[10] There has surely never been a time when the need for such an 
investigation is so urgent, when public uses of language have been so 
monopolised to further capitalist interests to the detriment of well-being 
and in denial of human rights and social justice Ecological devastation goes 
under the verbal guise of economic development, and millions of people are 
kept subject to poverty, reduced to desperation, deprived of liberty and 
life in the name of democratic values and a globalized market economy that 
is said be free. (viii)

Before readers can recover their breath, he vows he "wholeheartedly 
endorses" "the cause of CDA", and actually thanks his gallery of bowling 
pins for "indispensable contributions to this book" (ix) These evidently 
consist of "pretexts" (in my sense, not his) for "having reservations" and 
"calling into question" specific spots and fuzzy bit of discourse analysis - 
say quarrels over the "meaning" of a single word or short phrase - which, I 
admit, are in the main unsatisfactory and plausibly cherry-picked to project 
a feeble image of CDA. For example, the newspaper headline (source not 


is said to be "an obvious intertextual echo of Shakespeare's Hamlet", 
whereupon Widdowson seems to charge Fairclough with failing to concede the 
"innumerable cases where it is impossible to decide whether a sequence of 
words" "is a snatch of another" (148). Why this factor, in the gross and 
scope of Widdowson's opinion, should bode some strange eruption to Critical 
Discourse Analysis is not elaborated.

For CDA, the real point of interest is how HRH Camilla's-Boy said it, which 
Widdowson did not quote, much less analyse, so here it is:

[12] The Prince of Wales [...] declared the English language had declined 
into a "dismal wasteland of banality, cliché and casual obscenity". [He] 
deplored "the abandonment of learning the rules of grammar by rote" and 
stressed that higher standards of literacy were needed if Britain was to 
compete in an increasingly competitive world. (Guardian, 1989)

In this royal rebuke, the language teaching profession is implicitly made 
one scapegoat for Britain's inability "to compete", as if the sagging 
economy were a matter of rules of grammar. Brian Cox of Black Paper fame 
suggests in his Cox on Cox an even more heinous scapegoating within Tory 

[13] Norman Tebbit, later Chairman of the Conservative Party, claimed that 
the decline in the teaching of grammar had led directly to the rise in 
football hooliganism. Correct grammar was seen by him as part of the 
structures of authority, such as respect for elders, for standards of 
cleanliness, for discipline in schools...

So language teachers are also indirect perpetrators of social violence. I 
could relish nothing more than to see what would ensue if Stormin' Norman, 
later Lord [sic] Tebbit in his natty suit, made a guest appearance before 
"football hooligans" to administer a ceremonious lesson on "correct 

But Widdowson's book shies away from data bearing on these large social 
issues, despite the bold avowal in [10] - like nailing one's colours to the 
mast of the ship and then disembarking before it sails. So his book turn out 
as his own rather miscellaneous and rambling "critical analysis" (or more 
precisely "meta-analysis") of particular flaws in very different (C)DA 
projects and methods, like a laundry-list of clothes hung up on a public 
clothesline according  to how each individual item seems torn or stained.

To deconstruct these captious quarrels one by one would require a book as 
large as Widdowson's, and, in fact, a deal more objective, rigorous, and 
organised He seems to imagine that he can simply dispose of discourse 
analysis done by established methods, especially critical discourse 
analysis, plus systemic functional grammar, sociolinguistics, speech-act 
theory, and much else, making them all just collapse and disappear, or at 
least quail sheepish and embarrassed about their procedures and results 
under the "critical" scrutiny of his Jeremiads ­- which I suspected might 
gladly be threnodies. ("Woe unto their soul! The shew of their countenance 
doth witness against them!"  Isiah 3:9)

Meanwhile, bleary-eyed readers might ask with mounting frustration: if all 
these would-be "discourse analysts" have got it wrong, when is Widdowson 
going to present his own method that sets matters aright? This does not 
expressly occur, as far as I can see, until pages 169-171 (the book has x+ 
174 pages):

[14] We can use the term "discourse analysis" to refer to the process of 
enquiring into textual facts and contextual and pretextual factors acting 
upon each other in the interpretive process. [...]

[15] One way of proceeding might be to establish default interpretations of 
text based on psycholinguistic research [and] by postulating an idealised 
lay reader [a cousin of Chomsky's "ideal speaker-hearer"?]

[16] Ethnographic inquiries might be carried out into how readers of 
different social cultural background and political persuasions actually 
respond to texts of various kinds

[17] One way of proceeding would be to elicit the reactions of readers of 
the original text and a version of it in which the linguistic features [...] 
have been systematically changed.

Only the "procedure of retextualisation" (which had been proposed before but 
mainly against the practices of discourse analysts like Wodak, 142-43) - a 
tactic much more extensively and intriguingly deployed with poetry in 
Widdowson's Practical Stylistics (1992) - is demonstrated on discourse data, 
and with cryptic briefness (and source unnamed);

[18] The essential aim of antenatal care is to ensure that you go through 
pregnancy and labour in the peak of condition [...]

[18a] The essential aim of antenatal care is to ensure that women go through 
pregnancy and labour in the peak of condition [...]

How this minute change would "give rise to effects" is not even tersely 
suggested; it seems to me, either way is a smarmy official counsel for a 
"pregnant woman"; to my knowledge, pregnancy is not (yet) general feasible 
in Britain for a man, though many volunteered when the prospect was raised; 
still, we might get some more visible "effects" if we changed it to 
"anti-natal care" if someone thought that might mean "abortion". Widdowson 
merely recommends us to try "empirical investigation"; none is cited, though 
the research literature was already quite substantial in the 1970s and 1980s 
(cf. Beaugrande 1980-81).

So much for Widdowson's "right" methods: anodyne doses of 
"psycholinguistics" and "ethnographic inquiries" wherein the "text" is 
almost as narrowly conceptualised as it was in 1973. Issues like the 
politicisation of discourse on worker safety nowhere appear but in the 
Preface [10]. The book ends with the already noted patronising admonition 
scolding us "academics" to "conform to the conventions of rationality, 
logical consistency, empirical substantiation, and so on that define 
authority" (173) - of which the book itself hardly seems to shine as an 
epochal demonstration. We are despondently left in limbo with the echoes of 
the wholly unintentional irony in an earlier dismissal of Wodak and her 
study group (Titscher, Meyer, Wodak, and Vetter 2000):

[19] There seems little point in providing such a complex theoretical and 
procedural apparatus without demonstrating how it actually works. (144)

Res ipsa loquitur.


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