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EngLang: Writing the Gosh Darn Analytical Commentary

By Nick McIndoe in Study
11th of May 2017

Nick McIndoe graduated in 2012 with an ATAR of 99.65. He has since completed a Bachelor of Arts with First Class Honours in Linguistics. If you want free EngLang notes, this is the place to go!


Ah, the analytical commentary.

It’s worth 40% of the exam. It probably makes up a bunch of your SACs. But what actually is it, and how do you actually write it?

It’s a bit weird, isn’t it? Because it’s not really an essay, but it’s… sort of an essay. And I think that confuses a lot of students. Luckily, VCAA has already given us the question – and that’s something that’s often overlooked. According to page 5 of VCAA’s exam specifications:

 

 

So that’s pretty nifty – it means that you can adequately prepare!

But like, what does all of that mumbo jumbo actually mean?

 

The introduction

According to VCAA, the analytical commentary should include some sort of description of “contextual factors affecting/surrounding the text”, and also “social purpose and register of the text”. What better place for introductory information like this than the introduction?

In fact, that’s basically the crux of the introduction. You can think of it as a paragraph that sets the scene: it basically answers questions like, “What?”, “When?”, “Why?”, “How?”, “Who?” and so on. And this is important, because contextual information can definitely, absolutely affect language choices.

Social purpose and register (basically the formality of the text) are also needed. You may even like to make a mental list of features to look for: mode, function, social purpose, register and so on – and then make sure you hit each of these when writing the introduction.

I find that articles like this tend to be most useful with actual examples. As such, here’s an introduction I wrote for an analytical commentary based on Sample Text 3. It’s probably not the best introduction you’ll ever see in your life, but perhaps it will give you somewhere to start.

Sample Text 3 is a written transcript of a spoken conversation between Catherine (C) and Anita (A). C is selling books to A at a book stall in a local writers’ festival. Judging by locations named in the text, the transaction appeared to occur in Victoria, Australia; however, this is not specified. The tone between interlocutors is consistently friendly and engaging, perhaps due to the professional nature of the conversation (C is providing customer service to A and, therefore, must remain civil). On line 100, A refers to C by name (“Thanks Catherine”), suggesting close social proximity; however, such knowledge may have arisen from external factors (such as C, for instance, potentially wearing a name tag). For both C and A, the primary function is to make a transaction (books exchanged for financial reimbursement). However, there simultaneously exist a number of social purposes; for example, each participant appears to encourage intimacy, and both go some way to building social rapport. This is exemplified by the discussion that ensues; whilst the main semantic field pertains to the transaction (“served” (line 1), “pay” (line 3), “card” (line 4) and so on), C and A also discuss the weather (starting line 31), traffic (starting line 6) and banking (starting line 76). Overall, both C and A adopt an informal register; this is reflected by phonological, lexical and discourse features throughout the text.

P.S. You can find my full analytical commentary example here.

Some things to note:

  1. I’ve mentioned mode, the relevant interlocutors, broader context, tone, social proximity, function, social purposes and semantic field;
  2. I haven’t really made any deep analysis, here – it’s all just introductory stuff;
  3. I’ve specified full name of the speakers before using the shortened form; and
  4. I’ve also made a bit of a segue into my body paragraphs.

Speaking of which:

 

The body paragraphs

I just want to acknowledge here that there is no one “correct” way of writing an analytical commentary.

personally prefer to split my paragraphs by subsystem of language, but that’s not the only way. Like, I know that others prefer to have a paragraph on function, then on register, then on social purpose and so on. Others still prefer to run through the text chronologically (a paragraph on the first part of the next, then a paragraph on the middle part, then a paragraph on the final section).

Which way is best?

I don’t know – and that’s being very honest. But I always used the subsystem approach, and it worked for me, so that’s what I’m running with still.

But yep, the way I do it is pretty much this:

  • Paragraph 1: Introduction
  • Paragraph 2: Subsystem #1
  • Paragraph 3: Subsystem #2
  • Paragraph 4: Subsystem #3

Do you need a conclusion? Nah, I don’t think so. After all, what would you say? It’s not like a regular essay where you have to write ridiculously fluently or whatever – you’re just analysing language.

In terms of how to actually structure one of these funky body paragraphs, I usually go something along the lines of:

[Introductory sentence] [Specific example from the text pertaining to relevant subsystem] [Explanation of the effect of that language feature, or how it reflects the function/social purpose/register] [Specific example from the text pertaining to relevant subsystem] [Explanation of the effect of that language feature, or how it reflects the function/social purpose/register] [Specific example from the text pertaining to relevant subsystem] [Explanation of the effect of that language feature, or how it reflects the function/social purpose/register]

As you can see, I’m basically just discussing a bunch of features in succession relevant to that subsystem. I guess you could view it as an extended TEEL structure (so like, TEEEEEEL).

 

Other things to remember

Perhaps my biggest advice is, as much as possible, be descriptive rather than prescriptive. What do I mean by that?

The fundamental difference is that descriptivists simply describe how language is used. No judgement.

Prescriptivists, on the other hand, are sort of like self-anointed arbiters of language use (usage?). They feel there are ways that language should be used – rules and the like.

It’s important not to be judgemental. No language is “wrong” or “bad” – instead, use something like “non-Standard”.

Once you get over the initial “I actually have no idea what I’m doing here” phase, writing analytical commentaries can actually be a fun activity!* I studied Linguistics at uni. In fact, my Honours thesis was essentially one big ol’ analytical commentary – and trust me, it actually can be enjoyable!

If you have any questions, feel free to ask them either here or here! And I’ll get back to you as soon as possible – because bruh, I feel those EngLang feels.

And if you want feedback on an analytical commentary or essay, post it here! Slick af.

*Prescriptivists would say that I was wrong, here, because I used fun as an adjective (“a fun activity”), when historically it’s been a noun (“a lot of fun”). But it’s a stretch to say that what I said was bad or wrong – always err on the side of interest rather than judgement.


Finding relevant quotes and contemporary language examples can be hard, but don’t worry – we’ve got you covered. Get around this list!

 

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