Masaryk university faculty of education

Personal pronouns and audience involvement strategies

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Personal pronouns and audience involvement strategies

John Fowles once remarked that “the pronoun is one of the most terrifying masks man has invented.” (p. 335) Seeing the importance attributed to the use of personal pronouns in political discourse and the impact they actually have on the success of a speech, one might agree with Fowles’s statement. Before getting into details about personal pronouns, their uses and functions, it is important to introduce a very closely related concept of audience involvement strategies. According to Halamari, these strategies are formed by the use of personal pronouns, let’s/let us, let me, vocatives and rhetorical questions and their goal is to “invite the audience to be part of the answer.” (256) The following paragraphs describe applicable personal pronouns, other audience involvement strategies and their use and effect on discourse.

Table 3.1 illustrates a pronominal distancing scale, functioning from left to right, representing the position of each pronoun in terms of closeness to the deictic center. Deictic center refers to the speaker him/herself, and distancing refers to how responsible for or involved in the speaker wants to be with the topic. The pronoun I is clearly the most centered (the most left), while the pronoun those is the least centered (most right). That said, this pronominal scale is not an ultimate measurement and can vary according to each speaker and their perception.

Table 3.1 Pronominal Scale


(Wilson, p. 59)

By the simple selection of a first person pronoun, the speaker is determining the inclusion or exclusion of the audience from the proposed action. There are some cases where self-reference, i.e. the use of I, “can also be associated with engagement,” but generally, I, me, my focuses on the speaker and excludes the audience (Dontcheva-Navratilova, Some functions 10). As further illustration, take the following three sentences:

  1. I have decided to declare a war on Russia.

  2. It has been decided to declare a war on Russia.

  3. We have decided to declare a war on Russia.

All three sentences express the same proposed idea – a war is being declared on Russia. Where we find a difference is “in relation to the degree of personal involvement of each speaker.” (Wilson, p. 48) The first sentence shows a clear commitment from the speaker. The second sentence has an unidentified agent, uses passive voice, and shows no personal commitment. The third sentence is less clear than the first sentence as we can perhaps imply the speaker and the government, but perhaps also the nation. The personal commitment of the third speaker is clearly ambiguous. Indeed, in certain occurrences the use of we is complex, as there is a speaker-inclusive we and also a speaker-exclusive we. For example in the following sentence a doctor is speaking to the patient, asking, How are we feeling today? Using an exclusive we, which “serves to distance the speaker from what it is that is being said, the doctor wants to know about the patient’s condition and not his own. (Wilson, p. 48) As there are no set guidelines on the interpretation of we, it is “unclear what category hearers will conceptualize in these instances.” (Chilton and Schaffner, p. 222) The speaker can intend exclusion, for example when trying to turn away from responsibility, but in most cases it is meant as a powerful inclusive strategy, speaking on behalf of others or inviting a response from the audience.

The personal pronoun you is used in political discourse perhaps the least but is still very versatile in terms of speech acts. With the exception of thanking the audience (Thank you for your support.) or posing rhetorical questions (And you know what?), it also serves “to reflect upon a kind of conventional wisdom as opposed to actual experience.” (Wilson, p. 57) It can also be used in a declarative/directive function, a call or a plea, I ask you to stand up and fight. But perhaps its most effective function is as a commissive, to pose an ultimatum or a threat, Either you write the letter, or there is no money.

Finally, the third person plural pronoun they is used to distract the audience from what is being discussed, to show contrast and difference, often ideological or moral. In terms of the aforementioned pronominal scale, they or them is most often used as a distancing strategy, or even further, a projection of negative connotation, as in the following example, where the accompanying words punishment and negation provide an altogether intimidating image.

and those of you who did not do the homework will stay after school and re-write the text by hand, as a punishment.

In order to conclude the notion of audience involvement strategies, the use of let us and let’s, will be discussed. While let us invites the audience to be included, the let’s excludes the audience. Consider the following:

Let’s go! / Let us pray.

That said, both versions still make up part of the audience involvement strategies, but one acts as declarative (Let us) and the other as a directive (Let’s).

Personal pronouns, counts of let’s/let us, as well as vocatives and rhetorical questions will be identified and counted in all speeches and presented in a chart as part of the audience involvement strategies.

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