Author logo Revising Language Issues and Stylistics

What should you know?
What do you need to revise?
Essential language theory
How theory helps with exams
Revising language acquisition
Revising language change
Language change - emergency aid
Revising language and society
Revising language varieties


This web page is intended for students who are following GCE Advanced level (AS and A2) syllabuses in English Language. This resource may also be of general interest to language students on university degree courses, trainee teachers and anyone with a general interest in language science.

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Your A-level course covers a massive range of theoretical descriptions of language, as well as requiring you to look at language data of all sorts, and make sense of what you read. This guide will help you to organize your revision, so as to make sense of what you have (or should have) learned.

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What should you know?

By the end of your course, you should have a fair knowledge of these theoretical areas of language study - language acquisition, language change and language and society, as well as language varieties, which is examined in the Stylistics section. You must be ready to answer a question in one of these three areas. What you can expect to find in each is stated in the course syllabus, as follows.

Language acquisition
  • Sound systems, morphology, grammar and meanings
  • Development of language functions
  • The place of language in thinking and conceptualizing
  • The contribution of language to the development of communication

This area requires a careful balance between observation and theory, as candidates describe children's language objectively, while bringing out the wider significance of their observations.

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Language Change

  • Changes in words and meanings over time
  • Changes in written English, sound systems, grammar and social context of these
  • Principles which underlie language change, and problems involved in these

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Language and society
  • Language in social and geographical groups, including class, generation and peer groups
  • Influence of language on social attitudes and their realisation
  • How language works in social interaction
  • How language is used to achieve a range of purposes in a range of social contexts

Observation of social behaviour and reflection upon experience are essential methods of study.

For Section A of the Language Issues and Stylistics paper you will answer one question on one only of these areas. For each area there is a choice of two questions.

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Language varieties
  • Formality in language use
  • Medium and mode of expression
  • Relations between addresser and addressee
  • Varieties of textual functions and styles
  • Social and geographical variation, talk and writing, register

Candidates should distance responses progressively, though not entirely, from text content - you discuss how it is expressed rather than what is said or written.

For Section B of the Language Issues and Stylistics paper you will answer one question on language varieties. There is a choice of questions.

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Language as system

The different sections of this exam paper organize language theory by categories of knowledge. Studying language as system will give you a method for explaining any language data, so that you should be able to comment on material you see for the first time in an exam. This kind of study will also give you a checklist or agenda, which you can use to organize data you have learned for yourself. The examiners want to see that you understand how to interpret language data according to system.

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What do you need to revise?

This guide does not attempt to duplicate explanations, theoretical models and exemplary data in your course books. You should know your way around these and use them effectively for your own revision.

  • Do NOT try to read them for extended periods. Break up your study, and make it active: in referring to your textbooks, make bulleted lists, put useful information onto Post-It ™ notes, draw diagrams and record audio-tapes, which you can play back later. In every case, you need enough to help you answer an exam question, but little enough for you to learn it by heart.
  • Speed-read or browse your books, and write in pencil or insert Post-It ™ notes, to show which parts of the paper each section will help you revise.
  • Sort out other notes, photocopies, guides and helpful material, which you have collected over the course. You may wish to cut and paste or transcribe stuff. Keep language data, which you may quote as evidence, separate (on your desk and in your head) from theoretical models - although you will bring these together in writing an exam essay.
  • You certainly need some past exam papers (probably no more than three years’ worth, though, as examiners change, and so do preferred subjects and approaches to examination). Make sure you can answer the questions on these papers. Think how you could have prepared for them, without having seen them before an exam.
  • As you look at the questions on the paper, experiment with different essay-plans or structures. You don't want to find out what doesn't work for you by doing it in this important exam!
  • Learn from advertisers - they repeat a slogan until you know it without even wanting to. Do this for your language theory.

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Essential language theory

Look at the checklist below. You should be comfortable with everything on it. If you are not, you must go back to your textbooks and study guides. Make simple outlines for yourself of these approaches to language, and learn them. If you are still stuck, ask for help. You will not have to use all of them extensively, if at all, but you will certainly need some, usually most of them. Here is what you need to know:

  • Grammar
    • Morphology
    • Word-classes/parts of speech
    • Syntax - phrase
    • Syntax - clause
    • Syntax - sentence
  • Discourse type
  • Lexis/Register
  • Semantics/Pragmatics
  • Phonology
  • Stylistics

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How does this help with the exam?

The lists below show you how and where you need the knowledge of language as system for the Language Issues section of the exam paper. It is not necessarily exhaustive. See if you can add further areas of language theory which require understanding of each language level.


  • Language acquisition: Learning structures in speech and writing
  • Language change: Loss of inflections and case-endings; word-order; shorter sentences
  • Language and society: Attitudes to standard and non-standard forms

Discourse type

  • Language acquisition: Acquiring competence in speaking/writing and understanding/reading discourse structures
  • Language change: Conventions, forms and genres
  • Language and society: Special forms (liturgy, trials, parliament etc.)

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Lexis and register

  • Language acquisition: Learning a lexicon
  • Language change: Change and growth of the common lexicon; lexical change, word-creation, etymology
  • Language and society: Special lexis in social contexts; special register; code-switching


  • Language acquisition: Learning meaning in speech and reading/writing
  • Language change: Semantic change; conversion/flexibility
  • Language and society: Special meanings in social contexts


  • Language acquisition: Learning to hear and make sounds
  • Language change: Sound changes over time; vowel shift; changes in RP
  • Language and society: Regional, national, class and occupational variations; social attitudes to sound features; RP

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Revising language acquisition

  • Specifically study several models that describe child language development in tabular form. Learn at least one of them more or less by heart.
  • Language acquisition is developmental and sequential. As his or her language awareness grows, a child's utterances will be less likely to fit predictable patterns or structures.
  • Do not force language data to fit your model. If the evidence differs from what the model predicts, say so.
  • When you interpret data consider (at least) purpose, semantics and grammar.
  • Look for what the language learner knows - do not describe rudimentary competence as “mistaken” by contrasting it with an inappropriate model of formal adult writing.
  • Contrast competence and performance. Your data are evidence of performance only.

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  • Be aware of differences between speech and writing, and of the primacy of speech. Almost all of a child's essential learning of lexis and grammar is through speech.
  • Note that the syntax of speech is not the same as that of (formal) writing - the sentence is not a norm or standard form in speech.
  • Be aware of pragmatics - how the child learns language in order to achieve purposes.
  • Be aware of social interaction and development of structures.
  • Note turn taking, politeness rules, implications, contexts and social awareness.
  • Knowledge of language as system is essential. Know about: phonology, morphology, lexis, syntax and discourse patterns (may be very simple, as Once upon a time; Please may I..?)
  • Know the “bottom up” sequence:
    morpheme → word → phrase → clause → sentence.

This is a starting point for your own revision materials - make sure you develop this outline in appropriate areas. Refer to your course books, learn helpful examples (spoken or written data, with details of source). Use past exam papers.

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Revising language change

You should know about

Long-term historic change

  • Change to spoken and to written forms
  • Standardizing influences (Caxton, the King James Bible, Johnson, Lowth/prescriptivism)
  • Sources of variation (temporal, dialectal, regional, class-based)
  • Semantic change (e.g. cardinal, silly, gay)
  • Etymology and word creation
  • Loss of grammatical features (inflection, declension, case endings) since Old English times, leading to flexibility (e.g. conversion from one word class to another)
  • Socio-cultural causes and consequences of language change in English
  • Reasons for prestige of written forms

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Short-term change/language fashions

Change as an inherent feature of living language

  • Some sources of short-term change
    • new technology
    • commerce
    • arts, media, popular culture
    • collocations

  • To explain change, you need knowledge of these areas of language as system:
    • morphology (inflectional and derivational)
    • word classes (parts of speech)
    • semantics

This is a starting point for your own revision materials - make sure you develop this outline in appropriate areas. Refer to your course books, learn helpful examples (spoken or written data, with details of source). Use past exam papers.

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Emergency aid for language change

How can you learn enough, out of masses of data, to see you through an examination? This very brief list of suggestions may help. You can easily learn about everything on it by heart.

Etymology - the sources of the lexicon

Write in your own examples after each bullet point - in each case a start has been made for you!

  • Old English: book, child, house, man, ship, wife
  • Scandinavian: egg, husband, leg, skin, skull, window
  • Norman French: chivalry, dungeon, gentle, government, parliament
  • Latin (Renaissance, Neo-classical revival and later): candidate, index, major/minor, supervisor
  • Greek (Renaissance, Neo-classical revival and later): democracy, philosophy, politics, zoology
  • US/Native American/Spanish: canyon, cigar, mustang, potato
  • British Empire (especially India): bint, blighty, bungalow, gymkhana, jodhpurs
  • Soviet Union: glasnost, perestroika, sputnik, Tsar (as in drugs-tsar), vodka
  • Media inventions: broadcaster + news ð newscaster; Hollywood ð Bollywood ð Paddywood

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  • Robert Lowth - prescriptive grammar, using classical model
  • Prescriptivism today
  • Invented rules (deprecating split infinitives, starting sentence with and, double negatives)


  • Lexicography
  • Johnson
  • Webster
  • Oxford English Dictionary
  • Microsoft
  • Changing primacy of British, US and International English

Semantic change

If you do not know about the etymologies of these examples, use a good dictionary.

  • Shakespearean examples - thee, thou/you; honest (Othello); villain (Othello, Romeo and Juliet)
  • cardinal
  • gay
  • silly (see The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “The silly buckets on the deck”)
  • television (this form is recorded in the 19th century, denoting a vision of something far off)
  • wirelessradio
  • vacuum cleanerHoover or hoover
  • kodakcamera, kodakerphotographer (the former term of each pair is given as common noun by the OED early in the 20th century)

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Revising language and society

You cannot cover all the possible areas of this subject, but should be aware of some favourite topics of examiners. Among these are

  • language and gender
  • language and occupational groups
  • language and power

Language and gender

In preparing this area, you should study forms and functions of talk; gender themes in writing; historical and contemporary changes. Attend particularly to:

  • conversational styles
  • representations in writing

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Language and occupational groups

In preparing this area you should study forms and functions of talk; registers and styles of writing; historical and contemporary changes. Attend particularly to:

  • everyday functions and activities (e.g. the rôle of interpersonal language)
  • discourse features

Language and power

In preparing this area you should study conversational analysis; stylistic analysis of texts; historical and contemporary changes, as appropriate. Attend particularly to:

  • influential power (persuasion in, e.g., advertising, politics, media, culture)
  • instrumental power (control in, e.g., law, education, business, management)

Learn appropriate areas of language as system.

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  • Most social interaction is spoken but some may be written or mixed medium. Some written forms (letters to friends, Internet Relay Chat) approximate to speech.
  • Learn structural features of speech for interpreting data (e.g., fillers, turn taking, overlap).
  • Learn about register, code switching, pragmatics, spoken syntax, metaphor and rhetorical features of persuasive speech.
  • Identify appropriate authorities and their theories (e.g. Robin Lakoff, Dale Spender, Pamela Fishman and Deborah Tannen, for gender).

This is a starting point for your own revision materials - make sure you develop this outline in appropriate areas. Refer to your course books, learn helpful examples (spoken or written data, with details of source). Use past exam papers.

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Revising language varieties/stylistics

In general, learning structural methods and rules of thumb for commenting on any language data is the best way to revise for this section of the exam. However, in the Stylistics part of the paper, there are some extra things you may wish to do.

Discourse types

You cannot possibly foresee what particular texts will be used, but you should have some kind of understanding of different types of discourse, and the conventions which go with these. You need this, of course, for editorial writing (in the Case Study) and may need it also for Original Writing. For a given type of discourse, try to identify the purposes of the author. Be aware of both intended meaning, and assumptions revealed in language forms, of which the author may be unaware. The only way to test this is to look at a range of texts, and see if you can do this: your course books have sections which are full of examples. But also find things for yourselves or ask others to present you with “test” data. Find spoken, written and mixed media examples; look for literary, functional and ephemeral texts.

Begin by writing lists of types of discourse, and then trying to organize them: you may never complete this task, but it will help you see the problems. Here are a very few to get you started - do you know the distinctive features of each?

  • Restaurant menu; entry in Hansard; order of service for baptism; criminal trial; joke; TV/radio - continuity announcement, trailer, weather forecast, sports commentary, documentary, advert; magazine profile, problem page, feature; fairy tale; horror story; screenplay; obituary

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Spoken texts

Expect at least one of the questions (it could be more) to use spoken data. Use the separate guide you have received for working on such texts.

Literary texts

Expect at least one question to use one or more literary texts. You are not required to comment on the content of the data, but on language features. Do not work through the data line by line; organize your answer/comment under headings which correspond to features of structure and style.

Read relevant sections of course books (such as Living Language, by George Keith and John Shuttleworth, pp. 124-139; Grammar, Structure and Style, Shirley Russell, pp. 187-226).

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Use this checklist also for some features of style, about which you may wish to comment:

  • Metaphor (may be extended), metonymy, simile, symbol, synecdoche, zeugma
  • Synonymous/antithetical parallelism (or synonymy and antithesis), inversion
  • Lists (of three), repetition
  • “Rhetorical” questions - with or without answers
  • Understatement (litotes), overstatement/exaggeration (hyperbole)
  • Euphemism, circumlocution, periphrasis, ellipsis
  • Irony, sarcasm, facetiousness, satire, lampoon, parody, pastiche
  • Ambiguity (lexical or structural; intended or accidental)
  • Register: common, literary, special, diction, colloquial (only use of written data), scientific, technical (see diagram in Grammar, Structure and Style, p. 33)
  • Sentence types: statement (declarative), command (imperative), question (interrogative), exclamation; simple, compound, multiple, complex; periodic, loose, balanced

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