The elided participant:
presenting an uncommonsense view of the researcher’s role
[In A.-M. Simon-Vandenbergen, M. Taverniers and L. Ravelli (eds.) 2003. Grammatical Metaphor: Views
from systemic functional linguistics, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 257-278.]
In this paper I explore various non-congruent ways of writing about research which
allow writers to disguise their own role as observers and interpreters - a disguise
which is culturally accepted as a necessary aspect of objectivity. Some of these
resources are well known and well described: these include particularly
nominalisation and passivisation, which have tended to dominate discussions of
objectivity in scientific writing. However, I also examine other resources which need
to be brought into the picture, all of which contribute in different ways to eliding the
researchers and at the same time imbuing the text with a sense of their presence.
Nominalisation is, of course, a key type of grammatical metaphor; and I discuss the
extent to which the feature of participant eliding which it shares with the other
resources examined can be seen as inherently metaphorical.
The main focus of my discussion in this paper will be an examination of what happens to the researcher who is a real-world participant in certain processes when those processes are talked about in the text. Broadly speaking, the processes fall into three overlapping groups (see Thompson & Ye, 1991, for this idealised view of research as construed in the transitivity of reporting verbs): material processes expressing research actions - performing an experiment, collecting data, etc.; mental processes expressing the act of observing and interpreting research findings; and verbal processes expressing the act of discussing these and other findings. The groups are inherently overlapping, in that collecting data involves observation, and interpreting data is frequently done through discussing them; but the basic model has practical heuristic value. I should point out that I am using the term „researcher‟ to include the writer(s), and/or other researchers, and/or the readers (since, in the texts that I am investigating, the readers are construed as peers who are, at least potentially, involved in similar research and are competent to participate in and evaluate the writer‟s argumentation).
2 Resources for eliding
2.1 An example
I would like to start the analysis of resources for eliding participants with a simple example from an article on economics (in the Guardian newspaper of 27th June 1992), in order to establish the kinds of
phenomena that will be focused on:
The north emerges from every statistical comparison that can be made as significantly
poorer than the south.
The researcher is elided from this sentence in (at least) three ways. The first resource that the writer draws on for this purpose is nominalisation. One of the consequences of construing a process as a „thing‟ is that mention of the participants involved in the process becomes structurally optional. Here
the nominal group „every statistical comparison‟ can be „paraclaused‟ (i.e. paraphrased as a clause) as „every time someone compares the statistics‟: the „comparer‟ has been elided from the nominalisation. The second resource is passivisation: the Agent by whom the comparison „can be made‟ is elided. With the
passive, it is easy to probe for the elided participant („Who by?‟); and even with the nominalisation the participant can be recovered without too much difficulty (particularly by expressing the process congruently as a verbal group - „Who compares the statistics?‟). In other words there are traces in the text of the participant, as inherent arguments of the verb.
In the case of the third resource, on the other hand, recovery is less straightforward: the participant is more thoroughly elided. The reconfiguration of meanings brought about by the nominalisation allows the interpretation of the results of the comparison to be represented as „emerging‟ from the comparison. Of
course, an interpretation like this depends on there being an interpreter - a more congruent wording would be: „every time someone compares the statistics they understand that the north is significantly poorer‟.
However, to recover the participant who interprets means recasting the wording more radically than with the nominalisation or passive. It involves reconstructing, at least partially, a plausible version of a physical and mental event (people looking at statistical data and drawing conclusions) which is referred to in the clause. The arguments of the verb „emerge‟ do not map at all onto the participants in this event, and it is only by referring „outwards‟ to that event that the analyst can see which potential participants have been elided.
This example suggests that, to explore eliding fully, it is useful to distinguish between what may be termed C-participants (where „C‟ stands for „clause‟) and W-participants (where „W‟ stands for „world‟). C-
participants are those entities which either are explicitly represented in the wording as involved in the process, or can be recovered as arguments of the verb. In the latter case, recovery may be necessary because they are not explicitly mentioned (as can occur with the Agent of a passive clause). It may also be necessary if the process is nominalised: here the participants may not be mentioned, or they may appear as various kinds of modifiers of the nominalisation. In such cases, paraclausing can bring the participants to the surface and show their relationship to the process. W-participants, on the other hand, are those entities which can be plausibly assumed to participate in the physical or mental event or state represented in the clause, whether or not the entities are also C-participants. The extent of the match between these two kinds of participants can vary in many ways, but there are three major possibilities:
; the W-participant and C-participant correspond more or less congruently: e.g. „someone compares the
; the W-participant corresponds to a recoverable C-participant: e.g. „every statistical comparison [by
; the W-participant has no corresponding C-participant: e.g. „the north emerges as poorer‟ [„someone
understands that the north is poorer‟]
It is the last two categories which are relevant to a discussion of the eliding of participants.
Before leaving the discussion of „emerges‟, it is worth relating this to the alternation identified by Halliday (1994: 114) in mental processes. He pointed out that these can be construed as generated in the sensing mind or as stimulated by external phenomena:
I understood the situation of the north
= mental cognition process construed as Senser apprehending (and thereby
The situation of the north struck me
= mental cognition process construed as (pre-existing) Phenomenon affecting Senser -
note the common mental-as-material blend in the choice of process
The wording in the example can be seen as taking this a step further towards representing the Phenomenon as the dynamic entity in the process:
The situation of the north emerged
= mental cognition process construed as material action of (pre-existing) Phenomenon This type of dynamic representation of what is congruently a mental process in a sensing mind will be further explored in the discussion in 3.1 below of verbs such as „demonstrate‟.
I have so far assumed without discussion that nominalisation allows participant eliding. However, it is, of course, possible with nominalisations to mention the participants as modifiers of various kinds - e.g. „student
self-assessment‟, „government of the people by the people‟. In a small-scale study of nominalisations in a 1 the distribution shown in Figure 1 range of randomly-chosen university textbooks and academic papers,
was found (the study covered only nominalisations functioning as Head of a nominal group - the total number was 489).
1 no participants mentioned 37%
2 „done-to‟ mentioned 26%
3 „doer‟ mentioned 22%
4 Carrier mentioned 14%
5 both „doer‟ and „done-to‟ mentioned 1%
Figure 1 Participants in nominalisations
Here are representative examples for each category, with paraclauses to show the congruent participant roles and with elided participant slots marked by „X‟ and „Y‟:
1 the illumination [X illuminates Y]
an acceleration equal to g [X accelerates at the speed of g]
quantitative analysis [X analyses Y quantitatively]
2 prolonged exposure of the body to [X exposes the body to less extreme heat for a
less extreme heat long time]
addition and subtraction of vectors [X adds and subtracts vectors]
increased electron absorption and[X absorbs electrons and generates X-rays more]
3 the constant acceleration of a freely [a freely falling body accelerates constantly]
the body’s cooperation [the body cooperates]
increase in accelerating voltage [accelerating voltage increases]
4 the coherence of an electron source [an electron source is coherent]
the presence of a suitable potential [a suitable potential is present]
the instability in the sources [the sources are unstable]
5 ion bombardment of the filament by [gas ions bombard the filament with ions]
These findings actually suggest that in academic writing it is the norm for C-participants in nominalised processes to be mentioned in some way: 63% of the instances have at least one participant mentioned. For reasons which will be made clear below, I am particularly interested in cases where what 2may be called the „natural Subject‟ of the more congruent clausal wording is expressed. Since categories
3, 4 and 5 all share this feature, they can be counted together in terms of looking at which participants are mentioned: they comprise 37% of the total. This makes it appear that nominalisations are as likely to occur with natural Subject expressed as they are to occur with no participants expressed. Even if, in order to concentrate on the relative frequency of mention of natural Subject in contrast to other options, we add categories 1 and 2 together, this still means that well over one-third of instances have natural Subject mentioned.
However, the natural Subject may be a range of different types of W-participants: as the examples above show, they are mainly the phenomena being studied (a freely falling body, gas ions, etc.). The processes are equally varied, but are mainly material and relational, referring to the actions and qualities of those phenomena. On the other hand, the picture alters dramatically when the focus is restricted to nominalisations that refer to processes in which the researcher is a W-participant. (The following figures are based on the same texts as above, but more extracts were examined in order to accumulate a comparable overall total: 447.) I found no cases in which the researcher, if mentioned, was anything but natural Subject, 3 so I have simply divided the relevant nominalisations into 2 categories - see Figure 2.
1 researcher not mentioned 91%
2 researcher mentioned 9%
Figure 2 Researcher as participant in nominalisations
Examples of each category are:
1 simultaneous collection of the whole [X collects the whole range of X-rays
range of X-rays simultaneously]
parameter measurements [X measures parameters]
a sophisticated understanding of the [X understands the nature of voice in a
nature of voice sophisticated way]
a metaphorical interpretation of the [X interprets the process metaphorically]