Language Analysis: The Perfect Essay StructureBy Lauren White in Study
12th of May 2016
Language Analysis. It’s a third of the exam, and it’s one of the hardest parts of the VCE English course to master. Many schools complete their Language Analysis SAC early in the year, which means you’ll have months between your school assessment and the end-of-year task. Unfortunately, if you don’t keep up your skills in the meantime, it’s all too easy to fall behind and end up heading into October like “wait… what’s a language analysis and how do I do one!?”
(Sneaky plug for our L.A. Club if you’re looking for some valuable practice & feedback!)
What’s worse is that the kind of material you’re dealing with in your SACs probably won’t be very similar to what’s on the exam. AND the advice you get from your teachers may not align with what the assessors expect of you.
So how can you write an objectively safe, ridiculously impressive, kick-ass 10/10 piece at the end of the year?
Well, let’s first look at what the task involves. (NOTE: we’re mainly going to be focussing on Language Analysis in the exam as opposed to your SAC. Check with your teacher if you’re looking for an idea essay structure for your in-school assessment. This guide is to help you prepare for the big end-of-year task!)
What’s the point of a Language Analysis?
Luckily, there’s a pretty big clue on the Section C page of the exam. And by ‘clue,’ I mean VCAA have straight up told you what they’re looking for.
How is language used to persuade the audience?
That is what your whole piece should be geared towards. Not how many techniques you can find. Not how many quotes you can cram into your paragraphs. Not how many synonyms for the word ‘contends’ you can use. So long as your essays are addressing that core question, everything else is secondary.
However, there are different sub-criteria you’re expected to address, and those aren’t stated quite so clearly.
For one, you are required to unpack the persuasive devices and the language features in the material. You need to strike a balance between the different types of material you’re given. You need to talk about the way these techniques affect the audience and why the author would want them to think/feel/believe something. And you should also endeavour to discuss tone (or tonal shifts), connections between written and visual material, and the connotations of words and phrases.
For more on the different requirements in Language Analysis, scroll down to the end of this article for a complete checklist!
Any introduction you write is going to be pretty important. In Language Analysis, your intro isn’t technically worth any marks, but it is your chance to make a good first impression on your assessor! If your introduction is a rambly mess and takes three quarters of a page to express a whole bunch of useless information, then the person marking your work isn’t going to be too thrilled with you. Or, if you’ve misunderstood the author’s contention from the outset, you’re going to find it harder to recover later.
Compare this with an intro that’s clear, concise, and not bogged down by any unnecessary repetition. Obviously this neat intro is going to be a much better starting point.
Good Language Analysis introductions will usually be pretty straightforward. The most important thing is that you outline the contention of the main written piece(s).
Generally, you should also touch on the background information and the ‘spark’ that prompted this author to respond to an issue, though this is more optional and shouldn’t take more than a sentence or two. From there, you can outline the main contention, as well as the arguments of any accompanying written or visual material.
Note that if you get multiple written pieces, you don’t have to go through every single contention. So if you were given, say, three comments along with a blog post, explaining the contentions of each of those comments wouldn’t be necessary. In those circumstances, it’s enough to just go through the contention of the main piece and then mention that ‘this piece was also accompanied by a variety of comments spanning different views from members of the public.’ Then, when you have to analyse these comments in your body paragraphs, you can just give a quick run-down of those contentions where necessary.
Consider the following introduction for the 2015 VCAA exam:
SAMPLE LANGUAGE ANALYSIS INTRODUCTION
At the 2015 ceremony for the recognition of Australian volunteer organisations, the CEO of bigsplash, Stephanie Bennett, gave a speech celebrating the altruism of volunteers and extolling the good they do for their communities, and society as a whole. The speech which was later televised addressed the groups of volunteers who were present and praised them for their selfless acts of generosity. ‘bigsplash’ also bestowed an award upon a group called ‘Tradespeople Without Borders,’ and their spokesperson Mathew Nguyen was invited to give an acceptance speech. In it, he contended that volunteering should be thought of as its own reward, and that although the praise was welcome, it shouldn’t be an expected part of the volunteering process. Both of these speeches were also accompanied by various visual aids.
Notice that this intro has focused more so on the contentions of the two written pieces and has only really addressed the visuals in that final sentence? That’s because, for this exam, the written content was way more dominant. It wouldn’t’ve hurt to briefly summarise what the visuals were, but in the interests of keeping the intro short and sweet, we can just leave them till later.
Now onto the important parts of your Language Analysis essay – body paragraphs! This is where the vast majority of your marks are decided, and no matter how delightful your intros and conclusions are, the body paragraphs are your biggest priorities. Solid language analysis abilities are the strength of any Section C piece, so it’s crucial that you know how to conduct detailed and efficient analysis.
There are many different ways to analyse the material, and it will depend on the kind of content you get given in the exam. But the way you format your analysis is also a pretty significant factor.
The most common strategy is to structure things chronologically (meaning you just start analysing the beginning of the material and go on till you get to the end and run out of stuff to say). The advantage here is that this method is pretty straightforward, and won’t require a whole lot of planning. You can essentially just read through the material once or twice and begin analysing straight away. But the disadvantage is that there’s a chance your essay could become really imbalanced. If the author’s arguments are all over the place, and you end up repeating yourself and jumping around unnecessarily, you could potentially lose marks for lacking cohesiveness.
Other methods involve structuring by techniques, which is even riskier since it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to find a neat way to divide the material up into three or four paragraphs based on the language devices they employ. And if you just turn your ‘essay’ into a collection of disconnected paragraphs focussing on a heap of different techniques, you’ll definitely struggle to earn credit for your overall structuring of the material.
What I would recommend instead is that you structure your essay by arguments (or, more accurately, sub-arguments).
How do you do that?
Well, if an author is trying to convince you that their contention was right, then they’d also be trying to convince you of various other supporting points.
For instance, if I were trying to persuade you to move to New Zealand, then it would make sense that I’d also want you to believe that:
– New Zealand is more livable than Australia.
– New Zealand has a strong economy and job prospects.
– New Zealand people are nicer and better looking.
…and so on. Whereas, if I were trying to persuade you NOT to move to New Zealand, then I’d be claiming that
– New Zealand is way less livable than Australia.
– New Zealand’s economy is dead and no one can find employment.
– New Zealand people are all cruel and ugly.
From this, we can conclude that the sub-arguments are supporting the overall contention. Because if I were instead trying to argue that you SHOULD move to New Zealand, but I was saying that their economy was dead and that everyone who lived there was hideous, that wouldn’t help strengthen my argument.
So if you were to conduct a Language Analysis based on my argument, you might break things down into:
Paragraph 1: the livability of New Zealand
Paragraph 2: the strength of the New Zealand economy, and the potential job prospects
Paragraph 3: the appeal of New Zealand people
Then, in each of these paragraphs, you would discuss how language is used to persuade readers of these sub-arguments. And at the end of each paragraph, you can link these sub-arguments to the overall contention of the author. So you’d begin by outlining what the sub-argument is, and what the author is suggesting. Then, you’d analyse evidence from the material to demonstrate this. Finally, you can explain why this sub-argument is supporting the author’s broader intention.
This will neatly get around the problem of needing to jump around the articles (since you’re grouping by ideas/arguments rather than going through it all line by line,) and it will usually make for a much clearer and more even dissection of the material. It’s reasonably quick, it’s easy to master, and it’s probably the most sophisticated way to format your analysis, so I’d definitely recommend this as your first resort.
That is, unless you get a comparative piece…
OMG COMPARATIVE LANGUAGE ANALYSIS WTF!?
Yep. Comparative tasks are not only very possible (as the 2011, 2014, and 2015 exams show,) but it’s also quite likely that you’ll have to deal with them this year. There’s no telling what VCAA will throw at you though. Maybe it’ll just be a single written piece with a couple of visuals (à la2008-2013), maybe it’ll be one main piece with a comment or response (like in 2014 and 2015), or maybe it’ll be some kind of horrifically difficult task with half a dozen different written pieces (*cough2011cough*). Likewise, we don’t know whether there’ll be an opinion piece, a speech, a blog post, or something we haven’t seen before. Everything’s a mystery until 9:00am October 26th when about 50,000 kids turn to Section C.
But the fact that you don’t know precisely what kind of material is going to come up doesn’t mean it’s impossible to prepare yourself.
After all, you don’t know which exact numbers are going to be on your Maths exams ahead of time, do you?
Whilst you may not be able to predict what the exam material will look like, there are a couple of things we can safely assume.
1. There’ll be two pages worth of content to analyse.
2. There will DEFINITELY be both written and visual material.
3. Supplementary visual material (e.g. a slideshow presentation or an embedded visual) usually has the same contention as the piece it accompanies.
4. The material will be based on the same subject matter, even if the contentions of written pieces differ.
But guess what? Our sub-argument approach from above still works for comparative material!
All you have to do is find sub-arguments that are present in different written pieces. Let’s take that New Zealand example from above, and assume that you were given two pieces on the exam. The first one argues that you should move to New Zealand for those reasons we outlined. But the second piece suggests that you shouldn’t move.
Your essay will consist of three paragraphs (if you’ve found three key ideas you believe to be important) and each one will focus on the same sub-arguments as before:
Paragraph 1: the livability of New Zealand.
Paragraph 2: the strength of the New Zealand economy, and the potential job prospects.
Paragraph 3: the appeal of New Zealand people.
But this time, you will spend time on both pieces within the same paragraph.
For instance, in your first paragraph, you would discuss how the first author depicts New Zealand as a wonderful island paradise. Then (using a linking phrase like ‘by contrast’ or ‘on the other hand,’) you’ll bring up the second author and discuss how they instead draw attention to how New Zealand is a nightmarish hellscape full of blood and gore and death, and no one would ever want to live there!
*Disclaimer: I have never been to New Zealand.
Point being: your body paragraph contrasts the authors’ approaches, thereby ensuring you don’t have to do a clunky ‘comparison’ paragraph at the end.
Note that you DON’T have to mention every single article in every single paragraph of your Language Analysis piece. If you were given something like the 2015 exam, you might have:
Paragraph 1: the main speech + the first visual.
Paragraph 2: the main speech + the secondary speech.
Paragraph 3: the secondary speech + the second visual.
There’s no one correct structure; it’s all dependent on what YOU think is important.
By way of example, here’s a body paragraph for the 2015 exam that looks at the main speech, and the secondary one, looking at the way the two speakers position the award:
SAMPLE LANGUAGE ANALYSIS BODY PARAGRAPH
Bennett likewise lauds the role of the Volunteers Award as an important and necessary gesture of recognition. From the outset, she proclaims that it is her “great privilege” to present the ceremony, which aggrandises the award by implying that it is an honour to present, let alone to receive. She also clearly elucidates bigsplash’s intentions by directly stating that their “corporate ethos” has prompted them to try and “address [the] lack of acknowledgement” granted to volunteers. Hence, she engenders the audience’s respect for the organisation in order to solidify the award as being the product of a benevolent institution. This can also be seen in her use of definitive and pithy language in calling for the audience to “never forget or overlook” volunteers since “bigsplash certainly does not.” By contrasting words like “forget” and “overlook” and their connotations of neglect and disregard with the comparatively kind and fair ethos of ‘bigsplash,’ Bennett positions the award as something that corrects this injustice. And since she explicitly characterises the award as being “from bigsplash,” she is therefore highlighting the company’s social conscience and goodwill. Contrarily, although Nguyen in his acceptance speech does recognise the importance of the award, he instead sees it as an incidental part of volunteering rather than an integral force to redress the balance of acknowledgement. His colloquial opening of “thanks heaps” and “cheers” stands in contrast to Bennett’s formality, and instead creates a sense of casual humility as opposed to ceremonious grandeur. Nguyen also declares that the “pleasure” achieved through “seeing things improve for people” is in fact “better than [the] award” with the comparative word “better” eliciting a comparison in the audience’s minds in which volunteering is more beneficial and rewarding than receiving a formal commendation. Thus, Nguyen’s speech infers that volunteers should derive fulfilment by observing the positive consequences of their actions, and that bigsplash’s award is a welcome, but ultimately inessential part of their intentions.
See how that transition sentence made the connection between these two pieces nice and clear? This is all the comparison you need! So don’t waste a whole paragraph going back and forth between different parts of the material. Just find a point of similarity or difference between them, and do a quick and simple transition within one of your body paragraphs.
Finally, there’s the conclusion of your Language Analysis essay. Much like the intro, it is a structural requirement meaning you should write one if you don’t want to lose marks. However, there’s not a lot at stake here. Provided you can wrap things up nicely and make a good final impression, you should be fine.
If possible, try and say something about how language has been used overall, or comment on a major appeal or big technique that the author uses. Otherwise, just build your way back out to the overall contentions, and make a brief statement or two about how the author wants the audience to respond. Don’t do any new analysis, and try not to just list various devices you’ve found. Instead, focus on the broad intentions of the author, and the way they are positioning the audience.
Here’s a sample conclusion based on the 2015 exam that deals with both written pieces:
SAMPLE LANGUAGE ANALYSIS CONCLUSION
By implying that volunteering should be done without expecting gratitude, Nguyen’s speech encourages the audience to consider acts of charity as being more rewarding than commendation. By contrast, Bennett suggests that bigsplash and their award is a potent symbol of the need to recognise and reward those who contribute to the community. Thus, whilst both speakers concur that volunteering is an admirable and selfless act, Bennett seeks to elicit the audience’s approval for bigsplash’s generosity towards the volunteers whose work goes unnoticed, while Nguyen instead encourages the audience to view volunteering as a philanthropic act that doesn’t necessarily require acknowledgement to be worthwhile.
Language Analysis Checklist
Length and Coverage
• Is the piece an appropriate length given the task material?
• Does the spread of the analysis reflect the spread of the material?
• Is the analysis balanced across the written and/or visual pieces with an appropriate amount of explanation for each?
• Does the piece appear to have covered the most important facets or ‘gist’ of the material?
• Does the piece take into consideration any relevant background information or structural features (e.g. it being a blog, speech, magazine interview, etc.)?
• Has the piece avoided summarising the material, or evaluating it by casting judgement on the effectiveness of the persuasion or providing their opinion on the issue?
• Does the piece adopt a structure that is suitable to the task?
• Are the paragraphs (if multiple) roughly even and balanced in terms of what they’re covering?
• Does the piece begin and conclude in an appropriate way?
• Is the contention articulated in this piece accurate, and well-explained?
• Has this piece expressed a comprehensive understanding of the overarching argument and sub-arguments?
• Does the analysis in this piece help support the contention that has been identified?
Quality of Analysis
• Does this piece justify itself in terms of how language is used to persuade?
• Does it use a method of analysis that maximises efficiency?
• Does this piece examine persuasive language and explain how it is persuasive?
• Are there a few examples of close connotative analysis, and has this piece taken the appropriate opportunities to explore this language?
• Does this piece have sufficient explanations as to how the audience are made to think, feel, or believe?
• Is the piece accurate in its assessment of the audience’s response and the author’s intention?
• Do the points raised in this analysis culminate in a discussion of why the author has made certain choices in order to get their argument across?
• Does the piece have effective topic sentences that make the initial focus clear?
• Are the topic sentences precise and well-worded?
• Has the student avoided jumping into close analysis too soon?
• Do the topic sentences outline a concept specific to the material as opposed to a very general concern relating to the issue instead of the material?
• Have the quotes been well-integrated, and do they fit the grammar of the sentences they’re in?
• Has the student modified quotes with [square brackets] and ellipsis […] where appropriate?
• Are the quotes the right length, and has the student selected the most relevant language to include as opposed to inserting a whole chunk of the piece in their own work?
• Do the quotes support the analysis being conducted?
• Does the piece use a sufficiently varied amount of evidence and avoid using the same language multiple times, where possible?
• Has the piece made succinct and obvious connections between different points of analysis?
• Does the piece have a sense of flow in the way it transitions both within and between paragraphs?
Techniques and Metalanguage
• Has this piece correctly identified a variety of important rhetorical and persuasive devices?
• Are these devices linked to an appropriate quote or example to demonstrate their application?
• Does this piece use the correct metalanguage when commenting on language, tone, and argument?
• Does the analysis comment on any overarching tones in the material?
• Does the analysis comment on any distinctive tonal shifts in the material?
• Is this discussion on tone supported by quotes/evidence?
• Does the piece choose an appropriate moment to comment on the visual?
• Has the piece correctly identified the contention of the visual, or, at least, has the piece conducted sufficient justification for its interpretation of the visual?
• Does the piece use metalanguage to describe the visual features and explain how and why they persuade?
• Has the piece made effective connections between the written and visual material (where applicable)?
• Is the wording and syntax of this piece clear and concise?
• Are the sentences an appropriate length with the right amount of information packaged into each one?
• Does the piece flow effectively from one piece of analysis to the next, successfully avoiding the trap of feeling like a string of unconnected bits and pieces based on annotations?
• Does the expression and grammar do justice to the quality of the analysis?
If you have any Language Analysis questions, feel free to drop them below. Alternatively, our English Q and A thread is always at your service!
Throughout your academic career, you'll be asked to write papers in which you compare and contrast two things: two texts, two theories, two historical figures, two scientific processes, and so on. "Classic" compare-and-contrast papers, in which you weight A and B equally, may be about two similar things that have crucial differences (two pesticides with different effects on the environment) or two similar things that have crucial differences, yet turn out to have surprising commonalities (two politicians with vastly different world views who voice unexpectedly similar perspectives on sexual harassment).
In the "lens" (or "keyhole") comparison, in which you weight A less heavily than B, you use A as a lens through which to view B. Just as looking through a pair of glasses changes the way you see an object, using A as a framework for understanding B changes the way you see B. Lens comparisons are useful for illuminating, critiquing, or challenging the stability of a thing that, before the analysis, seemed perfectly understood. Often, lens comparisons take time into account: earlier texts, events, or historical figures may illuminate later ones, and vice versa.
Faced with a daunting list of seemingly unrelated similarities and differences, you may feel confused about how to construct a paper that isn't just a mechanical exercise in which you first state all the features that A and B have in common, and then state all the ways in which A and B are different. Predictably, the thesis of such a paper is usually an assertion that A and B are very similar yet not so similar after all. To write a good compare-and-contrast paper, you must take your raw data—the similarities and differences you've observed—and make them cohere into a meaningful argument. Here are the five elements required.
Frame of Reference. This is the context within which you place the two things you plan to compare and contrast; it is the umbrella under which you have grouped them. The frame of reference may consist of an idea, theme, question, problem, or theory; a group of similar things from which you extract two for special attention; biographical or historical information. The best frames of reference are constructed from specific sources rather than your own thoughts or observations. Thus, in a paper comparing how two writers redefine social norms of masculinity, you would be better off quoting a sociologist on the topic of masculinity than spinning out potentially banal-sounding theories of your own. Most assignments tell you exactly what the frame of reference should be, and most courses supply sources for constructing it. If you encounter an assignment that fails to provide a frame of reference, you must come up with one on your own. A paper without such a context would have no angle on the material, no focus or frame for the writer to propose a meaningful argument.
Grounds for Comparison. Let's say you're writing a paper on global food distribution, and you've chosen to compare apples and oranges. Why these particular fruits? Why not pears and bananas? The rationale behind your choice, the grounds for comparison, lets your reader know why your choice is deliberate and meaningful, not random. For instance, in a paper asking how the "discourse of domesticity" has been used in the abortion debate, the grounds for comparison are obvious; the issue has two conflicting sides, pro-choice and pro-life. In a paper comparing the effects of acid rain on two forest sites, your choice of sites is less obvious. A paper focusing on similarly aged forest stands in Maine and the Catskills will be set up differently from one comparing a new forest stand in the White Mountains with an old forest in the same region. You need to indicate the reasoning behind your choice.
Thesis. The grounds for comparison anticipates the comparative nature of your thesis. As in any argumentative paper, your thesis statement will convey the gist of your argument, which necessarily follows from your frame of reference. But in a compare-and-contrast, the thesis depends on how the two things you've chosen to compare actually relate to one another. Do they extend, corroborate, complicate, contradict, correct, or debate one another? In the most common compare-and-contrast paper—one focusing on differences—you can indicate the precise relationship between A and B by using the word "whereas" in your thesis:
Whereas Camus perceives ideology as secondary to the need to address a specific historical moment of colonialism, Fanon perceives a revolutionary ideology as the impetus to reshape Algeria's history in a direction toward independence.
Whether your paper focuses primarily on difference or similarity, you need to make the relationship between A and B clear in your thesis. This relationship is at the heart of any compare-and-contrast paper.
Organizational Scheme. Your introduction will include your frame of reference, grounds for comparison, and thesis. There are two basic ways to organize the body of your paper.
- In text-by-text, you discuss all of A, then all of B.
- In point-by-point, you alternate points about A with comparable points about B.
If you think that B extends A, you'll probably use a text-by-text scheme; if you see A and B engaged in debate, a point-by-point scheme will draw attention to the conflict. Be aware, however, that the point-by- point scheme can come off as a ping-pong game. You can avoid this effect by grouping more than one point together, thereby cutting down on the number of times you alternate from A to B. But no matter which organizational scheme you choose, you need not give equal time to similarities and differences. In fact, your paper will be more interesting if you get to the heart of your argument as quickly as possible. Thus, a paper on two evolutionary theorists' different interpretations of specific archaeological findings might have as few as two or three sentences in the introduction on similarities and at most a paragraph or two to set up the contrast between the theorists' positions. The rest of the paper, whether organized text- by-text or point-by-point, will treat the two theorists' differences.
You can organize a classic compare-and-contrast paper either text-by-text or point-by-point. But in a "lens" comparison, in which you spend significantly less time on A (the lens) than on B (the focal text), you almost always organize text-by-text. That's because A and B are not strictly comparable: A is merely a tool for helping you discover whether or not B's nature is actually what expectations have led you to believe it is.
Linking of A and B. All argumentative papers require you to link each point in the argument back to the thesis. Without such links, your reader will be unable to see how new sections logically and systematically advance your argument. In a compare-and contrast, you also need to make links between A and B in the body of your essay if you want your paper to hold together. To make these links, use transitional expressions of comparison and contrast (similarly, moreover, likewise, on the contrary, conversely, on the other hand) and contrastive vocabulary (in the example below, Southerner/Northerner).
As a girl raised in the faded glory of the Old South, amid mystical tales of magnolias and moonlight, the mother remains part of a dying generation. Surrounded by hard times, racial conflict, and limited opportunities, Julian, on the other hand, feels repelled by the provincial nature of home, and represents a new Southerner, one who sees his native land through a condescending Northerner's eyes.
Copyright 1998, Kerry Walk, for the Writing Center at Harvard University