Language acquisition: learned behaviour or innate? CHARLIE LEADBEATTER debates which side of the fence to sit on.

Have you ever wondered why child language acquisition (CLA) has been a hot topic amongst linguists for decades, and are we any closer in getting an answer? Is language learnt through a combination of cognitive abilities and environmental stimuli or do children have a predetermined ability to acquire language, specifically grammar? As the American linguist Bloomfield (1933, p.29) stated, the process of a child acquiring language is “doubtless, the greatest intellectual feat any of us is required to perform”.

The two main theories of CLA are nativism and social constructivism. Nativists, such as Chomsky, believe that children have a predisposed ability to acquire the grammar of any language thanks to a language acquisition device (LAD). Social constructivists such as Tomosello believe it is more of a combination between cognitive processes and environmental stimuli.

Chomsky, in critiquing the behaviourist Skinner in the late 1950s, popularised the innatist approach (nature) and coined the term Universal Grammar (UG), an inbuilt set of grammar rules which allow a child to acquire any language. Chomsky’s ‘poverty of the stimulus’ theory claims that utterances simply cannot be learned through imitation because children seem to have the ability to create an infinite number of sentences, some of which they wouldn’t have heard uttered before.

Evans (2014, pp.95-96) – a critic of Chomsky – notes that the ‘language as instinct thesis’ believes that “language, or at least Universal Grammar that underpins language, is not learned: the challenge is simply – and clearly – too great”. The task for children to acquire language without UG or an innate ability seems incomprehensible and unachievable. Nativists discredit the assumption that children acquire language via social interaction through the poverty of stimulus argument. Chomsky states that it is impossible for children to acquire language through imitation or social interaction because the input they receive is simply inadequate for something as complex as language (Chomsky, 1980, as cited by Saxton, 2017, p.217). Evidence for the LAD and UG are seen through children’s overgeneralisations. This is where children make errors by applying a generic rule to an irregular item, for example, ‘my foots hurt’. The child has applied the standard rule for plurality but for an irregular form. Another common overgeneralisation is the use of the past suffix ‘-ed’ such as, ‘I wented’ instead of ‘I went’. This seems to supports the existence of a LAD and the presence of a UG because these incorrect forms wouldn’t be learnt as no adult would utter these, so a child couldn’t possibly learn these through imitation. Also, when and if children are corrected they understand the correct form but will still produce the incorrect version.

On the other side of the coin is social constructivism, meaning in use, with which Tomasello proposed the usage-based approach. This approach focuses itself around two processes; intention reading and pattern finding. Intention reading is where children try to comprehend the intentions of adults to form some sort of linguistic communication (Tomasello, 2003, p.3). Within this framework Tomasello notes the importance of joint attention, for example, the shared attention of a third object from a caregiver. If the adult points and says “look at the truck” the child will begin to work out the intention of the utterance. If the child thinks the caregiver is wanting to bring “the truck” to his attention the child would have made the correct intention. Then when the child hears his caregiver using similar utterances with the “look at” structure he will notice the similarity and form generalisations and an understanding for that convention. Pattern finding is what the child must do in order to progress beyond the individual utterances they hear around them from adults (Tomasello, 2003, p.70). Tomasello (2003, p.70) states that “pattern finding is overall the most central cognitive construction in the usage-based approach to language acquisition”. For example, children begin to identify what sort of words are frequently grouped together, such as ‘give’ + noun, like ‘give toy’ or ‘give food’. These constructions build up schemas in the child’s mind until their grammatical ability is ‘adult-like’.

To conclude, the nature vs nurture debate has been hotly debated since the 1950s and still is in the highest academic circles, so we still are no closer in finding a definite answer and probably won’t be in another 50 years. I think the innatist approach is logical in if you believe that language is simply too complex for a child to learn through environmental stimuli. Possibly the sensible  answer would be that a combination of both approaches is responsible for how children acquire language in such a short period of time and what seems an effortless process. However I am yet to be convinced of the social constructivist approach.

CHARLIE LEADBEATTER, English language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Bloomfield, L. (1933). Language. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Chomsky, N. (1980b). Initial states and steady states. In M. Piattelli-Palmarini (Ed.), Language and learning: The debate between Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Harvard University Press.

Evans, V. (2014). The Language Myth: why language is not an instinct. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Saxton, M. (2017). Child language: acquisition and development. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Heads, language is innate. Tails, language is imitated. EMILY SILVESTER explores the outcomes of the tossed coin.

“At one time it was common to define a human as a thinking animal, but we can hardly imagine thought without words” (Barber, 1997, p.1). So how do we humans seem to effortlessly acquire language skills – including all the complexities of grammar –  which other species cannot? Imagine a never ending coin toss. Heads, language acquisition is innate – “the ability comes […] naturally” (Pinker, 1994, p.15), tails, language is learned through environmental stimuli. Toss the coin.

Heads, nature. Chomsky’s hypothesis is that the grammar of language is “genetically determined, on a par with the elements of our common nature that cause us to grow arms and legs rather than wings” (1988, p.4). Just imagine! But is grammar a universal part of our genetic makeup “determined by its biological nature” as the innatists believe? Chomsky claims that “language develops naturally and with minimal effort”, with former student Pinker pointing out that children “know things they could not have been taught” (1994, p.40-2). This innate knowledge of grammatical structures is referred to as ‘Universal Grammar’, based, for instance on the fact that children seem to know how to use inflection markers to mark tense and number, with little or no effort. My sister informs me our dog “runned in the garden” instead of “ran”. This over-generalisation with the addition of ‘–ed’, signifying past tense, is an internalised rule not imitated from the caregiver. Jean Berko Gleason conducted an experiment testing this theory in 1958, whereby the made-up word  ‘wug’ was associated with a drawing of a bird-like creature and the child was asked what they would call two of these. It found “as a fact almost any human being [will] do the task” by adding the plural marker ‘–s’, to make ‘wugs’. As the children had never heard the plural before, they had already internalized the rule and were not simply copying adults as the researchers ensured they had never heard the plural ‘wugs’ before.

Tails, nurture. Functionalists, or social constructionists, argue that communication with caregivers is essential in aiding a child’s development. Key exponent, Michael Tomasello insists “children begin to understand linguistic symbols produced by adults when they are able to participate with adults in the concept known as joint attention frames […] to understand their specific communicative intentions as expressed in an utterance” (Tomasello, 2003). So, a caregiver pointing out pictures in a book, to a child, may read: “Floppy was happy he finished his bone” or “why was Floppy happy?” The child will learn that the mother is labelling the bone, as both parent and child are looking at the dog consuming it and are both also aware that each other are looking at it. This process of ‘intention reading’ is essential. Tomasello notes that children must “come to a new understanding of their own intentional actions” (Tomasello, 1999, p.72) and be aware of “adult behaviours expressing not just simple intentions but communicative intentions” (Tomasello, 2013:296). Adopting this ‘like me’ behaviour is what a child must do “when they use linguistic conventions to achieve social ends” (Tomasello, 2012, p.69).

Another argument favouring a nurture-based theory of grammatical acquisition is a general cognitive skill that enables human infants to recognise patterns and form analyses of sounds and words. Studies have found that children have the ability to find patterns across item-based constructions by “schematizing and making analogies” (Tomasello, 2003, p.143). A child start to recognize a common pattern, for instance of ‘X liked the Y’ and learn that noun-like words will go in the X and Y slots of these ‘schema’. A sound experiment exposing six-month-old infants to a repeated combination in the left ear and an original combination in the right found, infants will lean their head to the left in favour of pseudowords they were familiar with, and that’s before they even know how to talk! This alone shows that children are a “able to recognise patterns of syllables forming ‘words’ in an auditory stream” (Evans, 2014:119).

So who is right? Is it nature or nurture? Perhaps it is a mixture of both? We don’t have a definite answer. Language theorists will no doubt continue to debate this for a long time and in the meantime children will continue to learn language, seemingly effortlessly and  “take part in one of the wonders of the natural world” (Pinker, 1994, p.15). Let’s leave the professions to toss their coins.

EMILY SILVESTER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Barber, C. (1997). English Language: a historical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1988). Language and problems of knowledge. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Evans, V. (2014). The language myth: Why language is not an instinct. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pinker, S. (1994). The language instinct: How the mind creates language. Penguin

Tomasello, M. (1999). The cultural origins of human cognition. Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2003). Constructing a language: A usage-based theory of language acquisition. Harvard University press.

Tomasello, M. (2012). The usage-based theory of language acquisition. In E. Bavin, (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of child language (pp, 69-88) Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.


Is learning grammar essential for literacy or does it just stress pupils out? JESS VICKERS explores UK grammar tests

Grammar is a fundamental element of any language, providing the structural foundations for spoken and written communication and a set of ‘rules’ for language users to abide by. Letts (2013), describes grammar as “the coat hanger on which language can hang” (Higson & Letts, 2013). In recent years, the teaching of grammar in primary schools has become more explicit and advanced, but is it right that the government has increased the pressure on young children learning grammar? Or is the new method of testing children’s grammar knowledge negatively impacting primary school children?’

In 2013, the UK government introduced the SPAG tests (Spelling, Punctuation And Grammar) which assessed children aged seven and eleven. The grammar aspect of the test included questions involving connectives and subordinate clauses. These were introduced because allegedly statistics had shown that these children were below their expected level for their writing ability. The education minister at the time, Elizabeth Truss, emphasised that the tests would enable children to learn the skills which they need to understand language, and use them effectively (Department for Education, 2013). Clarke (2016), supports the need to learn grammar by identifying the change in the curriculum as a positive one, suggesting that it is an essential element to literacy. The claim is that the government’s grammar reforms could not have come quick enough, as data presented in 2012 highlighted that England was the “worst in the developed world for literacy” (Clarke, 2016).

Alternatively, others, such as teaching union leader Mary Bousted, believe that these tests are inappropriate, and that the curriculum causes children harm (Pells, 2016). In fact, The United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) argue that “children’s intellectual and creative achievements in language cannot adequately be tested by short, summative tests”. Alternatively, teachers should be encouraged to give a formative assessment instead of the tests (UKLA, 2013). I agree that this is a better method to identify children’s achievements, as it allows the teacher to gain a clear picture of the stage the child is at. This method of assessment also decreases the pressure which is put onto the child. The government ministers however, argue that the tests are “part of a necessary and important reform” (Pells, 2016).

Since the tests were introduced, there has been some uncertainty as to whether the tests are beneficial for children’s learning experience. The tests were found to leave children in tears and they were described as a “demoralising experience” for those children that were considered intelligent (Espinoza, 2016).

The tests are also identified as setting the children up to fail (Bousted, 2016), which is shown through the debate about whether in grammar there are clear right and wrong answers.  A review states that there are elements in writing “where there are clear right and wrong answers, which lend themseleves to externally marked testing” (Bew, 2011, p.60). This idea is shown through the aims of the SPAG test, because one key aim is to test children on whether they can use grammar correctly (Department for Education, 2013).

Rosen (2015), uses the test, to argue against the assumption that there is one correct answer. The examples used to argue against this were in the 2015 test, where children were asked to choose the correct verb form to put into a sentence, but Rosen identifies that there is a possibility of two (Rosen, 2015). There has also been disagreement between the school minister Nick Gibb, and an interviewer, when looking at the word ‘after’ in the sentence “I went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner”. The disagreement involved whether the word was used as a subordinating conjunction or a preposition (Aarts, 2016). Rosen (2016), states that the test is constructed in a way that involves ambiguities and inconsistencies. So why is it fair to provide children with a test, where there is not a universal agreed correct answer?

The government also emphasises that the tests ensure that primary schools place a firm focus on the teaching of key writing skills, which will ensure that children leave feeling more confident with these writing techniques (Department for Education, 2013). Bloom (2017), states that the way grammar is taught in schools identifies a “persistent mismatch” between the government’s policy and the academic evidence. Learning to write is much more than learning the grammar, instead “[g]rammatical knowledge should be neither taught nor tested outside the context of purposeful writing” (UKLA, 2013).

Despite the arguments against the tests, results in 2017 identified that 77% reached the expected standard in the SPAG test (Ward, 2017). But, what do you think about the tests? Should children be tested in this way or not at all?

JESS VICKERS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Aarts, B. (2016, May 20). Right and wrong answers in grammar tests. Grammarianism.

Bew, P. (2011). Independent review of Key Stage 2 testing, assessment and accountability. DFE.

Bloom, A. (2017, November 28). Teaching grammar does not improve children’s writing ability, research finds.

Bousted, M. (2016, April 19). ‘Our children are being set up for failure, stress, disappointment and disaffection’.

Clarke, E. (2016, March 12). Children love to learn grammar and thanks to Michael Gove they will get the chance. Spectator.

Department for Education. (2013). New grammar, punctuation and spelling test will raise children’s literacy standards.

Espinoza, J. (2016, May 9). Students reduced to tears over ‘hardest’ tests. The Telegraph.

Higson, C. & Letts, Q. (2013, May 12). Is good grammar still important? The Guardian.

Pells, R. (2016, May 10). At what age should we start testing our children? Independent.

Rosen, M. (2015, November 3). Dear Ms Morgan: in grammar there isn’t always one right answer. The Guardian.

Rosen, M. (2016, April 16). Why SPaG is nasty and dangerous. Michael Rosen.

The United Kingdom Literacy Association. (2013). UKLA statement on teaching grammar. UKLA.

Ward, H. (2017, July 4). Sats: 61 per cent of pupils reach expected standard in three Rs.

Can you tell a fronted adverbial from a conjunction? TANISHA SALT discusses school grammar tests

Can you remember the good old days of primary school? Dancing in the playground, colouring in pictures to hang up on the classroom wall, sitting on the floor of the school hall during assembly – oh, and completing hard grammar tests. It’s a hard life for a primary school pupil, and nothing adds a cherry on top of the cake like a life-changing grammar test.

Introducing SPaG tests to children aged seven and eleven, the Department for Education (DfE) decided that in 2013, children must learn to distinguish their pronouns from their determiners and their fronted adverbials from their conjunctions. DfE argue that the SPaG tests were introduced because expectations for children were too low and this new system allows for a much more challenging curriculum. (BBC, 2016).

The UK government believe that these tests would enable pupils to advance in their literacy skills. However, it seems to be double the work for the teachers, as grammar tests weren’t applicable to primary school pupils after the Sixties, until their recent reintroduction. For English teachers, this now means that they may have to relearn and teach themselves grammar before teaching their pupils, with the likelihood that many teachers will feel as though they are teaching something that they do not have full knowledge of (Smith & Taylor, 1994, p. 220). And yet we expect young children to pass the tests?

Grammar is defined by Neaum (2012) as “[t]he structure of a language that determines how words are combined into clauses and sentences”, and it is argued that it is crucial for children to learn this, so that they can become fluent writers and readers.

When considering standard English and grammar, Davison et al state that “[d]escriptive linguists do not attempt to define what grammatical structures should be used; they simply describe how they are used […] prescriptive linguists adhere to a common set of rules and linguistic patterns.” With this in mind, we must consider that children are being taught to write by following a set of rules, but prior to this, were children unable to form correct sentences?  Michael Rosen, writer and editor, states that these tests were introduced with an ‘evidence-free’ background, and that for some of the questions there are no right or wrong answers or at least more than one right answer.

There is the argument that standard English encourages and discourages children at the same time, as the English language is complicated. Spoken English allows for utterances to be formulated in more than one way, and all variations may be deemed grammatically correct, but what might be appropriate for spoken English may not be so for written equivalents (Carter 1999, p. 158). So for children to learn standard English grammar alone may influence their spoken language to the degree that it could be overly formal.

Prescriptivist grammarians would argue that there are right and wrong ways to formulate sentence structures. Milroy & Milroy (1999) state that prescriptivism normalises usage and allows change in the language that follows these set of rules, therefore leading to grammar down a very planned out path.  By teaching children grammar, they learn how to write in standard English, and for a child not taught, they would be seriously disadvantaged and disempowered (Carter 1999, p. 163).

Overall I think that grammar tests do encourage children to engage themselves with writing, as they are taught how to write academically. For times when children are not expected to write academically, I believe that these teachings of grammar can be modified to serve a more relaxed and social purpose, so that they can modify their grammar to take into account less formal contexts; an argument expressed by Carter (1999). However, we should learn to accept that the English language constantly changes, so pupils must be allowed to follow descriptivist rules in regards to the context that they are writing and speaking in.

TANISHA SALT, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


BBC. (2016). Primary test. What are the changes? BBC News.

Carter, R. (1995). Standard Grammars, Spoken Grammars: Some Educational Implications. In T. Bex & R.J.Watts (Eds.) (1999), Standard English: the widening debate (pp. 149-169). London: Routledge.

Davison, J., Daly, C. & Moss, J. (Eds.). (2011). Debates in English Teaching. London: Routledge.

Milroy, J, & Milroy, L. (1999). Authority in language: Investigating Standard English. (3rd Ed.). London & New York: Routledge.

Neaum, S. (2012). Language and Literacy: For the Early Years. London: Sage.

Rosen, Michael. (2015, Nov 5). Dear Ms Morgan: In Grammar There Isn’t always one Right Answer.  The Guardian.


Can the news ever be a neutral ‘window on the world’? LYDIA JONES explores whether impartiality is a myth

The idea that news reporting can never truly be neutral may surprise some, while to others it’s as obvious as the sky being blue. The differing interpretations of news objectivity are found even within literature. For Wein (2005, p. 3) the sincerity of journalism is based on the assumption that it presents a true reality, while Conboy (2007, p. 20) is less passionate about the existence of such sincerity, stating that objectivity in journalism is merely “an institutional preference”.

But can journalists, no matter how careful they are to withhold their opinions, ever relay information in a neutral way? According to many writers on the topic, it’s simply impossible. Journalists can never be neutral, because every stage of news production and editing adds ideology to the story (Richardson, 2007, p. 86).

Personal beliefs are not the only factor that shapes the way an event is reported. Grazia Busà (2014, p. 33) explains that “[…] language, audience and technology” also have an impact. Language affects neutrality through the choices made by journalists, both in terms of lexis and grammar, which ultimately reflects their opinion (Grazia Busà, 2014, p. 33). In order to ensure profits, the pressure on journalists to boost the audience means that stories are presented in a way that appeals to a target audience (Grazia Busà, 2014, p. 34). This is done through editing, including aspects of story selection and how much detail of it is included and visual elements such as pictures: decisions which are based on the assumed target audience (Grazia Busà, 2014, p. 34). Related to this is the influence of technology. Grazia Busà (2014, p. 36) claims that “[…] new stories may be selected on the basis of what videos or images are available, rather than on their intrinsic news value in the absence of such material”, which brings into question our (as readers) ability to find stories accessible. If news stories are selected on the ability to include multi-media, can we really say that they’re being chosen without bias?

Richardson (2007, p. 13) points out the link between the belief “[…] that language is ‘clear’ and acts as a neutral window on the world […]”, with the notion that journalism is strictly neutral, and purely fact based. McNair (1996, p. 33) also agrees with this, and argues that news is not a recording of events “[…] but a synthetic, value-laden account […]” that holds assumptions about the reality that it is produced in.

A useful and well-known example of where impartiality is held to a high standard is within the BBC. Sir Michael Lyons writes in The BBC’s editorial guidelines that “[t]he public expect the information they receive from the BBC to be authoritative […]” and that because of this expectation, the guidelines place an importance “[…] on standards of fairness, accuracy and impartiality” (BBC).

The BBC’s editorial values are: trust, truth and accuracy, impartiality, editorial integrity and independence, harm and offence, serving the public interest, fairness, privacy, children, and lastly, transparency and accountability (BBC). Most relevant to this discussion is the BBC’s commitment to impartiality, which they say is centred on an effort to “reflect a breadth and diversity of opinion” and be fair and open-minded when examining evidence and weighing material facts (BBC).

But are the BBC actually a neutral source of information? Even though the BBC holds itself to a high standard of impartial reporting, it has not stopped criticism from the public. Berry (2013) noted that the BBC’s coverage of EU membership between 2007 and 2012 was sparse of pro-EU voices due to “[…] Labour politicians being unwilling to make the positive case for Europe […]” because of Labour’s “perceived unpopularity”. Not only were there a lack of positive voices, but the portrayal of Europe was almost always constructed through problems within the Conservative and Labour Parties, resulting in little time for a well-rounded debate about the relationship between the UK and the EU (Berry, 2013).

Berry (2013) isn’t the only source of dispute to the BBC’s impartiality claims. Blogs dedicated to documenting any potential bias in BBC reporting also exist (see Biased BBC; BBC Watch). As Richardson (2007, p. 13) states, the assumption that journalism is always neutral and only conveys facts is dangerous and must be disputed. The existence of such blogs debating the impartiality of the BBC is an example of this debate in work. But as Fowler (1991, p. 11) highlights, the amount of education needed to create critical readers who are able to see through the shroud of the media bias, does not yet exist.

LYDIA JONES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Exposing the broadcasting bias of the BBC. Biased BBC.

BBC. Editorial guidelines.

Berry, M. (2013, August 23). Hard evidence: How biased is the BBC? New Statesmen,


Conboy, M. (2007). The language of the news. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Fowler, R. (1991). Language in the news: Discourse and ideology in the press. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Grazia Busà, M. (2014). Introducing the language of the news: A student’s guide. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

McNair, B. (1996). News and journalism in the UK. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Monitoring BBC coverage of Israel for accuracy and impartiality. BBC Watch.

Richardson, J. E. (2007). Analysing newspapers: An approach from critical discourse analysis. Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wein, C. (2005). Defining objectivity within journalism: An overview. Nordicom Review, 26(2), pp. 3-15.


Can language ever be used objectively by the news media or is it just a manipulative tool? KIRSTY CRUIKSHANK investigates.

In a world full of political opposition and deceit from those with power, can the news ever be trusted to be objective? With every writer and journalist, perhaps unknowingly, inflicting their opinion on every article they write, objectivity seems unlikely.

Conboy (2007) states that the “concept of objectivity is… structured through particular language devices such as the esteem and reliability of resources” (p. 13). However, despite this intention, the vocabulary employed to narrate the story can itself be very selective in what it chooses to be important to the story and what it chooses not to be important (Conboy, 2007, p. 13).

For instance, the coverage of the death of the Star Wars actor Carrie Fisher –  a story that is seemingly very two-dimensional, as to put it bluntly, someone has died. Taking two UK national papers, let’s see how language can be used to foreground aspects of her life that the others don’t.

Starting with the Daily Mail (2016, 28 December), their opening headline is “DEATH OF A HOLLYWOOD PRINCESS”. The article does not state her name, nor her age, the cause of death or the place of death. Instead the use of the “Hollywood Princess” lays importance on her fictional status rather than who she really was. In contrast to this, The Guardian’s headline states “Carrie Fisher dies at 60: actor and acclaimed writer best known as Princess Leia”. This headline portrays the same message; however, it also highlights the importance of her age, her achievements and also her most renowned role in film. Thus, neither can be seen as objective as even the headline of a newspaper article can show such differences in the same story. As the papers have focused on different aspects of her life, it shows a clear difference in the values of the newspapers.

The news values by which the newspapers align often relate to the audience’s interests, and the audiences interest in the paper tend to be related to the papers political stance.  The Guardian, which has nearly 150,000 readers per day (Newsworks, 2018) identifies itself with liberalism, the average reader also aligns itself with centralist/left-leaning political views, and thus a middle-class audience. In contrast to this, The Daily Mail has well over a million readers per day (Newsworks, 2018) and holds strong right-wing views. Thus, as they have such contrasting audiences, the stories that they write and the way in which they write them is bound to be different.

Furthermore, as The Daily Mail article had a simple headline, referring to a “Hollywood”, where the rich and famous live, it shows that one of their main values, as by Bednarek & Caple (2012) is eliteness. In contrast to this, The Guardian states the age and achievements of Carrie Fisher, which could suggest a value of personalisation, wanting to show closeness to the deceased and aspects of her life.

Therefore, due to the papers having different political standings and both adopting different news values, can the news ever really be objective? A news platform that does pride itself on being neutral and un-biased is the BBC. Owned by the public, it states that “[i]mpartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences.” (BBC Editorial Guidelines, 2018). But Baker, Gabrielatos & McEnery (2013) dispute this, arguing that it is in fact impossible to write completely objectively (p.8). Even the BBC could contain biases within its reporting, shown through the choice of stories that it prioritises, the opinions it foregrounds in a particular article, as well as the choice of wording in the headline (Baker, Gabrielatos & McEnery, 2013, p. 8).

Despite objectivity coming a long way from the likes of the 18th & 19th century paper, who rarely disguised their political allegiance or their interests, objectivity within the news still has a long way to go (Conboy, 2007, p. 19). Richardson (2007) claims that the assumption that language is “neutral window to the world”, needs to be rejected, particularly within journalism as it can be dangerous (p. 13).

All in all, the likelihood of the news ever being neutral seems doubtful among linguists. The need for entertainment seems to be the basis for most of the leading newspapers in the UK. But is the fact that some individuals trust these platforms to be neutral and an objective source of news the most worrying part?

KIRSTY CRUIKSHANK, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Baker, P., Gabrielatos, C., & McEnery, T. (2013). Discourse Analysis and Media Attitudes. The Representation of Islam in the British Press. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

BBC Editorial Guidelines. BBC.

Bednarek, M. & Caple, H. (2012). News discourse. London & New York: Continuum.

Conboy, M. (2007). The language of the news. Abingdon: Routledge.

Market overview. (2018). Newsworks.

Richardson, J. (2007). Analysing newspapers: An approach from critical discourse analysis. Palgrave Macmillan.

Is there any need for opinion pages when our news front pages are full of them? AMY MUDD investigates whether true objectivity is a myth

Picture this: it’s 24th June 2016, you’re in your local newsagents picking up the morning paper. You glance at the headlines: “After 43 years UK freed from shackles of EU”, wrote The Daily Mail. Thank goodness, you think. Shackles? See EU later. Independence and freedom, here we come. But on the next shelf, “Pound goes into freefall”… “Pound nose-dives, stocks plunge, bond yields fall”… Does that mean we’ve made the right decision? How are we supposed to know with such a mixture of positivity and negativity in the headlines? If only there was an objective newspaper that would give us the true facts and tell us, the public, if Brexit was the right decision…

But would that be beneficial in this situation? It could be argued that the variety of positivity and negativity within our headlines represents well-roundedness, and that overall this is neutral journalism, as we are being presented with every side of the debate, just from a range of sources. Some also argue that objectivity is a method of journalism, and as long as information is collected and sorted in a fair and accurate way, a news report is arguably objective.

On another note, who are we expecting to create such objective news reports? The Dictionary of Social Research Methods actually suggests that objectivity is “[t]he state of being free from individual biases, personal emotional involvement, or preconceived ideas” (2016). So surely true objectivity could only be achieved by someone with an empty mind: no thoughts, feelings or opinions on the topic in question… which is pretty unachievable when we remember that journalists are, in fact, human.

So, what is worse – a journalist that is honest with their opinions, allowing readers to acknowledge their biases within factual reporting and draw their own conclusions, or a journalist who hides their opinions whilst striving for ‘objectivity’, resulting in underlying, subconscious ideologies being hidden within their news reports, which are much more difficult for an untrained, unsuspecting reader to identify? As post-structuralists argue, “it is impossible to write from an unbiased stance” (Baker, Gabrielatos & McEnery, 2013, p. 8), so there is no third option of ‘a completely objective journalist’ in this scenario.

This being said, have we let it go too far? Whilst absolute objectivity seems unrealistic, can it not till be strived for? We must ensure that the political views of journalists and newspaper organisations as a whole aren’t detrimental to their ability to report the news accurately and fairly. Just as an RE teacher that practises Christianity must also teach their students of Islam and Judaism, journalists must still present all sides of a debate, not just their own opinion, otherwise they risk their news reports being confused with opinion columns. There are already sections of each newspaper dedicated to opinions of journalists – they do not belong in the headlines.

Richardson argues that there is no objectivity in journalism, and disputes the metaphor of language being ‘clear’ and acting as a window on the world, stating that such assumptions “need to be contested because they can be quite dangerous” (Richardson, 2007, p. 13). Jones (2017) goes as far as to say that journalism is “a highly sophisticated and aggressive form of political campaigning and lobbying”. But how much truth is there in this statement? Surely that can’t be accurate, you may argue – don’t we have some sort of enforceable standards and checks in place to avoid such scenarios? Just as chocolate can’t state that it’s good for you, surely newspapers can’t lie… Well, here’s a scary fact. 71% of the national newspaper market is owned by three companies (Media Reform Coalition, 2015). Over 50% of National UK newspapers sold are controlled by two billionaires. So tell me, if one political party is offering lower tax for those companies, and another is offering equal tax for all, and these three companies have a circulation of approximately 33.6 million per year (Media Reform Coalition, 2015), could/would/should they manipulate their readership into voting in a way that is beneficial to them? As they say, ‘that’s how the rich stay rich’. But surely newspapers should have the public’s best interest at heart… They aren’t money-making businesses, are they?

Perhaps it isn’t objectivity that we need. Perhaps a more updated aspiration would be thorough, accurate, fair and transparent (Gillmor, 2005) news reporting. But will this ever be achieved whilst such a large proportion of our news outlets are controlled by so few individuals?

AMY MUDD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Baker, P., Gabrielatos, C., & McEnery, T. (2013). Discourse analysis and media attitudes. Cambridge, United Kingdom: University Press.

Elliot, M., Fairweather, I., Olsen, W., & Pampaka, M. (2016). A Dictionary of Social Research Methods. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Gillmor, D. (2005). The End of Objectivity.

Jones, O. (2017, October 9). We can no longer pretend the British press is impartial. The Guardian

Media Reform Coalition (2015). Who owns the UK media? 1st ed.

Richardson, J. (2007). Analysing newspapers: An approach from critical discourse analysis. Basingstoke:Palgrave Macmillan.