Institution: Victoria University of Wellington
Program: School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2015
Author: Jeremy Koay
Dissertation Title: Self-improvement books: A genre analysis
Dissertation URL: https://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/handle/10063/4770
The aim of the thesis is to explore the characteristics of self-improvement
books as a genre. Studies within genre theory tend to have a focus on academic
and professional (e.g., legal, medical) settings, and their goals are mainly
to describe the rhetorical structure and lexicogrammatical features of a
particular genre. Often, interview data is utilised to complement textual
analysis. Although self-improvement books are a widely read genre,
particularly in the Western world, none to my knowledge has examined the
linguistic features of this genre in detail.
The thesis draws on the three main schools of genre theory: English for
Specific Purposes, Systemic Functional Linguistics, and the New Rhetoric, and
begins by investigating the sections (e.g., acknowledgement, introduction
chapter) in self-improvement books and the typicality of the sections.
Focusing on three sections: introduction chapters, body chapters, and ‘about
the author’ sections, I examined how authors structure the sections by
analysing the moves and steps. This study also examined the stories in
self-improvement books by analysing the purpose of the stories and their
structure. To analyse the genre at a register level, the study examined the
most unambiguous aspects of engagement: personal pronouns focusing on you,
imperative clauses, and questions, and the lexicogrammatical feature of
self-improvement book titles. To examine whether the features are unique to
self-improvement book titles, the study compared them to the titles of
historical biographies. Drawing on interview data and literature on the
American Dream, American individualism, Neoliberalism, and New Age beliefs,
the thesis explains the linguistic characteristics of self-improvement books
and how the genre reflects these ideologies.
Forty self-improvement books were selected based on a set of criteria that I
developed, and in various analyses subsets were selected from the main
dataset. The study included ‘specialist informants’ interview data that
consisted of three categories of interviewees: readers of the genre,
non-readers of the genre, and authors of the genre. It is arguable that
non-readers of the genre are not ‘specialist informants’ but in this study
they might provide insights from the other side of the coin.
Paying attention to the obligatory rhetorical moves, move analysis indicated
that the main purpose of introduction chapters, and ‘about the author’
sections are persuading readers to read the book, and establishing
credibility, respectively. Authors always persuade readers to read their books
by listing reasons to read them. The body chapters present the problem that
readers potentially experience, present the authors’ message, recommend
practical applications, and encourage readers to apply them. From a genre
perspective, the purpose of all the stories in my analysis is to illustrate
the authors’ message.
Register analysis, and drawing on interview data, suggests that authors use
the personal pronoun you, imperative clauses, and questions to engage readers.
The abundance of the personal pronoun you, suggests that self-improvement
books are a reader-oriented genre. The analysis of the imperative clauses
using Halliday’s process types suggests that the main way to improve our
lives, the authors recommend, is to change how we think.
Finally, my thesis suggests that the social purpose of self-improvement books
is to help potential readers improve their lives, and the approach of
improving one’s life has an individualistic orientation.
AUTHOR: Ray Jackendoff
TITLE: A User’s Guide to Thought and Meaning
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
REVIEWER: Stephen Stanley Lucek, Trinity College Dublin
From the outset, Ray Jackendoff intends for A User’s Guide to Thought and
Meaning not to be a reference volume for linguists and cognitive scientists,
but rather to be “accessible to anyone curious about thought and meaning” (p.
ix). While there is a considerable amount of linguistic theory in the chapters
that follow, there is very little that a reader without formal training will
struggle to understand.
In Part 1, Language, Words, and Meaning, Jackendoff sets out the parameters
for this guide. Starting with basic notions of what is language and what is
thought, Jackendoff introduces his audience to the cognitive perspective (the
“‘brain’s eye view’ on speaking and thinking” (p. 3)), to which he assumes
readers will have had very little previous exposure, as a way of understanding
meaning. Making sense of thought and meaning will require “figuring out how a
collection of neurons could give rise to our experiences” (p. 4).
In Chapter 2, we first encounter a central question of this guide: What is a
language? Jackendoff teases out the crucial elements that make up a language:
it must be spoken or signed by a group of people in a certain place; it must
allow users the ability to creatively form new words and ways of combining
words; and it must allow users to link meanings with sounds. Jackendoff
presents two approaches to adopting the rules of a language: some consciously
follow rules of a language, while others unconsciously adopt these rules. The
choice between following rules or not following them accounts for the
possibility of variation amongst notions of correctness. Conforming to the
structural rules of a language demonstrates an adherence to the socially
dominant variety of an area, while nonconformity can be a different kind of
social marker, allowing a speaker to show their “solidarity with [their]
rebellious (or cool) peers” (p. 13).
Chapter 3 turns to Perspectives on English, asking the question “is there such
a thing as English?” This is where we start to see a dichotomy between the
ordinary perspective, which is how the question is interpreted by the general
public and the neural perspective, which is how the question is interpreted by
the Neuroscientist. While the more sophisticated investigation of the neural
perspective can lead to more satisfying solutions, the ordinary perspective
can’t be discounted, as “we can’t explain everything we might want to know
about language from looking at neurons” (p. 16).
In Chapter 4, the ordinary perspective is further examined using sunsets,
tigers, and puddles as instances where the ordinary perspective is more
satisfying than other perspectives. Sunsets don’t exist according to an
astronomical perspective; tigers are differentiated from other large felines
through DNA analysis that was not possible until the late 19th century; and it
can be incredibly difficult to define in scientific terms what constitutes a
puddle and what does not.
We turn our attention to the question of “what’s a word?” in Chapter 5. A
series of sounds make up a word that has one or several meanings, which are
sometimes dependent upon context. Words can live and die. Ultimately, words
are just elements of a system of communication that utilises sound and meaning
to convey ideas between individuals.
The focus of Chapter 6 is this connection between sound and meaning. How can
one collection of sounds (a word) have many related and unrelated meanings? Do
different meanings signal different words? This is how Jackendoff introduces
his audience to polysemy through different uses of ‘smoke’.
In Chapter 7, we see different meanings of meaning (e.g. X means Y). This can
take the form of translations (“‘Rauch’ means smoke”), definitions (“‘Slithy’
means lithe and slimy”), demonstrations (“‘Osculation’ means doing this”), and
explanation of symbols (‘A red light means you should stop’) (p. 33). This
simple grammatical frame can be extended in linkage relationships between
subjects and objects (e.g. “Smoke means fire; This means war”).
Chapter 8 addresses objective and subjective meaning, building on the
established meaning discussions above. There are two types of subjective
meaning: subjective interpretation of words, phrases, or sentences; and
subjective linkage between two situations. Subjective interpretation involves
the listener or reader interpreting meaning of words, phrases, and sentences.
On the other hand, subjective linkage requires the interpretation of separate
situations to establish fact in the first instance, and apply the factual
information to further statements. This second kind of subjective meaning is
more focussed on the speaker rather than the interpreter.
In Chapter 9, Jackendoff establishes 6 essential properties for meanings: 1.
Meanings are linked to pronunciations; 2. Meanings of sentences are built from
the meanings of their parts; 3. Translations should preserve meaning; 4.
Meanings have to connect language to the world; 5. Meanings have to connect
with each other; and 6. Meanings are hidden. Taken together, these properties
provide meaningfulness to language and lead to three further questions: How
are meanings hidden from awareness? How do meanings connect with the world?
and How can meanings be in the head?
Chapter 10 addresses the question of how useful visual images are to meaning.
While images are helpful for perception, they cannot express crucial
information about time, types of discourse, or statements of fact versus
We turn to categories in Chapter 11. In the ordinary perspective, category
boundaries are sharply drawn, whereas in the cognitive perspective, smooth
transitions between elements of scales are more widely accepted.
We are introduced to Enriched Compositionality in Chapter 12, which states
that “The meaning of a compound expression (a phrase, sentence, or discourse)
is a function of the meanings of its parts, of the grammatical rules by which
are they combined [sic]–and of other stuff.” (p. 63) Jackendoff spends the
remainder of the chapter considering the “other stuff” that affects Enriched
Compositionality (implicature and discourse connection; ellipsis; reference
transfer; and aspectual coercion) with easy to understand examples.
Chapter 13 intends to start to answer one of the central questions of this
book: What’s the connection between language and thought? While not all
concepts are expressed through language, all concepts have meaning, and paired
with pronunciation, a connection between language and thought exists.
The final chapter of Part 1 asks the question, “Does your language determine
your thought?” Here, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (see Carrol (ed.) 1956) is
introduced and explained through the famous example of Tzeltal, which does not
have words that mean ‘left’ and ‘right’, but rather ‘uphill’, ‘downhill’, and
‘transverse’. This is possibly due to the fact that the speakers of Tzeltal
live on the side of a mountain where uphill and downhill are crucial concepts,
but we cannot say much about the way Tzeltal speakers think based on their
language. Cultural differences are far more fruitful for understanding
Part 2, Consciousness and Perception begins with Chapter 15, where Jackendoff
asks deeper philosophical questions about eternal essences and meaningfulness.
He describes conscious thoughts from the ordinary and cognitive perspectives.
The ordinary perspective considers only the conscious mind where a thought is
the interpretation of meaningfulness through a visual image in the mind.
However, there is a linkage between the conscious mind and the unconscious
mind in the cognitive perspective, using pronunciation as a marker of meaning.
This leads to the Unconscious Meaning Hypothesis (UMH) to highlight the
complex inter-workings of pronunciation, meaningfulness, and meaning.
Chapter 16 continues to explain the UMH, two sentences can represent the same
unconscious thought using two phonological handles to connect them. Everyday
phenomena such as having a name on the tip of one’s tongue are explained
through a missed connection between two elements of the UMH.
The focus of Chapter 17 is the difference between consciousness and
unconsciousness. In the ordinary perspective, consciousness equates roughly to
experiential awareness and response to stimuli. This focus continues in
Chapter 18 where consciousness is further examined from the point of view of
psychologists and philosophers. What Jackendoff terms the “modern view of
linguistics” (languages being governed by principles in their heads that are
inaccessible to speakers) presents an example of unconsciousness in language.
This is a question, though, that is better understood in the cognitive
perspective, despite the lack of a clear answer yet.
Chapter 19 deals with three cognitive correlates of conscious thought:
phonology, syntax, and semantics. Each of these systems organises an area of
language, but also can be considered as a cognitive correlate of experience
(or conscious thought). The UMH is expanded to include the unconscious areas
of conscious thought through the addition of a meaningfulness monitor and an
image monitor, both of which are bridges between the conscious and unconscious
minds in processing thoughts which are associated with sounds.
Some theories of consciousness are summarised in Chapter 20, recalling the
neurological and philosophical perspectives on consciousness and how they
relate to the UMH. However, none of these theories appropriately deals with
language, and for that reason, UMH is a necessary endeavour.
Chapter 21 considers how we see objects, and what that can say about our
overall experience of consciousness. Visual understanding also utilises a
conscious/unconscious linking system similar to how language works. Visual
understanding is also completely hidden from our conscious mind, which
reinforces the UMH, through visual media.
In Chapter 22, we find two components of thought and meaning: spatial
structure (how objects are arranged and how they move), and conceptual
structure (all the things that you know, categorised and encoded for
everything we know about them that does not deal directly with language).
These two components inform a further elucidation of the UMH, as they help to
link the visual surface and pronunciation, respectively.
We continue with visual perception in Chapter 23, asking what happens when we
see a fork. This step-by-step approach culminates in Jackendoff’s conclusion:
“We can understand things in the world as belonging to categories only because
we (or our minds) construct the categories” (p. 132).
Spatial perception is the focus of Chapter 24, with descriptions of how each
area of spatial perception is experienced. As spatial structure is perceived,
it is encoded for size and shape through haptic perception, and output as
language. There are, of course, limits to haptic perception, and vision is
used in conjunction with haptic perception to form spatial perception.
Chapter 25 concentrates on character tags and content features, which affect
the character of experience and the categorical organisation of objects. The
experience of reality is thus informed, leading to the conclusion that “The
presence of a link between input from the eyes and the visual surface is
(normally) what makes the world look real” (p. 142).
The final chapter of Part 2 identifies other pairs of characteristics or
“feels” that are affected by perception: familiarity and novelty; positive and
negative; sacred and taboo; and self-controlled and non-self-controlled. These
binary relationships help to build conscious experience, incorporating the UMH
to help us understand how the mind works.
Part 3, Reference and Truth, begins with Chapter 27, where the focus returns
to meanings, specifically the referential function of meanings. Everything
that we know about an individual is stored as a detailed reference file that
can be recalled at little notice. These reference files are not limited to
people and physical objects, but rather can be applied to virtual matter.
Jackendoff is able to conclude that “A linguistic expression refers to
something if it’s linked to a reference file” (p. 160). The breakdown between
reference and meaning is the focus of Chapter 28, where reference between two
speakers leads to misunderstanding.
We turn to cognitive metaphysics in Chapter 29, which asks questions about
“how people understand the world,” and “what sorts of entities people’s minds
populate the world with” (p. 166). This allows a simple conclusion that “if we
can understand something as an instance of a type, then we must understand the
world to contain types” (p. 167).
Chapter 30 brings us back to images and the reference files that are stored
for them. The spatial structure of an image has conceptual structure,
character tags, and linked pronunciations just like those of an object that
exists virtually, so depictions of a virtual pipe and an actual pipe only
differ in the character tag “real”.
Our second chapter focusing on cognitive metaphysics continues with Persons in
Chapter 31. This chapter ponders philosophical questions such as. “What is the
soul? And is there a God?”
In Chapters 32 –34, Truth is examined from a variety of perspectives, starting
with the linguistic point of view (Chapter 32), followed by the ordinary
perspective (Chapter 33), and the conceptual perspective (Chapter 34).
Jackendoff describes objective truth and contextual truths before considering
the conceptual process of judging a statement as true. While it is a basic
statement of truth that ‘snow is white’, it is far less clear that ‘Hank is
bald’. Upon hearing these statements, we conceptualise them as true statements
or false statements.
Chapter 35 looks at what happens when there is a disconnect between two or
more areas of perception. Here, competing character tags result in a “huh?”
experience, which is the perceptual equivalent of the ambiguous images in
Part 4, Rationality and Intuition takes us in a different direction, beginning
with Chapter 36 where rationality is the focus. Logical forms are described as
prerequisites for rational thoughts that allow rational judgments that are
informed by intuition. Two linked systems for reasoning are proposed: System 1
that is “fast, effortless, automatic, and non-conscious” (p. 214); and System
2 that is “slow, effortful, controlled, linear, conscious—and unique to
humans” (ibid.). Thus, intuition (System 1) and rational thought (System 2)
exist in the mind simultaneously.
But how much rational thinking do we actually do? Jackendoff suggests in
Chapter 37 that since intuition is a byproduct of evolution, it is far more
fruitful than rational thinking as we rarely have the time, capacity or
information necessary to act rationally. In Chapter 38, Jackendoff explains
the role that rational thinking plays in the overall perception of meaning. By
making a series of judgements about statements and the connections between
them, we create a rational thought process. There are some pitfalls of
rational thinking in Chapter 39, as grammatically correct sentences can lack
meaningfulness, just as the illusion of authority can influence truth
We have a nonlinguistic example of intuition and rational thinking working
together in the example of chamber music in Chapter 40. Interpreting how sheet
music should be played cannot be accomplished by simply reading the notes and
playing them in sequence; it also requires intuition. When an understanding of
the composer’s intentions is linked to intuition, the music “feels right”.
Chapter 41 asks if rational thought can be a craft that is perfected over
time. Musical training involves a teacher imparting their own intuitions and
demonstrations which train the learner to develop their own intuitions. But
knowing when to apply these intuitions involves rational thought, a set of
“feels” that inform your intuition when you encounter a “huh?” moment. In
essence, “The craft is in the proper mixture of intuition and rationality” (p.
Chapter 42 discusses the differences between the sciences and the arts. While
science “seeks abstraction from the surface of appearances”, art “revels in
the character of the surface” (p. 240). It is the blend of rationality and
intuition that makes the humanities (and fine arts, in particular) so
appealing, as we strive to understand more and more about the human condition
through the arts.
In the book’s final chapter, Jackendoff tries to sum up his theses.
Consciousness and unconsciousness, rationality and intuition are are examples
of different areas of the mind that can be blended, and work together through
language. As tempting as it would be to disregard the ordinary perspective for
the cognitive perspective, it’s important to keep these perspectives in
balance. We need both perspectives to understand our world, just as we need
consciousness and unconsciousness, rationality and intuition.
Perhaps the greatest success of this book is that Jackendoff shows linguists
and nonlinguists alike that while the conceptual perspectives are very
important to what we do, there is certainly value to the ordinary perspective.
As a bridge between practitioners and the general public, this book is
extremely successful. There are elements that linguists who are unfamiliar
with the cognitive will find illuminating, while the pace and structure of the
book lend it to comprehension by a wide range of readers. Some rather detailed
philosophical material is explained in simple terms while Jackendoff’s own
theories on meaning are elucidated in a non-threatening manner.
Perhaps the most effective example in the text is that of chamber music as a
meeting point of rational thought and intuition. Jackendoff has written on
this topic extensively (see, inter alia, Lerdahl and Jackendoff 1982;
Toivonen, Csuri, and Van der See (eds) Forthcoming). It would have been
beneficial to use music examples earlier in the text, leading to the case
study in Chapter 40 as this is an area of expertise for Jackendoff.
The extensive endnotes guide the reader toward more technical works while the
footnotes offer further musings on the issues at hand. There are fewer
typographical errors than we have come to expect in modern publishing, and
none are distracting.
Carroll, John B. (ed.) 1956. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings
of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Jackendoff, Ray and Fred Lerdahl. 1982. A Generative Theory of Tonal Music.
Cambridge: MIT Press.
Toivonen, Ida, Piroska Csúri, and Emile Van der See (eds). Forthcoming.
Structures in the Mind: Essays on Language, Music, and Cognition in Honor of
Ray Jackendoff. Cambridge: MIT Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Stephen Lucek recently completed his Ph D in Linguistics at Trinity College
Dublin. His dissertation explored spatial language in Irish English and its
links to Conceptual Metaphor Theory. He is currently a Research Assistant with
the EUROMEC network (http://www.euromec.eu/). His research interests include
spatial cognition, metaphor variation, and varieties of English.