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Concourse 2

Reporting verbs in EAP

reporting verbs

This guide is not to do with reported or indirect speech and will not cover the simpler reporting verbs such as say, tell, exclaim, ask, enquire etc.  For a guide to those matters click here.
What follows assumes that the rules for reporting direct speech are familiar.
The following is most relevant to formal academic writing although the concepts are generalisable.  It is, therefore, of most interest to people teaching EAP (English for Academic Purposes).


why

Why is this important?

Consider this:

Even the most original academic paper integrates facts, ideas, concepts, and theories from other sources by means of quotations, paraphrases, summaries, and brief references.
(Campbell 1990, in Jordan, 1997:171)

It is unlikely, but not impossible, that learners of English for Academic Purposes will be producing 'the most original academic paper' so the ability to insert summaries, paraphrases and citation appropriately, using the right reporting verb, is a key writing skill.  Not least, of course, to avoid any whiff of plagiarism.  Understanding the implications of reporting verbs is also a key reading skill to identify slant and angle.

Reporting verbs can be classified and presented in a number of ways and we can also, as we shall see, combine elements of the analysis to make the area accessible to learners.


attitude

Classifying reporting verbs: attitude

Reporting verbs are subtle but powerful signals of the writer's attitude to the message being sent by a paraphrase or citation.  Compare, for example:
    Guru states that ...
    Guru presumes that ...
    Guru claims that ...
    Guru suggests that ...
    Guru mentions that ...
    Guru hypothesises that ...

One way to classify such verbs is to arrange them on a cline from tentative, through neutral to assertive.  Something like this:

cline of reporting verbs

There are obvious problems with this, not least that opinions may differ concerning the exact connotation each verb carries.
Such a classification does, however, have some classroom utility.


function

Classifying reporting verbs: function

Reporting verbs are used for a range of communicative functions.  Presenting them from this standpoint, we can get something like:

reporting verbs by function
This sort of presentation and analysis sits well with a communicative approach because it focuses clearly on the communicative value of the verbs.

However, one obvious problem is that some verbs can be synonyms and some can perform multiple functions.  There is not a great deal of difference in meaning between, e.g.:
    Guru proposes that we ...
and
    Guru suggests that we ...
However, suggest is also polysemous in a way that propose is not so we can also have:
    The data suggest that ...
but not
    *The data propose that ...


form

Classifying reporting verbs: form

The final way to classify these verbs in this guide is by grammatical and lexical form.  We need to look at concepts of collocation and colligation here, especially the latter.  This might result in this kind of analysis:
reporting verb colligations

but there are problems with that, too, some colligational, some collocational:

  1. Transitivity
    1. Some verbs in the lists are both transitive and intransitive.  We can have
          Guru concedes the point that ...
          Guru concedes that ...
          Guru questions the conclusion
          Guru questions whether ...
          Guru proposes a solution
          Guru proposes that ...
    2. Some verbs are only intransitive.  We can have:
          Guru observes that ...
      but not
          *Guru observes the conclusion that ...
      or
          *Guru theorises a solution
    3. Some verbs are only transitive.  We can have:
          Guru recommends a solution
      and
          Guru recommends that ...
      but not
          *Guru discounts that ...
      or
          *Guru discusses that ...
  2. Appropriacy of subject:
    1. Some of these verbs will collocate with inanimate subjects, some with animate only and some with both.
    2. Animate subjects can be used for most of them but some can also take inanimate subjects.  We can have, e.g.,
          The study shows ...
          Guru shows ...
          The evidence indicates ...
          Guru indicates
      ...
      etc.
    3. Some may only have animate subjects.  We can have:
          Guru hypothesises ...
          Guru maintains ...

      but not, arguably
          *The evidence comments ...
      or
          *The facts allege ...
    4. Some are open to metaphorical use (pathetic fallacy):
          The study argues ...
          The facts imply ...
          The findings argue for ...

      and some are not:
          *The evidence describes ...
          *The findings believe ...

combine

Combining the analyses

We can weave aspects of all three analyses together to produce quite sophisticated analysis.  For example, if we combine attitude with function we can produce something like:

disagree

reporting verbs suggest

and we can do similar things with many of the other functions.
It is also possible to combine functional and formal analyses:

form and function

It is even possible to go one step further and combine all three analyses but, at that stage, the data start to get impenetrable.


tenses

Tense, aspect and voice

Reporting verbs are frequently used in the present simple so that is not difficult to teach.  Perversely, some lists of reporting verbs put all of them in the present simple 3rd person which is misleading at best.  Two other tenses are also frequently used and multiple authorship is common.  Here are examples of all three:

  1. Present simple.  This is the most frequent form:
        Guru notes that ...
        The data imply ...
        In that paper, Guru and Mentor propose ...
  2. Past simple.  This is frequently used for sources which are older and have become seminal authorities in some way.  For example:
        Guru (1949) identified ...
  3. Present perfect.  This is used a) when the writer needs to emphasise the present relevance of a source or b) when the sources are varied and (sometimes) not individually identified.  It is often used in the passive voice but need not be.  For example:
        It has been noted (Guru, 2016) that ...
        Guru (2010) has discovered that ...
        Guru and Mentor (2000) investigated the structure of these complex substances and have shown that they are ...
        It has often been asserted that ...

class

Teaching and learning issues

Here's an incomplete list of over 150 of the verbs commonly used to report the work of others in academic writing.  It is unclassified by any of the three analyses considered above.

accept
acknowledge
add
admit
advise
advocate
affirm
agree
alert
allege
allow
analyse
announce
appraise
argue
articulate
assert
assess
assume
assure
attack
aver
believe
blame
cast doubt on
challenge
characterise
claim
clarify
classify
comment
concede
conclude
concur
confirm
congratulate
consider
contend
contradict
contribute
counter
criticise
critique
debate
decide
declare
defend
define
demonstrate
deny
depict
describe
determine
develop
disagree
disapprove
discard
disclaim
discount
discover
discuss
dismiss
disprove
disregard
doubt
emphasise
encourage
endorse
estimate
evaluate
examine
explain
explore
express
fault
feel
find
forbid
forget
forgive
guarantee
guess
highlight
hold
hope
hypothesise
identify
ignore
illustrate
imagine
imply
indicate
infer
inform
inquire
insist
interpret
intimate
investigate
justify
know
list
maintain
mention
note
object (to)
observe
oppose
outline
persuade
point out
portray
posit
postulate
praise
predict
present
profess
promise
propose
protest
prove
provoke
put forward
query
question
realise
reason
rebuff
recognise
recommend
refer
refute
reject
remark
remind
report
restate
reveal
say
scrutinise
show
speculate
state
stress
study
substantiate
suggest
support
suppose
suspect
take into consideration
take issue with
tell
theorise
think
throw light on
underline
understand
urge
This list is also available as a PDF document for reference.

Clearly, presenting learners with a list like this is not going to be a very productive approach.  Somehow we have to help our learners eat the elephant so a piecemeal approach is the only practical way forward.

Before you can begin, you need to make a selection of the reporting verbs which will form the target of a teaching sequence.  This site can't do that for you because there are some variables to consider first:

  • Level:
    • At lower levels, it may be adequate to focus on a short list of frequently used neutral verbs.  This might include, e.g.:
          state, mention, discuss, comment, show, suggest etc.
    • At higher levels, your learners need to start learning about the attitudes that verb-use implies so the list can start to extend to verbs like:
          question, intimate, assert, demonstrate, discount, hypothesise etc.
    • Later yet, learners need to be alert to degrees of assertion and argumentation so the list gets extended again to include, e.g.:
          maintain, portray, take issue with, profess, presume and so on.
  • Register:
    • Within the natural sciences certain reporting verbs are more frequently found.  Often, they have inanimate subjects such as data, experimental investigation, observations and so on.  Verbs commonly used with inanimate subjects might include:
          reveal, show, suggest, demonstrate, explain, confirm, (dis)prove etc.
      so these become the targets for learners in those disciplines
    • within the social sciences, more tentative verbs are frequent and they come with animate subjects so verbs like:
          propose, suggest, imply, interpret, posit, postulate etc.
      are more useful targets.
approach

Approach

You can approach the verbs from any of the three analyses above by considering attitude, function and form separately.  A combined approach is often productive providing the number of target verbs is limited and carefully selected.

For example:

  1. Start with a shortlist of verbs which function to state what an author believes (say, hold, assert, believe, claim, declare, maintain etc.) and introduce them in context to show the colligations (see above for that).  At lower levels, some focus on tense, aspect and voice is appropriate at this stage.
  2. Move on to presenting them on a cline from tentative, through neutral to assertive (see above).
  3. Then, once the function, form and meaning are clear, learners can proceed to practising them.  A simple way to do that is to present a text which only uses a simple verb like say and get learners to replace the verb with something more appropriate.  It could look something like this:
    Jones (1964:20) says that ... and says it is important to ... but Smith (1990:85) says that this is not true and he says work by Robinson (1990) says that ...
    More recently, Smith now says that what the study said was not fully correct.  He now says that what Jones said is important.

    could become something like:
    Jones (1964:20) asserts that ... and emphasises that it is important to ... but Smith (1990:85) avers that this is not true and he points out that work by Robinson (1990) reveals that ...
    More recently, Smith now
    concedes that what the study showed was not fully correct.  He now allows that what Jones noted is important.
  4. Finally, the learners can move on to writing or improving their own texts using the limited range you have introduced.
  5. The procedure can be duplicated with another target function and set of verbs until the learners are able to deploy a wide range of reporting verbs accurately, with attitudinal awareness and for functions they can clearly identify.


Related guides
reported or indirect speech the general guide to the area
verbal processes for a general guide to what verbs do
verb and clause types for a guide to understanding verbs and their structures
EAP index for links to other guides in the area


Reference:
Campbell, in Jordan, R. R, 1997, English for Academic Purposes, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press