clac 21/ 2005

Antonio García Gómez

Universidad de Alcalá de Henares


This article arises out of my research into talkshows, and is the culmination of the many hours I have spent watching people interact on television. As a socialised individual, I myself spend much of my time interacting with other people;  conversely, as a discourse analyst, I cannot solely regard this interaction as a mechanical process related to a set of turn-taking allocation techniques. Hence, as a socialised individual and discourse analyst, I  believe – heavily indebted to Eggins and Slade (1997: 6) –  that “interacting is a semantic activity” (emphasis in the original). In the light of this, this paper investigates how American speakers draw on the semantic resources to make interpersonal meanings in Talkshow interaction.

Using samples from a popular American Talkshow, Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect, the study is intended to provide an overall outline of how the two main areas of interpersonal semantics: appraisal and involvement are formulated in this kind of  interaction.

In what follows, I shall be concerned mainly with an analysis of the interpersonal semantics of American Talkshow interaction. The first part of the paper presents a concise theoretical background. The second section deals with the aim and scope of the research. The third section focuses on a local verbal analysis and, finally, the fourth section compiles the main conclusions.



My purpose in what follows is to spell out some preliminary theoretical aspects which have to do specifically with the definition of Talkshow, the explanation of the sample of data selected for analysis and the main areas of interpersonal semantics.


1.1                    DEFINITION OF TALKSHOW

Prior to understanding something, whether it is the term Talkshow or any other term, it is essential to define it. A definition is then a prerequisite to efficient communication. However, the range of definitions of Talkshows is impressive in terms of the characteristics encompassed. A review of the literature reveals that the term Talkshow did not originate overnight, at one time or in one place. It developed out of several decades of television practice and preceding talk tradition from the radio (cf. Thornborrow, 2001a, 2001b; 2001c).

For purposes of explanation, as Gregori (2000a: 15) points out, heavily indebted to Livingstone and Lunt (1994), a Talkshow can be basically defined as a programme which provides “entertainment through talk”. In addition, part of the problem that arises in defining Talkshows may be related to the  wide variety of talk show genres that combine talk with entertainment on US television (cf. Rama Martínez, 2003). Nevertheless, within the field of entertainment/variety talk, it is the late night shows that assume special importance rather than the daytime Tabloid Talkshow. These late night shows, in my view, can be regarded as a microcosm of society, a forum in which society tests out and comes to terms with social and cultural issues (Timberg, 2002). Not only do citizens debate and discuss such issues in this late night setting, but, in turn, their identity as participating members of the American society is also defined (Dickerson, 2001).



1.2.  THE DATA

The sample of data is based on the video-tape recording and transcription of  twenty editions of “Politically Incorrect” a popular American late-night show hosted by Bill Maher. The programmes were recorded during June 2000 and December 2000.

Contrary to most Talkshows, “Politically Incorrect” seems to be quite an open-line show. Once the host introduces all the guests to the audience and some of them are asked directly to make comments on the issue to be discussed, most of the programme develops in a partly comical, partly serious tone by the guests’  free contributions to discourse. In short, the basic structure is not only that of the host’s question and guests’ answers, but a pseudo-free dialogue established among all the participants with occasional comments from the host..

With regard to the topic line of the Talkshow, my aim was that my findings would reflect a representative selection of topics with social and cultural consequences in American society; in this light, the sample chosen for analysis comprises a wide range of  issues, such as the 2000 presidential election, life after death, abortion, racism, etc.

Finally, as far as the transcriptions of the programmes are concerned, they were provided by the programme itself through its Internet website ( It is worth mentioning that these transcriptions are faithful to the spontaneity and informality of the talk, and they are also accessible to readers not familiar with conversational literature or phonological / prosodic symbols.


1.3.                   SELECTION OF THE DATA: WHY TALKSHOWS?

In the study of conversation, there has been an insistence on the use of material collected from naturally occurring situations of every day interaction (cf. Atkinson & Heritage, 1984) and on privileging “everyday” or “ordinary” language use in the hope of identifying widely distributed rules, norms or structures. For instance, Leech (1983: 15) limits pragmatics  “primarily to everyday conversation” (cf. Briggs, 1997: 452-453), placing the study of specific and institutional settings, including Talkshows (cf. O’Connell et al., 1990) in a secondary place.

In my view, Talkshows are at the same time so complex a phenomenon that it would be possible to identify dozens of reasons why they should be a focus of systematic inquiry; by the same token one would be left wondering why their study has been so neglected. For present purposes, I will identify and comment on three of the many reasons why I study Talkshows – and will leave the question of their neglect to others. The reasons are the following:  a) as Livingstone and Lunt (1994: 4) cleverly argue,  no matter whether we see the media in an optimistic or pessimistic way, nobody can deny its growing role in public discourse. This claim is closely related to Fairclough’s (1995: 3) defence of the analysis of media language as an important element within the research into the contemporary process of social and cultural change; b) despite the highly assumed structured pattern of this interaction, I agree with Gregori (2000a: 4) that Talkshows “are a hybrid discourse genre which displays characteristics from conversation and from institutional discourse” worthy of being analysed. Although it is not the aim of this paper to discuss to what extent Talkshows can be generalised as conversational practice1, I can do no more than say that the Talkshow is an invention of twentieth century broadcasting which takes a very old form of communication (cf. Gregori, 2002); that is, conversation, and transforms it into a low-cost highly popular form of information and entertainment through the institutions, practices and technologies of television (cf. Tolson, 2001); and c) a linguistic curiosity to find out the means by which language is used to manipulate people, to share normative judgements and to reflect the ideological struggle that exists in a particular culture (cf. Thomas, 1995).




I shall assume that readers are familiar with the three main areas of interpersonal semantics: appraisal, involvement and humour. For current discussion, I will offer a brief outline of  these three areas.

Firstly, I must comment on the fact that, as Eggins and Slade (1997) and White (1999) have noted, work on interpersonal semantics is still in its very early stages, many problems have to be solved and many semantic issues have yet to be addressed.

In the light of this, Talkshow interaction is one of the numerous registers and discourse domains to which the theory of Interpersonal Semantics has not yet been applied. These observations, in turn, open up a rich vein of analysis which may focus on the study of the interpersonal semantics of Talkshow interaction and which may give us an insight into how people share their perceptions and feelings about the world and each other in these episodes.

For current purposes, I will first adopt Eggins and Slade’s (1997: 124) definition of these three main areas2: a) appraisal  refers to “a range of dimensions including certainty, emotional response, social evaluation and intensity”; b) involvement  refers to “how interpersonal worlds are shared by participants”; and c) humour is “a consistent feature which provides a resource for indicating degrees of otherness and in-ness” (cf. Eggins and Slade, 1997: 155).

Within a broad scope, I will regard these categories as those concerned with the language of evaluation, attitude and emotions. Finally, it should be noted that these devices are, on the one hand, significantly dependent on the co-text in order to state whether a lexical item has attitudinal colouring or not, and, on the other hand, on the socio-cultural background and positioning of the interactants (cf. Levinson, 1983; Lyons, 1977).


2.                  AIM AND SCOPE OF THE RESEARCH

In the following sections, I will analyse the different semantic and discourse strategies that speakers use in a Talkshow interaction. Therefore, the study  will take as its framework the following discussion: how the analysis of the interpersonal semantic resources in American Talkshows reveals a great deal about the social role and function of this specific interaction as these resources explore shared normative judgements about culturally significant behavioural domains.

My concern will be to provide evidence for the following two-fold hypothesis: a) that the semantics of appraisal is an important device for constructing social identity; and b) that the semantics of involvement  is a complex but highly sensitive index of social relationships which reflect different degrees of social closeness and of relative power between interactants.



3.1.                    THE SEMANTICS OF APPRAISAL

In this section and within the semantics of appraisal, I shall attempt to point out the main devices that both American guests and their host use in Talkshow interactions. As Eggins and Slade (1997: 125) state “Appraisal analysis examines the attitudinal meanings of words and the expression of attitude used in conversation”. The aim here is to sketch some of their features in a way that can be brought to bear upon the relations between this attitudinal meaning and the “consequent” construction of the social identity of the American guests and host.

Following Eggins and Slade (1994 and 1997) and Martin (1994, 1996 and 2000), the appraisal system can be seen as falling into four categories: a) appreciation which typically evaluates natural objects; b) affect which is concerned with emotional responses; c) judgement which involves expressing evaluation about the ethics, morality or social values of people’s behaviour; and d) amplification which captures the lexical resources speaker can draw on to grade their attitudes towards people, things or events.

In my view, the appraisal system of interpersonal semantics gives us an insight into how people share their perception and feelings about the world and each other in Talkshow interaction. Moreover, it will become clear, as the argument and the exemplification proceed through the succeeding sections, that in order to fully appreciate the significance of the specific turn-taking system and to understand how this interaction works, the categories affect and judgement  can be considered the most representative ones.

Contrarily to Eggins and Slade (1997) in the case of Talkshow interaction, I will understand both appreciation and amplification as subcategories within the categories of  affect and judgement. Therefore, my analysis will be restricted to these two categories, taking into account the two subcategories when providing relevant information for the proper understanding of the analysis.


3.1.1. AFFECT

Following White (1999: 10), affect is concerned with “emotional response and disposition and is typically realised through mental processes of reaction and through attributive relationals of affect”. Nonetheless, close inspection of the data indicates that this semantic category plays a different and more complex role; that is, in Talkshow interaction, affective appraisals tend to occur in two distinct, but fixed, parts of the interaction which can be argued to respond to the ideological aspects of the speaker’s position. In claiming this, I postulate that the complex role of  affect is associated with whether the value of affect is a positive or a negative category.

On the one hand, positive affective appraisals are always found at the beginning of the Talkshow programme, when the host – Bill Maher – meets the  discussion panel. As illustrated by the two following examples:

(1)[June 22, 2000]

Bill: All right. Let’s meet our panel, she is—thank you – the advice chair of South Carolina’s Republican Party. Cyndi Mosteller.  [cheers and applause] Cyndi, our friend. There you are. [Applause] Thank you for coming.

Cyndi: Thank you.

Bill: She is one of the fine stars of “Beggars & Choosers” premiering on Show time next Tuesday. Charlotte Ross, yeah, [applause]. Nice to meet you. Thank you. One of the comedy minds behind “The Kings of Comedy” tour. He’s also one of the stars of the “Steve Harvey Show”. Cedric the Entertainment. [Cheers and applause]. How are you? Good to see you. And he’s the Oscar-nominated director of “Boyz N the Hood”. His new one is “Shaft” pleasing booties in theatres everywhere. John Singleton, right over there. [cheers and applause] How are you?

John: I’m good, good.

Bill: Good. Excuse me …


(2) [November 2, 2000]

Bill:  All right. Thank you very much. And let us meet our panel. She is a celebrated actress. NYU college professor and the author of the new book “Talk to me” – Anna Deaver Smith. Yeah! Where are ya? [applause]

Anna: It’s good to be on. Nice to meet you.

Bill: How are ya?

Anna: Fine, thanks.

Bill: Glad to get you here. She is a political analyst, talk show host and the former deputy director of the center for law and democracy – my old job – Marianne Lombardi. Marianne! [applause].

Marianne: You say that every time.

Bill: A very talented comedian and “Saturday Night Live” vet. He is also a big-time movie star. [laughter] His new one is “little Nicky” -  I don’t know what that meant – John Lovitz is right over there. [Cheers and applause]. What did you do over there? A shining light of the acting world, she is the star of the showtime series – I love  that show – “Rude Awakening” A true thespian – Lynn Redgrave! [cheers and applause]. Thank you. All right, Jon. Whatever you did over there, I have to accept it


What emerges from a superficial look at the former examples may be reduced to the claim that these positive affective appraisals used by American participants in Talkshow interaction show how they feel about being part of the  discussion panel.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that American guests and host produce positive affect appraisals as a way to establish solidarity and sympathy, as a means of exploiting similarity and shared values among them. In addition, such a semantic exploitation reveals a broader ideological aspect of the position the guests and host, which, in turn, allows them to establish their subject position in the interaction:  i) the exploitation of positive affect appraisals on the part of both host and guests encodes their emotional state and a common positive attitude; the host shows how happy and grateful he is to have such guests in the programme; and the guests express how pleased and grateful they are to be invited.

In the light of this, I suggest that the exploitation of positive affect appraisal can be understood as an interpersonal ritual in Talkshow interaction. What is suggested then is that the semantics of positive affect appraisal is concerned with the notion of FACE (Brown and Levinson, 1987). In this sense, the use of this semantic category by the American guests and host consists in claiming a positive consistent self-image. In other words, by being grateful for the invitation on the guests’ side and for the guests’ presence on the host’s side, all the interactants try to satisfy each other’s positive face want.

Furthermore, it should be noted that such an interpretation of positive affect appraisal is underlined by the two other attitudinal resources available to participants: appreciation and amplification. For instance, in example (2) the host’s use of lexical resources reinforce his expression of attitude towards the guests. By choosing such lexical items “talented”, “shining light”, “true”, etc., the host emphasises his positive personal evaluation of his guests.

Conversely, negative affect appraisals tend to occur throughout the programme to produce a negative evaluation of the discussed issue. Interestingly enough, a two-fold ideological strategy can be argued to serve different ideological purposes. Let us first consider the following piece of data:


 (3) [November 2, 2000]

Bill: But I mean, the argument against Gore that people say now is he’s too smart for his own good. Like you can be overqualified to be the leader of the free world.

Lynn: You know What I – I’ve been going crazy, because I watched all the debates. And then I would think, well, Gore has made sense. His polices sound sound. He knows what he’s doing. He’s been in public services for God knows how long. And then out comes Bushy boy and says, you know, “hey, I’m not from Washington. Vote for me!” And everybody goes, “yeah, that’s fantastic!” And afterwards the political analysts that haven’t seen you do this- because I’m sure you have – [laughter] say “god Bush wiped the floor there. That lovely genuine smile”. And I see this little smirk. And I just wish that Gore had said more about – erm really made people understand what will happen to the Supreme court, which is what really matters.


          (4) [November 2, 2000]

Anna: But, wait a minute, before we even get to who’s smart and who’s not smart. It sounds like, it’s really about who knows, but who’s more likeable, right? So that do we want as the president of the United States Miss Popularity? I think that’s really interesting.

Bill: I mean, if Bush wins – and I still don’t think he will – [Cheers and applause] You know what? I’m not voting for the other guy either. So don’t get too excited. But he is smarter. Okay? And he does deserve it more because he’s been there. He’s done a few things. I mean, you can’t look me in the eye –

Marianne: Clearly, who’s smarter?

Bill: Look, I’ll say. Al Gore is as big a liar, he’s as big a panderer, I hate him just as much. I really hate him. [cheers and applause]. But you can’t look me in the eye and tell me that you think that Al Gore is not smarter than George “Duh” Bush.


In example (3), the guest’s exploitation of negative affect appraisal is concerned with encoding her negative feelings (towards Bush in this instance). Interestingly enough, it can be observed that even though the use of affect appraisal occurs as a negative category, such a use reveals the guest’s  positive emotional response and disposition towards the host’s point. In other words, it is shown how this strategy is aimed at supporting the host’s stance. Furthermore, the speaker’s use of attributive relational processes and mental processes of affect are modified by further cognitive mental processes of appreciation (“think”, “know”, etc) . This strategy is intended, in White’s terms (1999), to increase the chance of ideological concord among the participants.

In example (4), the guest also takes advantage of negative attributive relationals (“Gore is a big liar […] a big panderer) and mental processes of affect (“hate” “really  + hate”). However, contrarily to the former instance, the use of negative affect appraisal seems this time to be aimed at invalidating the informational content argued by the other participants. By openly criticising the discussed issue statement (the contrast between presidential candidates Gore and Bush), guest positioning and the ideological aspects of such positions are revealed. In this sense, such a semantic strategy threatens the other guests’ positive-face want, by expressing her disagreement about the discussed issue.

What I am proposing then is that the use of negative affect appraisal can also be associated with the notion of FACE. On the one hand, this semantic category can be used to encode a negative portrayal of the issue under discussion but also can be intended to exploit the participants’ positive-face and to establish solidarity and sympathy with the stances adopted by other participants. On the other hand, negative affect appraisal can be seen as a highly face threatening device, since it negates the informational content that other participants have produced. The presence of appreciation and amplification attitudinal resources (“a big liar”, “a big panderer”) emphasises the expression of strong negative emotions (“I hate…”). In addition to indicating that one guest is wrong about the issue under discussion, this guest exercises his power over the other and can be understood as a mechanism of social control.

What is also to be noted here is that the face threatening nature of negative affect appraisal represents, in my personal view, a divergent alternative which not only threatens the addressee’s positive face, but, at the same time, represents a socially acceptable alternative, since the exploitation of this semantic category is aimed at triggering sympathetic responses from the audience – responses which are represented by the cheers and applause from the audience present in the studio. Finally, the negative affect appraisal will be further developed as closely connected to judgement.


3.1.2.                       JUDGEMENT

Following White (1999: 11), the system of judgement encompasses “meanings which serve to evaluate human behaviour positively and negatively by reference to a set of institutional norms”. Moreover, there is still a great deal of work on the description of evaluative meaning to be done. Close inspection of the data may thus help to identify the different semantic strategies that American interactants may use in order to judge the other guests’ positions.

Due to the discussing nature of the Talkshow interaction, in which guests are likely to sustain different stances about the same event, it is worth mentioning that I will restrict my comments on the semantic realisation of negative judgement3. Thus, I shall here concern myself with the different ways of judging the opponent’s side pejoratively in Talkshow interaction. For this purpose, I will discuss these strategies independently under the following subheadings: a) direct judgement of the opponent’s stance; b) judgement of the opponent’s stance by incomprehension; and c) direct judgement of the opponent’s behaviour or  the opponent himself/herself. At the end of the section, the main comments of the semantic strategy will be compiled. 


a)      Direct judgement of the opponent’s stance. By directly judging the opponent’s stance, American Talkshow participants tend to produce informing moves to adhere to their own position and to devaluate the validity of that of their opponents. Take the following examples:


(5)  [ November 1, 2000.]

Bill: So, you say right here on the back “Death is not the final goodbye” and Dr. Nuland, you disagree. You think that-

®Dr. Nuland: I think death is the final goodbye, yeah. It’s over when it’s over.

Soleil: But if we’re made up of so much energy, then How can that energy not go anywhere?

®Dr. Nuland: Oh, it goes somewhere, but it doesn’t go where you think it does.

Soleil: But is it goes somewhere into the universe, right?

®Dr. Nuland: Energy goes to the universe, but your intellect doesn’t go to the universe. Your mind doesn’t go to the universe.

Bill: I believe in a lot of crazy stuff, too. But I don’t know what that means “you have energy”.



Example (5) is a succession of informing moves (about life after death) which are counteracted by Dr. Nuland’s contributions to discourse which consist of direct negative judgements of the opponent’s stance. Dr. Nuland asserts his judgement of the statement that “death is not the final goodbye”, this expression of clear disagreement can be then considered as highly face-threatening.


(6) [November 17, 2000]

Betsy: The point is that counting with machines is potentially imperfect, but certainly impartial. Counting with people is definitely imperfect and very partial.

Bill: No!

Billy: What a minute!

Bill: That’s also a lie

Betsy: Sorry

Billy: Didn’t Mr Bush say he likes people, he doesn’t like politics?

Billy: Now he doesn’t like people any more! So what’s your election gonna be decided by, a traffic light?

Bill: That’s another huge lie that there’s a potential skulduggery there. You see them. There’s a Republican. There’s  a Democrat. There’s a policeman. There’s a judge, an Indian, a construction worker. There’s thousands of people looking at this. There’s no potential.

Betsy: Bill, simply there are not enough –

Bill: It’s a lie!

Betsy: No

Bill: It’s a huge lie!

Betsy: the point is--- [talking over one another].

Betsy: Al Gore keeps saying, “Oh, this is such a close election. We have to go back and look at these votes”. But he’s not going into the counties that were close. He’s only going into the counties that were overwhelmingly in his favor.

John: He wants a fair and accurate count of four Democratic counties with the Democrat canvassing –



In example (6), Bill asserts his negative judgement of a state of affairs; that is, he conveys that what the opponents are saying is a lie. The opponents, nevertheless, attempt to provide informational content to support their point and challenge such a negative evaluation.


b)      Judgement of the opponent’s stance by incomprehension.


In judging the opponent’s stance, American guests also rely on an indirect semantic strategy to judge  the opponent’s stance expressing their  incomprehension of what the opponent has done or said. Let us illustrate this in examples (7) and (8).


 (7)[November 16, 2000]

Kelsey: The founding fathers thought that political parties would kill this country. And I think they’re probably right.

Steven: The problem is that –

Lisa: Do you really think  things are gonna change that much depending on who is actually – who wins the office? Is that what you’re asking?

Bill: I’m just saying, emotionally I would never wanna party with the Republicans.

Ann: But this is different from which the absentee votes are gonna go.


(8)[November 2, 2000]

Marianne: You voted for Bill Clinton, didn’t you? Did you voted for Bill Clinton?

Jon: Yeah, but he wasn’t doing blow. Okay? [laughter]

Marianne: Hold on a minute. Not according to his brother. His brother said he was. It doesn’t matter when it’s Bill Clinton. [talking over one another]

Jon: The point is that the Republicans go after Gore’s moral character by going after Clinton, but they don’t go after Gore [talking over one another] What did Gore do?

Lynn: Bill Clinton’s a really smart, clever, brilliant, bloody political speaker. And you’re likening that to, you know, Mr. Homeboy? I mean, I can’t believe it, you know? I can’t believe it that you’re doing this. If you’re really smart, how could you do that?

Anna: The fact is that if a shoe drops for one of the candidates that there’s some sex scandal, God forbid, for one of them, it’ll blow up. And it could cost somebody the election.

Bill: But it doesn’t.


In the former examples, the guests (Lisa and Lynn) challenge the informational content of the opponents and judge negatively the opponent’s stance by showing their incomprehension. American guests take advantage of this semantic strategy to emphasise the negative judgement of the other guests’ stance; that is, a way of questioning the veracity of the informational content of the other guests’ stances.


c)      Direct judgement of the opponent’s behaviour or the opponent himself/herself


Finally, American guests challenge the opponent’s informational content by producing a direct evaluation of the opponent himself/herself or his/her behaviour. This strategy can involve expressing evaluations about the ethics, morality, or social values of the other guests’ behaviour. Consider the following examples:


(9)[November 16, 2000 ]

Bill:  All right. Let’s talk about for a second, the president we know we actually have, Bill Clinton, the forgotten man. He’s in Vietnam – finally – he’s on his – “better 30 years late than never” tour. And a lot of people are saying “While he’s over, why don’t you give an apology to the Vietnamese people?” Let me give you a list of the people he’s apologised for. He apologised to blacks for slavery. Rwandans because we didn’t come to their aid. The Japanese for internment World War II. Native Americans. He apologised for deposing Hawaii’s Queen Lilli Polani during the Cleveland administrations. And I was clamouring for that one.

Steven: Yeah, that was a good one.

Bill: He apologised for the Marines in Okinawa, ‘cause they raped a girl. He apologised for the Tuskegee experiments. And of course, he apologised for his own [bleep] about 100 times.

Ann: No he never apologised.

Bill: Never apologised?! What planet are you living on?

Ann: Okay, but on to the next topic


(10)[November 3, 2000]

Bill: All right, I agree with him on that. People could change the system if they got off their asses and stopped watching “Survivor” and cared. But they don’t [applause] and so who needs’em?

David: No, we need’em. It’s a participatory democracy.

Bill: And you’re right, we do need’em.

David: This was designed as a participatory democracy, it won’t work if nobody gets involved.

Aisha: They do, but I’m saying if the system wasn’t so attacked in favor of people with lots of cash, there would be a lot more parties.

Jonah: You mean the people who aren’t voting aren’t voting because –

David: Yeah, they’re not voting because they don’t believe that their votes count. They think you can’t fight City Hall. [All talking at once].

Jonah: and make an unconstitutional system so we can educate people to come out and vote.

David: I didn’t say we need to fix it. I know you’re not smart enough to know how, but I know there’s a way. I know that we can.

Jonah: Wait a minute! [All talking at once].


(11)[November 28, 2000]

Al Franken: Okay, the point is, is you really can’t start transition until you’ve been elected president.

Al Rantel: Oh, I think he has been elected. I think he has.

Al  Franken: I know you think that, but he hasn’t [laughter]

Al Rantel: Are you laughing at me?

Al Franken: And you and  guys like you would like everyone to think it.


In the above examples, American guests assert their pejorative evaluation on the opponents themselves or their behaviour. This semantic strategy threatens the opponent’s positive face-want. By judging the opponent negatively, the speaker indicates that s/he does not care about the opponent’s feelings, since the negative judgement includes not only the expression of disapproval but also of personal criticism and insult. There is no doubt that this is supposedly semi-comic due to the black tradition of mutual insults which express solidarity.

Considering the former examples (5 – 11), it could be argued that American Talkshow participants exploit the semantic category of judgement to adhere to their position and devaluate the validity of the opponent’s stance.

Within the semantics of appraisal, American Talkshow participants’ use of the judgement category can be summarised as follows:


a)      By providing a direct judgement of the opponent’s stance, participants assert a negative judgement aimed at challenging the informational content of the opponent’s stance.


b)      By judging the opponent’s stance by incomprehension, participants take advantage of an indirect semantic device to evaluate the informational content negatively, avoiding the face-threatening nature of the disagreement implied.


c)      By providing a direct judgement of the opponent himself/herself or his/her behaviour, participants produce a direct negative assertion about the other guests since what they have said or done fails to measure up to socially desirable standards.


The key point here is the fact that the three semantic choices are closely connected with the notion of FACE (Brown and Levinson, 1987). In judging the opponents’ stance, behaviour or the opponent himself/herself, it may be claimed that this strategy consists in the desire for approval. The strategy is, therefore, aimed at proving that the opponent’s behaviour or position deviates from the American socially acceptable norm.

In the light of this, I argue that the semantic meaning selection of American Talkshow participants enlists social pressure and plays a major role in constructing the opponents’ social identity, since this strategy encapsulates the speaker’s negative judgement of the verbal, mental or physical behaviour of the opponent. In addition, this judgement category represents a resource, on the one hand, for undermining the opponent’s social esteem since their stance or behaviour is socially reprehensible in front of the audience and, on the other hand, for evaluating the opponent’s point or behaviour as either confirming or transgressing the speaker’s social norm. It can thus be understood as a mechanism of social control (cf. Fairclough, 1989; Kedar, 1987).


3.1.3.                       INVOLVEMENT

In the following section, I will deal with the second main group of resources: the semantics of involvement. Indebted to Chafe (1979) and Tannen (1982), Eggins and Slade (1997: 143) define involvement as the name given to “a range of semantic systems which offer interactants ways to realise, construct and vary the level of intimacy of an interaction”. In addition to this, I propose that the semantic strategy of involvement can be argued to play  a complex  role in Talkshow interaction since it is a highly sensitive index of kinds of social relationships, which reflects different degrees of social closeness and of relative power between participants in Talkshow interaction. Finally, it may be appropriate to say that I will restrict the analysis to the main subsystem of involvement:  naming” (cf. Martin, 1994).

I assume with Eggins and Slade (1997: 144) that “naming  involves the use of vocatives (an addressee’s name or other term of address) to get attention and to target an utterance”. However, I propose a two-fold function of naming with regard to the speaker’s motivation to use names:


i)                      as a way to construct intimacy in the interaction.  Close inspection of the data shows that it is mainly the host that takes advantage of naming, merely because the host, as the representative of the institution, is the one in charge of allocating the turns in the interaction. Nevertheless, the host’s semantic selection of one term of address or another can also be argued to respond to the following social motivations: to create a friendly atmosphere, to establish and reinforce group membership and to assert social unity. Consider the following examples:

(12) [June 22, 2000]

Bill: All right folks.

Bill: The advice chair of South Carolina’s Republican Party. Cyndi Mosteller [cheers and applause]. Cyndi, our friend. There you are…

Cedric: Leather jacket. He was before his time. That was before his time. That was big-time stuff.


(13)           [November 3, 2000]

Bill: A very funny comedienne and her Website is and come December, she’ll be one of the stars of “Off Limits Friday” on another network, Aisha Tyler. Aisha

Aisha: Hi, cutie.

Bill: Hello, kitten, how are you doing?

Aisha: Nice to see you again.


(14)[November 3, 2000]

Bill: Okay, a founding member of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, he is a major supporter of, rock `n´ roll legend, Mr. David Crosby right over here. [cheers and applause] How you doing, sir? Good to see you

David: Good to see you.


In the former examples, it can be claimed that the use of these forms of address is then mainly based on the exploitation of positive politeness strategies, which emphasise membership and solidarity. The host’s choice to refer to the audience (“folks”), or guests (“cutie”, “kittie”, “Mr”, “sir”) are used as a kind of metaphorical extension of intimacy.

Interestingly enough, on a genre based distinction, it may be argued that the host uses an obviously different set of terms of address according to whether he is introducing a female or male guest. In addition to the former examples consider the following piece of data:


(15) [November 17, 2000]

Bill: She is a columnist for the Scripts Howard News Service. Betsy Hart is right over her, Betsy, hey! [cheers and applause]

Betsey: Hey

Bill: How are you, honey?

Betsey: Good to see you.


(16) [ November 28, 2000]

Bill: A very, very talented actress, she currently be seen on “The District” and her “ Divas Simply Singing” CD is available at Virgin Megastores everywhere, Sheryl Lee Ralph. [cheers and applause]

Sheryl: Hello

Bill: Hello, babe. How you doing?


(17) [November 17, 2000]

Bill: He is a Republican Congressman from the heat of the battle right down in Florida. 7th district from the sunshine state. Representative John  Mica! John! [cheers and applause]. Hey!

Bill: Nice to have you, Congressman. Thank you. Thank you


What emerges from the former examples, therefore, is that this strategy may also provide a useful tool for analysing the differences between the speech styles of women and men, since the host’s use of naming reveals the ideological process that underlies in his contribution to discourse.

Although it is not the aim of this paper and may also be a superficial generalisation, the fact that the host refers to male guests using his title such as `Mr´ or `congressman´; whereas he uses nicknames and terms of endearment for some female guests such as `kitten´ or `cutie´ can be understood a stereotypical male patronising and sexist attitude. However, it should be noted that these terms of address are not used during the discussion; only at the beginning while they are being welcomed and while exchanging pleasantries.


          ii) as a way to be in power and in control of the interaction. Apart from signalling the relationship between Talkshow participants, the use of naming is a clear example of a turn-allocation technique. The speaker alternation, and thus, the turn-taking design are controlled and determined by the use of this semantic strategy by the guests and the host; that is, by taking advantage of naming, Talkshow participants can guide and give structure to the interaction.

In addition, it may be appropriate to say that the presence of high figures of turn-allocation is very frequent in the Talkshow structure since guests and host are involved in what may be called institutional talk (cf. Gregori, 1998). Consider the following examples:


(18)           [November 2, 2000]

Marianne: You may love sex, that doesn’t mean that our president has to be flaunting his sex in front of the entire country, you know Bill.

Bill: Come on, Marianne, he didn’t flaunt it.

Marianne: Yes, he did.

Bill: Oh, you’re right. Right, he was getting it in the window. He was like, “Hey, everybody!” Look what I’m doing here”.

Marianne: Come on, Bill. It was not –

Bill: Oh please.


(19)           [June 22, 2000]

Bill: Here’s something I wanted to mention before June let out. Because it’s time of year when everybody is graduating from college. And President Clinton has been proposing, as he has quite often, $ 30 billion in tax breaks for college tuition, and I noticed on one of the Mrs. Jones commercials that we’ve made fun of her, because I don’t like Mrs. Jones.

Jon: Hey Bill. That’s my homegirl.

Bill: Sorry Jon, but she totally full of – Mrs. Jones. [Laughter] Are you kidding?

Jon: what’s she full of – about?

Bill: Well, first of all, she says women athletes should make as much as male athletes? Their blood is red. Yeah, but nobody wants to watch them. [laughter]

Charlotte: no, no, you’re wrong, Bill!

John: That’s not true.


In the previous examples the use of naming establishes who the next speaker should be; that is to say, it can be regarded as a way of determining the allocation of turns, since both  guest and host select the person who is going to be the next speaker. In this sense, the semantic strategy of involvement may account for how speaker change recurs at possible transition relevance places (cf. Sacks et al., 1974 and Sacks,  1973).


4.                CONCLUSION

It was the purpose of this article to analyse the Interpersonal Semantics  of American Talkshow interaction. In order to do so, I have systematically delved into the distinct semantic and discourse strategies that participants use in this sort of interaction.

From a general point of view, this analysis attempts to stimulate an appreciation of the potential of Talkshow interaction and, by implication, other “institutional” forms of talk. In this light, the study has shown the semantic resources that American participants draw on to make interpersonal meanings in Talkshow interaction. The key points can be summarised as follows:

a) The analysis of the semantics of appraisal has shown how this semantic category is closely connected to the exploitation of positive-face strategies. Participants rely on them in order to construct the guest’s social identity.

b)  The analysis of the semantics of involvement is also related to the notion of positive FACE and has accounted, on the one hand, for a way to construct intimacy in the interaction and, on the other hand, for a turn-allocation technique understood as a way to exert control over the interaction.

 All in all,  this systematic and empirical study has left much work undone on Talkshow interaction. This approach may be enriched by further research on pragmatic grounds and topic development, whether with regard to the management of the informational content or to other linguistic strategies.


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© Antonio García Gómez. Círculo de Linguística Aplicada a la Comunicación 21, febrero 2005. ISSN 1576-4737.


clac 21/ 2005




1 For further information, see Gregori (2000b) who contrasts the nature of Talkshows with natural conversation, outlining the main differences between both types of interaction. See also García Gómez (2000).

2 Notice that for reasons of space, the analysis will be restricted to appraisal and involvement, leaving humour aside. In addition, further description of these areas will be provided when presenting the data.

3 As argued in the use of positive affect appraisal, the semantics of positive judgement seems to respond to the same pragmatic motivation: to establish solidarity and empathy among interactants.