Engaging with the Ideas of Others: Using Reporting Language

What is “reporting language,” and why do I need it?

One of the most important modes of speaking and writing is referencing and responding to the ideas and views of others. Doing so situates your own writing within a larger conversation, which helps your interlocutor (whomever you’re communicating with) to understand why your discourse matters, and also gives him/her a frame of reference to interpret your meaning.

It’s essential to always clearly identify when you are restating the ideas of others by using reporting language, that is, sentences that explicitly attribute ideas to another source. In the first place, you should always give credit where credit is due. Furthermore, consistent use of reporting language is critical to the clarity of your own discourse; it helps you to distinguish your own position from that of others. Failure to use consistent reporting language can confuse your interlocutor as to what your own argument is.

Take a look at this example of student writing:

According to Singer, we each have a personal responsibility to work to stop climate change. Our actions, as individuals, contribute to global warming, and therefore have the potential to harm others. We all have an ethical responsibility to take steps to ensure our own actions do not harm others, and we have the power to protect others from harm by being responsible for our actions. But we can’t all be deemed responsible for global climate change…

This passage begins with a clear attribution of source, clarifying that the claim “we each have a personal responsibility to work to stop climate change” is an argument made by Singer.

But what about the next few sentences? (“Our actions, as individuals, contribute to global warming…  We all have an ethical responsibility to take steps to ensure our own actions do not harm others…”) Are those still Singer’s positions, or is the author of the paper adding his/her own claims to those of Singer? Or both – are they Singer’s claims, but the author believes and endorses them?

Without reporting language, the tone of those statements makes it seem that the author of the paper is stating them as true. But this becomes very confusing when the final sentence of the passage (“But we can’t all be deemed responsible for global climate change…”) seems to contradict what was said just before.

Does this mean all of this is Singer’s position, but he contradicts himself? Or that all of it is Singer’s position, but there is some nuance to the argument that we’re missing here that would make it make sense? Or is only part of it Singer, and part of the author’s own views?

Most likely, the author of the paper intended to summarize Singer in the first several sentences of the passage, then offer his/her own position—to disagree with Singer—in the final sentence. But without clear language that identifies who thinks what, the passage becomes confusing and difficult to follow.

Reporting language should be used consistently throughout a summary of someone else’s words or ideas to maintain clarity, and when shifting to another viewpoint (either that of another source, or the author’s own), this shift should be explicitly noted.

How can I use reporting language to make my writing better?

To be most effective, reporting language not only needs to be consistent, it also needs to be carefully and purposefully chosen.

There are many ways to specify your source in your writing: the simple formulation, “According to so-and-so” is versatile, since you can stick it on the front of pretty much any sentence and bam! you’ve identified your source. But this phrase would start to get repetitive very quickly.

You can also use linking-verb formulations like, “Singer’s overall argument centers on the importance of personal responsibility,” or “The importance of individual actions and individual responsibility is Singer’s main point.” Sentences like these are useful for adding variety, but can be wordy; too many in a row will start to sound awkward and cumbersome.

The most common style of reporting language is to use verbal phrase like, “Singer writes…” These are concise, active formulations that make the attribution clear. But these can become repetitive and boring when every sentence begins with the author’s or speaker’s name, or if certain verbs are overused. Good summarizing not only makes use of different styles of reporting language, but also reformulates these styles in inventive ways.

Creativity and precision in the use of reporting language makes your writing and speech more engaging by avoiding repetition of simple phrases like, “He says…,” or “She writes…”. But it also adds subtly to your interlocutor’s understanding and reception of your discourse, by providing additional information about your or your subject’s attitude to the topic in question.

Verbs like “says”, “states”, or “writes”, provide only the bare fact that someone has articulated a particular statement; more creative reporting verbs can add additional information about whether that someone endorsed the content of the statement, and if so, how strongly. They can also give your interlocutor a sense of whether you, yourself, are on the side of the person you are ventriloquizing, thus laying the foundation for you to present your own response later in the discourse.

SUBJECT’S ATTITUDE

To effectively summarize the ideas or arguments of another, don’t just repeat the content of their discourse; use reporting verbs that clarify not only his/her position, but also the strength or scope of that position.

Differentiate between strong claims made by the source–what the speaker/author holds to be absolutely true, and to have proven or disproven–and more tentative claims: points of speculation that require further examination, and that the speaker/author acknowledges have not been proven yet. Also distinguish between that which the speaker/author seeks to prove or defend, and those points which s/he is neutral about (either because they are points of fact, or because they are outside the scope of his/her argument).

Strong Claims

Use precise vocabulary to specify the claims or arguments of the source:

If someone strongly endorses or defends a position as his/her own, s/he… If someone endorses the position of another, s/he… If someone disputes the position of another, s/he…
argues
claims
emphasizes
contends
maintains
insists
agrees
supports the view that
acknowledges
concedes
allows
defers to
denies
negates
refutes
rejects
challenges
disputes
contradicts

Tentative Claims

Many times, an author or speaker will acknowledge or point out an idea or position, either his/own or another’s, that s/he is not prepared, in that context, to fully defend or dispute. In that case, you would need to use less emphatic language. You might say that someone…

suggests
questions
proposes
hypothesizes
speculates
implies
theorizes
postulates
posits
intimates

Neutral Description

In other cases, it’s most appropriate to use a more neutral verb, for example to simply identify the topic or methodology of the speaker/author, before introducing his/her position, or to describe content that the author neither endorses nor denies, because the content itself is neutral. In that case, you might say that someone…

studies
describes
illustrates
indicates
reports
observes
considers
mentions
states
examines
points out
interrogates
discusses
notes
explores

YOUR ATTITUDE

The verbs above allow you to report the ideas and positions of others, but remain neutral about your subject. If I state, “Professor P considers x” or “Dr. D argues x” that gives no indication of my own attitude about Professor P’s or Dr. D’s work. However, in some cases, I may wish to not only summarize, but also demonstrate that I endorse Professor P’s work. On the other hand, if I am summarizing a position in order to then refute it, it may be useful to clarify that while Dr. D argues x, s/he hasn’t necessarily adequately supported that argument.

 

To endorse the position of another, say that s/he … To cast doubt on the position of another, say that s/he …
proves
shows
reveals
demonstrates
discovers
disproves
asserts
assumes
presumes
pretends
OR you can use any of the other verbs on this page, but add a qualifier in front, such as:
seems to
appears to
purports to
professes to
attempts to

EXAMPLES

RLex1

* sentence implies that Malcolm X is fully confident in this position, but leaves it open whether the writer of the summary agrees or disagrees

RLex2

* sentence implies that Malcolm X may not feel this issue can be decided definitively, and leaves the summarizer’s views open

RLex3

* sentence implies that Malcolm X is fully confident in this position, and that the summarizer agrees with his position

RLex4

* sentence implies that Malcolm X is fully confident in this position, but the summarizer casts doubt on whether he is able to fully support this position

None of these are hard and fast rules – in many cases, the connotation of these words can change according to the context. The important thing to remember is to choose your language thoughtfully and purposefully to make sure you are getting the most out of every single word.

Works Consulted
“Reporting Verbs.” Global Pad: Open House. University of Warwick, 2017. https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/al/globalpad/openhouse/academicenglishskills/grammar/reportingverbs/

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