Member’s Profile: Brett Laybutt


In this edition of Member’s Profile, Brett Laybutt talks about his interest in the language of newspaper sports reports and his corpus study of the genre.


Brett Laybutt 

When the FIFA World Cup came to Japan in 2002, it gave an enormous boost to interest in football around the country. Even after the World Cup this interest continued. Premier League games were being broadcast on satellite, featuring Japanese players on top-flight teams, and many Japanese traveling to England were including a game at one of the famous stadiums as part of their itinerary. At the same time, there was an upsurge of students who wanted to know more about the language of football—and not just in Japan. The British Council, for example, used football as a means of promoting the study of English on its website. Football became a way of furthering students’ interest in studying English, and vice-versa. At the same time, however, some students expressed frustration that despite studying, they couldn’t make heads or tails of the English used in newspapers to talk about football. As I was studying for a Master’s in TEFL, I decided to do a corpus study of this genre of newspaper sports reports. The results were quite surprising.

Within the domain of football, we might expect linguistic combinations such as kicked the ball or scored a goal, yet these are not significant at all within newspaper reports. In fact, kicked the ball does not occur at all! Rather than being kicked, the ball within newspaper reports is projected using mostly words associated with the hand. The ball is pushed, rolled or steered. There are also words not generally used anywhere else except sports reports, like my own favourite, dinked. Thus the ball can be rolled by Reina from the back, delivered to Gerrard, who threads it through the midfield for Torres to flick it into the back of the net for a goal. This sort of description allows the reader to more easily follow the ball as it is moved through the field of play.

Similarly, the phrase scored a goal is not used as we might expect. Surprisingly, it does not really refer to the actual act of scoring. There instead the ball is driven home or stabbed home. It may also be scored with a thunderous drive or from the left. Where score and goal do occur together it functions within the genre to place that goal within context, as in a player scored his fifth goal of the competition.

The word goal also reveals the extensive use of metaphor within the genre of newspaper reports, an area of language use that always causes difficulties for learners. The goal is often viewed as a precious object which is beautiful, stunning, or exquisite. It may also be possessed (own goal, Fowler’s goal) or given to another (Owen’s first goal for Real Madrid). This object is also something to be got or is something worth defending.

These results also led me to completely re-evaluate how I view the language being taught in my own classroom. Rather than just looking at discrete items of language and grammar points, I began to view language from the perspective of a number of different levels or ranks. For example, if we take one phrase from a football report, first half got the goal it deserved, we can see how this concept of rank affects the writer’s choices. At a basic level, the choice of the word deserved affects grammatical choice through the common pattern to get what you deserve. So we can see here that lexis and grammar (lexico-grammar) are interrelated.

Beyond the lexico-grammar, however, we might ask why the particular word deserved was chosen. Another important metaphor within the genre is the idea of fairness. A goal is something to be entitled to or rewarded with. In other words, it must be deserved. This use of metaphor allows the writer to evaluate something indirectly. At the level of genre, on the other hand, the collocation first half generally signals a genre stage of general evaluation of the game, allowing the use of the metaphor and resulting in the choice of the word deserved. The language choices within sports reports are thus not random but constrained and influenced by other choices at each rank of language.

This concept of viewing language at several different levels now enables me to explain for students not just how particular language works and is put together, but also why it is put together in that way. From here my challenge as a teacher is to find practical applications for the classroom.

Brett Laybutt has an MA with distinction in TESL/TEFL from the University of Birmingham, UK. He teaches full-time at a private language school in Tokyo and his research interests include systemic functional linguistics, corpus linguistics, and discourse analysis. He can be contacted at <>.

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