Mills & Boon's The Silver Slate (Violet Winspear) Image by Jim Barker

Mills & Boon’s The
Silver Slate (Violet Winspear)
Image by Jim Barker


Cris Yelland
School of Arts and Media
Teesside University


One of the difficulties involved in stylistics and Critical Discourse Analysis is the time it takes for students to become fluent and confident in handling a new vocabulary when discussing and describing texts. This case-study describes a way of introducing students to a new technical vocabulary by way of an approach drawn from creative writing and textual intervention.

Background & Context

And where do you go from here? You’ve taken some poem or conveniently sized piece of prose. You’ve spent time and effort mastering a sensible descriptive grammar of English. You’ve meshed understanding and knowledge of both to produce a rigorous analysis of the language used to construct your text, together with a relevant ‘sensitive’ interpretation … Very nice. Very satisfying. But what are you going to do with it? What now? (1)

Burton’s pugnacious account of the procedures and the limitations of stylistics was directed towards making stylistics more politically engaged, enabling students to ‘unmask ideologies’, as Carter put it (2). I am starting with it for a different purpose, one which is not necessarily based on the political ambitions and optimisms which were current in the early 1980s. It is the first two sentences of Burton’s preamble which interest me. Presumably she did not mean that the choice of text to work with, and then the spending of time and effort on mastering a grammar, happen in that order, but even so, her two opening sentences raise in a very sharp form what is a persistent problem in the teaching of stylistics. As teachers, we have mastered descriptive grammar, but our students, for the most part, have not. As teachers, we are committed to and excited by the hermeneutic and explanatory power of stylistics, but this is not necessarily true of our students either. Why should they spend time and effort (very substantial amounts of both) mastering a technical language in order to produce an account of some poem or conveniently sized piece of prose, when there are lots of easier ways of doing it? The question has especial force because stylistics is a hybrid discipline, often embattled in terms of institutional tribes and territories, and consequently has sometimes had to confine itself to theory-checking rather than theory-building – producing, after great effort, results which are acceptable because they bear out what other ways of working would agree with.

This case-study is an account of an experiment in the pedagogy of stylistics, one which was addressed in particular to the relationship between the haves and the have-nots of technical ‘mastery’ (or at least fluency). It is an account of a way of working with a particular area of stylistics, the area of transitivity in language, and trying to escape from a model of teaching in which expertise (derived from having mastered the grammar) flows from teacher to student. It draws especially on two recent developments in English: one is the rapid growth of creative writing, as a discipline in itself but also as a way of learning other things, and the other is the use of new technologies in learning, in this case the use of a virtual learning environment (VLE) and an interactive whiteboard. Both of these are changing English pedagogy in profound ways.


The analysis of transitivity is about the most powerful tool which stylistics has, yet it is one which students often find difficult to grasp. Transitivity has the characteristics of what Land and Meyer call ‘troublesome knowledge’ (3). It is to some extent counter-intuitive, and its relation to strictly grammatical or syntactical analysis is potentially confusing. To take one example (this one is from a James Bond novel, From Russia With Love), analysis of transitivity attaches importance to the fact that Bond’s counterattack against an adversary begins ‘Bond’s body twisted up from the floor’. A different formulation, ‘Bond twisted up from the floor’ obviously describes the same event, and is a clause of the same syntactic type – so why all the fuss?

There are further problems too, in the shape of different theoretical models of transitivity. As teachers, we often feel bound by intellectual conscience to be rigorous and clear about these theoretical issues, but the consequence from students’ point of view is a lot of explication before there is any engagement with texts. The sequencing which begins with explication (of mastery) then proceeds to application tends all too often to passive learning.

Activities & Practice

Starting with Writing

The first activity for a seminar is parody writing, a form of textual intervention(4). The extract below is from a non-canonical novel, in fact a Mills & Boon novel, Without Knowing Why by Jessica Steele. One point of using a text like this to work with is that students are unlikely to feel respectful of it, or intimidated by it.

‘I’ve been kissed before,’ she attempted, as she made to move around him – it seemed a good idea to head back to the bathroom.
‘I’m sure you have,’ he clipped, and panicked her wildly as he grated, a hand snaking out to manacle her upper arm. ‘But you’ve never before responded quite like – this,’ and before she could blink he had pulled her, none too gently, into his arms.
‘No!’ was about the full extent of any protest she had time to make – then his mouth was over hers.
No, she wanted to protest again, but she couldn’t, and in less than seconds, as Dom crushed her to him she was losing any notion of why she should want to protest at all.
She was clinging to him when his kisses gentled, and all fight or any idea of fighting him had left her. She clutched on to him as, his mouth leaving hers, he traced tender kisses from her shoulder and along her throat, until he again claimed her mouth. When he gently hoisted her up in his arms and carried her the few steps to her bed, she had no objection to make.
She thrilled to his touch when he lay down on the mattress with her and looked deeply into her eyes.
‘Erith, my sweet Erith,’ he whispered, her name on his lips, the endearment alone sending her into ecstasies.
‘Oh, Dom!’ she sighed, and gently he kissed her. She felt his fingers caressing her face, her throat, and as his kiss deepened she pressed to get closer to him. She loved him, was in love with him, and as his fingers moved down to caress her, loving him was all that mattered.
‘All right?’ he whispered, his voice sounding slightly hoarse to her ears, but whether he was asking was she all right, or if what he was doing to her was all right, she did not know.
But ‘Oh yes!’ she breathed rapturously, and as he was able to touch her body she discovered a need in her to touch his (5).

This extract tends to give rise to some amusement; at any rate, it is fun to parody. And when students, either individually or in small groups, have written their versions of it, they are keyed as printed text either onto the Flipchart application of an interactive whiteboard, or made into PowerPoint slides, and so displayed to the whole group. The point of beginning with parody or pastiche writing is to work with students’ intuitive knowledge of style, which is very much greater than their technical knowledge about it. The use of the whiteboard or the PowerPoint has several advantages: it is typed text, and therefore more legible than handwriting; it gives more impact to the display of students’ writing and the following discussion of it; it is easily saveable, and can be put onto the VLE site for the module.

Transitivity in the extract

There are a number of stylistic points of interest in the extract. Making them explicit is a process in which the tutor’s possession of the technical language of transitivity is potentially inhibiting to students. This problem is overcome by providing students with ‘prompt’ questions in non-technical language; examples of these are in parentheses below. The main stylistic issues which can be described in terms of transitivity are:

The imbalance in agency between the man and the woman. (who does things in the extract, and who has things done to them?) It is true of this extract, and of romantic fiction in general, that the man acts on the woman. This is manifested in the fact that at no point does Erith have the agent role in a transitive material process, whereas Dom [his name is Domengo de Zarmoza] has that role often. Erith has the agent role in intransitive processes, but not transitive ones; in other words, she can act, but not on anything or anyone else.

There are also a number of failed or abandoned processes on Erith’s part – she ‘attempted … made to … couldn’t protest’ and so on. Dom, by contrast, succeeds in all he does.

The distribution of material processes and mental/emotional ones. (Who acts, and who thinks or feels?) Dom’s emotional state is not directly given, only inferable from his actions and words. Erith’s emotional state, by contrast, gets a lot of detailed attention – it is in fact the central issue of the extract.

Meronyms. (Do people act, or is it parts of them?) Leaving aside the pleasing fact that ‘meronym’ sounds like the name of a Mills & Boon heroine, there is a lot of meronymic agency in the extract. This takes two characteristic forms in romance writing: one of them is the agency of the male’s body parts, in this instance his mouth and fingers; the other is the importance of feelings on the female’s part, like Erith’s ‘need’ to touch him. The pattern is one in which the female is not only acted on by the male, but also acted on by her own emotions and physiological reactions.

Other points of stylistic interest.
The distribution of mental processes is describable in terms of psychological point of view – and this might connect the analysis of transitivity with more familiar concepts and terminology. There are other points of narratological interest too:

This kind of fiction persistently uses ‘coloured’ attributional verbs in the rendering of speech. Characters in romance writing do not simply ‘speak’: here, Dom clips, grates and whispers, while Erith sighs and breathes rapturously. There are lots more where those came from.

The syntactic cliché of persistent adverbial and participial clauses: ‘… she attempted, as she made to move round him … panicked her wildly as he grated, a hand snaking out … She was clinging to him when his kisses gentled …’ and so on.

All of the above characteristics are likely to be found in the students’ parodies as well as in the original extract. Although Erith and Dom are in an extract and a style which is easy to parody, the process of writing parodies involves students in various ways. It makes them into writers, and in doing that it makes them into very close readers of their own writing and the other students’ writing too. It also, given the nature of the genre being parodied, implicates them to an extent in the values and stereotypes of that genre.

Follow-up issues and activities

After the writing and discussion exercise, students are ready to make the transition to possession of the technical language of transitivity. And for subsequent sessions, there are various activities which the students can do. There are three different categories of reading suggested below, and all of them generate questions about transitivity, and also questions which are contentious in terms of methodology and ideology. These include:

  1. How does analysis of transitivity work? In terms specifically of transitivity, the VLE also features some of the best and best-known studies and applications. Michael Halliday’s study of The Inheritors, ‘Linguistic Function and Literary Style’ and Deirdre Burton’s ‘Through Glass Darkly: Through Dark Glasses’, are both very useful. Also of interest are Marie Hastert and Jean Jacques Weber’s ‘Power and mutuality in Middlemarch’, a study which uses analysis of transitivity to discuss Dorothea and Casaubon, and Kate Clark’s ‘The linguistics of blame’, which analyses the language used by the Sun to report sex crimes. There are well-explained and student-focused accounts of transitivity in Roger Fowler’s Language in the News and in Robert Hodge and Gunther Kress’s Language as Ideology.
  2. Does romance writing of this kind demean women? The supporting reading for this question includes material not just about textual questions, but about readerly communities and practices. Janet Radway’s Reading the Romance argues very strongly that a uses and gratifications approach to Mills & Boon fiction produces a very different understanding of it from the account which is derived by textual analysis alone. A similar approach is taken in Linda Christian-Smith’s Becoming a Woman through Romance, and chapters from both these books can be put onto the VLE site or otherwise made available to students. They contrast with the more textually-based and hostile account of romance writing in Walter Nash’s Language in Popular Fiction.
  3. More widely than this extract and its accompanying parodies, how is romance writing done? Putting a link to the Mills & Boon website from the VLE site provides students with advice to prospective authors, including and emphasising the question of point of view, and there are a great many ‘how-to’ books about romance writing. One technical point of particular interest is that Mills & Boon’s advice to authors stipulates that the story shall be told from the point of view of the heroine (with permissible brief excursions into PoV hero), but that it shall not be a first-person narrative. There are older examples, at least until the 1960s, of first-person narration in Mills & Boon novels – why should this now be proscribed?

The reading of canonical and fuller accounts and theorisations of transitivity, especially the ones by Halliday and Burton, has the function of the explication which a more conventional approach would put first. In this case, it happens after the students’ interest has been stimulated by the parody exercise and the fact that they have to some extent been implicated by that in a series of genuinely complex and contentious questions. Does this kind of writing demean women (and consequently men as well)? Do actual women readers read in the state of soporific false consciousness which the textual analysis would suggest? How do romance writers describe their craft, and themselves? The learning about transitivity is done in a context of rich questions about writers, readers and texts.

How the questions are best managed is a matter of judgment and choice. One way of managing them is to ask each group of students to prepare a poster presentation for the next session, using their own piece of writing, and discussing it in relation to the reading on the VLE, perhaps choosing one of the kinds of question and focusing on that, and in any case using the technical language of transitivity. Alternatively, the questions and the reading can form a handout giving the preparatory work for a more conventional seminar. In either case, students’ learning the technical vocabulary of transitivity is ‘functional’ (to borrow the term from language teaching) not ‘structural’. It does not understand transitivity as a discrete area of technicality, but as a set of interpretative tools-in-action.


The sequence of teaching sessions I have described comes from a year 2 module in Critical Discourse Analysis. For the last few years, I have been teaching technical material like this, and also a year 1 module about more basic narratology, using a creative writing approach. It is hugely effective, much more so than a traditional approach of tutor-led theoretical explication followed by examples and applications. Asking students to work as writers means involving them as readers with an especially intense focus on how texts are constructed. One result of this is that in other, more conventionally literary, modules, students retain the technical material better than they did when working with the older approach.

The choice of non-canonical material to work with has a number of benefits: it allows learning through play; it raises ideological questions very sharply; it works in an atmosphere free of desired or defined appropriate responses. The transition to literary material is not always easy – canonical texts are not always as ideologically blatant and as stylistically formulaic as Mills & Boon novels are.

New technologies like VLEs and interactive whiteboards allow and require teachers to differentiate between different kinds of learning activity. In this instance, there is a clear distinction between the use of seminar time for collective play, and the study which students need to do using material made available on the VLE. For some students, the contrast between the intuitive progress made in seminars and the rigour of academic material in their own time is daunting. Individual tutorials can ameliorate this problem, and so can dedicated time to discuss the technical material in further seminars.

References & notes

  • Deirdre Burton, ‘Through Glass Darkly: Through Dark Glasses’, in Ronald Carter (ed) Language and Literature London, Allen & Unwin 1982
  • Linda Christian-Smith, Becoming a Woman through Romance, New York, Routledge 1990
  • Roger Fowler, Language in the News, London, Routledge 1991
  • M.A.K. Halliday, ‘Linguistic Function and Literary Style’, [1969], in Ronald Carter and Peter Stockwell (eds), The Language and Literature Reader, London, Routledge 2008
  • Robert Hodge & Gunther Kress, Language as Ideology, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1979
  • Jan Meyer & Ray Land (eds), Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge, London, Routledge 2006
  • Walter Nash, Language in Popular Fiction, London, Routledge 1990
  • See Rob Pope, Textual Intervention: Critical and Creative Strategies for Literary Study, London, Routledge 1994
  • Jean Radford (ed), The Progress of Romance: the politics of popular fiction, London, Routledge 1986
  • Janet Radway, Reading the Romance: women, patriarchy and popular literature, Chapel Hill, N.C., Univ of North Carolina Press 1991
  • Jessica Steele, Without Knowing Why, London, Mills& Boon 1991, pp.128-9