Observation Project paper
Observation Project: Choose an item of English (or another language) that exhibits variability in the same linguistic and social context. Some examples are: “if I were” vs. “if I was”, “real” and
“really” or “good” and “well” used as adverbs the use of objective (e.g., me) vs.
nominative (e.g., I) case in object or subject position (particularly conjoined NPs such as
“between you and I” or “Me and my brother went”) pronouns used to replace singular
nouns of unspecified gender (e.g., “Someone has left their books here.”) the use of
“whom” speech acts, such as greetings, responses to “thank you,” apologies, requests,
These are only a few examples. You have many options to choose from–think of your
pet grammar peeve and you’re likely to find a good topic. The most important criterion
is that the item that you choose must exhibit variability. That is, it must be the case that
there is more than one form used in the same context. For example, some people would
say “between you and me” and other people would say “between you and I”. Or, the
same person might say “between you and me” in some situations and “between you
and I” in others.
2. Collect data. Each time you hear (or see) a variant of your item, write it down with
the utterance you heard it in (i.e. don’t just write down “who”, but write down “I don’t
know who you’re talking about”). Keep your ears open (or your eyes–printed materials
are sources too). Every time you record a token, also record demographic information
about the speaker and addressee(s) (sex, age, race/ethnicity, place of origin,
relationship between the two interlocutors) and information about the setting. This
is very important. What you are trying to do is to uncover the patterns of usage of your
variable. These patterns typically reveal themselves in the categories listed above. For
example, Southerners may be more likely to say “y’all” for plural “you” than
Northerners, and Northerners might be more likely to say “you guys”. If you collected
lots of tokens of ways to say plural “you”, then you could look at the characteristics of
speakers or settings to see who was using which variant in which setting. To help
prepare to for your analysis, you can enter each token with its data into a spreadsheet.
3. Once you have collected at least 30 tokens/examples, look for variation. First,
identify all the variants you have found. Next, look for patterns. This means that you will
look at, for example, how often different social groups (for example, groups by age or
gender) used each of the variants and then compare groups to each other (for example,
men to women). You might find, for example, that only women use “whom” and that
men rarely do. You should also look at other variables such as settings or regions of
origin. You might find, for example, that “whom” only occurs in print and never (or
rarely) in spoken language. Your data probably won’t fall into discrete categories, but
you will notice tendencies for there to be factors that condition the occurrence of
4. After doing the analysis, prepare a written report to be handed in on the
observation project due date. The report should describe:
a) the aspect of English (or other language) that you collected your data on
b) how you collected your data
c) the variants you have discovered
d) an analysis of your data with a table for each of the analytic categories that you
found to demonstrate patterning (e.g., Table 1: the variant as it is distributed by gender,
Table 2: the variant as it is distributed by age, Table 3: the variant as it is distributed by
e) a table in an appendix that shows all the data that you have collected (i.e. the
variants and all the related demographic information for each token).
In the discussion of your results, consider what you already know about variation from
the literature (i.e., what we’ve read in this course) and how your results fit in. Notice
that your report will have the five areas described above–including an appendix. The
project is not one that you will want to put off until the last minute. Give yourself time
to collect and analyze the data.
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