Professor Michael Toolan MA, D.Phil, GDL

Professor Michael Toolan

Department of English Language and Applied Linguistics
Professor of English Language

Contact details

52 Pritchatts Road
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

I love language, spoken or written, and what it can do - or rather what we users can make it do (and have made it do, over the centuries). Especially writers, literary or otherwise. This is why I’ve spent many years studying and teaching the language of literature, and the art and craft of writing. Understanding language is at the heart of my teaching and research, and trying to do that brings you soon to some crucial questions, concerning freedom of expression, intersubjective understanding, and the distinct influences of biology and culture on all dealings with language. For more information about my recent talks, papers, and pubications please go to my website


My undergraduate degree was a four-year MA in English Language and Literature from Edinburgh University; from there I went to St John’s College, Oxford, and completed a DPhil on William Faulkner’s style. Then for six years I taught at the National University of Singapore, followed by nine years, latterly with tenure, at the University of Washington, Seattle.

I came to the University of Birmingham English department in 1996, attracted by the lively community of English language researchers working here.  I have long nurtured a secondary interest in law and the power of language in all kinds of legal proceedings, and this led me to complete the Graduate Diploma in Legal Studies in 2000.  

Since 2002 I have been editor of the Journal of Literary Semanticsand am currently President of the International Association for Literary Semantics.  I am also quite involved in Integrational linguistics


I teach a variety of courses, including Stylistics, Language and the Law, Narrative Analysis, and Linguistic Theory. I run the MA programme in Literary Linguistics, which each year attracts UK and overseas students who want to study stylistics, narratology, and text analysis. Some of these advance to the PhD, where I chiefly supervise doctoral researchers working in such areas as literary linguistics, text grammar, narrative analysis, literary translation, and corpus stylistics.

Postgraduate supervision

I am interested in supervising Masters and PhD research in the areas of:

  • Corpus linguistic and critical discourse analysis of mass media public discourse, with reference to wealth/income inequality in late modern Britain
  • Stylistic analysis of poetry (especially 20th/21st century)
  • Linguistic analysis of literary narratives
  • Integrational linguistic theory
  • Sociolinguistic study of teenagers' narratives of identity
  • Mass media representations of wealth inequality in Britain post-1970 (e.g. newspapers)

video transcript


How do we come to think we know, in the middle of a story or novel, what will happen next, and finally? And how is that carefully-fashioned unreliable knowledge exploited by writers who make us feel suspense, surprise, and other complex evaluative reactions?  To address these questions, I explored those features of narrative texture which seem most central to our perceptions of and expectations regarding narrative progression, in my 2009 book. 

For related reasons I am now also studying those features of narrative texts which seem most instrumental in causing readers to feel ‘immersed’ and emotionally moved in the course of reading. 

At present (2013) I am completing a book which looks at the foundations of narrative coherence, and examines the roles of situation, repetition, and maximally vague mental picturing in how we make sense of extended fictional narratives.


My single-authored books include The Stylistics of Fiction (1988), Total Speech(1996), Language in Literature (1998), Narrative (2nd edition: 2001.  Narrative progression in the short story: a corpus stylistic approach appeared from Benjamins in 2009. I have edited several collections, including Language, Text and Context: essays in contextualised stylistics; and Language Teaching: integrational linguistic approaches (2009).

I have published approximately 70 papers (articles, essays, book chapters) in leading journals or multi-authored books, on topics ranging from English clause structures at the opening of Middlemarch; to ‘strained’ grammar in John McGahern’s short stories; to the Bournewood legal case and ‘voluntary’ detention under section 131 of the Mental Health Act; to the calculated incomprehensibility of dialogue in The Wire. Please see my fuller cv onmy website for details.


English language; the language of literature; the language of public discourses

Alternative contact number available for this expert: contact the press office


English language; the language of literature; the language of public discourses

Alternative contact number available for this expert: contact the press office