Noticing and not noticing what's in a text: attention, depth of processing and text interpretation

Lecture Room 3 - Arts Building
Arts and Law
Tuesday 12th March 2013 (16:15-17:30)
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  • Catherine Emmott (University of Glasgow) 


This paper provides a survey of research on attention control in relation to texts. I draw on experimental data from the University of Glasgow STACS Project (Stylistics, Text Analysis and Cognitive Science), run jointly by English Language and Psychology. The focus of our research has been on narrative texts, but our findings also have relevance to a wide range of text types. The work has significant implications for understanding writing and reading strategies.

My talk will begin by summarising relevant psychological work on “depth of processing” which shows that readers do not fully engage with every detail of a text when reading. If readers are not always absorbing every detail, then it would make sense for writers to use techniques for emphasising key information. Writers can also take advantage of readers’ inattentiveness by “burying” information. Stylisticians and other text analysts are fully aware of these aspects of writing, but the aim of our project is to provide scientific evidence for linguistic features that are often judged subjectively in terms of their attention-capturing properties.

Our research involves initial stylistic and narratological analysis to identify features of stories that seem to function as foregrounding devices. Some of these devices are linguistic, including features such as fragments of sentences, mini-paragraphs, specific grammatical structures (e.g. cleft sentences), rare vocabulary words, direct (as opposed to indirect) speech/thought, and graphical emphasis (e.g. italicisation). Other devices are linked more with the events of the story, such as pre-announcements (e.g. “Then something happened.”). Having identified devices that appear to be “attention-capturing”, I work with a team of psychologists to investigate the effect of these devices on readers, using an empirical methodology developed at the University of Glasgow which studies how attentive readers are to small changes in the text when information is presented in the above formats.

In addition to looking at foregrounding in narrative, I will draw on relevant psychological work to provide an explanation of how information is buried amongst background details in detective fiction, utilising linguistic devices such as grammatical embedding and manipulative discourse structuring.

Overall, the talk will draw on a substantial body of empirical evidence for attention-capturing and attention-burying devices. The relevance of the work for a wide range of text types will be indicated, and future applications will be discussed (e.g. in medicine, law and advertising). I will also refer to specific applied psychological work of this type that has been conducted on skilled and less skilled readers.


This research was supported by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and was conducted in collaboration with Emeritus Professor Anthony J. Sanford (Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology, University of Glasgow).


Catherine Emmott has a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham and is a Senior Lecturer in English Language at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. She is Director of the STACS Project (Stylistics, Text and Cognitive Science). She has published Narrative Comprehension: A Discourse Perspective (OUP, 1997) and Mind, Brain and Narrative (CUP, 2012, with A. J. Sanford). Her research interests include narrative processing, cognitive stylistics, empirical study of literature, and reference theory. She was a grammar editor on the Collins COBUILD English Language Dictionary and the editor for Text Analysis and Stylistics on Elsevier’s 14-volume Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. She is Assistant Editor of the journal Language and Literature.

About the English Language Research seminars

  • Convener: Neil Millar

The ELR seminars are a long-running weekly research seminar series within the Department of English, English Language and Applied Linguistics Division. The seminars are aimed primarily at staff, postgraduate students, and academic visitors in the department, but everyone with an interest in language research is welcome! Seminars are usually held on Tuesdays during term time, starting at 4:15 and finishing around 5:30.