Lexical phrases, culture, and subculture in transactional letter writing (2023)


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English for Specific Purposes

Volume 19, Issue 1,

March 2000

, Pages 1-15

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This study examines the relative contributions of subculture membership and mother-tongue status/target culture membership in writing transactional letters. We examined the letters accompanying articles initially submitted for publication by 26 NSE and 23 NNSE academics, and compared them with efforts to write such letters by 21 NSE and 23 NNSE non-professionals (British undergraduates and overseas English teachers). The results showed that the non-native professionals by and large perceived the rhetorical demands of the situation similarly to native professionals but were a little less likely to use appropriate language. The native non-professionals controlled some appropriate phrases, and were able to use appropriate vocabulary, but had very little idea of the rhetoric, while the non-native non-professionals produced grammatically competent letters that were inappropriate in both rhetoric and language. Thus the teaching approach for writing depends crucially on the status of the learners, and lexical phrases are particularly important for non-natives.


Composing a text requires writers to understand the readers' expectations, which are partly determined by culture. Consequently, there are systematic differences between cultures in aspects of rhetoric and genre structure (Connor, 1996). But it is not only differing national culture that creates different generic expectations. Within a national culture engineers, lawyers, and journalists use different genres or use similar genres differently.

Following Taylor and Chen (1991), we use the term subculture for the set of more consciously acquired assumptions—the Discourse—(about ideas, practices, and discourse)that differentiates lawyers from engineers or pigeon-fanciers from bird-watchers. This is an accepted term in applied linguistics, though sociologists use it to mean a group whose basic values differ from those of the culture at large—“youth subculture”, “criminal subculture”—rather than for otherwise unremarkable groups with specialised professional or other assumptions (Turner, 1996). Pochhacker (1995)cites diaculture for a subsection of a national culture—like British pigeon fanciers—and uses international diaculture for the global “subculture” of scientists. Discourse community (Swales, 1990; Bizzell, 1992), is used for a similar construct, but Casanave (1995)denounces it as a metaphor.

Since members of the same subculture share similar knowledge and expectations, texts by members of a common subculture must have features in common, but might be differentiated according to culture membership. A question in contrastive rhetoric is, therefore, whether significant differences can be found among professional texts by writers with different Lls. Do East Asian professionals write like Western ones? Do German professionals write like American ones?

Clyne (1987), Eggington (1987)and Taylor and Chen (1991)explored rhetorical differences among professionals and found differences derived both from the disciplines of the fields and from cultural-linguistic backgrounds. Taylor and Chen (1991), for example compared the introductions of published articles written in English and Chinese. They found that the differences which appeared in the papers were mainly due not to the nationality of the writers but to their different academic fields. Thus, at a professional level, where both groups are members of the same subculture, the rhetorical difference between Native Speakers of English (NSEs) and Non-Native Speakers of English (NNSEs) seems to be rather smaller than that at a non-professional level. Of course, comparisons of writing at the professional level can only be examined in fields which share internationalised subculture knowledge across cultures, such as science.

Although written business communication is still under-researched (Yli-Jokipii, 1996; Connor, 1996), work has been done on the interactional elements in transactional letters (Brown and Yule, 1983; Lakoff, 1989; Kasper, 1990) in professional settings. Comparative studies of letters by professionals in different languages or with different language backgrounds typically show significant differences in politeness practices: relative Japanese indirectness and concern with the relationship (Connor, 1988reported in Connor, 1996); more positive politeness from “Asians” (Bhatia, 1988, cited in Bhatia, 1993); greater “linguistic deference” (Meier, 1995) and so-called “negative” politeness from Finns (Yli-Jokipii, 1996).

Maier (1992)examines subculture membership in business letters, ostensibly investigating the difference in use of politeness strategies in letters of request by NSEs and NNSEs. She examined model business letters written by eight professional business people who were NSEs and by ten post-graduate students of international business who were NNSEs. She interpreted her results as showing a significant difference between the two groups. This is plausible, but subculture and national culture/mother-tongue status appear to be confounded. Maier says that NSEs letters appeared to be more professional (p. 194), but the NSE speakers in this study were, in fact, professional business people, while the NNSE participants were students. The writers thus differed not only in language and culture but also in subculture membership, and the differences in politeness strategies might have been due to subculture knowledge.

The surveys described above have been of writing in a business context, but Swales (1996)points out that transactional writing of this kind may also be of some importance in the academic “discourse community”. He looked at a particular class of very short transactional letters: the covering letters accompanying initial submissions of articles to a social-science journal written, by native and non-native speakers of English (NSEs and NNSEs). The NNSEs were more inclined to use the letter to emphasize their professional status, and to aggravate their request for attention by asking for a response soon or as soon as possible, but in other respects the two sets of letters were not very different. The implication was that NSEs were more inclined to “negative” politeness, but that otherwise both groups had a similar view of what was appropriate in the letter.

In the light of the national-culture contrastive studies above, this similarity is a little surprising. It could reflect shared subcultural knowledge— all members of this discourse community have the same schema. It could reflect international cultural knowledge—all educated people have the same schema, with only minor differences. Or it could represent assimilation to the dominant culture, in this context Anglo-American—this is the schema that must be used in a transactional letter in English.

Section snippets

Present study

This study attempts to tease out the effects of culture, subculture and language as manifested by choice of appropriate language and discourse type. It focuses on examples of submission letters produced by four groups of subjects: NSEs and NNSEs who are active academic researchers and NSEs and NNSEs who are non-professionals in terms of the academic world. These very short transactional letters by adult and fairly skilled writers have the advantage of controlling for the effect of writing

Canonical form

A model +N+P letter given by the editor of an international journal as the most characteristic and frequent covering letter was as follows:

Dear Sir,

Please find enclosed three copies of my paper “…”. I should be grateful if you would consider it for publication in your journal.

Yours sincerely,

The covering letters of the NSE professionals conformed closely to this model, as the analysis below shows. The letters are purely transactional and comprise only the head act (Swales' “Submission”)


The standard form for this genre requires a brief head act with some internal mitigation (reducing the pressure on the reader), typically using established phrases. It conforms to the prescriptions suggested by Swales (1996), allowing but not requiring commentary on the paper, and omitting most other possible moves. In our sample most of the professionals wrote letters of this type, reflecting the core subcultural value that persuasion is inappropriate because decisions as to publication or

Conclusion and implications

In order to operate professionally in a certain culture, second-language users need to understand two layers: language and sub-culture. Even though first-language users seem to have the advantage of knowing the language, this is actually less valuable than mastery of the subculture accompanied by imperfect control of the language. The second layer creates a barrier of misunderstanding even for first-language users.

The handful of editors we consulted made it clear that the form of the letter in


An earlier version of this paper was given by Okamura at the 1994 IATEFL Conference, Brighton, U.K., under the title “The role of subculture and language in letter writing in an academic community”. Thanks are due to Francis Jones, Birger Andersen, and two ESP reviewers for helpful comments.

Akiko Okamura is a lecturer in Japanese in the Language Centre at Newcastle University, She has published on attitudes to non-native Japanese. She is currently working on the roles of culture and language in scientific discourse for her PhD.

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    • Submission letters for academic publication: Disciplinary differences and promotional language

      2014, Journal of English for Academic Purposes

      Citation Excerpt :

      The editorial advice given by Donovan (2004), Gump (2004, 2013) and Hines (cited by Raikow, 2009) is not explicitly limited to the demands of particular journals or disciplines, and indeed seems to present article submission as an unconstrained process in which one is free to do what seems best. Similarly, the empirical work of Swales (1996) examined cover letters sent to only one journal without making much of this limitation and Okamura and Shaw (2000) treated a range of disciplines as essentially uniform and did not systematically sample disciplines, implying that disciplines or journals did not significantly determine what could be done in the cover letter. However, it seems at least possible that there are in fact patterns of practices and conventions that constrain what can be done or even lay down what must be done in a given context.

      One of the occluded genres in academic publishing is the submission letter that accompanies a journal article. Research from the 1990s shows that a wide range of disciplines preferred a simple, concise and modest form. The genre has survived the transition to electronic publishing, and a number of publications by authorities with editorial experience have recommended a more promotional discourse. This suggests that the submission letter may have undergone the ‘marketization’ process often noted in academic genres.

      This article reports a study of the published requirements of journals in various disciplines, the perceptions of senior researchers, and the practices of three informants over the last twenty years. We find little evidence that marketized discourse has actually spread in this genre since the 1990s. Competitive fields, primarily biomedicine, used a promotional discourse as early as 1988, and have continued to do so, and others were more modest at that time, and have not changed. Editorial pressures and standardization of submission requirements might cause change in the expected direction.

      Our pedagogical recommendation is that the genre matters in some disciplines, and that its rhetoric has to be discipline-appropriate. More generally the results confirm the importance of discipline-specific conventions, even in occluded genres.

    • Genre analysis of appeal letter writing by Iranian students

      2011, Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences

      This paper introduces some generic characteristics of appeal letters written by EFL Iranian students in a public university in Malaysia. And it tries to investigate if appeal letters written by Iranian students display a consistent generic structure. Originally the main phase of this study was to explore the problems faced by participants in the process of producing official letters. Meanwhile, the products- the written appeal letters- were analyzed based on the genre analysis of texts. Data analysis revealed that the letters written by these students had mostly a spoken tone, longer introduction, and discourse markers. Also some features of repetition were obvious.

    • Evaluative language in peer review referee reports

      2008, Journal of English for Academic Purposes

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      Räisänen (1999, pp. 121–126) traces the origin of the peer review system back to the first editor of the Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society, and describes the review process as “a negotiation process between reviewers and author(s) with the editor of the journal, as mediator and arbitrator” (p. 124). Other researchers have also dealt with the genres of the peer review process (Hamp-Lyons, 1997; Okamura & Shaw, 2000; Swales, 2004). However, studies dedicated exclusively to referee reports, referee comments, or simply to peer reviews of research articles (RA) as they have also been called, are rather scarce.

      Most international journals and conferences currently use the peer review system to ensure the quality of their contributions. Among the various types of peer review, the “blind” and the “anonymous” review seem to be the most common. Reviewers, or referees, usually write reports anonymously to indicate to authors what they should change in their papers in order to meet the requirements of journals or conferences, and to help editors to decide whether to publish the article or not. Despite their relevance in the review process and their importance for researchers all over the world, as an academic genre referee reports have not received the attention that might be expected, maybe due to their “occluded” genre status. This study presents an analysis of 50 referee reports from the fields of Applied Linguistics and Business Organisation, based on a taxonomy which combines formal and functional features. It provides an overview of some of the most significant evaluative features of this genre, and their pragmatic value as direct or indirect requests. It is hoped that this will facilitate the task of researchers who need to understand and interpret these reports, as well as those who need to write them.

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