Word Class Wars: pronouns vs Determiners


In the red corner, we have … STAND-ALONE PRONOUN; in the blue corner, we have … HOLD-MY-HAND DETERMINER.

They are both grammatical function words, but they have different roles. A determiner is part of the modification in a noun phrase; a pronoun is a noun phrase – it could be replaced with a single noun, or with a modified noun.

This battle will help you to avoid the hazards of mislabelling …

1. The red corner: pronouns

Pronouns stand alone because they REPLACE a noun and any modification linked to it.

The huge fighter in the red corner was very tall and looked quite ferocious. He looked like a winner.

In this example, the subject pronoun He REPLACES the modified noun in the subject site (The huge fighter). We can work out who He is by looking back to the previous sentence. This is called an anaphoric reference.

The excited crowds gave the man-mountain a rousing cheer. They had come to see him win.

In this example, the subject pronoun They REPLACES the modified noun in the subject site (The excited crowds); the object pronoun him REPLACES the modified noun in the object site (the man-mountain).

Sometimes, the pronoun reference can come before the noun. We have to work out the pronoun reference by looking forward to the next sentence. This is called a cataphoric reference. Delaying the noun  can be used for semantic effect …

The fighter looked at her and paused. Man-mountain he may have been, but the determined young woman with steel in her eyes made him tremble.


The pronoun her is a broad, gendered reference and we may be tempted to make some stereotypical assumptions about the female character who catches the eye of the man-mountain! The next sentence, however, undermines this. The noun with its pre- and post-modification creates an amusing visual image: the great lump of a man reduced to jelly by the powerful gaze of a woman with a mission.

What subject, object and indefinite pronouns have in common is that they REPLACE nouns and any related modification. Pronouns are a closed set of words, so you can learn to recognise them.

Subject pronouns

Singular: I, you, he, she, it                      Plural: we, you, they

Object pronouns

Singular: me, you, him, her, it                   Plural: us, you, them

Indefinite pronouns

 The atmosphere, the snacks, the music – everything was perfect.

The rowdy crowd were throwing toffee-coated popcorn and the man-mountain wanted some.

Other pronouns behave differently – they do not replace nouns, but support them.

Reflexive pronouns

Reflexive pronouns refer back to the subject of the sentence, or they can be used to give emphasis to a noun or pronoun.

The man-mountain shouted himself hoarse as he prepared for battle.

The crowd were getting manic, but the fight itself was very controlled.

Relative pronouns

Relative pronouns follow a noun and introduce relative clauses, which add extra information (post-modification).

The crowd who were baying at the ringside edged closer and closer as the tension grew.

2. The blue corner: determinersDante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Study_of_Dante_holding_the_hand_of_Love

Determiners are always used in partnership with a head noun (they hold hands!!).

They precede the noun, making the frame of reference definite or indefinite.

The man-mountain towered over the small referee. [definite]

Some people thought neither referee would survive. [indefinite]

Any bet on the man-mountain should be a surefire hit. [indefinite]

3. The battle: confusing times

Demonstrative (this, that, these, those) and possessive (his) forms can be confusing because the same terms are used for pronouns and determiners. This is where knowing the stand-alone vs holding-hands principle comes in useful …

This battle had been the best yet. The man-mountain was impressive and his record was outstanding. The evening was his – of that I was sure. This would be a night to remember.

The words in blue precede a noun and are therefore determiners; the words in red stand alone and are therefore pronouns. The possessive pronoun his refers back to the noun man-mountain, and the demonstrative pronoun This is an exophoric reference to the whole occasion (we need to be present – at the fight – to fully understand its field of reference).  Exophoric references refer to something beyond the words themselves (extralinguistic).

Other possessive forms are different, but are still often confused.

Possessive determiners

Singular: my, your, his, her, its                 Plural: our, your, their

Possessive pronouns

Singular: mine, yours, his, hers,  its        Plural: ours, yours, theirs

If you look carefully, you will see that the pronoun forms usually have an -s ending. This is perhaps a remnant of the old genitive case inflection (possessive). It can be another way of checking whether a possessive word is a pronoun or a determiner.

4. Pronouns and determiners in action

The Emily Dickinson poem below uses determiners and pronouns in an interesting way to engage the reader. We have no clear field of reference for the terms, so the meaning is ambiguous. It allows readers to bring their own experiences to the text.


He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys
Before they drop full Music on –
He stuns you by degrees –
Prepares your brittle Nature
For the Ethereal Blow
By fainter Hammers – further heard –
Then nearer – Then so slow
Your Breath has time to straighten –
Your Brain – to bubble Cool –
Deals – One – imperial Thunderbolt –
That scalps your naked Soul –

When Winds take Forests in the Paws –
The Universe – is still –

Who are the participants?

(Look at the pronouns and determiners)

The content of this poem focuses on an interaction between two unnamed participants, but the third person pronoun He and the second person pronoun you and determiner your have no point of reference – we do not know who they are. In spite of this, there is a clear sense of opposition between the two. The gendered He seems dominant, appearing at the start of lines in the subject site, which gives the male participant agency. The second person references work on two levels: as direct address drawing the reader into the experience, and as an impersonal generic reference (where we would perhaps use ‘one’ in a formal context). The result is a feeling of detachment, making the second participant seem very much the victim.

How does the poet describe the events that drive the poem forward?

(Look at the verb phrases in the main clauses)

The_number_of_the_beast_is_666_Philadelphia,_Rosenbach_Museum_and_LibraryThe poem is written in the present tense and the verb phrases are dynamic, carrying us through the intense experience at the heart of the poem. But there is no context. We have no idea of the occasion, the time or the place, and this makes the events ambiguous. Instead, we have to rely on the connotations of the verbs to interpret the process.

There is no title, no formal lead-in for the reader. Instead, we are thrown directly into a startling sequence of events. In the opening line, the prepositional verb fumbles at suggests a clumsy, amateurish action, with connotations of someone blundering and groping around blindly. When followed by the object noun phrase your Soul, this takes on an ominous tone – the abstract noun becomes concrete, objectified and reduced to something that can be manipulated. The unnamed male protagonist seems to be powerful: his actions are careless, but with potentially serious consequences.

If we follow the pattern of the present tense verb phrases in the main clauses, the process becomes increasingly threatening (suggesting that the opening verb phrase is deceptive). The verbs move us forward towards a disturbing end: stuns suggests being in a state of shock or amazement, but also of being knocked unconsciousness – overwhelmed and senseless, the second participant is left vulnerable; Prepares stands in opposition to the opening verb phrase – this is now purposeful action; Deals moves the poem to its climax – the strong monosyllabic stressed beat at the start of the line and the emphatic initial plosive mark this as the moment of fulfilment. The spondee in the opening foot (Deals – One –) and the use of dashes to break up the syntax slow the pace and bring the stanza to a haunting conclusion. As readers, we feel disconcerted, unsure of what has just taken place.

How is the style used to magnify the effect of the events?

(Look at the adverbials and the punctuation)

The directness of the verb phrases is set against the poet’s use of adverbials, which affect the-great-red-dragon-and-the-woman-clothed-with-the-sun-1810the way we respond to the verbs. The prepositional phrase by degrees appears to challenge the immediacy of the verb stuns: it makes the action seem tortuous – this is no bolt gun to the head; this is a slow and visceral process. A similar effect is achieved by the dashes and repeated time (Then) and place (further, nearer) adverbials which delay the final main clause. The style builds tension by creating physical space between Prepares … and Deals …. The male protagonist seems to be playing with his victim, like a cat with a mouse. The fronted adverbials and the lack of any coordination between the main clauses make the events of the poem seem unstoppable.

The effect is intensified by two further fronted adverbials. These are elliptical complex adverb phrases: so slow[ly]/[That] Your Breath has time to straighten; [so slowly that] Your Brain [has time] to bubble Cool. The telegraphic style reduces the phrases to their most powerful elements – our focus is on the nouns (Breath, Brain), which reduce the body to its essential elements, and on the non-finite verbs (to straighten, to bubble (Cool)) suggesting that calm is replacing panic. This, however, is another cruel deception since the moment of stillness is broken by the forceful nature of the final main clause verb.

How does the poet develop her central themes?

(Look at the nouns and the modification)

The poet explores a power relationship in the interaction between her two participants. Many of the noun phrases linked to the second participant suggest vulnerability. Modifiers like brittle and naked, and references to disconnected parts (Nature, Breath, Brain) make the individual seem exposed, less than human. Set against this is the power of the dominant protagonist, who is associated with forceful language like the nouns Blow, Hammers,  Thunderbolt.

Thor Marten Eskil WingeThis is godlike imagery and there is a strong sense of something otherwordly. Modifiers like Ethereal and imperial add weight to the authority of the He-figure, and the final complex noun phrase is a horrifying realisation of his power. The use of dashes draws out the premodification (One – imperial –), building to the head word (Thunderbolt) in the emphatic end position of the line. Opening with a strong spondaic foot (Deals – One –), the iambic rhythm in the rest of the line is disrupted by the dashes which break the third foot. This is unsettling, preparing readers for the brutality of the final line of the stanza where the lyrical iambic rhythm is offset by the harshness of the velar plosives (scalps … naked). The postmodifying relative clause (That scalps …) leaves us unnerved, the savage connotations of the verb scalps set against the innocence implied by the premodifier naked.

This is a poem of the senses. We are immersed in an experience that is described in terms of sound and touch with language that is tactile and auditory. The image of musicians warming up at the key board before a performance lulls us into a false sense of security – although the monosyllabic drop should perhaps alert us to the shock that is coming since this music is not harmonious. The unusual modifier full reinforces this, suggesting a sudden, startling onset. There are, however, no references appealing to our sense of sight. Just as the pronouns and determiners leave the participants undefined, the lack of visual reference creates contextual ambiguity. And the absence of any physical setting leaves events divorced from a backdrop that could help us to understand what has happened.

What effect does the change of direction have on the poem as a whole?

(Look at the final image)

After the volta, the final haiku-like two-lined stanza provides a surreal conclusion to the 800px-Orlando_Furioso_46poem, moving us from the personal to the cosmic. The natural image creates opposition between the concrete nouns Winds and Forests, mirroring the dynamic between the undefined He and you: subject and object; active agent and passive victim. The destructive potential of the Winds as a force of nature is ever-present, yet the verb take is a surprisingly gentle choice given what has gone before. The result is both frightening and tender: a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror (to quote Edmund Burke’s treatise on the sublime).  Awe. Reverence. Respect. These are certainly the qualities that Dickinson’s poem inspires.

As a philosophical or spiritual overview, the stanza perhaps sheds light on the experience of the first stanza.  The fronted time adverbial (When …) and the dashes dividing adverbial from main clause and subject from verb create a hiatus, throwing emphasis onto the predicative adjective still. After the action driving the first stanza forward, this stasis provides relief: it becomes a moment of transcendence and revelation. But this is not an end since the final dash precludes any sense of resolution. The present tense verbs have created an inescapable cycle of perpetual motion in which the participants are engaged in an ongoing interaction. The experience seems invasive and aggressive, but perhaps this final image also suggests that there is something unavoidably attractive, irresistible, in the apparently combative encounter.

 Contextual factors

Wordsworth wrote about the importance of spots of time (particular moments which shape our lives, and lift our spirits when remembered), and it is perhaps reasonable to suggest that the event described in this poem has a specific point of reference for Dickinson. Critics who have studied her life and works suggest that it could be a poem about:

  • her fear of losing her sight
  • the subordinate status of women
  • her religious doubts
  • the creative process of writing poetry
  • her mental health
  • her interactions with the eloquent preacher Reverend Charles Wadsworth.

She became a recluse – choosing to withdraw from everyday social interactions. This was perhaps because of her ill-health, but may have been a deliberate choice which allowed her to isolate herself from society and concentrate on her writing and correspondence.

If you are interested in reading about Emily Dickinson’s life to see how the contextual factors may fit each of these readings, you could follow some of the links below:





So what is the poem about?

There is very little in this poem which can be pinned down:

  • there are two participants
  • the dominant participant is male.

Other than that, we can only make assumptions – perhaps the most obvious …

  • the second participant, characterised by noun phrases such as your brittle Nature and your naked Soul, is female.

The result? A poem which is semantically ambiguous. A poem where the meaning will be different for each reader because our personal experiences and contexts shape the way we interpret what we read.  As Michael Rosen succinctly puts it in his blog:

Ultimately, the effect of the words is in or on us, so the reason for the effect will be as much to do with us as it is in the choice of words made by the poet.

A discussion of Dickinson’s poem in The Journal of the American Society of Anesthesiologists demonstrates this principle in action. The writers’ medical knowledge (their personal contextual factors) provides a way into the poem – their focus is on the adjective ethereal, which they link to the nouns ‘ether’ and ‘etherization’ (‘the administration of ether to induce anaesthesia’, first recorded usage in the OED January 1847). Their personal reading of the poem suggests it is a description of a doctor anaesthetising his patient. If you’d like to read the article, click here.

What did the poem mean to you? Is it a description of first love? An account of a destructive relationship?  Is it about spirituality and the divine? An exploration of gender? Does it dramatise intimidation? exploitation? possession? transcendence? revelation? the creative process? Any or all of these human experiences could lie at the heart of the poem. And for each of us some themes will have greater significance than others.

Emily_Dickinson_daguerreotype_(cropped)It is Dickinson’s ability to communicate the intensity of the experience that makes this poem live on in readers’ minds. But it is her ambiguous linguistic choices that leave it open to interpretation. She has taken a personal experience and made it universal, relevant to us all. The result is powerful because the poem has the capacity to speak to us about our own lives; it provokes thought and forces us to be active readers.



Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry, Words

The Un-Latin Nature of Present Day English

This is a link to an interesting blog by Simon Horobin, Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford. He is exploring the uneasy relationship between traditional grammar (based on Latin) and the ways in which we actually use language.

Horobin considers the historical reasons that Latinate grammatical frameworks have been used to analyse Maximilian_Sforza_Attending_to_His_Lessons_(Donatus_Grammatica)English, and some of the effects this has had. His article addresses:

  • the limited use of inflections on English nouns
  • possible reasons for the common hypercorrection of I where me is grammatically correct
  • the ways in which the meanings of words with a Latin root are adapted through use.

The blog ends with a grammar test that appeared in The Telegraph.


Can you tell the difference?

Can you tell the difference between a verbal noun (gerund) and a present participle? And does it matter? Look at the examples below to see what you think …

I’m busy cooking for tomorrow.

We like cooking for special occasions.

The children are cooking breakfast because it’s my birthday.

Cooking is an important part of family life.

Armour_and_Co._(3093574348)Look if you want to know more …

In each case here, ‘cooking’ has the same form, but is performing a different function.

In the first example, ‘cooking’ is a non-finite verb (present participle) which is post-modifying the adjective ‘busy’. It is part of the adjective phrase ‘busy cooking for tomorrow’.

In the second example, ‘cooking’ is functioning as the head of the post-modified noun phrase ‘cooking for special occasions’. It is in the object site of the sentence and is a verbal noun.

In the third example, ‘cooking’ is a non-finite verb (present participle). It is functioning as the lexical verb in the progressive verb phrase ‘are cooking’.

In the final example, ‘cooking’ is functioning as the head of a simple noun phrase. It is in the subject site of the sentence and is a verbal noun.

Does it matter?

We don’t need this knowledge to understand any of the sentences, but it can be useful in linguistic analysis to recognise the different grammatical functions of a word. It certainly helps us work out the connections between groups of words – and that is important when we need to know where phrases start and stop!


Leave a comment

Filed under English usage, History of language, Usage

Shakespeare as you’ve never heard him before

Globe Theatre


A fascinating discussion of Shakespeare and Original Pronunciation.  Against the backdrop of the glorious Globe Theatre, David Crystal and his son Ben talk about Early Modern English pronunciation and its importance in our understanding of Shakespeare’s plays. They explore what performing Shakespeare in OP brings to the text, and the semantic word play that is lost in RP. Well worth a listen!William_Shakespeare_1609 (1)




Leave a comment

Filed under History of language, Uncategorized

Should I watch it? – Tell me in a (noun) phrase …

It’s really useful to understand the structure of noun phrases. Along with verb phrases, they form the backbone of all our written and spoken language. They can be short and concise (a single word – yes, even a single word can count as a ‘phrase’ because there is always the opportunity to add extra detail …) or they can carry huge amounts of information.

Looking at the brief film descriptions you see in television listings is a great starting point for learning about noun phrases.1195431703233884825Stellaris_Clapper-board.svg.med

Simple Noun Phrases

So, we’re going to start with a single word. We call this the head of the noun phrase.

Film genres wordle

Simple noun phrases consist of a single noun (or pronoun), or a determiner + noun.  Each of the genre nouns above is the head of a simple noun phrase. From the denotations and connotations of each word, we can get a good idea of what a film will contain.


a film designed to horrify, usually through the depiction of the supernatural and violence [DENOTATION]

dark tone; monstrous happenings;  associated feelings such as fear, shock, loathing, dread [CONNOTATIONS]


a film based on the biography of a well-known public or historical figure [DENOTATION]

true, but dramatised with some fabrication or manipulation  [CONNOTATIONS]


Complex noun phrases: pre-modification

While a single head noun will give a broad sense of a film’s type,  TV listings will often use words in front of the head to give readers a more precise understanding of a particular film. We call these complex noun phrases because they contain modifiers.

Pre-modifiers come before the head noun in a noun phrase. They can be adjective phrases, nouns or non-finite verbs (usually -ing present participles and -ed past participles).defining film words

The examples above are defining modifiers – they limit the range of reference of the head noun by specifying something distinctive about the film genre. For example, a comic film could be defined as

a slapstick sports comedy

 a battle-of-the-sexes comedy

a fashion-industry satirical comedy

a culture-clash comedy

A Western could be defined as

an epic western

a Spaghetti western

a spoof western

a Civil War western

Each of the modifiers provides additional information refining our expectations: the adjective ‘spoof’ suggests a film that  will mimic the features of a traditional western for comic effect; the noun ‘Spaghetti’ suggests a western in the style of the Italian director Sergio Leone. The words tend to be objective, reflecting qualities that are easily observable or quantifiable.


Modifiers can also be added to communicate a reviewer’s opinions. We call these evaluative modifiers – the examples below have positive connotations.

positive evaluative film words

 These modifiers come before the defining modifiers and are subjective – they reflect a particular person’s point of view.

technically-brilliant, occasionally harrowing war drama

a thought-provoking period drama

a beautifully-rendered animated adventure

a spectacular fantasy adventure

victorian-couple-mdEvaluative modifiers may comment on the physical features of filming (technically-brilliant, beautifully rendered), or may reflect the reviewer’s emotional response (thought-provoking, spectacular).

Evaluative modifiers can also communicate negative opinions.

negative evalutive film words

 an uninspired teen romance

a plodding spy thriller

a rather simplistic action adventure

a heavy-going biographical drama

From these examples, you can see how to build up strings of words before the head noun in a noun phrase to shape the meaning. Non-finite verbs like uninspired, intriguing, plodding, affecting and heavy-going, and  adjectives like enjoyable, dreary, stylish, watchable and crass control our response to the head word. We can use degree adverbs like very, rather, quite, incredibly to refine the modifiers.

Compound modifiers are common because they communicate a lot of information in a small space. For example, effects-heavy, stop-motion, Flintstones-esque, part-animated.  Coordinating conjunctions are also often used to link strings of modifiers, or to create contrasts. For example, crass, gross and witless; frantic but fun.


Complex noun phrases: post-modification

Noun phrases can also be post-modified by adding information after the head noun. The most common linguistic structures are prepositional phrases (starting with a preposition), relative clauses (starting with the relative pronouns who, which, that, where i.e. ‘in which’), and non-finite clauses (starting with non-finite verbs: usually -ed past participles or -ing present participles).

a charmless sports comedy based on a true story 

(non-finite -ed clause)

a spectacular adventure brimming with breezy black humor

(non-finite -ing clause)

Low-budget action movie about a daring escape from a PoW camp

(prepositional phrase)

a compelling thriller that paints a devastating picture of the global finance industry

(that relative clause)

a nail-biting creepy classic horror which is a spine-tingling delight

(which relative clause)

 As you can see from these examples, the post-modifiers can also include defining modifiers (true, global finance) and evaluative modifiers (breezy, devastating, spine-tingling). This is because there are also noun phrases embedded in the post-modifying structures:

  • post-modifying prepositional phrases are made up of a  preposition + noun phrase

special-effects-laden sci-fi comedy about a teenager who travels back in time

film-noir horror with a mean and moody landscape

quirky animation for the discerning 

uplifting fantasy from the makers of the award-winning cartoon

  • post-modifying non-finite clauses are made up of a non-finite verb (+ preposition) + noun phrase

tremendously exciting action thriller showcasing amazing martial arts skills

decent romance featuring A-lister Hollywood stars

period drama telling a tale of doomed love in 19th-century New York

brash musical adapted from the hit Broadway show

  • post-modifying relative clauses are made up of a relative pronoun  + verb + noun phrase/adjective phrase

classic western which exploits the tragic resettlement of the Cheyenne by the US government

whimsical comedy that becomes increasingly thought-provoking


relative pronoun + noun phrase + verb 

comedy where the new girl struggles to find her way in an American high school 

dreary adventure in which an assassin is hired to hunt down a girl in witness protection

 A noun phrase can carry a huge amount of information – by carefully selecting the type and tone of the pre- and post-modification, TV listings can help us to choose whether we will enjoy a particular film .


Are you going to watch?

Use the examples below to test your knowledge.  Find the head noun; work out what kinds of modification have been used; and finally, think about the semantic effects created. Which films would you want to see?

Well-played but predictable comedy in which an uptight 30-something reconnects with her hippy mom

Commendable mystery

Tedious zombie-slaying adventure

Stylish and gritty drama based on a true story

Misfiring fantasy featuring four interconnected stories

Warm-hearted animation for the whole family

Leave a comment

Filed under Phrases, Uncategorized

Are you hangry? Do you think Sheldon Cooper is adorkable? And has someone defriended you recently?

I must apologise for the lack of activity in recent months, but other commitments have prevented me Smiling Face Clip Artfrom posting. I promise to do better soon and to get back to more regular updates …

In the meantime, here’s an interesting seventeen-minute talk on dictionaries and contemporary language change by the language historian Anne Curzan (Professor of English, Michigan University). Well worth a listen …


 TED is a non-profit organisation which spreads ideas through short talks on all kinds of topics linked to science, business, language, global issues etc. Their aim is to get you thinking …


[PS Thank you Karen Turner for tagging me]


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

When a phoneme matters!

Pope_Francis_in_March_2013Earlier this month, Pope Francis was delivering his weekly Sunday blessing from the Vatican, when people listening in St Peter’s Square and around the world were taken by surprise.

What happened? Well, a slip of the tongue …

And within minutes it was being reported on Italian media and had been posted on YouTube.

So what was all the fuss about?  A single phoneme!

Intending to say caso, the Pope accidentally said cazzo. The voiceless alveolar fricative /s/ was replaced by a voiced alveolar fricative /z/. Apparently, an easy slip for native Spanish speakers to make when speaking Italian.

The problem was that the apparently insignificant change of sound – so easy to do unintentionally in connected speech – had a rather significant semantic impact. The noun caso means ‘example, instance, case’, but cazzo is used as an expletive and a vulgar term.  Calmly self-corrected, this epic moment has added to Pope Francis’ reputation as a man of the people.

Change a phoneme and you change the meaning … ‘bin’, ‘sin’, ‘pin’ (initial phoneme) … ‘bet’, ‘bat’, ‘bit’ (medial phoneme) … ‘sit‘, ‘sip‘, ‘sir ‘ (final phoneme).  Usually, we take these sound changes for granted because they are central to the construction of meaning,  but the results can be humorous!

686px-It_came_up_from_the_mud_(323809965)In June 2009, the BBC weather forecaster Tomasz Shafernaker had to contain his amusement after accidentally replacing the alveolar fricative /s/ with palato-alveolar fricative /∫/ – the ‘muddy site’ he was predicting for the Glastonbury festival became something rather less formal!

If you’d like to hear the slip for yourself, follow the link:


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

It’s a limit not a target – or the art of analysing a poem

To start, an anecdote … (thank you Leah) ….

13167190531844420519Mandatory Speed Ahead.svg.med

Approaching each speed sign, a driving instructor’s mantra was “It’s a limit, not a target.’ One sign – two meanings. Does the number in the red circle tell us what to aim for? Or, does it define a boundary? A driver who always drives at the speed indicated on the sign, hitting the target like an elite bowman, interprets the sign as a goal; the driver limiting speed to below the 30mph in urban areas or the 70mph on motorways is perhaps recognising the boundaries set to ensure the safety of pedestrians or other road-users.

This example is not really ambiguous since we all understand the function of a speed sign, but the principle holds for poetry. One word – two fields of reference. Two fields of reference – semantic ambiguity that engages the reader in a dramatic tension.

A poem like the short lyric ‘Spellbound’ written by Emily Brontë (1818-1848) provides a perfect example …


The night is darkening round me,
The wild winds coldly blow;
But a tyrant spell has bound me,
And I cannot, cannot go.
The giant trees are bending
Their bare boughs weighed with snow;
The storm is fast descending,
And yet I cannot go.
Clouds beyond clouds above me,
Wastes beyond wastes below;
But nothing drear can move me:
I will not, cannot go.

So how do we begin our analysis?

Having read through the poem from beginning to end, try to answer the questions below. After each question, a sample paragraph will explore some of the ideas you may have considered. The important thing to remember is that the interpretation offered here is just one possible reading. If you come to different conclusions, try writing your own sequence of paragraphs in order to explore your personal response to the poem.

1. Introduction

What is the main focus of the content?

The content of ‘Spellbound’ focuses on a storm, and the repetition of the first person pronoun”I” suggests that the poem offers a subjective account of a personal experience. We see the scene as the narrator sees it – the poem is a very private expression of one individual’s response. The writing is powerful and intense, reflecting both the external physical landscape and the internal emotional state of the narrator.  

2.  Key ideas: nouns and modifiers

What do the nouns and modifiers tell us about the content?


Brontë gives the landscape a physical presence with the concrete nouns linked to the natural world (“trees”, “boughs”) and the weather (“winds”, “snow”, “storm”, “clouds”). The atmosphere, however, is created through adjectives like “wild”, “bare” and “drear”, and the adverb “coldly”. These words tell us something about the literal scene, but also reflect the narrator’s mood. The use of pathetic fallacy helps us to understand that the poem is about more than just a description of a place at a certain moment in time.

3. Key ideas: themes

How does the poet use the words, the rhyme scheme and the form to develop her central themes?

The theme of vulnerability is developed in the perspective of the poem. The attributive adjective “giant” and the contrasting prepositions “above/below” make the narrator seem insignificant in the landscape. This is reinforced by the parallel noun phrases “Clouds beyond clouds” and “Wastes beyond wastes”, which define the vast scale of the natural world. The abstract noun “wastes” contributes to the bleak tone because its negative connotations enhance the apparent isolation and loneliness of the narrator. She has no control over her surroundings and is motionless while the present tense verb “blow” and the present progressive verb phrases “are darkening” and “is … descending” create a sense of on-going movement around her.
418px-Shishkin_na_severe_dikom1   The narrator seems trapped – not just by the approach of night and the storm, but by something more intangible. This is clear in the abstract noun “spell”, with its connotations of bewitchment, and in the attributive modifier “tyrant” with its connotations of control and manipulation. It is also evident, however, in the very form of the poem itself. The tight rhyme structure mirrors the narrator’s feelings of being imprisoned: long vowel sounds (“blow/snow”) and even the words themselves  (“me/go”) recur in an inescapable cycle.   The grammatical structure of the sentences is cumulative: the comma splicing (ll.1-2) and the patterned sequence of initial position co-ordinating conjunctions (“But … And … And yet … But …”) drive the reader inescapably onwards. The mood of oppression is underpinned by dynamic verbs like “bound” and “weighed” as the poem builds to a climax in the repetition of the negative modal verb “cannot” (ll.4, 8). The initial position conjunction (“And”) and the caesura (l.4) make this an emphatic statement: the narrator feels physically and emotionally helpless.

4. Change of direction

Where does the poem change? What has changed? What effect does it have?

The poet has built up a negative tone through her choice of words and the structure. The last line, however, moves us in a new direction. Instead of repeating the modal verb “cannot”, Brontë replaces it with “will not”. The change in meaning is significant – suddenly there is a sense of personal choice. The tone is emphatic: the positioning of the personal pronoun at the beginning  of the line and the sequence of three consecutive stresses on the monosyllabic words reinforce this unexpected certainty. The change in tone is not sustained since “will” is quickly replaced by “cannot”, but for a moment there is an ambiguity that adds another dimension to the poem. The narrator both desires and fears the literal and figurative storm that envelops her.
   It is at this point that we have to consider the title of the poem. The adjective phrase “Spellbound” repeats the Miranda_-_Frederick_Goodallmeaning of the simple sentence “(But) a tyrant spell has bound me” in an intensified form. As a grammatical fragment, it is a dramatic introduction, drawing our attention to an idea that is clearly going to be central to the poem’s meaning. The poet’s implicit repetition is a signpost that we need to pay particular attention to this. On first reading, we  inevitably interpret the simple sentence as evidence that the narrator has been bewitched against her will because of the connotations of the words and the repetition of the negative modal verb in the next line. In the light of the final line and the title’s repetition of the idea, however, we need to reassess. There is an important ambiguity: as well as bewitched (negative), we feel that the narrator is also mesmerised, enthralled (positive). “Spellbound”: one word – two fields of reference. Some part of her finds a sensual pleasure in the physical and emotional storm. It is as though the passion of feeling, however painful, is better than the cold detachment of being numb. 

5. Conclusion

How does the context of the poem relate to its meaning?

As a Romantic poet, Brontë draws on the natural world as a means of exploring her inner state of mind. She shows awe in the face of the storm’s natural magnificence and the tone is heightened by the intensity of her private experience. In a traditional lyric poem, we may expect the weak-strong iambic metre to be dominant. In Brontë’s poem, however, there are only three entirely iambic lines (ll.1, 5, 7). Since iambic metre is closest to the rhythms of informal speech and is often described as harmonious and lilting, Brontë chooses something more in keeping with the mood of her poem. Her experience is extraordinary and the disrupted metrical patterns reflect this. In some lines, the iambic rhythm is broken by a medial (ll.2,6) or initial spondee (ll.8, 11); in others, the dominance of trochees inverts the song-like melodies of iambs to create a harsher tone (ll.3-4, 9-10). The unpredictable metrical patterns result in an ecstatic expression of a profound experience as the poet tries to record something that is almost beyond words.  Caspar_David_Friedrich_032_(The_wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog)
   Brontë’s presentation of the natural world reflects the nineteenth century interest in the ‘sublime’ – an idea associated with an almost religious awe for the vastness and magnificence of the natural world, and with the expression of strong emotion. The Greek teacher Longinus (born around 213 AD, although very little is known about him) first explored the concept, describing the immensity of natural objects like stars, mountains, volcanoes and the oceans in his treatise ‘On the Sublime’. His work, translated into French in the seventeenth century, influenced the Romantics of the nineteenth century when Edmund Burke wrote a treatise entitled A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. This put a new emphasis on the element of violence in the natural world and Burke describes the power of experiences which are:


capable of producing delight; not pleasure, but a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror … Its object is the sublime. Its highest degree I call astonishment; the subordinate degrees are awe, reverence, and respect …

Brontë’s poem creates a sense of the natural world’s majestic grandeur and its violence. She is subsumed in the moment, immersed in a physical and emotional storm which does both horrify and delight. As readers, we are drawn into the world Brontë creates, experiencing the physical and emotional storm through the stark simplicity of her lyric.

Writing for exams

For those of you who are sitting examinations, this account of the poem fulfils the requirements of the main Assessment Objectives.


It is organised into paragraphs which logically develop, and it is written accurately. It uses a range of terminology at word class (abstract/concrete noun, adjective, dynamic/modal verb, adverb etc), phrase (noun phrase, present progressive verb phrase, adjective phrase) and sentence level (comma splicing, simple sentence, grammatical fragment). It also applies relevant concepts from literary frameworks (pathetic fallacy, tone, theme, narrator).


It addresses meaning in terms of the connotations of words and the groups of words which develop central themes. It explores the semantic effects of structural features (rhyme, caesura, metre) and form (lyric).


It considers the poem in its context in terms of changes to traditional genre (lyric), contemporary literary movements (the Romantic poets) and ideas (the sublime). It addresses reader-response.

And finally …

One important thing to remember is that the title of a poem cannot always be taken at face value – and it’s not always a good starting point for understanding the semantic richness of a poem. A title can be a defining limit, but it can also be a target. Having analysed a poem, therefore, it is important to revisit the title to see whether it can be reinterpreted. Think about its relationship with the poem as a whole, and look out for any semantic ambiguity.

Leave a comment

Filed under Poetry, Text analysis, Uncategorized