How to analyse language

To analyse language you need to:

  • choose an extract from the text and then select a quotation from it which illustrates the point you want to make
  • ask yourself how your quotation illustrates character/theme/context
  • look in close detail at specific words or phrases to see what effect they have
  • comment on how effective you think the writer’s choice of language is

Look at the following extract from About a Boy. It is taken from the part where Marcus visits Will for the first time.

The extract

He went record shopping, he went clothes shopping, he played a bit of tennis, he went to the pub, he watched telly, he went to see films and bands with friends. Time units were filled effortlessly. He had even gone back to reading books in the afternoon; he was halfway through a James Ellroy thriller one Thursday in that horrible dead dark time between Countdown and the news, when the doorbell went.

He was expecting to see someone selling J-cloths and brushes, so he found himself looking at nothing when he opened the door, because his visitor was a good foot shorter than the average hawker.

I’ve come to see you, said Marcus.

Oh. Right. Come in. He said it warmly enough, as far as he could tell, but for some reason he felt a rising tide of panic.

Marcus marched into the sitting room, sat down on the sofa and stared intently at everything. You haven’t got a kid, have you?

That was certainly one explanation for the panic.

Well, said Will, as if he were about to launch into a very long and involved story, the details of which were currently eluding him.


Analyse the language used in this extract. How does Hornby use language to create humour?

In this extract Hornby uses a wide range of techniques to create a comic mood. The extract begins by showing how Will fills his time with aimless activities, just so that he seems busy, going record shopping... clothes shopping…play[ing] a bit of tennis and so on.

The fact that he does all these things with friends is ironic, since they are merely acquaintances; the reader knows that Will never has any meaningful relationships with other people. There is more irony towards the end of the extract when Will finds himself having to explain himself to Marcus, if he were about to launch into a very long and involved story..., because as the adult in the conversation it would normally be the other way around, with the child having to explain his behaviour.

This is funny and also highlights how childish Will is. Hornby uses a metaphora rising tide of panic – to emphasise what a ridiculous situation Will finds himself in. He has been caught out in a lie by a child, and he is desperately thinking of how he can get out of this mess, almost as if he were drowning. Again, this is very entertaining for the reader because Will only has himself to blame.

Hornby uses a contemporary reference, with Will watching Countdown, as he does every single weekday, and a literary reference, with Will reading a thriller by James Ellroy. This again sets Will firmly as a 36-year-old man in the mid-1990s, since Ellroy’s books were relatively modern then. (He was first published in 1981). Finally, there is outright humour in the line his visitor was a good foot shorter than the average hawker. The language here creates a funny mental image in the reader’s head, of Will opening his front door and staring into space, while Marcus is standing outside looking in, but only reaching Will’s waist.

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