Modality Media Studies: Susan Boyle 1000 word essay

Susan Boyle article and Modality


Discourse analysis pertains to the deconstruction of literary and other texts on the basis that meaning is socially constructed through the vehicle of language and the array of language strategies writers have available and choose to employ (see Phillips and Hardy 2002, p. 2-3). These writers note that discourse focuses upon the “processes of (textual) production, dissemination and reception” (Phillips and Hardy 2002, p.3). In other words, discourse analysis presents a certain view of epistemology, by advocating that language usage has an essential role to play in the construction of meaning.

At the disposal of the writer or speaker is the language strategy known as modality, a feature of any text which refers to the relative degree of certainty a text posits about knowledge, events and persons, as well as the degree of obligation expected of the reader to embrace the statements made. McCarthy (1991, p.85) explains that while “a wide range of traditional class of modal verbs and a vocabulary of lexical items carry modal meanings, …including verbs such as appear, assume, doubt, guess, look as if,” and so on.

The context for the chosen article subjected to a discourse analysis with a focus upon modality, is Sue Carroll’s 2009 article published in the Mirror on the voting patterns for contestants participating in the 2009 season of the entertainment television programme, Britain’s Got Talent, featuring previously unsung talent Susan Boyle. Boyle seized the world’s attention and amassed millions of You-Tube hits for her rendition of the lofty “I Dreamed a Dream” from the universally celebrated musical “Les Miserables”, based upon Victor Hugo’s 19th century epic French novel of suffering and redemption.

The writer, Sue Carroll ascribes decency to singing contestant Susan Boyle, expressed within the title of the newspaper article published in the Mirror on-line May 26, 2009. The notion of decency is not only asserted rather than postulated; it is also emphatically linked with being ‘old fashioned,’ a further unsubstantiated editorial claim by the writer that a particular kind of decency is out-moded or now quite uncommon, due, (by implication), to cultural change.

The choice of the collective pronoun and verb contraction “we’re” to begin the article’s title, in the phrase, “we’re voting for Susan Boyle’s old fashioned decency…” convenes an air of inclusive certainty similar to the earlier writers’ assumptions of Boyle’s decency, in that by the use of “we’re”, Carroll assumes her perspective articulated within this article is representative of the feelings of many Boyle devotees. Each of the above uses of diction introduces a tone of certainty concerning support for Boyle in the final rounds of the renowned television talent contest. They contribute to establishing the article’s modality.

Carroll’s comment upon the set, and at home viewers’ delight at Boyle’s first semi-final victory, employs endearing descriptions of Boyle disclosing her unqualified support with such phrases as “Susan Boyle jumped up and down like a maiden aunt after one too many sherries then jiggled her ample hips”, the simile underscoring her quaint persona and the choice of ‘ample’ hips conveying a loveable image of the new celebrity.

When Carroll touches upon epistemic modality (Fintel 2006, p.2), she presumes a dogmatic certainty about her knowledge of Boyle’s biographical profile, actually a dubious claim in the light of Boyle’s rapid rise to fame and the limited time journalists have had to fully explore the details of her life history. Carroll categorically asserts, “This is a woman totally untutored in stagecraft,” yet, since Boyle is known to have sung in church settings throughout her life, it is possible she has some intuition about how to connect her impressive voice with an audience. Carroll extends this dogmatism by insisting with the use of hyperbole that not only the studio audience “cheered her to the rafters,” but “At home we did the same…”, again indulging the collective pronoun “we” to assume Carroll’s home viewing exhilaration was matched by every other at home viewer throughout the United Kingdom. This writer’s assertion illustrates modal obligation to accept the proposition that all sensible viewers share Carroll’s uninhibited response to Boyle’s talent (see Benwell and Stokoe, 2006, p.112).

Fintel (2006, p2) also identifies “Deontic modality (Greek: deon, meaning ‘duty’) concerns what is possible, necessary, permissible, or obligatory, given a body of law or a set of moral principles.” Carroll’s hyperbolic assertion that Britain not only needs a new parliament but also a new kind of celebrity such as Susan Boyle, employs deontic modality, drawing upon an implied set of moral values, assumed to be shared by the British public. The argument is that just as a new parliament will foster greater civil order, so an old-fashioned style of celebrity with common decency will represent community values which have been superceded by the modern fetish with the celebrity cult of personality.


Furthermore, Carroll extends the argument that Boyle is a unique entertainer by employing such emphatic metaphysical language assigning Boyle’s appearance in the contest as an “inexplicable and strange quirk of fate.” Unlike her presumably talented competition rivals, Boyle’s brush with publicity is not merely motivated by personal desire and ambition to compete, but a transcendent encounter with fate itself, in Fintel’s terms (2006, p2), an example of teleological modality.

Indeed, throughout Carroll’s account of Boyle’s success and popularity, there is a complete absence of conditional or qualified opinion, assertion or statement. Instead, Carroll adopts a dogmatic tone of unqualified praise for Boyle, using an air of factuality, even when dealing with the realm of opinion and speculation. The assertion that Boyle’s soaring voice belied stereotypical expectations based upon Boyle’s undoctored appearance, with “a collective recognition that we’ve all been so suckered in by celebrity we’re more likely to give mediocrity a chance if it’s sparkling and glitzy than talent in a shapeless frock,” is less dogmatic than all of Carroll’s earlier contentions, with the use of the moderating phrase “we’re more likely,” yet it still maintains a confident denunciation of assumed collective social attitudes, regarding the viewing public as non-discriminating and easily belied by superficial and external appearances, permitting style to triumph over substance.

As this writer’s use of modality ascribed certainty to her stereotypical representations of viewing audiences and our lack of refined taste to judge talent by quality rather than appearance, Carroll is equally dogmatic in her representation of Boyle as an angelic yet well-grounded figure, through modal phrases such as “Susan seemed genuinely puzzled,” alluding to Boyle’s apparent immunity to the effects of unprecedented public attention. The categorical repetition by the writer that there was “no hysteria, no schmaltz, no false modesty or pretension,” positions Boyle as a blameless figure beyond the reach of human temptation. The emphatic and declaratory tone where Carroll then asserts that “this woman doesn’t waste words or emote unnecessarily,” again indicates Boyle is beyond frivolity, unlike much of her implied frivolous audience. The subtext expression of power relations within the text is that Boyle epitomises everything that is wholesome and those who pre-judged her as ordinary based upon her appearance lack genuine human sensibility.

Finally, the writer’s adulation for Susan Boyle and her newly discovered singing talent is fully exposed when Carroll concludes her article of acclaim, with modal and hyperbolic metaphors such as “she carries the eternal torch of hope for everyone,” and “I think Her Maj will love her.”




Benwell, B. and Stokoe, E., 2006, Discourse and Identity, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Carroll, S, 2009, CELEBS ‘We’re voting for Susan Boyle’s old-fashioned decency on Britain’s Got Talent’, May 26, 2009, available at

Fintel, K., 2006,‘Modality and Language’, available at, accessed June 11, 2009

McCarthy, M. 1991, Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


Phillips, N. and Hardy, C. 2002, ‘Discourse Analysis: Investigating Processes of Social Construction’, SAGE, 2002