Ehret's research suggests online comments should be classified as a new linguistic genre.

Linguistics, Research

Postdoctoral researcher in linguistics, Katharina Ehret, studies why online comments matter

November 15, 2017

By Christine Lyons

 ‘Don’t read the comments!’ is a familiar refrain for anyone reading news online this century. With the increased presence of online trolls, comments sections are often hostile environments and many websites disable comments for certain online news stories.

However, SFU postdoctoral researcher in linguistics, Katharina Ehret, says there is much to be learned about language, subjectivity and linguistic genre through studying comments sections. Funded by a Feodor-Lynen fellowship, awarded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Ehret is working on two research projects that use the Simon Fraser Opinion and Comments Corpus (SOCC), an extensive database that covers a 5-year period from 2012-2016 and samples about 10 000 articles.

With linguistics professor Maite Taboada, one of Ehret’s projects looks at how online comments are becoming their own genre. While previous research exhibits a tendency to see online comments as “conversations”, Ehret says that “no systematic analysis on their textual properties has been conducted” and their research will be the first to “explore genre-relevant properties of online news comments using multi-dimensional analysis (MDA) techniques.”

In linguistics, MDA was developed to investigate register variation and overcome methodological difficulties in studying register differences, allowing linguists to combine quantitative and qualitative methods of analysis. In this project, Ehret and Taboada expect online news comments “will exhibit unique textual properties” and should accordingly be categorized as a new genre.

Ehret’s other project “investigates the relationship between subjectivity—or more specifically, how opinion is expressed in a text—and complexity in written text.” She says she will be looking at “typical features of opinionated writing such as argumentative markers (e.g. but, however, although) and markers of subjectivity such as sentiment words” which are used to convey opinion in a text (e.g. disaster, wonderful, great).

The study aims to see what relationship, if any, exists between complexity and subjectivity.  Ehret’s previous research in this area (using the British National Corpus) found that “registers which are more informal (eg. email, letters) generally tend to be less complex than more formal registers (e.g. broadsheet newspaper articles, academic writing).

Ehret comes to SFU from Freiburg University in Germany. As part of the department of Linguistics’ ongoing Colloquia, she will be giving a talk “Measuring variation in English and beyond,” on Thursday November 30th, 12:30-1:30pm (RCB 7402).