UWE Bristol Linguist analyses the linguistic connotations of 'a bunch of'

Issue date: 28 January 2016


Dr James Murphy, Senior Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) is available for commentary on:

· the linguistics of David Cameron's use of a bunch of migrants at yesterday's Prime Minister's Questions James has written a linguistic analysis below of the term 'a bunch of'

Expert Commentary - UWE Bristol Linguist analyses the linguistic connotations of 'a bunch of '

“Many people would have an intuition that a bunch of, outside of describing something like flowers where bunch is the usual collective noun, usually carries with it negative connotations. Various commentators defending David Cameron's use of a bunch of to describe migrants in encampments in Calais have sought to use dictionary definitions of bunch which the OED defines as: fig. A collection, 'lot'. Also, a company or group of persons. But taken in isolation this misses the connotations with which many would be familiar.

Using the British National Corpus (a searchable collection of language as it is used by the British public), we can investigate a bunch of further and in context (i.e. we can see how people actually use this collocation). To avoid making arbitrary decisions about the nature of the semantic prosody (a linguistic term essentially relating to whether an expression is positive or negative), I conducted searches for:

bunch of ADJECTIVE + NOUN

This gives results like:

a really lively bunch of friendly people -- which we can straightforwardly assign as having a positive connotation

vs.

a bunch of greedy, sly ignorant English Conservatives -- an entirely genuine example from the British National Corpus, and one which we can also straightforwardly assign as having a negative semantic prosody.

Once we put to one side examples like 'a bunch of yellow flowers', we find that only 13 out of 126 examples of a bunch of... are unambiguously positive. The overwhelming majority of hits -- some 90% -- show a bunch of to have negative semantic prosody. Put another way, the intuition that many have that the Prime Minister's use of a bunch of migrants is a negative turn of phrase is clearly supported by the data. It is for the Prime Minister to decide whether it was a poorly selected choice of words which merit withdrawing.”

Dr James Murphy is a Senior Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol).

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