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English Language Investigation

Aim

Exploring the use of language on the popular social networking site, Twitter.

Introduction

Twitter has been described as the ‘SMS of the internet,’ and is a revolution

in technological social interaction. As a frequent user of Twitter myself, I realise this is a method of escapism, primarily for teenagers. Users have the freedom to express their thoughts and feelings about any topic, without restrictions except the 140-character limit. I have used the site to create strong relationships with people I have never met, despite the lack of spoken communication. I therefore wanted to focus my investigation on how the features of Twitter affect language use, taking gender into account, as well as context and particularly the relationships between the writer and reader. I also aim to explore how Twitter conforms to conceptions regarding language and technology, such as abbreviations, and how it differs to other methods of written interaction such as Facebook and text messaging.

Hypothesis

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With regard to features of politeness and face, I believe that users

will display several examples of negative and positive politeness e.g. to respect the face of others. I feel this would be more obvious in situations where the users aren’t familiar with each other. I would also expect to see examples of face threatening acts, perhaps influenced by the sense of anonymity within the site (privacy shield concept).

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  • I believe that Twitter allows freedom to enable users to tweet

exactly how they are feeling, regardless of how this is conveyed to

other people e.g. if a user were particularly angry about a situation,

  • I would expect to see this stated explicitly, perhaps including offensive language.

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  • I would also expect to identify features of spoken language

incorporated into these written tweets, e.g. non-fluency features. I feel that users make up for the lack of non-verbal communication by using emoticons that support the content of their tweet, and using non-standard grammar, capitalisation, hyperextension etc.

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Finally, I will expect to identify features of the Economy Principle. Due to the technological advantages and constraints of Twitter, it is likely that users will abbreviate and use core, everyday lexis etc. in order to simplify their language use.

Methodology

To collect my data, I logged into my own Twitter account and scrolled through my timeline (the homepage where new tweets are posted by the users you follow). I took screenshots of the tweets and moved onto a new section of tweets and repeated this step several times.

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Before I collected my data, I was aware of possible features to explore. Therefore, I ensured that my tweets were not included in my data to avoid any unintentional selection bias.

One issue with the data is that it is limited. On Twitter I happen to follow more females than males. This is apparent from my data. When identifying features with regard to gender, and especially when referring to theory, I must consider the limited sample, so results cannot be conclusive. In general, the sample may not be representative enough to measure how much the language use is affected on Twitter. Also, within the data there are some individuals that tweet more than once. If a user was to therefore display more or unusual characteristics compared to the other users, this could affect the results in some way.

I chose several different features to explore for my analysis. I will put some data into results tables, which will help me to identify patterns of language use.

The Economy Principle

Profanity/taboo language

Politeness and face

How do users compensate for the lack of non-verbal cues?

Results and Analysis

Use of Emoticons

Data No.

Gender

Number used

Example

 

11

Female

1

:|

15

Female

2

:D

:*

20

Female

1

:)

29

Female

1

:’)

34

Female

1

<3

35

Female

2

:(

:/

37

Male

1

:(

Swearing/taboo lexis

 

Data No.

Gender of the user

Example

 

tweeting

7

Female

bitch

14

Female

Dick

33

Female

DA FUK?!

 

40

Female

FUUCCKIINN

 

41

Male

Shitty

42

Male

Shyt (Shit)

 

44

Male

Bitch

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Politeness

 

Data

Gender

Positive Politeness

Negative

Potential Face

No.

of the

Politeness

Threatening

user

Acts

tweeting

1

Male

I love youuu!

-

-

7

Female

-

-

I like it face to face bitch.

15

Female

-

Aw thanks

 

20

Female

-

Thanks

 

sweetie

40

Female

YOU AREE FUUCCKIINN AMMAZZZIINNNGGGG.

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Abbreviations & initialisms across my data

Data No.

Abbreviations

Initialisms

4

-

TW

5

-

omg

6

Don’t

RT

9

Coz, you’ve

-

10

Don’t, doesn’t

-

12

Don’t

-

13

Don’t

-

14

Cause’,

-

15

Thanks

-

20

Thanks

-

22

-

HMU

23

-

FTW

26

Gotta

-

29

Tho

-

33

Wasn’t

-

35

Won’t

-

37

Gonna, B

-

41

Gonna

-

44

-

wtf

45

def

-

TOTALS

18

6

Politeness/Face

Within my data I identified some politeness features, including positive politeness such as ‘I love youuu!’ and ‘YOU AREE FUUCCKIINN

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AMMAZZZIINNNGGGG.’ The users here clearly aim to satisfy the positive face by boosting the self-esteem of the person they are addressing (as according to Brown and Levinson). The data also features examples of negative politeness, ‘Aw thanks,’ and ‘thanks sweetie.’ The users in this case may have felt that they needed to thank whomever they were addressing, regardless of the fact that there is no pressure to do so, unlike a face-to-face conversation. It is unknown whether the user knows the people they are addressing. However, the use of ‘sweetie’ may suggest that she has formed a closer online relationship with @GottaLoveTS (the addressee). Comparing the nature of Twitter language to face-to-face talk, it is clear that there are not many features of politeness because most of the tweets are not addressed to another user directly. When they are used however, they serve the same purpose as they would face-to-face.

Howell-Richardson’s study in 1995 shows, ‘Turn-taking in Computer Mediated Conversation does not require the same social management skills as in face-to-face,’ i.e. elements of CMC may be considered rude in face-to-face. The potential face-threatening act ‘I like it face to face bitch,’ is interesting because it is debateable whether it is an actual Face Threatening Act. In the tweet no users were directly addressed, ‘I find it hilarious when people try to fight me over a screen… I like it face to face bitch.’ However, it is possible that the user posted this tweet following an altercation with someone on the site, and used this tweet as a way of indirectly addressing them. If they were to then see this and acknowledge that it was about them, this would be considered an FTA. In a face-to-face conversation people often try to avoid conflict. This may be an example of how the privacy shield comes into effect online. We can assume that OvOAbigail i.e. the tweeter, does not know the person she had been arguing with and therefore doesn’t fear confrontation as there are few serious consequences. We can also ask whether she was genuinely being offensive here, or simply mocking in a light-hearted way. We are not aware of the relationship between Abigail and the person she is arguing with. Often in such situations, Twitter messages can be misinterpreted.

Taboo language

Within my data I identified several examples of tweets including language that may be seen as offensive by other people, such as ‘bitch,’ ‘dick’ ‘shitty,’ ‘fuk,’ etc. The open atmosphere of the Twitter genre allows users to express their feelings and thoughts in a way that doesn’t restrict the use of taboo language; if posted, anyone is entitled to view it. If a user does feel offended, there are options that allow them to report the language. However, it could be argued that in some contexts, the words are not intended to be offensive, which we can establish by the relationship between the writer and reader. For example, mazinteen4life tweets, ‘IM ADDICTED TO @DaBieberBreezy, YOU ARE FUUCCKIINN AMMAZZZIINNNGGGG.’ In this context it is clear that although the user includes a swear word, it is used as an intensifier to emphasise her approval. As she is directly addressed, we can assume that DaBieberBreezy would not be offended, and neither would other users that read it. The use of capitalisation and hyperextension in this tweet also suggests that the user is trying to display appreciation. Another example is ‘#decentchatuplines You must be from Ireland, cause’ every time I see

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you my dick is Dublin.’ Clearly the word ‘dick’ is used here for a humorous purpose, and therefore in this context it is clearly not to cause offence.

Gender It seems that most Twitter users within my data are teenagers or young adults and therefore may be less inhibited to use swear words because it is nowadays seen as more socially acceptable. This could be attributed to both genders equally, as supported by my results. In Robin Lakoff’s book ‘Language and Woman’s Place’ from 1975, it is suggested that women try to avoid swearing and other taboo words. Although the results table on it’s own doesn’t support this, it is important to consider that my results are not representative, as I had only taken into account 45 tweets. The data shows that there are 10 males and 26 females, who used taboo lexis 3 and 4 times respectively. As a percentage this equates to 30% of male users, and just over 15% of female users. Therefore, this would suggest that men tend to swear more than women, even on a social network. John Locke more recently, in his book ‘Duels and Duets’ (2011) argues that men are naturally more aggressive which might support my findings above.

How do users compensate for the lack of non-verbal cues?

Non-standard language forms The data includes various non-standard language forms. There are several examples of hyperextension, ‘I love youuu,’ & ‘YOU AREE FUUCCKIINN AMMAZZZIINNNGGGG.’ In speech, prosodic features allow the audience to understand the speaker’s intention e.g. tone and pitch may indicate sarcasm. However, these features are absent in the written mode and it can be misinterpreted. Twitter involves social interaction, and as the mode is not spoken, users often use hyperextension to express frustration, or more commonly enthusiasm, which is conveyed to the audience. The use of capitalisation in ‘YOU AREE FUUCCKIINN AMMAZZZIINNNGGGG,’ may indicate volume. Question marks and exclamation marks combined and extended also feature in the data, ‘where god where is wireless tv?!?!,’ to display overwhelming confusion and frustration. One tweet in particular consists entirely of a mass of symbols and numbers, combined with an attachment to a photo, ‘!!!!!!!!!726/>!:&-!:&1,’ The user here i.e. @str4tfordkid may have typed in a spontaneous, uncontrollable way with an intention to convey excitement or confusion over the photo they attached in the tweet.

Happiness or positive acknowledgement is also expressed through non- standard punctuation, including symbols such as ‘>’ or ‘<’. These are regarded as mathematical symbols, but they have been incorporated into Twitter language. However, their use is still related to the way they are used in Maths, i.e. ‘The shyt that happens at my job >>>>>>>,’ & The Weeknd’s version of Trust Issues >>>>>’ In Maths, this particular symbol means the first subject is greater than the latter (after the symbol) i.e. 10>2 (10 is greater than 2.) The usage here indicates that this ‘version of trust issues’ is great, emphasised even further by the symbol being extended. A heart emoticon following this again highlights the user’s approval of this matter. If the opposite symbol were to be used e.g. ‘The Weeknd’s version of Trust Issues<<<<<’ this would display disapproval.

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Graphological features The language on Twitter also features emoticons to represent paralinguistic features of speech, in order to accurately portray the user’s feelings. For example, ‘About to leave :( won’t really have my phone to much until Monday :/’ In this instance, it wouldn’t be clear whether the user was happy or not about this situation without emoticons.

Non-fluency Features Interestingly the data includes non-fluency features: ‘@str4tfordkid:

basically and um basically so yeah,’ and ‘@xEveB13ber: ugh I really wish I could find a cure for cancer.’ This would allow us to consider the extent to which this written mode contains features of spoken mode. Warschaeur’s studies from 1995 showed how students felt they could ‘express themselves freely, comfortably, and creatively during electronic discussion, that participating in electronic discussion assisted their thinking ability, and that they did not feel stress during electronic discussion.’ This is clearly displayed in the previous example. The user @xEveB13ber doesn’t feel restricted in terms of the content she discusses i.e. cancer. She feels she can express her thoughts about cancer freely and comfortably. The theory would also suggest users take more time to think about their tweets. However, my data could contradict this. Users may tweet so spontaneously that they write exactly what they think, including ‘um’ and ‘ugh,’ as in the data. Another possibility is that they are deliberately inserted to maintain a conversational, informal tone, which is characteristic of close friendships. Warschauer’s theory is now slightly out- dated, and possibly the concept of Twitter is different to instant messaging. It is important to consider the context of each tweet, as this could affect whether non-fluency features are included. If a user was to

tweet via their phone while walking or on the bus, they may tweet as they think, whereas someone at home on a computer may take more time to construct a tweet. Ellipses are also included in several tweets, which either create an element of suspense, or thought process, ‘I just… I don’t know WHERE I’ve seen it before,’ & ‘avalanna is seriously so cute…ugh I really wish I could find a cure for cancer…people don’t deserve it.’

To what extent does the data exhibit features of the Economy Principle or Principle of Least Effort outlined by George Zipf and Andre Martinet who suggest that language change tends towards the minimum amount of effort that is necessary to achieve the maximum result, so that nothing is wasted?

The register within my Twitter data is very informal. Abbreviations such as ‘gonna’ and colloquial phrases e.g. ‘coz you’ve got some nice buns’ reflect the informal, relaxed atmosphere of the site and the relationship between the writer and reader, or addressee. The data also contains a high proportion of core, everyday lexis, ‘where god where is wireless tv?!?!’ This would suggest that users do not intend to complicate the language use.

My results display various examples of abbreviations and initialisms throughout the data. Even though a user may tweet using everyday, monosyllabic lexis, they still abbreviate, ‘Def not a food (good) way to start the day…’ It is clear that there are quite a few words that could support the Economy Principle. For example, ‘gonna’ and ‘gotta’ are

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abbreviations that are used in speech, simply because when ‘going to’ and ‘got to’ are spoken quickly, it leans towards the simpler pronunciation, and these have fewer phonemes to articulate. With regard to technology, twitter users may aim to simplify language due to the platform they are using to access the social network i.e. using a mobile phone could mean that they would want to type and send a tweet quickly and efficiently. Tweeting via a phone or computer keyboard also seems to result in spelling mistakes, which I identified across the data e.g. ‘food’ instead of ‘good’, ‘ans’ instead of ‘and’ etc. This is perhaps also influenced by the spontaneity of tweets and the lack of self-correction.

Most of the sentences used are short, snappy sentences. This is perhaps due to the 140 character limit or the desire to tweet spontaneously and quickly, ‘mcdonalds right now would be #amazeballs.’ Some sentences are also incomplete, ‘bobby valentino <3,’ ‘Bottom sixes and chainsss,’ etc. As this is in the written mode, and the register of the site is informal we could suggest that people don’t feel pressured to complete sentences and use standard grammar, ‘feel to cry eye is burning like hell.’ This particular tweet omits the possessive ‘my’ and lacks punctuation. Despite being non-standard and incomplete, the user perhaps assumes knowledge from the audience who would understand what she is saying regardless. The examples in my data support the Economy Principle, and the informality of the register could suggest that the Economy Principle has played a significant part in the process of informalisation, suggested by Norman Fairclough.

Abbreviations In my hypothesis I predicted that I would find several examples of abbreviations, which also support the Economy Principle. After collecting my results, I was surprised to see only few abbreviations. Most of them are typical of spoken language e.g. ‘doesn’t,’ ‘don’t,’ ‘thanks.’ Some initialisms identified are clearly influenced by technology e.g. ‘omg’ which was first used in text messaging, years before Twitter was created. In the data there were also no examples of ‘you’ abbreviated to ‘u’, which seemed surprising because I thought it would be one of the most commonly abbreviated words. In addition, there were no examples of alphanumeric spellings e.g. ‘c u 2nyt @ 7’ which some people may have expected to find.

In David Crystal’s theory on text messages and tweeting, he discusses the myth that texting and tweeting is ‘full’ of abbreviations and that the youth of today are either trying to create a new way of language, or they are simply illiterate. He discusses how evidence shows that only 10% of the words are abbreviated. Considering the abbreviations and initialisms from my data as a whole, they amount to 4%, which is less than Crystal suggested. The theory is now a few years old, and during this time technology has advanced. Most devices that access Twitter have a QWERTY keyboard, identical to a computer keyboard, where each letter of the alphabet has its own key. Therefore, little effort or time is required to type the word ‘you’ for example, as is the case with earlier mobiles. This could suggest why the use of the ‘u’ abbreviation is decreasing.

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Twitter was modelled on the concept of texting, and therefore users are limited to 140 characters per tweet, similar to the 160 texting limit. It is likely that in some cases where users want to post a comprehensive tweet, they are restrained by the limit and consequently feel obliged to abbreviate. Although there is no evidence of this in my data, I am aware this is a factor in my personal experience. It seems that my data does somewhat conform to David Crystal’s observations, but it is clear that users aim to simplify their language, as the Economy Principle indicates.

Conclusion

It is evident from my analysis that the freedom to express opinions and thoughts on Twitter is not restricted, and language choice differs for various reasons e.g. to accurately convey their emotion to the audience. Compared to other forms of electric communication, there are similarities i.e. non-standard forms and emoticons are what we would also expect to find in text messages. Twitter was based on the texting concept, which could suggest why similar features are incorporated. I feel that there are several factors that make Twitter a unique social network, such as the level of informality and the humorous/colloquial tone to tweets which

deliberately aim to entertain, ‘@WeirdHorse: Just broke up a fight between a big swan and a small swan. I told the big swan to pick on someswan his

own size.’ Another distinct feature is the impact of the younger generation and fanbase community. Celebrities use the site as a way of talking personally to their fans, and fans use it themselves to form close bonds with one another. Unique usernames on Twitter help people to identify others with similar interests. The users ‘JBEmire,’ ‘iBieber_Candy,’ ‘DaBieberBreezy’ for example, are all fans of Justin Bieber.

Overall, it seems that the language features are somewhat similar to those used in texting and social networks such as Facebook, but the open atmosphere and wide accessibility allow for a unique sense of community within the site that makes it different from other methods of social interaction.

Word count – 2742 (excluding quotes, tables and headings)

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Bibliography

Brown and Levinson’s theory on Politeness -

Technology Theory: Privacy shield concept, Warschaeur, Hiltz and Turoff, Howell- Richardson – AS English Language Handbook on Language and Technology.

Gender Theory: Robin Lakoff – AS English Language Handbook on Language and Gender

Gender Theory – ‘Duels and Duet’s John Locke. Erm

David Crystal’s theory on abbreviations - http://www.youtube.com/watch?

Economy Principle and Informalisation – A2 English Language Handbook on Language Change

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Appendix

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Investigation Log

 

Date

Progress

June 2012

  • I began considering ideas for my Investigation in June. Areas I was at first

interested in included social networking and language used in rap music. I chose these because they are topics that I’m particularly interested in. I listen to rap music a lot so I’m very familiar with it, and I also use Twitter on a daily basis. I noticed that within rap music there was quite a significant difference between the language use of a male rapper and a female rapper. On Twitter I’ve noticed characteristics of the language used, mainly just by ordinary people, not celebrity accounts. I thought that focusing my investigation on a topic I am interested in would encourage me to produce a good investigation. I decided in the end to choose social networking because I can refer to some of my knowledge on Language and Technology from the AS course such as the theories.

September

  • I have collected my data to analyse for this investigation. In order to do this I

2012

logged into my twitter account, and took screenshots from my timeline i.e. where tweets are displayed by the people I follow, in chronological order. At the moment

  • I have probably a few hundred tweets altogether, but I am thinking about

narrowing them down to maybe only 20/30 or so.

25 th January

  • I have now narrowed down my data and I am beginning to annotate the data to

2013

see what I find. This will then allow me to think about the various aspects I want

to produce results for and analyse.

28

th

  • I had a discussion with my tutor about the possible themes and theories to use for

January

my investigation. We discussed perhaps splitting the data up even further in

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terms of gender. I could then analyse my data generally and then see if gender makes a difference. We discussed possible themes such as humour, politeness, privacy shield, and general conventions of tweets that I can explore including the

impact of the technological restraint.

2

nd

After a discussion with one of my tutors, I have decided to begin analysing my

February

data in terms of basic linguistic features i.e. lexis, register, grammar, modes of

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address, topic and purpose. Hopefully this will allow me to identify certain aspects which may seem as more interesting, and then I may change my sub-

headed themes depending on what I find.

5

th

  • I have begun to make bullet points underneath each of my subheadings. I find this

February

a better way of creating points that are specific and concise, which I can later go

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back to and elaborate on and put into paragraph format.

11

th

  • I have finished making my planned points for my analysis under several

February

subheaded themes i.e. lexis & register, modes of address, grammar, topic and

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purpose. I have handed in this analysis, my results etc. to my tutor so that I can

receive feedback.

15

th

Today I had a meeting with my tutor who gave me feedback on my work. We

February

discussed several things, one being whether I should make my aim more specific.

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At the moment it is ‘to explore the use of language on the popular social networking site, Twitter.’ We decided that after I have written up my analysis fully,

  • I should perhaps narrow down my themes & create a more specific aim. To do this,

  • I will rank my themes from most interesting to least. This will then allow me to

perhaps get rid of some analysis that will reduce my word count if I exceed it, and

this again may help me to create a more detailed aim. We also discussed

including the concept of the privacy shield and how this can relate to politeness.

18

th

  • I have now begun writing up my analysis in full paragraph form, making sure that

February

  • I am drawing from my results and creating relevant points under the subheadings.

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2013

The new headings I have created are:

  • - How does the data conform to David Crystal’s theory on abbreviations & the economy principle, established by George Zipf and Andre Martinet?

  • - Profanity/taboo language and gender

  • - Politeness

How does the written mode and lack of NVC affect the language used?

22 nd

  • I have now finished writing up my analysis, making sure that I have been thorough

February

and open-minded in my discussion. I decided that I had enough analysis, if not too

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much, so I have eliminated the two themes regarding modes of address, and topic

& purpose. I am still left with four themes which I think is definitely enough. I have kept a backup of the points I noted down under the two eliminated themes, which

  • I may come back to if some of the existing headings turn out to be not very relevant or not up to standard.

1 st March

Today I received my first draft back that I handed in. I had a discussion with my

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tutor about aspects I could improve on. Points that I need to change include:

writing about patterns in my data that may affect the quality of my results, and possibly creating a separate section to pull the points together on gender. I also may combine the remaining points on taboo language & politeness/face into one section. In addition, other research on theories, particularly gender theorists will

help me to improve the quality of my work.

5 th March

Today I made improvements to my investigation, working on the areas that my

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tutor suggested. I made particular improvements to my hypothesis and method.

8 th March

Today I made changes to my analysis, including re-arrangement of the themes

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and combining different aspects of my analysis. I now have taboo language and politeness as one larger section. I plan to hand in a second draft by the end of this

week.

15 th March

Today I received feedback on my second draft. My tutor suggested that I make

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other various changes, including separating the politeness and taboo language back into individual sections unless there are significant links between them. My tutor also suggested writing about patterns I identify within the data, and then introducing the various theories and applying them. I may also think about turning my analysis headings into questions, and I was given tips on how to reduce my

word count.

18 th March

  • I have begun re-drafting again, this time really considering which areas of my

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investigation are not relevant enough and can be removed. This will hopefully

make my investigation a bit less general.

20 th March

  • I have re-arranged other areas in my analysis, focusing on my use of theories. I

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have also looked at using some more up-to-date theory in my work.

21 st March

Today I began to finalise my investigation, including a bibliography and also

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checking for any errors.

22 nd

  • I have conducted a final word count and pieced my investigation together,

March

including the completed bibliography and appendix.