We address the differences in the frequency and type of expressions reflecting epistemic
stance (Engagement expressions, Martin & White 2005) that are used in constructive and nonconstructive online comments in the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail and the Russian online news channel Russia Today. A comparison is made between constructive and nonconstructive comments within one language as well as contrastively between the two languages.
We adopted the formulation of constructiveness from Author et al. (to appear) who characterize constructive comments as the ones that intend to create “a civil dialogue through remarks that are relevant to the article and not intended to merely provoke an emotional response“. The corpus which we annotated includes comments containing 10,000 words for each langauge. The English data comes from the SFU Opinion and Comments Corpus, a collection of opinion articles and the comments posted in response to the articles published in the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail in the 5-year period between 2012 and 2016. The Russian data was collected from the online comments posted in response to opinion articles from the Russian online news channel Russia Today in 2019. Following the Appraisal framework of Martin and White (2005), this study focuses exclusively on instances of Engagement, the resources of which are associated with a discourse function that expresses the writer’s intersubjective stance with respect to the various opinions referenced in a text (White, 2003). Our annotation scheme includes slightly modified system of Engagement in which the Entertain category is revised to include separate subcategories for deontic and dynamic modality, irrealis and habituals.
From the findings of our quantitative and qualitative analysis, we conclude that the language of constructive comments is more explicitly subjective both in English and Russian than that of non-constructive comments. Our results show a relatively higher frequency of Engagement means within constructive comments. The most prominent type of Engagement markers are the ones that express dialogic expansion reflected with the category Entertain, which includes epistemic markers of doubt and likelihood (suggesting tentative stance towards expressed opinions) together with modals of possibility, the function of which is anticipation of potential scenarios in both English and Russian constructive comments. The Entertain category includes evidence-based devices as well, more frequently found in constructive comments in both languages. This adds to the credibility of the comments, while rhetorical questions, which mostly characterize non-constructive comments, signal emotionally charged discussion. Constructive comments in both languages contain a slightly higher number of expressions which act to challenge alternative viewpoints (Disclaim and Proclaim), in comparison to non-constructive comments. While disclaim devices include negation and expressions of counter-expectation, Proclaim comprises expressions of endorsement of attributed propositions in the data in both languages.
Based on the analysis, we determine that the main difference between the constructive comments in English and Russian in our corpus is that English constructive comments show much more frequent use of proclaim device, suggesting emphasis on reliability of the commenter's knowledge, while Russian constructive comments focus more on the use of modals of necessity that have a prescriptive function. Modals in Russian constructive comments convey how something is supposed to be, or the moral obligation to do or not to do something.