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They think it's all over... but we still love commentators

Some football commentators we love and some we love to loathe. Even a TV programme has used one of the most famous football commentary lines ever in its title.

It shows how football commentaries have seemingly seeped into the national consciousness. We can now be gripped by football every day of the week if we desire.

But what is it that keeps us listening – have you ever thought about the language features that commentators use?

Have you ever noticed that commentators use grammatically incomplete sentences? Well, they do. New research carried out by Havering Sixth Form College students found that the information that is left out, known as ellipsis, is used during commentaries more than we may think.

The students found that, on average, during a full 90 minute radio commentary, over 70 uses of ellipsis were present and there were over 50 uses on television commentaries. As the audience we are listening to a much shortened version of English and we sub-consciously fill in the blanks provided by the commentators.

Extra information

This enables them to squeeze in extra information, such as statistics and facts. Sections of commentary such as ‘lays it off for the Argentine, in to Toure, big and burly,’ demonstrate how disjointed the text would be if we were to read it, yet we somehow understand it when we are listening.

Most of us are also unaware that the language of football is also like a language in itself. Phrases such as ‘another corner’ and ‘in the box’ could mean entirely different things in a different context but as football enthusiasts we instantly know what the commentator is trying to convey. The use of specialist football terms such as ‘right wing position’ gives the fans a sense of intelligence and knowledge. It also creates a bond between the commentator and the audience.

However, even some of our most loved and experienced commentators, such as John Motson, can make the odd mistake. He famously announced: “Brazil are so good it’s like they’re running round the pitch just playing with themselves.” Much like everyday conversation, commentators make mistakes and pause frequently during their commentaries.

The non-fluent factor

‘Erm’ and ‘er’ are examples of what we call ‘normal non-fluency features,’ which are often used in a commentary. Havering Sixth Form College researchers found that an average of 15 normal non-fluency features were used across television and radio commentaries. This demonstrates that commentating at high speed in a live setting can be a real challenge.

Researchers also discovered that pausing is used more often on the television but ‘dead air’ pauses are usually avoided on the radio. This is because radio commentators have to keep the listener informed of the action taking place on the pitch. Non-standard English can also be present in commentaries, for example ‘he ain’t gonna keep it out.’ This colloquial lexis makes the commentators seem more down to earth. However, it reduces the professionalism of the commentary - although this is not easily realised when listening live.

Commentators also have to maintain a friendly working relationship with one another as well as the audience. They often have clearly defined turns and tend to talk about different things – there is usually an expert summariser and a general commentator who tends to use more simplistic language.

Simplistic errors can also occur and one commentator who has been known to make the odd blindingly obvious gaffe is Ron Atkinson. One of his most glaring mistakes was: “If Glenn Hoddle said one word to his team at half-time, it was concentration and focus.” Clearly, it is easy to make errors under pressure and it is even easier to not think about what you are saying.

A unique language

Commentators can also disagree with and interrupt each other, often when the excitement of a game is at its highest. Most of us do not realise that football commentaries, much like cookery programmes and friendship groups, have their own unique language.

Commentators employ certain techniques, such as ellipsis and the deletion of clause elements, to speed up their speech and convey the most information possible on both the match and its background information.

So, next time you are tuning in to your favourite team, listen carefully to the commentary and see what you can gain from it. Are the commentators encouraging you to listen? Are you gripped by the action? At least you can say that you speak another language at the end of the day.


Total Football's Top Five Commentator Gaffes:

“Bruce has got the taste of Wembley in his nostrils” – John Motson
“He dribbles a lot and the opposition don't like it; you can see it all over their faces” – Ron Atkinson
“Here we see Tevez's little curly one” – David Pleat
“For such a small man Maradona gets great elevation on his balls” – David Pleat again
"Our talking point this morning is George Best, his liver transplant and the booze culture in football. Don’t forget, the best caller wins a crate of John Smith’s" – Alan Brazil 


Feature by Darren Nicholls

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