Directives in COVID-19 government guidance: An international comparison

Benet Vincent, Kate Power, Peter Crosthwaite, Sheena Gardner

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The importance of language to changing public behaviours is acknowledged in crisis situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic. A key means of achieving these changes is through the use of directive speech acts, yet this area is currently under-researched. This study investigates the use of directives in the 2020 COVID-19 briefings of four leaders of English-speaking nations, Jacinda Adern, Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison, and Nicola Sturgeon. We developed a classification system including 16 directive types and used this to compare directive use across these four leaders, examining directness and forcefulness of directive use. The analysis finds Sturgeon to be the most prolific directive user and also to have the highest reliance on imperatives. Johnson, meanwhile, has a preference for directives involving modal verbs, particularly with first- and second-person pronouns. In contrast, Ardern and Morrison show a higher use of indirect directives, normally thought to be a less effective strategy. While Ardern often combines this strategy with judicious use of imperatives, this is not seen in Morrison's COVID-19 briefings. These findings tend to confirm earlier, more impressionistic evaluations of the communication styles of these leaders but also suggest other avenues for research on directive use. We conclude with implications for political crisis communication and analysis of directives in crisis communication.
Original languageEnglish
Article number100063
Number of pages14
JournalApplied Corpus Linguistics
Issue number3
Early online date22 Jun 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2023

Bibliographical note

© 2023 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY license (


  • speech acts
  • directives
  • Political discourse
  • COVID-19
  • corpus pragmatics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)
  • Linguistics and Language


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