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Signs in Linguistics

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 5300 words Published: 18th May 2017

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A problem that typically troubles the humanities is the ambiguity of primitive terms. An inquiry into their meaning is usually undertaken only after a period of time when they are used un-critically, possibly under the presumption of their complete self-evidence. A closer scrutiny reveals that this belief is hardly warranted. The boundaries of their meanings are so fuzzy that critical analysis turns into a partial reconstruction from ground-zero. That is what this essay will attempt with the notion of the sign and its extra-linguistic connotations. This essay locates this re-construction at the moment when Ferdinand de Saussure sought to carve out the discipline of linguistics, reformulating the existing notion of the sign. The simultaneous heralding of the related, larger discipline of Semiology that for Saussure would subsume linguistics meant that the notion of the sign also got branched. Saussure’s contemporary, C.S. Peirce’s ideas of signifying construction as an unlimited sign-exchanging process- the idea of the unlimited semiosis- announced an alternative approach to conceptualizing the sign. The present essay will trace the evolution in meaning of the sign in both Semiology: the study of signs based on linguistics; and Semiotics: the study of signs based on logic. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s understanding of subjectivity as constructed in and through language, discounting the possibility of connecting words and things will then be evaluated. Lastly, Ronald Barthes’ idea of the photographic image, borrowed from Peirce but reworked through the advertisement will be considered. A modern advertisement is then used to substantiate Barthes’ premise that though the photographic message seems like a message without a code, it ends up being highly coded. The crux of the essay is that the extra-linguistic reality that is ascribed to the sign is just that- extra-linguistic. The linguistic sign which encompasses all semiological systems is nothing but the unity of the Sr and the Sd.

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The precise moment at which Saussure signals his disinheritance, as it were, from erstwhile linguistic traditions is where he criticizes existing and erstwhile analyses of language as a ‘naming process’. This disinheritance of his marks the crucial juncture which sounds the birth pangs of the discipline we now conceive as linguistics and signals the heart of the present investigation. Hence, it is this moment which needs elaboration and scrutiny. What this essay will attempt to analyze is how Saussure’s conceptualization of the linguistic sign has influenced thinkers, psychoanalysts, philosophers, co-(and later) linguists. The influence has resulted in several different understandings of the linguistic sign that Saussure envisaged, the rationale(s) behind which will form the core of this discussion.

For Saussure, an understanding of the linguistic sign as a ‘naming process’ assumes that “ready-made ideas exist before words, it does not tell us whether a name is vocal or psychological in nature, and assumes that the linking of a name and a thing is a very simple operation.” (Saussure, Pg 65) Nevertheless, he does credit the erstwhile conceptualization of the linguistic sign as bringing him near his eventual formulation of the linguistic unit as a double entity. For him, this unit unites a concept and a sound-image. Saussure seems at pains to emphasize the non -physicality of the sound-image, calling it “the psychological imprint of the sound, the impression it makes on our senses.” (Saussure, Pg 66) The only sense in which the sound-image is sensory, or as Saussure calls it, “material”, is when opposing it to the other term of the association- the concept. Not only does Saussure re-conceptualize the existing constituents of the linguistic unit, he refashions the very idea of the sign as it was understood in his time. Contemporaries used ‘sign’ to designate just a sound-image. But the profound implications of this for Saussure are evident from his comments as relayed by the diligence of his earnest, and might I add, generous students, in the Course in General Linguistics. Saussure uses his favourite example to demonstrate this. For him, “one forgets that arbor (Latin for ‘tree’) is called a sign only because it carries the concept “tree”… the idea of the sensory part implies (the) idea of the whole.” (Saussure, Pg 67)

It is to resolve this that Saussure says that the definition of the linguistic sign poses an important question of terminology. For him, the prevailing ambiguity could be resolved if three terms were to be chosen to designate the linguistic unit and its two components. He chose ‘sign’ to designate the whole. Signifier (Sr) and signified (Sd) replaced the sound-image and the concept. This was done because Sr and Sd had the “advantage of indicating the opposition that separates them from each other and the whole of which they are parts (emphasis mine)” (Saussure, Pg 67)

Immediately after this radical reformulation, Saussure said something that pre-empted the genesis of the present discussion. He stated that the sign is arbitrary because the” choice of the signifier… is unmotivated, i.e., arbitrary in that it has no natural connection with the signified” (Saussure, Pg 69) Many thinkers (like Hjemslev) since have maintained like Saussure that language cannot be reduced to extra-linguistic factors, whether in the nature of things or of thought, in other words, that it is arbitrary. Others, like Benveniste, argue that it is partially or totally motivated by these same factors. For Benveniste, Saussure’s ‘arbitrary’ argument is falsified by an “unconscious recourse to a third term which was not included in the initial definition- the thing itself, the reality.” (Benveniste, Pg 44) Benveniste attacks Saussure’s logic and finds the contradiction inherent in Saussure’s formulation. He believes that “if one states like Saussure does that language is a form, not a substance, it becomes imperative to leave the substance outside the realm of the sign. However, it is only when one thinks of the animal ox in its substantial particularity that one is justified in considering arbitrary the relationship between bof (French for ‘ox’) on the one hand and ox on the other to the same reality.” (Benveniste, Pg 44) The tension that Benveniste alerts to in Saussure stems from the way Saussure defined the linguistic sign and the fundamental nature he attributed to it.

This is elaborated upon by Benveniste through a systematic refutation of Saussure’s justifications for refuting objections to his (Saussure’s ) calling the relationship between Sr and Sd arbitrary. The first of these is the use of onomatopoeias and interjections. Saussure’s refutations to these objections to the arbitrariness of the sign are predicated on the notion of conventionality and these words’ similar relations (as other ordinary, non-onomatopoeic words) to the syntax of a particular grammar, and the difference in interjections across languages. Moreover, mutability and immutability of the sign are possible solely due to the arbitrary relationship between the Sr and Sd, according to Saussure. For Benveniste the arbitrary relationship is between the sign and the object, not the Sr and the Sd. He accepts Saussure’s propositions for the process of signification, not the sign.

Benveniste is equally critical of Saussure’s notion of the linguistic value. For Saussure “the identity of a given signifier or a given signified is established through the ways in which it differs from all other signifiers or signifieds within the same system.” (Saussure, Pg 115) This relative value stems from the arbitrariness of the sign. For Benveniste, however, the choice that invokes a certain idea for a certain slice of sound is not at all arbitrary. In reality, Benveniste believes, “Saussure was thinking of the representation of the real object and of the unnecessary and unmotivated character of the bond which united the sign to the thing signified (emphasis mine)” (Benvensite, Pg 47) The crux of Benveniste’s argument is that the sign, the primordial element of the linguistic system, includes a Sr and Sd whose bond has to be “recognized as necessary, these two components being consubstantially the same.. linguistic values maintain themselves in a relationship of opposition which is, therefore, necessary.”

The description of a sign in Saussure, as the discussion on Benveniste and the following discussion on Peirce indicate, involves only the relation between its two components, Sr and Sd, and not that between the unit resulting from their union and what it stands for or refers to in the extra-linguistic world. This tension in taking or not taking the thing from the extra-linguistic world itself into consideration when defining the sign, or else, not talking of language as pure form, has manifest itself in several subsequent philosophical and linguistic debates. C.S. Peirce’s classification of signs is one such. Peirce defines the sign in the following way:

“A sign is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground.” (Peirce, Pg 99)

What is pivotal here is the quality of thirdness that Peirce bestows on the sign relation. Thirdness is that quality which allows translatability. For Peirce, the only way in which the relationship between Representamen (closest to Saussure’s Sr) and the idea of the Object (Closest to Saussure’s Sd) can be understood is if they are in a context. This is what the quality of thirdness enables (closest to Saussure’s sign). It allows the possibility of interpreting the relationship between the Representamen and the idea of the Object. The Interpretant, imbued with this quality, therefore, awakens the potential of sign generation and intelligibility. Peirce’s conceptualization seems to indicate that signs are not what one sees/hears but what one infers from what one sees/hears. This is the realm where the Interpretant assumes primacy and the debate on whether the sign actually refers to a name-thing relation is brought to a head.

Thirdness for Peirce is that which is general. And it is, for Peirce, real too. However, it does not exist. Making a distinction between existence and reality, this essay argues, is a first step towards understanding Peirce and his contribution to the debate Saussure unfurled. Peirce seems to believe that signs exist exclusively due to their replicas, i.e. due to concrete sounds, inscriptions etc. So conceived, signs are individual objects. Nevertheless, that way of being of a sign is derivative only from its “genuine being as a general object.” (Peirce, Pg 76) That second way of being is essential for a sign. A sign is a kind of ideal object, “general, timeless, and independent of subjective thinking.” (Peirce, Pg 77) Peirce ascribes to generality the real mode of being. It constitutes the special level of being which he calls thirdness. And, nothing that belongs in thirdness can exist because “only individual things are capable of existence” (Peirce, Pg 77). Thus, each replica as a temporary individual object has to be a derivative of the genuine general sign through the context and the possibility of translatability (or, inference) that the Interpretant enables. It has no self-subsistence of its own. Physical phenomena are potential replicas of signs. However, they become signs only by entering into the triadic relation.

Aside from pre-empting Lacan’s argument, what this triad establishes for Peirce is a multiplicity of signs. As the essay has just argued, the Interpretant constitutes the third indispensable element of the triadic relation. Nevertheless, the Interpretant is a sign in itself and needs at least one more sign as its own Interpretant, and so ad infinitum. This multiplicity of signs is for Peirce logically prior to a single sign. The system creates the necessary condition for any particular sign. However, Peirce, fully aware of this self-creative power of the universe of signs, does bring in some limitations on it in his pragmatic manner. The trichotomy of icon, index and symbol allows the universe of signs to be dependent upon the empirical world of things. In Peirce’s universe of sign generation, the emphasis in the icon is on the Representamen; in the index, it is on the idea of the object and in the symbol, it is on the Interpretant. The icon is a sign determined by its object by virtue of its own internal nature (a quality) and is hence, immediately intelligible. Peirce’s idea of the qualisign comes closest to this idea of the icon. The index is a sign by virtue of a relation of co-presence it shares with the object, an existential relationship with the object, as it were. It signifies in virtue of a relationship of contiguity with its referent. The obvious counterpart for the index is the sinsign. But it can come to have an existential relationship only through its qualities. So, an index involves a qualisign or several qualisigns. The symbol is a sign by virtue of its conventional mediating abilities (as in Saussure’s sign, in fact). While conventionality indicates the legisign properties of the symbol, it must also be kept in mind that every legisign signifies through an instance of its application- through a replica of it. The replica is a sinsign. So, every legisign requires sinsigns only after the law/convention renders it so. (Peirce, Pgs 100-102)

For Peirce, every algebraic equation is an icon, in so far as it exhibits, by means of the algebraic signs (which are not themselves icons), the relations of the quantities concerned. Any material image, as a painting, is largely conventional in its mode of representation. In itself, without a legend or label, Peirce calls it a hypoicon. This he divides into three categories- firstness, secondness and thirdness. Images are those which partake of first firstness or simple quality. Diagrams are dyadic as they represent parts of one thing by analogous relations in their own parts. Metaphors represent the representative character of a representamen by representing a parallelism in something else. (Peirce, Pg 105) What is amply evident from Peirce’s deliberations is that the representational character of signs as icons can be, and often is, mixed or heterogeneous. Peirce, thus, emphasizes the overlapping and flexibility of the sign categories in signifying practices.

Barthes provides an analytical system to discuss the reading/interpretation of an image. Some of the questions he explores are- If the image re-presents, can it shape meaning? And how does meaning get into the image? Can an analogical representation produce true systems of signs or is it just a container of free floating information? It is here that a Lacanian understanding of the Sr and Sd relationship within the sign will not be out of order in understanding Barthes’ image. The crucial break that Lacan announces from Saussure’s formulation of the signification process is his focus on the bar separating the Sr and the Sd. Lacan introduced a new emphasis on the bar as a formula of separateness rather than of Saussurean reciprocity. This move of Lacan calls into question any theory of correspondence between words and things, thereby serving to strengthen Saussure’s arguments. Lacan uses the ‘Restroom example’ to demonstrate his central hypothesis- “we fail to pursue the question of meaning as long as we stick to the illusion that the Sr answers to the function of re-presenting the Sd”. (Lacan, Pg 150)An exploration of the example will reveal that meaning that insists in the signifying chain is itself attributed to the Sd. This only happens after the meaning is inscribed in the Sd. The inscription (Sr of ‘Ladies’ or ‘Gentlemen’) constitutes the Sd as such by enabling a disjunction- by making material reality differ from itself to the children. The restroom doors, it ought to be remembered, are identical on all accounts until a Sr, ‘Gentlemen’ or ‘Ladies’, enters into its material constitution to make it what it is. This is how meaning enters into the image, for Lacan.

The possibility of this meaning entering in to differentiate otherwise analogous material reality lies, for Lacan, in the movement of language along a chain of Srs. The other related possibility of signifying something quite other than what the signifying chain says is achieved through the act of speech. This is precisely where Lacan locates the agency of the letter. Instead of settling for the contemporary psychoanalytical view that “speech masks one’s thoughts” (Lacan, Pg 155), Lacan thinks of the subject producing through his/her speech a truth that he/she does not know about. In order to reconcile this ( the subject’s “radical ex-centricity to itself”) the “other I” can be recognized as the Other. This Other stands at a second degree of otherness which already places him as a mediator between the subject and the double which is brought to life through the language process. This Other is invoked with every lie (or, as Lacan would call it, “repression of truth”) as “the guarantor of the truth in which it (the Other) subsists” at the level of the subject’s Unconscious. (Lacan, Pg 172)

The similarity with Peirce’s notion of the mediating Interpretant, awakening the potential of inference and sign generation is obvious here. In Lacan, the Other is language itself. Language and the Unconscious are therefore parallel systems in Lacan’s framework, with the necessary corollary of the Unconscious residing in language. The reason for the emergence of this Other (language as the locus of signification) lies in Lacan’s chain of signification. This truth residing in the signifying chain gets repressed as the Sd slides under the Sr, and meaning gets continually veered off. The truth, he says, “is always disturbing. We are used to the real. The truth we repress.” (Lacan, Pg 169) Thus, with the sliding of Sd under the Sr, the stress as hinted at earlier in Lacan is on the bar separating the Sr and the Sd; and the Sr of outrunning the Sd in its meaning generating potential. As if to diagrammatically show the primacy of the Sr over the Sd, Lacan uses S for Sr and s for the Sd. His eventual formulation is thus: S/s. This discussion on Lacan’s conceptualization of the sign therefore brings to light two crucial points- firstly, that the meaning of material reality is shaped by the chain of signification consisting of Srs. Secondly, the agency of the letter manifests in discourse/ the act of speech, as the dimension of truth of the subject is manifest (unconsciously) only through the message that speech allows.

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The message that Lacan speaks of harks Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole. A linguistic code is a set of prefabricated conventional possibilities which the speaker uses to communicate with an addressee: i.e. to create messages. It is in the nature of language that there is a dialectic tension, as Saussure points out and as Barthes elaborates, between code (langue) and message (parole), where the code only exists because of its ability to create messages. This message is only understood because of its relation to a given code. A message is a singular, meaningful unit of discourse. A code is an abstraction created by the analyst–a logic reconstructed from the materials provided by the message. Living in a certain environment we internalize sets of codes that affect our semiotic behaviour, whether we are aware of it or not.

Drawing / painting is always coded because it requires a set of rule-governed transpositions, that are historical (perspectives, rules, etc). Drawing requires apprenticeship, learning. Drawing, hence, is a culture of a culture, according to Barthes. He agrees with Peirce in as much as he considers it a re-presentation. However, Barthes claimed that there is only one ‘seeming’ exception to the rule “no message without a code”: the photographic image, because it shows us something reproduced without human intervention (by means of a mechanical-chemical process) as if certain aspects of nature were being communicated through a photographic message without any loss. The photographic message, for Barthes, is then a sign which can be a very complex structure that mixes forms (code) and materials (message) of representation. While Peirce would say that a photograph as an icon would be immediately intelligible without codes, Barthes’ emphasis is on the illusion of reality that a photograph seemingly perpetrates, the “photographic paradox”, as it were.

An example to substantiate Barthes’ argument is in order. The essay will use an Indian ‘Wills Navy Cut’ (year, 2001) advertisement to rethink the formal organisation of texts and images in terms of the active comprehension of texts and images in context. This is the context that the idea of an advertisement enables.

Barthes clarifies the denotation of the photograph thus- “Certainly the image is not the reality but at least it is its perfect analogon and it is exactly this analogical perfection which, to common sense, defines the photograph” (Barthes, Pg 14). The photograph is a “mechanical analogon” whose message is “the scene itself, literal reality.” In the image above, the very point of advertising cigarettes is to sell them. The main obstacle to selling cigarettes is consumers’ beliefs that cigarettes ruin their health. The most relevant thing a cigarette advertiser can do, given the point of advertising, is to attempt to modify, eliminate, or repress that belief. The linguistic caption with overtones of a sustaining reciprocity (between the cigarettes and the buyer at one level) – “made for each other”- signals this repression. According to Barthes, there are two kinds of relationships between text and image: anchorage and relay. The caption “made for each other” anchors the meaning of the image by calling forth the intended denoted meanings of “mutual sustenance”. On the level of connotation, the linguistic message guides interpretation. The principal function of connotation is ideological: the text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image (towards a meaning chosen in advance- persuading the buyer to believe in the reciprocity hinted at, while conveniently sidelining the dangers of smoking). According to Barthes, “ideology or “myth” consists of the deployment of signifiers for the purpose of expressing and justifying the dominant values of a given society, class or historical period (the signs express not just “themselves”, but also all kind of value systems that surround them). (Barthes, Pg 46) This is precisely what anchorage allows for. It ensures that the connoted message is not missed.

In relay the text and the image are in a complementary relationship. Here, the text provides meaning not found in the image. This works at the level of a psychological arm-twist, forgive the metaphor, with the company more or less dictating the kind of residual impression an audience will take away from the advertisement. “Both the words and images are fragments of a more general syntagm and the unity of the message is realized on a higher level.” (Barthes, Pg 41) The message is loud and clear- committing the reader or viewer to acceptance of the relation of reciprocity communicated.

Of particular significance here is the denotation- a statutory warning relegated and literally sidelined- “Cigarette smoking is injurious to health”. Denotation is the “literal or obvious meaning” or the “first-order signifying system”. It connotes the pressure on cigarette companies to seem socially responsible. Connotation refers to “second-order signifying systems”, additional cultural meanings we can also find from the image or text. The meaning garnered from this warning is firstly, a veneer of social responsibility that the company seeks to don and secondly, the pragmatic aim to not highlight something that is evidently counter-productive to the purpose of selling cigarettes. Peirce would call this a legisign in as much as it is a convention hinted at- that of self-interest in sidelining the warning combined with the legislative bindings on the company to include a statutory warning on its package. The coded message is thus the functioning of the advertisement within a larger moral universe dictated by conventionality. The anonymous and non-reciprocal nature of advertising makes it generally impossible for the consumer to challenge the advertiser’s relation to the linguistic claims made and connotations produced, though this is a handicap to advertisers as well as an asset. The impersonality results in connotations being hazardously attributed just because they are pragmatic implications.

The image, for Barthes, is a series of discontinuous signs. It is possible to read the image (as Barthes does), to understand that it collects in a certain space (the cigarette pack) certain identifiable objects (a couple joyous at the prospect of a sumptuous and, importantly, healthy, meal). The coded iconic message that one takes away is joy, health, domesticity and vitality. The background colour- green- rich with its organic overtones continues with the act of repression. The “photographic paradox”, according to Barthes, lies in the spectator’s fascination with “the here-now, for the photograph is never experienced as an illusion … its reality [is] that of the having been there, for in every photograph there is always the stupefying evidence of this is how it was, giving us, by a precious miracle, a reality from which we are sheltered” (Barthes, Pg 41). The repression is ‘meant’ to achieve this for the company. The reality sheltered thus is the imminent danger of cigarette smoking.

It should be stressed that however ‘obvious’ it may be that something is an advertisement, there is always an inference to be made from the cue provided to the decision that something does indeed fill an advertising slot (i.e. count as an advertisement). What I want to stress is the (minimal) knowledge about advertising which the non-coded iconic message conveys. This message is that no matter what the symbolic connotations hinted at are, the products that are being marketed are cigarettes. “It is a literal message as opposed to the previous symbolic ones. But it functions as the support of the symbolic messages.” (Barthes, Pg 39)

The crux of Barthes’ assertions seem to be that a photographic message ends up being extremely coded though initially one might conceptualize it as a “message without a code”. This recapitulates Lacan’s restroom example where meaning comes to reside in the enamel doors only when the Srs (inscriptions) intrude the doors’ material reality (apparently without any distinguishing codes prior to this linguistic intrusion).

What the essay has sought to demonstrate in all theorists considered is that the linguistic system as a whole is not a representation of some extra-linguistic reality. What has also been shown is that there is one aspect of language that is representational. This has to be located within the larger debate that Saussure sparked when he said that “Language is a system of signs that express ideas, and is therefore comparable to a system of writing, the alphabet of deaf-mutes, symbolic rites, polite formulas, military signals, etc… I shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeion, ‘sign’). Semiology would show what constitutes signs, what laws govern them… Linguistics is only a part of the general science of semiology; the laws discovered by semiology will be applicable to linguistics”. (Introduction to Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, Pg XIV)

Moreover, according to Saussure, the use of language has two dimensions which are activated simultaneously. When forming a sentence we make choices from existing paradigms (lists of alternatives, such as words or grammatical forms) and arranging them in syntagmatic relationships (word after word, etc.). There are rules that govern both. A sign’s value is determined by its paradigmatic and syntagmatic associations. (Saussure, Pg 123) According to Barthes, this principle can be extended to all kinds of sign systems, such as fashion (dressing up, we choose the clothes from different alternatives and create a “syntagm”, the combination of the clothes we wear). Hence, for him, “every semiological system has its linguistic admixture”. He inverts Saussure’s dictum saying instead that “semiology is a part of linguistics”. (Barthes, Introduction to Elements of Semiology, Pg 11)

The problem then lies not in seeing objects as necessarily semiotic and extralinguistic facts, but, as the essay has shown, rather in assuming that these objects also have a linguistic facet in the sense that the Sr in the linguistic system either stands for them or the Sr points to them. The real problem lies, as Benveniste preempted, in “discerning the inner structure of the phenomenon of which only the outward appearance is perceived” (Benveniste, Pg 45)

The reason why we believe that in ordinary discourse language represents reality is because the linguistic world is so powerful a force for us and the linguistic world seems so ‘natural’ to us, that we assume that it must mirror some sort of non-cultural or non-linguistic reality. Because of the links between language and reality that Peirce, Lacan and Barthes alert us to, and because language seems for certain nouns to be simply nomenclature (a set of names for phenomena existing in other semiotic systems), the assumption that becomes rife is that all linguistic phenomena correlate with some sort of reality. But as Lacan tells us, in such cases the ‘object’ is created by the word: the object exists and is differentiated from other objects because the word exists and not the other way around. Referents in this argument exist because they are creations of the linguistic system, a way of ‘linguisticizing’ our semiotic experience- as both Saussure and Barthes envisaged in their divergent ways. The linguistic sign, then, is an intrinsically linguistic combination of a linguistically created Sr and a linguistically created Sd.


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