Discourse analysis

Author: Jim Miller


In its broadest sense discourse analysis provides a framework of general communicative behaviour within which syntax, semantics and pragmatics can be situated. In its narrower sense it takes in the organisation of text and information: ordering old and new information, focusing on or making salient particular pieces of information and the constituents that carry them, shifts of event or scene, changes of text-type. These topics relate directly to matters such as the function of syntactic structures, choice of different types of referring expression and function of intonation patterns.

Table of contents

The analysis of discourse

It is tempting to see the analysis of discourse as in opposition to the analysis of clauses and sentences. Too many in theoretical linguistics have yielded to the temptation. The view taken here is that clause syntax and discourse analysis are both essential components of a theory of language. 'Discourse analysis' is understood here as the study of units of language larger than the clause or sentence. The units may be paragraphs, sections and chapters in written texts, or the units appropriate for spoken texts. The study of discourse as structure and process - see van Dijk (1997a) - leads into and overlaps with the study of communicative behaviours, discourse as social interaction - see van Dijk (1997b).

Investigating communicative behaviour

It is valuable to investigate communicative behaviour in different situations. Communicative behaviour includes paralinguistic properties such as gesture, facial expression and body posture, prosodic properties such as pitch, amplitude and rhythm, and the verbal component of language. Unsuccessful communicative behaviour has significant results; joint tasks fail; school students may be dissatisfied with their teachers, patients with their doctors, and vice-versa; business meetings may not achieve their purpose; social relationships do not flourish.

Some linguistics programmes in the UK deal with communicative behaviour in depth while others mention it not at all. The distinction between codes and users of codes probably comes into all linguistics programmes under the heading of pragmatics - but Stubbs'(1983) comments on the lack of real texts in semantics and pragmatics coursebooks still apply. All linguistics programmes could usefully offer at least an overview of the topics listed in the above paragraph, situating the analysis of syntax and semantics within a theory of communication, relating the use of syntactic and semantic codes to prosodic and paralinguistic codes, dispelling the idea that all meaning resides in texts and alerting students to the construction of interpretations by readers and listeners.

The study of text-structure

The study of text-structure - of discourse as structure and process - bears directly on central topics in theoretical linguistics. Writers produce texts larger than clauses and sentences; such texts illuminate the combination of clauses into sentences, regularly yielding examples which are not accounted for by any theories of syntax. The use of colons and semi-colons raises questions about the limits of constituent structure and how to analyse the syntax of spoken texts is far from settled.

Introductions to syntax present word classes as relatively cut and dried, but the analysis of texts reveals innumerable examples whose word-class is difficult to decide. The grammatical categories of, e.g., tense, aspect, mood, voice and case can only be understood in depth if they are investigated in relation to texts. (This is the traditional practice of large reference grammars of particular languages.) A good number of clause constructions can only be understood as parts of larger texts: word order; WH-, Reverse-and IT-clefts, left- and right-dislocation. Speakers and writers combine clauses and sentences into texts according to 'rules'. Breaking the rules of discourse does not have the spectacular effect of unacceptable syntax or morphology in clauses but is immediately noticeable. These rules control the choice of constructions such as those mentioned above and the choice of referring expression - full noun phrase vs deictic vs anaphoric expression vs zero. The factors affecting these choices are often gathered under the heading of 'information structure', which includes concepts such as given and new information, topic, theme, focus, shifts of scene, shifts of event, turn taking and text-type. (For instance, the use of full noun phrases and pronouns in newspaper reports does not follow the same pattern as in spontaneous conversation or in narrative.)

Information structure is built into certain formal models of sentence grammar. It is especially central and salient in Role and Reference Grammar, Systemic Grammar and Functional Grammar, but Chomskyan structures too have long had topic and focus positions. Although it is now accepted that distributional techniques apply most successfully to words in phrases and phrases in clauses, less successfully to clauses in sentences and least successfully to sentences in larger texts, it is worth noting that as long ago as 1952 a serious attempt was made to extend the concept of distribution from clauses to texts. (See Harris (1952).)

To sum up, there are three major reasons why Linguistics programmes should include the structure of texts. Writers and speakers typically produce chunks of language bigger than clauses and single sentences; the construction of texts has its own rules which turn on different concepts from those involved in the rules of clause syntax and the rules cannot be broken with impunity; it relates to many central topics in traditional theoretical linguistics such as choice of syntactic construction, choice and structure of referring expression/noun phrase, choice of tense and aspect, choice of word order (not to mention choice of intonation pattern).


Harris, Z.S. (1952) 'Discourse Analysis.' Language 28: 1-30.

Stubbs, M. (1983) 'Discourse Analysis.' The Sociolinguistic Analysis of Natural Language. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Van Dijk, T.A. (ed) (1997a) Discourse as Structure and Process. London: Sage.

Van Dijk, T.A. (ed) (1997b) Discourse as Social Interaction. London: Sage.

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