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Language Awareness

by Scott Thornbury

A dictionary (like the Macmillan English Dictionary) takes a word-level view of language: language is organised as a list of words. Grammars, on the other hand, take a sentence level view of language: language is described in terms of the rules that govern the formation of acceptable sentences. By contrast, a discourse-level view of language takes discourse as its primary unit of analysis. Discourse is the way that language is used to construct connected and meaningful texts, either spoken or written. It is a view of language, therefore, that extends ‘beyond the sentence’.

It is clear that, on their own, many sentences and utterances are hard to interpret. Take this example:

That’s his.

As a sentence, it is grammatically well formed, but you can’t make much sense of it without reference either to what preceded it, or to relevant features of the immediate context (or both). On their own, the pronouns that and his lack referents: that what? his what? As it happens, the sentence that immediately precedes That’s his (in the text from which the sentence is taken) doesn’t help us much either:

No man does.

Here, the verb does tells us nothing, since it is clearly standing in (or substituting) for some previously mentioned clause. Let’s look at the sentence that precedes No man does:

That is their tragedy.

Once again, it is not clear what the words that and their refer to. The three sentences, even in combination, fail to deliver a satisfactory meaning. It’s only when we add the first sentence of this sequence that we are able to make sense of the sequence as a whole. (It comes from The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde):

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.



Referring expressions like that, their, his, and substituting words like does, make connections across sentence boundaries and in this way they help make a text cohesive. A text is cohesive (or has cohesion) if its sentences are linked, and one aspect of discourse analysis, therefore, is the identification and description of cohesive devices. These are the ways that words and grammar are used in order to link sentences. The main cohesive devices in English are these:

  • Lexical:
    • repetition of words, or words from the same word family (e.g. coherent, cohesive, cohesion) or use of synonyms
    • use of general words (like the place, the girl, the facility) to refer to something more specific that is mentioned elsewhere
    • use of words from the same thematic field (e.g. texts, readers, written)
    • substitution of previously mentioned words with one/ones
    • ellipsis of previously mentioned words (i.e. leaving a word out because it can be recovered from the previous text, as in That’s his).

  • Grammatical:
    • reference devices, especially pronouns (it may help …) and some determiners (e.g. this, that)
    • substitution of previously mentioned clause elements, with do/does, or so/not
    • ellipsis of clause elements
    • linkers, such as therefore, what’s more, then
    • parallelism, i.e. sentences that ‘echo’ the structure of previous sentences


Text type and text organization

But texts are more than simply a succession of connected sentences. In the way that they are organized, texts conform to the textual conventions of the text type that they belong to. The Oscar Wilde extract, quoted above, follows the conventions of what is called an epigram, a short and witty saying. Here are three more epigrams by the same writer. Notice how they all have a similar structure:

There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

If one plays good music people don’t listen, and if one plays bad music people don’t talk.

The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young.

On the basis of this (admittedly small) sample of epigrams, we can start to identify some discourse features of this text-type. These include:

  • a two-part structure, which involves a contrast between two opposites (goodbad; old young) or between an affirmative and a negative statement (all womenno man; being talked aboutnot being talked about)

  • the use of evaluative language: tragedy, worse, good, bad

  • the use of the present tense: become, is, plays, etc.

  • the use of the ‘zero article’ to make general statements: all women, good music, old age.

Note that these epigrams don’t exist on their own, but are embedded in a larger text-type, the theatrical comedy. They are characteristic of a certain witty style of writing and speaking, a style that Wilde made famous. The study of style, i.e. the way that language is used to create particular effects, is called stylistics. But Wilde’s style, including his use of epigrams, was designed not only to amuse his audiences but also to unsettle them. By using paradox to challenge contemporary values, Wilde’s style had a subversive subtext. The use of discourse analysis tools to uncover the ideological subtext of texts is called critical discourse analysis.



A discourse approach not only describes the internal cohesion and organization of texts, but also attempts to explain how texts achieve the purposes for which they are designed and used. The following text, for example, is a notice in a London underground station:

Going to Covent Garden?

Covent Gdn Station gets very busy at weekends and in the evenings, but you can avoid the crowds by walking there from Holborn or Leicester Square. The short walk is clearly signposted above ground and maps are on display at both stations.

The text functions as advice, although the words advise or recommend are not explicit. We recognize the text’s function partly because of its situational context: texts in public places are often intended to influence our behaviour in some way, functioning as warnings or prohibitions, for example. But we also recognize the fact that the text is constructed in the form of a problem and a solution. The negative implication of the phrase very busy is contrasted (using the contrastive linker but) with the positive can avoid the crowds. The fact that the walk is short and clearly signposted also has positive connotations. This problem-solution organization, combined with the way the reader is directly addressed as you, helps us infer the writer’s purpose. The writer seems to be saying, ‘This is our solution to your potential problem.’ The capacity of a text to achieve its communicative purpose in this way – to make sense – is known as its coherence.

Cohesion, as we have seen, is a surface feature of texts. A text can be cohesive but it may not be coherent. Coherence results from the interaction of the reader and the text. A good writer will, of course, use cohesive devices to make the text easier to follow, i.e. to make the text more coherent. But if the text is basically nonsense, no amount of cohesive devices will make it coherent!

Readers have certain expectations of a text, and of how meaning is likely to be developed from one sentence to another. When these expectations are met, then the text will seem coherent. Coherence is thus achieved when the reader can easily understand what the text is about, when the text is organized in a way that answers the reader’s likely questions, and when the text is organized in a way that is familiar to the reader.


Discourse and the dictionary

How does the dictionary help in the production and interpretation of language at the discourse level? Some of the ways the dictionary helps are:

  • by giving examples of the way linkers connect sentences, as in the entry for moreover: There is growing opposition to capital punishment. Moreover, there is now evidence that many executed prisoners were innocent. Other linkers that have a cohesive function are nevertheless, having said that, and what’s more

  • by looking in detail at words such as pronouns and articles, showing not only what they mean but, more importantly, how they are used in and beyond a single sentence

  • by clearly identifying the discourse function of certain key words, as in this definition (sense 2) of so: used instead of repeating what has just been said, and in this definition (sense 2) of but: used for changing the subject

  • by distinguishing between spoken and written discourse. For example, the use of but then to add a remark that makes what you have just said seem less surprising, is identified as characteristic of spoken language, as in the example that is given: What a stupid thing to do! But then I’ve always thought Colin was a bit of a fool

  • by providing special sections on Writing Skills, which include Expressing Cause and Effect, Comparing and Contrasting, Introducing Topics, and Expressing Possibility and Certainty.

Further reading

Beyond the Sentence: Introducing Discourse Analysis, S. Thornbury (Oxford: Macmillan, 2005)

Analysing Real Texts: Research Studies in Modern English Language, H. Hillier (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)

Textual Interaction: an Introduction to Written Discourse Analysis, M. Hoey (London: Routledge, 2001)

Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers, M. McCarthy (London: Routledge, 1991)

Trust the Text: Language, Corpus, and Discourse, J.M. Sinclair (London: Routledge, 2004)


Next in the series

Next in the Language Awareness series: Word Formation