Discourse and Discourse Analysis


Discourse is a linguistic unit composed of several sentences, that has a unified meaning – written or spoken.

Discourse can be anything from a grunt or single expletive, through short conversations and scribbled notes right up to novels or a lengthy legal case.

Discourse Analysis is the study of discourse, or language used by members of a speech community.

Discourse Analysis looks at both language form and function, and includes the study of both spoken interaction and written texts.

It is a cross-disciplinary field, originally developing from sociolinguistics, anthropology, sociology and social psychology

Much language study and most of language teaching has always been devoted to sentences.

However, it is obvious that there is more to using language, and communicating successfully with other people, than being able to produce correct sentences.

That basket contains about 15 breadfruits. ‘Fisheries Science’ is therefore not the same as ‘Marine Biology’. She makes wonderful cupcakes. This is Moosa Fulhu. Please send 2 large pizzas quickly.

Playback. Raymond Chandler. Penguin Books in association with Hamish Hamilton. To Jean and Helga, without whom this book could never have been written. One. The voice on the telephone seemed to be sharp and clear. But I didn’t hear too well what it said – partly because I was only half awake and partly because I was holing the receiver upside down.

1. Which of these two stretches of language is part of a unified whole?
2. What sort of text is it?
3. What is the other one?
4. How do you distinguish between them?

A piece of language is said to be coherent (therefore discourse) if it has a discernible, unified meaning.

A piece of discourse is said to be cohesive if its components (ie. Sentences/phrases/words) are bound together through linguistic and non-linguistic features to form a unified whole.

Chicken marmalade. That’s a funny looking dress. Inconsistent. Come here honey. Discourse may be composed of one or more well-formed sentences which are grammatically correct. I hate that man! My toes hurt. Revenge. Who’s your great uncle?

Zidane stood and waited to see what would happen, but he pulled off his captain’s armband, indicating that he knew he was going to be expelled. Argentine referee Horacio Elizondo consulted the assistant, then ran over to Zidane, reached into his back pocket for the red card and brandished it at the player. Zidane’s World Cup, and his career, were over. He trudged to the sideline, stripping the bandage off his wrist while doing so. He did not argue the call.

1. Which of the above texts is more cohesive?
2. Which is coherent?
3. Which one is discourse?

Cohesion and Cohesive Devices

A stretch of language becomes discourse when it has unity and coherence.

Coherence is achieved in discourse by contextual features outside the language as well as formal links within the discourse.

Such formal links within text that links sentences/clauses are known as cohesive devices.

The purpose of cohesive devices is to hold parts of the discourse together in order to achieve overall unity.

Among the most common cohesive devices are:

i. verb form
ii. parallelism
iii. referring expressions
iv. repetition and lexical chains
v. substitution
vi. ellipsis
vii. conjunction

i. Verb form

Cohesion is attained in a piece of discourse by the forms of the verbs used. The form of the verb in one sentence limits the choice of verbs form in the next. Depending on the time frame to which the piece of discourse alludes, the verbs used in it need to conform to the particular tense.

Muaz: Right, who’s going to arrange the transport?
Well, someone’s gotta do it.
Rifau: I’m not going to.
Muaz: Come on, will you?

All the verbs are in the present. There is an apparent degree of formal connection between them, a way in which the first tense conditions all the others.

It would be quite strange if the conversation had been:

Muaz: Right, who’s going to arrange the transport?
Well, someone had gotta do it.
Rifau: I shan’t have been going to.
Muaz: Don’t! Come on, will you?

ii. Parallelism

Another link in discourse is created by parallelism, a device which effects a connection simply by repeating the form of the sentences/clauses


Pregnant women get emotional very easily. They get emotional if you raise your voice at them. They get emotional if you do something romantic. They get emotional if you notice they are eating lots. They get emotional if you tell them they look beautiful. They get emotional if you are too protective. They get emotional if you are not protective enough.

What links the sentences in the above discourse?

Parallelism is often used in speeches, prayers, poetry and advertisements. It can have a powerful emotional effect, and it is also very useful as a memory aid.

Parallelism, which achieves cohesion by an echo of form, is not restricted to grammatical form.

Georgie Porgie pudding and pie
Kissed the girls and made them cry
When the boys came out to play
Georgie Porgie ran away

Rushdhy: We would like to take this opportunity to wish you the best of luck
Zakittey: Go break a leg man!

iii. Referring expressions

The meanings of some words can be decoded only by referring to other words or elements of the context which are clear to both the speaker and listener.

The most obvious example of this are third person pronouns – she/her/hers/herself , he/him/his/himself, it/its/itself

Sometimes, more than a knowledge of the meaning of the word is necessary to decipher the meanings of referring expressions

Then they burnt it.
Referring expressions can be anaphoric, cataphoric or exophoric

Anaphoric references are those that refer back to elements mentioned earlier in the discourse. (ana means “upwards” and phor means “to carry.”)


The passengers presented themselves for checking before boarding the plane.

Cataphoric references are those that refer to elements that are mentioned after them. (cata means ‘downwards’)


This is what she said – our teacher is a raving lunatic!

Exophoric references are those that refer to elements outside the text. (exo means ‘outside’)

Finally, on 7 May 1945, Germany surrendered to the Allied Forces

iv. Repetition and lexical chains

The same sort of link as pronouns can be created by the repetition of words.

Native speakers are, however, often discouraged from repeating the same word as it is considered ‘bad style’. What is encouraged is ‘elegant repetition’ where synonyms or more general words/phrases are used.


Dice the mangoes into large cubes. Arrange the diced mango cubes on a plate, in any pattern you like. Pour whipped cream over the diced mango cubes.

Referring expressions, repetitions and elegant repetitions all establish cohesion by creating ‘chains’ of connected words/clauses.

Such lexical chains can also consist of words that associate with each other by virtue of some formal semantic connection.


Four legs good. Two legs bad.

v. Substitution

Another type of cohesive device is the substitution of one word with another.

Shahid: Which shirt shall I wear today?
Ihusana: The maroon one.
Shahid: You also like that one then?
Ihusana: Yes, I do! I think It suits you better.
Shahid: I think so too.
vi. Ellipsis

Sometimes, it is not necessary to provide a substitution for a word/phrase which has already been mentioned. It is simply omitted, but can be reconstructed quite successfully.

Omitting part of a sentence on the assumption that an earlier sentence or context will make the meaning clear is known as ellipsis. Ellipsis is also referred to as ‘substitution by zero’.


Zubaida: Have you been shopping girls? What did you buy on your [shopping] spree?
Ziya: I bought jewelry and Zee [bought] clothes,
Zee: Clothes? You already have more than enough [clothes], and you bought more [clothes]?
vii. Conjunction

Conjunctions are another type of cohesive device. They draw explicit attention to the type of relation which exists between one sentence/clause and another.


First, peel and clean the potatoes. Then bake them. A conventional oven is best. However, a microwave oven will also do. Potatoes burn easily, so make sure you keep a close watch on the timer!

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