Definition of Discourse

Discourse is any written or spoken communication. Discourse can also be described as the expression of thought through language. While discourse can refer to the smallest act of communication, the analysis can be quite complex. Several scholars in many different disciplines have theorized about the different types and functions of discourse.

The word discourse comes from the Latin word discursus, which means “running to and fro.” The definition of discourse thus comes from this physical act of transferring information “to and fro,” the way a runner might.

Types of Discourse

While every act of communication can count as an example of discourse, some scholars have broken discourse down into four primary types: argument, narration, description, and exposition. Many acts of communicate include more than one of these types in quick succession.

  • Argument: A form of communication meant to convince an audience that the writer or speaker is correct, using evidence and reason.
  • Narration: This form of communication tells a story, often with emotion and empathy involved.
  • Description: A form of communication that relies on the five senses to help the audience visualize something.
  • Exposition: Exposition is used to inform the audience of something with relatively neutral language, i.e., it’s not meant to persuade or evoke emotion.

Other literary scholars have divided types of discourse into three categories: expressive, poetic, and transactional.

  • Expressive: Expressive discourse comprises those acts of literary writing that is creative, yet non-fiction. This could include memoirs, letters, or online blogs.
  • Poetic: Poetic discourse comprises creative, fictional writing. Poetic discourse includes novels, poems, and drama. These types of work often prioritize emotion, imagery, theme, and character development, as well as the use of literary devices like metaphor and symbolism.
  • Transactional: Transactional discourse is used to propel something into action, such as advertising motivating a customer to buy, or showing a customer how to use a product via a manual. This type of discourse generally does not rely so much on literary devices.

Common Examples of Discourse

Let us look at some examples of the different types of discourse from everyday life:

When you buy a box of Ritz crackers, on the back of the box, they have all these suggestions as to what to put on top of the Ritz. “Try it with turkey and cheese. Try it with peanut butter.” But I like crackers man, that’s why I bought it, ’cause I like crackers! I don’t see a suggestion to put a Ritz on top of a Ritz. I didn’t buy them because they’re little edible plates! You’ve got no faith in the product itself.

—Mitch Hedberg
Jokes are examples of discourse like all other communication; here, Mitch Hedberg is mainly using narration to tell a funny idea.

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

—“I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr.
In this speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. blended different types of discourse, such as narration and argument.

Significance of Discourse in Literature

Discourse of any type is one of the most important elements of human behavior and formation. Countless studies have been done on the way the brain shapes thoughts into words and, indeed, the way that communication shapes the brain. Many studies have specifically targeted the way that speakers of different languages understand concepts differently. Thus, the creation and dispersion of discourse is of the utmost importance to the perpetuation of the human race. Literature is one of the primary ways of maintaining a record of discourse and creating new ways of understanding the world. By reading texts from other cultures and other time periods, we are better able to understand the way in which the authors of those texts thought. Indeed, reading literature from our own ostensible cultures can better highlight the ways in which we think and interact. Since each piece of literature ever created is an example of discourse, our understanding of discourse is vital to our understanding of literature.

Examples of Discourse in Literature

Example #1

MACBETH: She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
— To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

(Macbeth by William Shakespeare)

In this beautiful and haunting soliloquy from William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth, the character of Macbeth is lamenting the death of his wife, Lady Macbeth. Shakespeare uses many different literary devices in this poetic discourse example, such as repetition in “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,” as well as imagery and metaphor. The function of this passage is primarily to make the audience feel strong emotion, even catharsis, as Macbeth thinks about what could have been.

Example #2

The Sun never shined on a cause of greater worth. ‘Tis not the affair of a City, a County, a Province, or a Kingdom; but of a Continent — of at least one-eighth part of the habitable Globe. ‘Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end of time, by the proceedings now. Now is the seed-time of Continental union, faith and honour. The least fracture now will be like a name engraved with the point of a pin on the tender rind of a young oak; the wound would enlarge with the tree, and posterity read in it full grown characters.

(“Common Sense” by Thomas Paine)

Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” is an excellent example of transactional discourse. In his essay, Paine lays out the reasons that the American colonies should rebel against Great Britain. Paine relies mostly on the discourse of argument, but also calls on the emotions of his readers in this passage by asking them to think of how much territory is at stake. Paine uses literary devices such as imagery and simile as well in invoking the image of the colonies as a young oak,

Example #3

In the meantime, things are getting more and more wonderful here. I think, Kitty, that true love may be developing in the Annex. All those jokes about marrying Peter if we stayed here long enough weren’t so silly after all. Not that I’m thinking of marrying him, mind you. I don’t even know what he’ll be like when he grows up. Or if we’ll even love each other enough to get married.

(The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank)

Anne Frank’s diary is one of the most famous examples of expressive discourse. Anne Frank was in hiding during World War II for many years in an Annex in Amsterdam, and spent her time recording her emotions and thoughts in her diary, which she named Kitty. We can see that the entries are non-fiction—that is, she truly lived them—but they are creative and expressive all the same.

Test Your Knowledge of Discourse

1. Which of the following statements is the best discourse definition?

A. Running back and forth between something.
B. Any act of spoken or written communication.
C. A heated discussion.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. If a text is used primarily to compel a reader to action, which type of discourse would this be?

A. Transactional
B. Expressive
C. Poetic

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Consider the opening paragraph of George Orwell’s novel 1984:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

Which of the types of discourse is present here?

A. Argument
B. Exposition
C. Description

Answer to Question #3 Show


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