D is for Discourse

9 01 2011

On the bus: Illustration by Quentin Blake for 'Success with English' (Penguin 1968)

In a recent article I describe the term discourse as being “both slippery and baggy: slippery because it eludes neat definition, and baggy because it embraces a wide range of  linguistic and social phenomena” (Thornbury 2010, p. 270). Is there any way of nailing it down?

In An A-Z of ELT I define discourse as “any connected piece of speaking or writing”. Let’s test this definition with an authentic example:

Just arrivd. I’m on the bus.

The text is certainly connected: the travel lexis (arrivd and bus) connects the two clauses topically. The ellipted subject (I) in the first clause is recoverable from the second clause, so that both clauses share a common theme.   Moreover, the clauses are sequenced in such a way that they map on to the script that represents, in schematic form, what happens when people arrive at, say, an airport. The definite article the, in the bus, presupposes shared knowledge as to which bus (possibly the airport bus) is being referred to.

By invoking shared knowledge and a context of use, however, we are going beyond the (linguistic) text itself and hypothesizing, not only a recipient, but a particular relationship between the sender and the recipient, and a particular interpretation of the text that is consistent with the sender’s purpose. In short, we are assuming that the text is coherent, that it has some communicative purpose, and that it is the (partial) trace of a more extended exchange.

Which indeed it was: the message was sent (by me) in response to the following:

Are U there yet? Cheers, Grzegorz.

Grzegorz was hosting me at a conference in Warsaw, and had previously told me how to get from the airport into the center of town.  A different constellation of contextual variables would have produced a different discourse, leaving as its trace a different text. This in fact was the case when I sent the same text message, but with a change of article, to a friend:

Just arrvd. I’m on a bus.

In this case, the absence of any assumption of shared knowledge (a vs the) positions writer and reader in a different relationship. The communicative purpose has also shifted somewhat: whereas the first message is designed to reassure Grzegorz that everything is going to plan, the second implies a sense of novelty, strangeness, possibly adventure.  Here, then, we are concerned with the text less as connected sentences (discourse1, if you like), and more as an instance of language in use (discourse2).

But there is a third sense of ‘discourse’ that can be extracted from these tiny texts. The formula [I’m] on the bus connects to a larger discourse, which is that of text messages in general. The phrase would probably occur with significant frequency in any corpus of  text messages or mobile phone conversations. In this sense, the text makes (implicit) connections with other texts of the same type: it exhibits intertextuality. So much so that it (and its possibly even more frequent variant: I’m on the train) index a social practice that has generated its own ‘meta-discourse’. Here, for example, is how one website humorously glosses the phrase:

I’m on the bus

Said in two different environments:

1. When commuting on the bus and one is engaged in a mobile phone conversation, it is used to avoid talking loudly about embarrassing topics in a crowd of eavesdropping fellow commuters.

2. When person A is tired, or doesn’t see the logic of why person B has called, this can be said to avoid conversation with person B.

A: “Hey what did the doctor say about that lump on your balls?”
B: “I’m on the bus.”
A: “Oh alright.”

(from The Urban Dictionary)

The social and cultural meanings that text messages have accreted, then, constitute a third sense of discourse: discourse as social practice, or discourse3. (Some writers – e.g. Blommaert 2005, and Gee 2005 – would argue that social practice extends beyond mere language use, and that discourse as social practice should include “all forms of meaningful semiotic human activity” [Blommaert, op.cit. p. 3]. But for the purposes of this discussion I’ll take discourse as social practice to mean ‘social practice as encoded in language‘).

As a further example of the way ‘I’m on the bus’ has achieved catchphrase status, and hence indexes a social practice, in 2004 the Brighton & Hove Bus and Coach Company used it as a slogan for promoting bus travel in the region, emblazoning it across the sides of its buses alongside blown-up portraits of transport workers and local commuters. As the managing director commented, “It really has been a great way of connecting with the community we are pleased to serve and making our buses come alive with the people who travel around on them” (Brighton & Hove Bus & Coach Co website)

In this case, then, ‘I’m on the bus’ instantiates a larger discourse of community values and civic pride, of which the managing director’s upbeat comment contributes yet another strand.

So, discourse can mean connected text, or language in use, or language as a social practice. Which leads me to wonder: which of these meanings has the most relevance to the way learners are taught to interpret and produce texts in class?


Blommaert, J. 2005. Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gee, J. 2005. Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method (2nd edn). London: Continuum.

Thornbury, S. 2010. What can a corpus tell us about discourse? In O’Keeffe, A., & McCarthy, M. (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Corpus Linguistics. London: Routledge.



9 responses

9 01 2011

There are pragmatic overtures which need to be addressed in a classroom but with discourse as a matter of sociolinguistics and more specifically of register, I tend towards the thinking that, as with the use of idiomatic language, an individual’s wit, creativity and sense of humour / propriety / convention, is essentially the same in the first language as it is in the second. Although culture may have a say in this, fundamentally I’m not sure that it’s something ESL teachers need to focus too heavily on with people below an advanced level.

10 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Perhaps sociolinguistics embraces those levels of discourse knowledge that I define as discourse (2) and discourse (3), while discourse (1) (connected text) operates only at the level of co-text, and is context independent. That is to say, the way that sentences are joined one with another employs systems (cohesive devices, pronoun reference etc) that are not determned by the relation between speaker-listener (or reader-writer) or the context-of-situation. (Assuming, of course, that it’s possible to separate out these areas). In which case, it is probably more about the mechanics of text interpretation and production, and – arguably – therefore more ‘teachable’ .

I agree with you that speaker/writers will – given a critical mass of L2 familiarity – probably transfer their discourse (2) and discourse (3) skills from their L1 – pre-supposing a degree of intercultural awareness/sensitivity, perhaps.

10 01 2011
David Venezia

It’s an interesting question you pose, Scott. At times, when discourse analysis concepts are significantly removed from classroom practice, I would say that there needs to be a way to interpret how da concepts are mapped onto the approaches we take in teaching situations. There needs to be language to talk and write about these intersections of theory and practice. It’s nice to know that we are creating the language and encoding the discourse norms as we participate in this thread.

10 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Good point about the way that discourse is – or can be – mutually constructed, as on a blog + comments. I had’t thought of that – how the three levels of discourse that I identify in my post can be mapped on to the kind of exchange that is embodied in a blog.

First, there is the ‘connected text’ level – the way that not only sentences are connected one with another, but the way that individual posts cross-refer (using formulae such as ‘in your post’, ‘your comment’ etc).

At the level of ‘discourse as language use’, there is a good deal of interpretative work to be done in terms of inferring each writer’s purpose and attitude (is it to support the argument, refute it, augment it, ridicule it? etc).

And, at the level of ‘discourse as social practice’, the way that a blog both creates and sustains a microcosmic community of practice, through reference to shared values, concerns and experiences (specifically classroom ones) would make a fascinating study.

Any takers? 😉

12 01 2011

I find advertising discourse very interesting, especially in such a global market place. It’s interesting in terms of connected text (using features like repetition) Language in use (multiple adjectives, absolute adverbs, understatement and exaggeration) but most of all interesting in the sense of language as a social tool.

“I’m loving it”
“The best a man can get”
“Don’t leave home without it”
“Because you’re worth it”
“Melts in your mouth and not in your hand”
“And all because the lady loves milk tray” (OK this one is a bit old!)

These are now such famous slogans and so associated with their products – the power of advertising has in effect altered our “schema” insofar as many people in the Western world would know what products the slogans refer to.

It’s seems impossible to separate language from it’s wider social context and the use of any of the above slogans within a text could infer a reference to the associated product.

I’m addressing exactly this area at the moment with my English IGCSE group!

12 01 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Steph. Advertising discourse is excellent material for demonstrating – not only features of cohesion – but also features of persuasive writing, including the use of evaluative language (look how many words with positive associations are included in those slogans you cited!).

Also, your point about the way advertising slogans infiltrate their way into common speech is well made. I’ve commented elsewhere on this blog how ‘I’m loving it’ seems to have taken on a life of its own – exactly what the advertisers were hoping for, of course.

In the case of the bus company’s use of ‘I’m on the bus’, this is a good example of movement in the opposite direction, where the phraseology of everyday language is re-invented as an advertising slogan.

13 01 2011
Jessica Mackay

Hi and (belated) Happy New Year!

Steph’s comment above reminded me of this lovely clip from the BBC series ‘Outnumbered’.

All the more remarkable as the programmes were unscripted and relied on the improvisation of the young actors to provide the humour. Just goes to show just how far phrases such as ‘Because you’re worth it’ have entered the public consciousness’.

14 03 2012
Jake Wheatland

Thats Me On The Side Of That Bus.

18 09 2017
Anas Qabbani

Thanks a lot Scott for such an interesting article. I wonder, however, if- in your analysis of discourse above- you believe that pragmatics and discourse are two different sub-fields, or have a much closer interaction!

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