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.

A is for Articles (2)

24 01 2010

In the previous post on articles  – A is for articles (1) – I focused mainly on the indefinite article and attempted to correct the common misconception that the referents of a/an are both indefinite and non-specific. It’s possible, I argued, that something can be indefinite but also specific.

So what is definiteness, then? What makes a noun definite, and therefore eligible for a the in front of it? The most succinct explanation, for me, comes from M.A.K. Halliday:

The means ‘the [noun] in question is identifiable; but this will not tell you how to identify it – the information is somewhere around, where you can recover it.’ So whereas this train means ‘you know which train: – the one near me’, and my train means ‘you know which train: – the one I own’, the train means simply ‘you know which train’

(An Introduction to Functional Grammar, 1985, p. 161).

“The information is somewhere around where you can identify it”. What does Halliday mean by “somewhere around”?  There are two places that information can be “somewhere around”: in the shared world of the speakers (or reader and writer), i.e. the context; or in the shared world of the immediate text , i.e. the co-text. It is the interdependence of definite-ness and context that means that the definite article can only be taught, explained and practised in contexts that are normally larger than a sentence. It is less a grammatical item than a feature of discourse – and also of pragmatics. That is to say, its use can only really be explained by reference to the shared knowledge of speaker and listener (or reader and writer).

On the MA program I teach, I use this text (a translation of a 17th century Japanese poem) to present article usage.

I expected to see only pink blossoms

          but a gentle spring snow has fallen

and the cherry trees are wearing a white coat.


I ask these three questions:

1. Why is there no article (i.e. zero article) with pink blossoms?

2. Why a gentle spring snow and not gentle spring snow?

3. Why the cherry trees and not cherry trees?

Everything you need to know about the English article system is implicated in the answers to those three questions!

A is for Articles (1)

12 12 2009

It’s somewhat ironic that two of the most common words in the language – the and a – are also the hardest to explain. It’s not that we lack data – maybe there’s too much data and it’s impossible to see the wood for the trees. At any rate, the definite and indefinite article must win the prize for having the most nonsense written about them in coursebooks and student grammars.

Here’s how one upper intermediate coursebook (name withheld out of courtesy) explains the indefinite article:

“We use the indefinite article a when we are talking about a single countable noun in a general non-specific way or when we introduce it for the first time: There was a car outside the bank.”


This explanation conflates and confuses a number of facts. Starting with the second rule first, this is easily disproved in sentences like: “We decided to eat at a restaurant. The waiter showed us to a table….” The waiter is first mention, yet takes the definite article. And, while we’re at it, what about second mention? According to the coursebook rules, the second mention of a noun is definite, and takes the. Well, what about this: “The waiter showed us to a table. It was a small table, so we asked for another…”  Second mention but indefinite article! 

But more on the discourse function of articles in another post.

Let’s go back to the first rule: “We use the indefinite article a when we are talking about a single countable noun in a general non-specific way…”

Wrong.  The indefinite article can be used for general AND specific reference:

A tiger will bite if provoked = any tiger (generic reference, and indefinite)

A tiger bit me when I provoked it = specific tiger, although indefinite.


Compare also:

Is there a doctor on board? = any doctor, one of the class of doctors (generic, indefinite)

I sat next to a doctor on board. = a specific doctor (specific, indefinite)


(The ambiguity inherent in the indefinite article is exploited in jokes like: In (such-and-such-a-city) a person gets mugged every ten minutes. And he’s getting mighty sick of it!)

The definite article – the – can also be used for both generic and specific reference, but in either case, there is an assumption of shared knowledge:

The tiger hunts by night and sleeps by day = generic, definite

The tiger bit me! = specific, definite.


In other words, for both a and the, there are two parameters that intersect: specificity, and definiteness. And they are not the same thing.

Nouns in the plural can also have generic or specific reference, but only when indefinite – i.e. with zero article:

Tigers hunt by night and sleep by day = generic, indefinite

Tigers bit me = specific, indefinite


The tigers bit me  = specific (NEVER generic), definite


In other words, you can’t say the tigers to mean the class of tigers – a common learner error: *I like the cats. *The bananas are good for you, etc.

Now, why am I telling you all this?  Because I stupidly didn’t mention this in the A-Z. I completely omitted to point out that the generic-specific dimension operates across the definite-indefinite one. 

Next time round, I’ll include the following chart (where the examples with asterisks are non standard, where the sign Ø stands for the zero article, and where I’ve included non-count nouns as well):

  generic specific
definite She plays the violin.         

The whale is a mammal.

(*The whales are mammals.)

(*I like most types of the music.)

She played the violin I gave her.

Can you see the whale over there?

The violins are too loud.

I didn’t like the music in the film. 

indefinite Let’s give her a violin.

A whale cannot breathe underwater.

Ø Whales cannot breathe underwater.

I like most types of Ø music.

I saw a nice violin in town yesterday.

Captain Ahab was killed by a whale.

There are Ø whales in the Mediterranean.

Listen: I can hear Ø music!


Does that make any sense?