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.