What is Discourse? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Discourse Definition


Discourse (DISK-horse) is another word for written or spoken communication. The term is a broad one that has slightly different definitions depending on the discipline in which it is used; in literature, discourse refers to a presentation of thought through language. Discursive language typically contains long, detailed sentences that address a specific subject in a formal manner.

Discourse comes from the Latin discursus, which means “a running about.” This illustrates the basic idea of relaying information through the natural rhythm and flow of language.


Types of Literary Discourse


Generally speaking, any time someone uses language to communicate, they’re utilizing discourse. The job of the writer, then, is one that primarily relies on discourse to tell stories, share ideas, and disseminate information. Essentially, without discourse, there would be no literature.

Not all discourse is the same, however, and literary scholars break it down into four main types: argument, description, exposition, and narration.

  • Argument: An argument is an attempt to convince the reader through logic and reasoning. The writer will make a specific claim and then present evidence that supports that claim. For example, academic essays employ argumentative discourse to persuade readers about the truth of an overarching thesis.
  • Description: Description is a sensory experience for the reader, one that aims to help them develop clear mental images of the information presented. Novels, short stories, and poems depend on the power of description to entertain and move readers.
  • Exposition: Exposition informs the audience of a certain fact but doesn’t seek to influence the audience’s opinion of that fact. Expositional discourse is neutral in language and tone to avoid persuading or stirring emotion in the reader; its purpose is purely informational. News stories and other journalistic writings, as well as comparative analyses and other research-oriented literature, commonly utilize exposition.
  • Narration: Narration is the written commentary that presents the story to the reader. Put another way, it is the voice of the storyteller. Narration engages the reader through compelling language that elicits emotion and empathy and keeps the reader turning the page. Narration is a cornerstone of novels, short stories, and some plays.

Other schools of thoughts break literary discourse down into the categories of expressive, poetic, and transactional discourse.

  • Expressive: Expressive discourse reflects the emotions of the writer. Its focus is on generating and discussing ideas, with little or no emphasis on concrete facts or attempts to persuade others of a central argument. Works of expressive discourse are always nonfiction; diaries and journals, blogs, and memoirs are all examples.
  • Poetic: Poetic discourse is a highly creative approach to fictional writing. The writer presents thoughts, feelings, events, places, and characters in imaginative, sometimes rhythmic, language that appeals to readers’ emotions. Poetic discourse emphasizes theme, imagery, and feelings. It is a central component of poetry but is also evident, to some degree, in most novels and short stories.
  • Transactional: Transactional discourse is less of a literary approach and more of an instructional one. It lays out a clear action or plan, typically in an active voice, that compels the reader to act. Advertising and marketing writing, instruction manuals, and business correspondence are all common sources of transactional discourse.


The Function of Discourse


Discourse is crucial to how readers understand the world the author is trying to create, but its function is much larger in scope than any one literary work.

Discourse serves to inform and shape how the individual sees the world and how they form a baseline for responding to different concepts. At its most basic, it may seem like discourse is only communication, but communication is how we interact with one another, with ourselves, and with our societies.

Written communications—be they novels, poems, nonfiction books, letters, diary entries, or emails—are records of how a society shares information. They provide insights into why we think the way we do and how we connect with people and ideas. They influence behavior, relationships, and social change.


Discourse Outside of Literature


Discourse in Rhetoric

Discourse has a somewhat different meaning in the field of rhetoric, which is how speakers inform and persuade their audience of a specific perception of reality. Rhetorical discourse contains a central, organizing voice—the person doing the speaking or narrating—attempting to motivate the audience to come to a conclusion that serves the speaker’s goals. Rhetorical discourse only utilizes narrative elements to convince the reader or listener; they’re rarely complete narratives. The purpose here is persuasion, not aestheticism, didacticism, or poetic expression.

Discourse in Semantics

The application of discourse in semantics is even more complex. Discourse semantics is an analysis of how we utilize vocabulary in specific areas of intellectual inquiry. This analysis explores the connection between language and structure, such as the relationship between a sentence and the larger context it exists in. An example of this is the use of a pronoun in a sentence, which a reader or listener can only understand as it relates to another part that denotes to whom the pronoun refers.

Discourse in Social Sciences

Social sciences and the humanities describe discourse as a formalized way of thinking expressed through language. It is the way society thinks and communicates about people, things, and social organization, as well as the relationship between these three elements.

Sociology considers discourse to be a way to give meaning to reality. Political science understands it as a formal exchange of rational views to solve a social problem. Finally, psychological discourse assesses language form and function, whether written or verbal, as they relate to mental health.


Examples of Discourse in Literature


1. William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of star-crossed teenage lovers opens with a narrative discourse:

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.

This introduction sets the scene to give the audience a clear idea of where and in what conditions the action of the play occurs. It also does something unique: It tells the audience right from the beginning that Romeo and Juliet will ultimately kill themselves. Rather than serve as a spoiler, this approach imbues the play with a sense of urgency, underscoring the depth of the lovers’ feelings for one another and the serious risks they face in pursuing their relationship.

2. Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 2: 1934-1939

Nin was one of the foremost diarists of the 20th century. Her diaries, like all diaries, abound with expressive discourse. Much of her writing examines what it means to be a woman and an artist in the modern world. She wrote this passage as she prepared to leave Paris just before the Second World War came to France:

I knew I could not separate myself from the world’s death, even though I was not one of those who brought it about. I had to make clear the relation of our individual dramas to the larger one, and our responsibility. I was never one with the world, yet I was to be destroyed with it. I always lived seeing beyond it. I was not in harmony with its explosions and collapse. I had, as an artist, another rhythm, another death, another renewal. That was it. I was not at one with the world, I was seeking to create one by other rules…. The struggle against destruction which I lived out in my intimate relationships had to be transposed and become of use to the whole world.

Nin explores her detachment from the world during such a scary and uncertain time, but she also finds a connection between the intensity of her personal dramas and the violence of war-ravaged Europe. Her emphasis on emotions and ideas in this passage is a hallmark of expressive discourse.

3. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations”

Coates’s landmark essay first appeared The Atlantic in 2014. He delves into the relationship between America’s prosperity and its long history of slavery and racism:

The lives of black Americans are better than they were half a century ago. The humiliation of whites only signs are gone. Rates of black poverty have decreased. Black teen-pregnancy rates are at record lows—and the gap between black and white teen-pregnancy rates has shrunk significantly. But such progress rests on a shaky foundation, and fault lines are everywhere. The income gap between black and white households is roughly the same today as it was in 1970. Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University, studied children born from 1955 through 1970 and found that 4 percent of whites and 62 percent of blacks across America had been raised in poor neighborhoods. A generation later, the same study showed, virtually nothing had changed. And whereas whites born into affluent neighborhoods tended to remain in affluent neighborhoods, blacks tended to fall out of them.

Coates argues that without slave labor and the systematic oppression of black people after the abolishment of slavery, America never could have become such a wealthy and modernized nation. For this reason, he suggests that black people of today deserve reparations from the government as compensation for the critical, backbreaking labor performed by their ancestors. The above excerpt illustrates one of the ways systemic racism prevents black Americans from achieving economic stability and functions as a point in support of Coates’s argumentative discourse.


Further Resources on Discourse


The Living Handbook of Narratology goes in-depth on narratives in rhetorical discourse.

Discourse.org offers an open source discussion about modern internet discourse.

ThoughtCo. provides an introduction to discourse in sociology.

Science Encyclopedia has a brief historical overview of rhetorical discourse.

Read a classic essay on discourse by English philosopher Francis Bacon.


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