Modes of Discourse: The Local Structure of Texts

Modes of Discourse: The Local Structure of Texts

Modes of Discourse: The Local Structure of Texts

Modes of Discourse: The Local Structure of Texts


In studying discourse, the problem for the linguist is to find a fruitful level of analysis. Carlota Smith offers a new approach with this study of discourse passages, units of several sentences or more. She introduces the key idea of the 'Discourse Mode', identifying five modes: Narrative, Description, Report, Information, Argument. These are realized at the level of the passage, and cut across genre lines. Smith shows that the modes, intuitively recognizable as distinct, have linguistic correlates that differentiate them. She analyzes the properties that distinguish each mode, focusing on grammatical rather than lexical information. The book also examines linguistically based features that appear in passages of all five modes: topic and focus, variation in syntactic structure, and subjectivity, or point of view. Operating at the interface of syntax, semantics, and pragmatics, the book will appeal to researchers and graduate students in linguistics, stylistics and rhetoric.


This book is a partial answer to the question: what can close linguistic analysis bring to the understanding of discourse? Discourse studies have focused on pragmatic factors such as genre expectations, discourse coherence relations, and inference. In part this has been a natural reaction to earlier, rather unsuccessful attempts to apply the techniques of linguistic analysis beyond the sentence. The current emphasis also follows from increased understanding of the area of pragmatics, and of the role of context in language use and interpretation.

It has sometimes seemed, though, that nothing at all is conveyed by linguistic forms, while everything is due to pragmatics or lexical content. I attempt to right the balance here, at least in part. I propose a local level of discourse, the Discourse Mode, which has linguistic properties and discourse meaning. I posit five modes: Narrative, Report, Descriptive, Information, and Argument.

The Discourse Modes are classes of discourse passages, defined by the entities they introduce into the universe of discourse and their principle of progression. The discourse entities are essentially aspectual. They include the familiar Events and States, and some less-familiar categories. The Discourse Modes grew out of my work on aspect and tense. In studies of situation types in discourse, I noticed interesting differences between passages of different types. Investigating further, I arrived at the Discourse Modes. If I am right about their contribution to discourse, they make it clear that temporality is one of the key sub-systems in language.

I characterize the modes by their linguistic features, that is, grammatical forms with consistent interpretations. The linguistic features of the modes are covert categories in the sense of Whorf (1956). They are not overtly marked but they have characteristic patterns of distribution, and of interpretation. These properties are subtle, but they are demonstrably part of a person's knowledge of language. The emphasis throughout this book is on grammatical rather than lexical features of discourse.

The modes are, therefore, linguistic categories. I was curious to know whether they would be related to anything in the field of rhetoric. When I looked at the . . .

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