Definition and Examples of Discourse

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In linguistics, discourse refers to a unit of language longer than a single sentence. The word discourse is derived from the latin prefix dis- meaning "away" and the root word currere meaning "to run". Discourse, therefore, translates to "run away" and refers to the way that conversations flow. To study discourse is to analyze the use of spoken or written language in a social context.

Discourse studies look at the form and function of language in conversation beyond its small grammatical pieces such as phonemes and morphemes. This field of study, which Dutch linguist Teun van Dijk is largely responsible for developing, is interested in how larger units of language—including lexemes, syntax, and context—contribute meaning to conversations.

Definitions and Examples of Discourse

"Discourse in context may consist of only one or two words as in stop or no smoking. Alternatively, a piece of discourse can be hundreds of thousands of words in length, as some novels are. A typical piece of discourse is somewhere between these two extremes," (Hinkel and Fotos 2001).

"Discourse is the way in which language is used socially to convey broad historical meanings. It is language identified by the social conditions of its use, by who is using it and under what conditions. Language can never be 'neutral' because it bridges our personal and social worlds," (Henry and Tator 2002).

Contexts and Topics of Discourse

The study of discourse is entirely context-dependent because conversation involves situational knowledge beyond just the words spoken. Often times, meaning cannot be extrapolated from an exchange merely from its verbal utterances because there are many semantic factors involved in authentic communication.

"The study of discourse...can involve matters like context, background information or knowledge shared between a speaker and hearer," (Bloor and Bloor 2013).

Subcategories of Discourse

"Discourse used to refer to particular contexts of language use, and in this sense, it becomes similar to concepts like genre or text type. For example, we can conceptualize political discourse (the sort of language used in political contexts) or media discourse (language used in the media).

In addition, some writers have conceived of discourse as related to particular topics, such as an environmental discourse or colonial discourse...Such labels sometimes suggest a particular attitude towards a topic (e.g. people engaging in environmental discourse would generally be expected to be concerned with protecting the environment rather than wasting resources). Related to this, Foucault...defines discourse more ideologically as 'practices which systematically form the objects of which they speak'," (Baker and Ellece 2013).

Discourse in Social Sciences

"Within social science...discourse is mainly used to describe verbal reports of individuals. In particular, discourse is analyzed by those who are interested in language and talk and what people are doing with their speech. This approach [studies] the language used to describe aspects of the world and has tended to be taken by those using a sociological perspective," (Ogden 2002).

Common Ground

Discourse is a joint activity requiring active participation from two or more people, and as such is dependent on the lives and knowledge of two or more people as well as the situation of the communication itself. Herbert Clark applied the concept of common ground to his discourse studies as a way of accounting for the various agreements that take place in successful communication.

"Discourse is more than a message between sender and receiver. In fact, sender and receiver are metaphors that obfuscate what is really going on in communication. Specific illocutions have to be linked to the message depending on the situation in which discourse takes place...Clark compares language in use with a business transaction, paddling together in a canoe, playing cards or performing music in an orchestra.

A central notion in Clark's study is common ground. The joint activity is undertaken to accumulate the common ground of the participants. With common ground is meant the sum of the joint and mutual knowledge, beliefs and suppositions of the participants," (Renkema 2004).


  • Baker, Paul, and Sibonile Ellece. Key Terms in Discourse Analysis. 1st ed., Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
  • Bloor, Meriel, and Thomas Bloor. Practice of Critical Discourse Analysis: An Introduction. Routledge, 2013.
  • Henry, Frances, and Carol Tator. Discourses of Domination: Racial Bias in the Canadian English-Language Press. University of Toronto, 2002.
  • Hinkel, Eli, and Sandra Fotos, editors. New Perspectives on Grammar Teaching in Second Language Classrooms. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001.
  • Ogden, Jane. Health and the Construction of the Individual. Routledge, 2002.
  • Renkema, Jan. Introduction to Discourse Studies. John Benjamins, 2004.
  • Van Dijk, Teun Adrianus. Handbook of Discourse Analysis. Academic, 1985.
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Discourse." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Definition and Examples of Discourse. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Discourse." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).