Discourse: Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In linguistics, discourse refers to a unit of language longer than a single sentence. More broadly, discourse is the use of spoken or written language in a social context.

Discourse studies, says Jan Renkema, refers to "the discipline devoted to the investigation of the relationship between form and function in verbal communication" (Introduction to Discourse Studies, 2004). Dutch linguist Teun van Dijk, author of The Handbook of Discourse Analysis (1985) and the founder of several journals, is generally regarded as the "founding father" of contemporary discourse studies.

Etymology: from the Latin, "run about"

"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."
(Eli Hinkel and Sandra Fotos, New Perspectives on Grammar Teaching in Second Language Classrooms. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002)

"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."
(Frances Henry and Carol Tator, Discourses of Domination. University of Toronto Press, 2002)

Contexts and Topics of Discourse

  • "Discourse can also be 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 (which may occur in many different genres). 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 (1972: 49) defines discourse more ideologically as 'practices which systematically form the objects of which they speak.'"
    (Paul Baker and Sibonile Ellece, Key Terms in Discourse Analysis. Continuum, 2011)

Discourse and Text

  • "'Discourse' is sometimes used in contrast with 'text,' where 'text' refers to actual written or spoken data, and 'discourse' refers to the whole act of communication involving production and comprehension, not necessarily entirely verbal. . . . The study of discourse, then, can involve matters like context, background information or knowledge shared between a speaker and hearer."
    (Meriel Bloor and Thomas Bloor, The Practice of Critical Discourse Analysis: an Introduction. Routledge, 2013)

Discourse as a Joint Activity

  • "[D]iscourse 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. . . . [Psycholinguist Herbert] 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."
    (Jan Renkeme, Introduction to Discourse Studies. John Benjamins, 2004)

Discourse in the 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. . . .
    "The term discourse is also used to refer to meanings at the more macro level. This approach does not study the individual words spoken by people but the language used to describe aspects of the world, and has tended to be taken by those using a sociological perspective."(Jane Ogden, Health and the Construction of the Individual. Psychology Press, 2002)

Pronunciation: DIS-kors