Expressive Discourse in Composition

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Expressive discourse
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In composition studies, expressive discourse is a general term for writing or speech that focuses on the identity and/or the experience of the writer or speaker. Typically, a personal narrative would fall under the category of expressive discourse. Also called expressivism, expressive writing, and subjective discourse

In a number of articles published in the 1970s, composition theorist James Britton contrasted expressive discourse (which functions primarily as a means of generating ideas) with two other "function categories": transactional discourse (writing that informs or persuades) and poetic discourse (the creative or literary mode of writing).

In a book titled Expressive Discourse (1989), composition theorist Jeanette Harris argued that the concept is "virtually meaningless because it is so poorly defined." In place of a single category called "expressive discourse," she recommended analyzing "the types of discourse presently classified as expressive and identify[ing] them by terms that are commonly accepted or that are sufficiently descriptive to be used with some precision and accuracy."


"Expressive discourse, because it begins with subjective response and moves progressively toward more objective stances, is an ideal form of discourse for learners. It enables freshman writers to interact in much more honest and less abstract ways with what they read. It would, for example, encourage freshmen to objectify their own feelings and experience before they read; it would encourage freshmen to respond more systematically and objectively to textual focal points as they were reading; and it would allow freshmen to avoid taking on the more abstract poses of experts when they wrote about what a story, essay, or news article meant after they had finished reading it. The freshman writer, then, uses writing to express the process of reading itself, to articulate and objectify what Louise Rosenblatt calls the 'transaction' between the text and its reader."

(Joseph J. Comprone, "Recent Research in Reading and Its Implications for the College Composition Curriculum." Landmark Essays on Advanced Composition, ed. by Gary A. Olson and Julie Drew. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996)

Shifting Emphasis on Expressive Discourse

"The emphasis on expressive discourse has had a strong influence on the American educational scene--some have felt too strong--and there have been pendulum swings away from and then back again to an emphasis on this kind of writing. Some educators see expressive discourse as a psychological beginning for all types of writing, and consequently they tend to place it at the beginning of syllabuses or textbooks and even to emphasize it more at the elementary and secondary levels and to ignore it as the college level. Others see its overlap with other aims of discourse at all levels of education."

(Nancy Nelson and James L. Kinneavy, "Rhetoric." Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts, 2nd ed., ed. by James Flood et al. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003)

The Value of Expressive Discourse

"Not surprisingly, we find contemporary theorists and social critics disagreeing about the value of expressive discourse. In some discussions it is seen as the lowest form of discourse--as when a discourse is characterized as 'merely' expressive, or 'subjective,' or 'personal,' as opposed to full-fledged 'academic' or 'critical' discourse. In other discussions, expression is seen as the highest undertaking in discourse--as when literary works (or even works of academic criticism or theory) are seen as works of expression, not merely of communication. In this view, expression may be seen as more importantly a matter of the artifact and its effect on a reader than a matter of the artifact's relation to the author's 'self.'"

("Expressionism." Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition: Communication From Ancient Times to the Information Age, ed. by Theresa Enos. Taylor & Francis, 1996)

The Social Function of Expressive Discourse

"[James L.] Kinneavy [in A Theory of Discourse, 1971] argues that through expressive discourse the self moves from a private meaning to a shared meaning that results ultimately in some action. Rather than a 'primal whine,' expressive discourse moves away from solipsism toward accommodation with the world and accomplishes purposeful action. As a consequence, Kinneavy elevates expressive discourse to the same order as referential, persuasive, and literary discourse.
"But expressive discourse is not the exclusive province of the individual; it also has a social function. Kinneavy's analysis of the Declaration of Independence makes this clear. Contesting the claim that the purpose of the declaration is persuasive, Kinneavy traces its evolution through several drafts to prove that its primary aim is expressive: to establish an American group identity (410). Kinneavy's analysis suggests that rather than being individualistic and other-worldly or naive and narcissistic, expressive discourse can be ideologically empowering."

(Christopher C. Burnham, "Expressivism." Theorizing Composition: A Critical Sourcebook of Theory And Scholarship in Contemporary Composition Studies, ed. by Mary Lynch Kennedy. IAP, 1998)

Further Reading

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Nordquist, Richard. "Expressive Discourse in Composition." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, July 31). Expressive Discourse in Composition. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Expressive Discourse in Composition." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).