What is Metadiscourse?

Students Yawning in Class
"Metadiscourse is an essential part of any text,". Chuck Savage / Getty Images

Metadiscourse is an umbrella term for words used by a writer or speaker to mark the direction and purpose of a text. Adjective: metadiscursive.

Derived from the Greek words for "beyond" and "discourse," metadiscourse can be broadly defined as "discourse about discourse," or as "those aspects of texts that affect the relations of authors to readers" (Avon Chrismore, Talking With Readers, 1989).

In Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace (2003), Joseph M. Williams notes that in academic writing, metadiscourse "appears most often in introductions, where we announce intentions: I claim that . . ., I shall show . . ., We begin by . . . and again at the end, when we summarize: I have argued . . ., I have shown . . ., We have claimed . . .."

Explanations of Metadiscourse

  • Some of our most common and useful metadiscourse signals are the conjunctive adverbs . . .: however, so, nevertheless, and prepositional phrases such as in other words, in addition, and in fact. Other text connectors you're familiar with, such as first, in the first place, second, next, finally, and in conclusion, clearly add to the ease of reading, the flow of the text."
    (Martha Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. Pearson, 2007)
  • "Metadiscourse reveals the writer's awareness of the reader and his or her need for elaboration, clarification, guidance and interaction. In expressing an awareness of the text, the writer also makes the reader aware of it, and this only happens when he or she has a clear, reader-oriented reason for doing so. In other words, drawing attention to the text represents a writer's goals relative to an assessment of the reader's need for guidance and elaboration."
    (Ken Hyland, Metadiscourse: Exploring Interaction in Writing. Continuum, 2005)

Writers and Readers

"Metadiscourse refers to

  • the writer's thinking and writing: We will explain, show, argue, claim, deny, suggest, contrast, summarize . . .
  • the writer's degree of certainty: it seems, perhaps, undoubtedly, I think . . .  (We call these hedges and intensifiers.)
  • the readers' actions: consider now, as you might recall, look at the next example ...
  • the writing itself and logical connections among its parts: first, second, third; to begin, finally; therefore, however, consequently..." 

(Joseph M. Williams, Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace. Longman, 2003)

Metadiscourse as Commentary

"Every student who has silently suffered a course of lectures, surreptitiously watching the clock, . . . knows what metadiscourse is, although the word may be quite unfamiliar. Metadiscourse is 'Last week' and 'Now I propose to turn to' and 'What are we to understand by this?' and 'If I may put it metaphorically,' all the way through to 'And so to conclude...' followed by 'Finally...' and 'Next week we shall go on to examine ...'

"[M]etadiscourse is a kind of commentary, made in the course of speaking or writing. The essential feature of this commentary is that it is not appended to the text, like a footnote or a postscript, but is incorporated with it, in the form of words and phrases fitted into the unfolding message...
"Now many of the words and phrases we characterize, in their context, as 'metadiscourse' quite obviously function as marks of text structure, or taxis, while as many again seem to occur as explanatory or corrective comments on diction and style, that is, lexis."
(Walter Nash, An Uncommon Tongue: The Uses and Resources of English. Taylor & Francis, 1992)

Metadiscourse as a Rhetorical Strategy

"Definitions of metadiscourse that rely upon a clear-cut distinction between discourse (content) and metadiscourse (non-content) are ... shaky. Especially when analysing naturally-occurring speech, it cannot be assumed that all forms of communication about communication can be adequately separated from communication itself...

"Instead of defining metadiscourse as a level or plane of language, or a distinct unit separate from primary discourse, metadiscourse can be conceptualised as a rhetorical strategy used by speakers and authors to talk about their own talk (Chrismore 1989: 86). This is essentially a functional/discourse-oriented as opposed to a formally-oriented view."​
(Tamsin Sanderson, Corpus, Culture, Discourse. Narr Dr. Gunter, 2008)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What is Metadiscourse?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/metadiscourse-writing-and-speech-1691381. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). What is Metadiscourse? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/metadiscourse-writing-and-speech-1691381 Nordquist, Richard. "What is Metadiscourse?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/metadiscourse-writing-and-speech-1691381 (accessed March 28, 2023).