Modes of Discourse (Composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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The conventional modes of discourse are narration, description, exposition, and argument. barisonal/Getty Images

In composition studies, the term modes of discourse refers to the four traditional categories of written texts: narration, description, exposition, and argument. Also known as the rhetorical modes and forms of discourse.

In 1975, James Britton and his associates at the University of London questioned the usefulness of the modes of discourse as a way of teaching students how to write. "The tradition is profoundly prescriptive," they observed, "and shows little inclination to observe the writing process: its concern is with how people should write rather than how they do" (The Development of Writing Abilities [11-18]).

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Examples and Observations

  • "Beginning with Samuel Newman's Practical Systems of Rhetoric of 1827, American rhetoric textbooks . . . were supplementing Whatelian argumentative rhetoric with other modes. Teachers were coming to prefer books that offered concrete treatment of the different sorts of communication aims obviously served by writing. As writing displaced oral rhetoric, the older insistence on a single argumentative purpose did not serve, and in 1866 the desire for a multimodal rhetorical system was met by Alexander Bain, whose English Composition and Rhetoric proposed the multimodal system that has remained to this day, the 'forms' or 'modes' of discourse: narration, description, exposition, and argument."
    (Robert Connors, Composition-Rhetoric. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997)
  • Writing in Multiple Modes
    - "A mode is . . . considered as one dimension of a subject, a way of viewing the subject as static or dynamic, abstract or concrete. A typical discourse, then, may make use of all the modes. For instance, to write about a monarch butterfly we may narrate about the butterfly (e.g., trace its migration north in the spring or its life cycle), describe the butterfly (orange and black, about three inches wide), classify it (species, Danaus Plexippus, belonging to the family Danaidae, the milkweed butterflies, order Lepidoptera); and evaluate it ('one of the most beautiful and best known of butterflies'). However, even though the discourse may include all of the modes, it is common to use one of the modes to organize the discourse, as is suggested by the title of one of [James L.] Kinneavy's textbooks: Writing: Basic Modes of Organization, by Kinneavy, Cope, and Campbell."
    (Mary Lynch Kennedy, ed. Theorizing Composition: A Critical Sourcebook of Theory And Scholarship in Contemporary Composition Studies. IAP, 1998)|

     - "No theory of modes of discourse ever pretends that the modes do not overlap. In actuality, it is impossible to have pure narration, etc. However in a given discourse there will often be . . . [a] 'dominant' mode. . . .

    "These four modes of discourse [narration, classification, description, and evaluation] are not an application of the communication triangle. They actually are grounded in certain philosophic concepts of the nature of reality considered as being or becoming."
    (James Kinneavy, A Theory of Discourse. Prentice Hall, 1972)
  • Problems With the Modes of Discourse
    "The modes are faulted for relying on faculty and associationist psychology. Faculty psychology assumes the mind is governed by the 'faculties' of understanding, imagination, passion, or will. Associationist psychology contends that we know the world through the grouping, or association, of ideas, which follows basic 'laws' and order. Thus early proponents of the modes of discourse assumed that one should choose a form of discourse according to the 'faculty' to be influenced and based on laws of association. . . .

    "In light of current composition theory, problems with the modes of discourse as a guiding principle of composition pedagogy are numerous. For example, Sharon Crowley (1984) faults the modes for focusing only on text and writer, ignoring the audience, and thus being 'arhetorical.'"
    (Kimberly Harrison, Contemporary Composition Studies. Greenwood, 1999)
  • Adams Sherman Hill on the "Kinds of Composition" (1895)
    "The four kinds of composition that seem to require separate treatment are: Description, which deals with persons or things; Narration, which deals with acts or events; Exposition, which deals with whatever admits of analysis or requires explanation; Argument, which deals with any material that may be used to convince the understanding or to affect the will. The purpose of description is to bring before the mind of the reader persons or things as they appear to the writer. The purpose of narration is to tell a story. The purpose of exposition is to make the matter in hand more definite. The purpose of argument is to influence opinion or action, or both.

    "In theory these kinds of composition are distinct, but in practice two or more of them are usually combined. Description readily runs into narration, and narration into description: a paragraph may be descriptive in form and narrative in purpose, or narrative in form and descriptive in purpose. Exposition has much in common with one kind of description; and it may be of service to any kind of description, to narration, or to argument."
    (Adams Sherman Hill, The Principles of Rhetoric, rev. edition. American Book Company, 1895)