Guide to Literary Terms

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Text And Discourse

What is the difference between text and discourse?


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While there are instances where and individuals who use text and discourse as basically synonymous terms, there is a difference in their definitions as regards agents (who and whom) and purpose fulfilled. In text, agents are not a critical factor: there may agents, there may not be. For example, in CERN press release text, there are none: information is being reported, that's all. In a novel's text, there are agents, such as Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, who carry on a conversational discourse amongst themselves that the reader observes. The propose of text, therefore, is to relay or communicate information and may often be non-interactive, meaning the reader of the text is an observer.

While discourse is used in a nontechnical sense to mean conversational communication, linguistics, narratology and literary theory have developed a technical meaning to discourse. It is this meaning that confuses the issue of the difference between text and discourse. To start with, conversational discourse as between you and your friend or Elizabeth and Darcy is a behavioral event, called a recognizable speech event, that has individual purpose. Contrastingly, discourse in linguistics, narratology, and literary theory is a social event of multi-layered communication in a variety of media (verbal, textual, visual, audial) that has an interactive social purpose.

To study text, you study the written words that communicate some information: structure, theme, meaning, rhetorical devices, etc. To study discourse, you study who is communicating with whom through what medium and for what social purpose. Let’s use this answer as an example. To study or analyze the text , you will note the overall structure and...

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