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An FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) Guide and Practice for Preparation for Future Learning in Discourse Analysis

This guide seeks to clarify some central questions about discourse analysis. It also offers a number of exercises to allow students to engage in basic practice that can be a good preparation for future learning in discourse analysis.

  1. What is “syntax”?

    Syntax is a “level” (part) of grammar. It is the rules or conventions by which words are combined into phrases (e.g., “A red flower”, “a large mouse”) and phrases are combined into clauses and sentences (e.g., “John thinks Mary is smart”, “Mary is smart”). A clause is any verb and its subject and whatever follows the verb. A sentence is any clause that can stand alone. Thus “John thinks that Mary is smart” is made up of two clauses: “Mary is smart” and “John thinks Mary is smart”. Since the clause “John thinks that Mary is smart” can stand alone, it is both a clause and a sentence. “Mary is smart” all by itself is both a clause and a sentence.

  2. What is semantics?

    Semantics is a “level” (part) of grammar. It is the rules or conventions by which words, phrases, clauses, and sentences are assigned “basic” or “literal” meanings. Thus, the rules of semantics for English determine that “a red flower” means a flower that is the color red and “a large mouse” means a mouse that is large for a mouse. Note that red flowers are red, but large mice are not really large, but just large for mice, which are all, in the scale of things, small.

  3. What is “basic” or “literal” meaning?

    Basic or literal meaning is the core meaning of a word or combination of words that sets its possible range of meanings (which is much wider) when it is actually used in specific contexts. Thus, the word “cat” has a core meaning of “feline animal”, and “puppy” means “young dog”. In actual contexts of use these words can take on context-specific meanings that are related to their basic meanings, but “riff” on them or adjust them in ways appropriate to the context. Thus, “Don’t break the cat” can, in a specific context, mean “Don’t break the cat statue”; “The cat just passed the dog” could mean, in a specific context, a cat-shaped cloud passed a dog-shaped cloud. “All cats are vegetarians” means all of them. “Africa’s big cats are endangered” means only things like lions and tigers. Context-specific meanings, which adjust basic meanings based on the nature of the context, we call “situated meanings”.

    Syntax allows speakers and writers to design or compose phrases, clauses, and sentences. It allows speakers and writers to combine words into big units. Any time speakers or writers combine words in certain ways—design in certain ways—they could have done it differently. There are almost always alternative ways to say (almost) “the same sort of thing”. So discourse analysts always ask “Why did a speaker or a writer say or write what he/she did the way he/she did and not in some possible alternative way that the language would have allowed?”. The choice a speaker or writer has made is part of what helps determine what situated meanings we as hearers, readers, or discourse analysts attribute to them.

    Question 3: Additional task

  4. What is “discourse analysis”?

    There are many methods of doing discourse analysis found in many different academic fields. They all involve analyzing the meanings, themes, possible interpretations, and significance of oral or written language as it is actually used in specific settings, situations, social or cultural groups, institutions, or history.

  5. What is “discourse analysis” in linguistics?

    Linguists treat “discourse” as a “level of language”, the level “above the sentence”. Thus, discourse is how sentences or utterances relate to each other in sequence across time as they are read or heard. A wrinkle here is a single (or even partial) sentence can be a discourse on its own, as in yelling “Fire” or “Fire, head for the exits” in a crowded theater. This is just a one sentence “discourse”. Some linguists, based on issues like this one, define discourse analysis as just the study of oral and written language in use.

  6. Are there sentences in speech?

    Some linguists believe that only writing has sentences. This is because it is so easy to find sentences in writing, namely as any string of words followed by a period. Speech is often more fluid than writing, since we are frequently producing language on the fly and making decisions and changes as we go. Nonetheless, I believe that there are sentences in oral language; they are just often more loosely organized than in writing. We can find them by using various linguistic criteria (including intonation), but they are basically strings of words where we would be tempted to put a period if we transformed the oral data into writing. There is bound to be some disagreement at times, due to the fluidity and flexibility of speech, but there will be many cases where we agree on what is a sentence.

  7. What has syntax got to do with discourse and discourse analysis?

    Syntax determines what material is in a single sentence and, thus, too, what material is put into separate sentences. Discourse analysts study why such choices were made and what they mean in actual contexts of language use.

  8. What is pragmatics?

    Pragmatics is the study of how language in use invites certain sort of inferences (e.g., “Have you stopped beating your children?” implies you once beat your children) and carries out certain sorts of actions (e.g., “I promise” is a way of making a promise). However, more generally, pragmatics is the study of language in use in various contexts. Thus, it means pretty much the same thing as “discourse analysis”. We really do not need two terms here and I call both pragmatics and discourse analysis, “discourse analysis”.

  9. What is the relationship of discourse analysis to ethnography?

    Discourse analysts use any tools they can to study how context affects language use. These tools can include ethnography, historical study, interviews, studies of environments and space, studies of conventions and social and cultural practices and beliefs, and others.

  10. Why bother to do discourse analysis?

    We all tacitly engage in discourse analysis as we talk, write, read, and listen in the world. We have to in order to form meanings, interpretations, and inferences for, viewpoints on, and to prepare a response to what we have heard or read. Speakers and writers have to engage in tacit discourse analysis to anticipate and seek to get certain sorts of interpretations and responses from listeners or readers. As we go about our own tacit everyday discourse analysis, we can do good and bad in the world. Sometimes it is important for all of us—and for “professional” discourse analysts—to think overtly and unconsciously about language in use so we can make responsible and moral decisions and live as proactive agents for making ourselves and our world better.

  11. What makes discourse analysis scientific?

    Science is based on a) a respect for evidence; b) allowing others to check, vet, and try to falsify our claims; and c) being be willing to seek actively to falsify our own views. Any enterprise that engages in these practices is, in my view, a form of science. Evidence is a matter of paying close attention to and honoring the world’s (“reality’s”) responses to our hypotheses, probes, experiments, and actions and forming and changing our viewpoints based on these responses as we seek to understand them together and in collaboration with those with whom we share knowledge and tools. Evidence never “proves” things, it just makes them more and more plausible, but always open to revision. In the end, science is respect for the world supercharged with tools, methods, and collaboration.