Discourse analysis is sometimes defined as the analysis of language 'beyond the sentence'. This contrasts with types of analysis more typical of modern linguistics, which are chiefly concerned with the study of grammar: the study of smaller bits of language, such as sounds (phonetics and phonology), parts of words (morphology), meaning (semantics), and the order of words in sentences (syntax). Discourse analysts study larger chunks of language as they flow together.

Some discourse analysts consider the larger discourse context in order to understand how it affects the meaning of the sentence. For example, Charles Fillmore points out that two sentences taken together as a single discourse can have meanings different from each one taken separately. To illustrate, he asks you to imagine two independent signs at a swimming pool: "Please use the toilet, not the pool," says one. The other announces, "Pool for members only." If you regard each sign independently, they seem quite reasonable. But taking them together as a single discourse makes you go back and revise your interpretation of the first sentence after you've read the second.

Discourse and Frames

'Reframing' is a way to talk about going back and re-interpreting the meaning of the first sentence. Frame analysis is a type of discourse analysis that asks, What activity are speakers engaged in when they say this? What do they think they are doing by talking in this way at this time? Consider how hard it is to make sense of what you are hearing or reading if you don't know who's talking or what the general topic is. When you read a newspaper, you need to know whether you are reading a news story, an editorial, or an advertisement in order to properly interpret the text you are reading. Years ago, when Orson Welles' radio play "The War of the Worlds" was broadcast, some listeners who tuned in late panicked, thinking they were hearing the actual end of the world. They mistook the frame for news instead of drama.


Conversation is an enterprise in which one person speaks, and another listens. Discourse analysts who study conversation note that speakers have systems for determining when one person's turn is over and the next person's turn begins. This exchange of turns or 'floors' is signaled by such linguistic means as intonation, pausing, and phrasing. Some people await a clear pause before beginning to speak, but others assume that 'winding down' is an invitation to someone else to take the floor. When speakers have different assumptions about how turn exchanges are signaled, they may inadvertently interrupt or feel interrupted. On the other hand, speakers also frequently take the floor even though they know the other speaker has not invited them to do so.

Listenership too may be signaled in different ways. Some people expect frequent nodding as well as listener feedback such as 'mhm', 'uhuh', and 'yeah'. Less of this than you expect can create the impression that someone is not listening; more than you expect can give the impression that you are being rushed along. For some, eye contact is expected nearly continually; for others, it should only be intermittent. The type of listener response you get can change how you speak: If someone seems uninterested or uncomprehending (whether or not they truly are), you may slow down, repeat, or overexplain, giving the impression you are 'talking down.' Frederick Erickson has shown that this can occur in conversations between black and white speakers, because of different habits with regard to showing listenership.

Discourse Markers

'Discourse markers' is the term linguists give to the little words like 'well', 'oh', 'but', and 'and' that break our speech up into parts and show the relation between parts. 'Oh' prepares the hearer for a surprising or just-remembered item, and 'but' indicates that sentence to follow is in opposition to the one before. However, these markers don't necessarily mean what the dictionary says they mean. Some people use 'and' just to start a new thought, and some people put 'but' at the end of their sentences, as a way of trailing off gently. Realizing that these words can function as discourse markers is important to prevent the frustration that can be experienced if you expect every word to have its dictionary meaning every time it's used.

Speech Acts

Speech act analysis asks not what form the utterance takes but what it does. Saying "I now pronounce you man and wife" enacts a marriage. Studying speech acts such as complimenting allows discourse analysts to ask what counts as a compliment, who gives compliments to whom, and what other function they can serve. For example, linguists have observed that women are more likely both to give compliments and to get them. There are also cultural differences; in India, politeness requires that if someone compliments one of your possessions, you should offer to give the item as a gift, so complimenting can be a way of asking for things. An Indian woman who had just met her son's American wife was shocked to hear her new daughter-in-law praise her beautiful saris. She commented, "What kind of girl did he marry? She wants everything!" By comparing how people in different cultures use language, discourse analysts hope to make a contribution to improving cross-cultural understanding.


Deborah Tannen