Discourse analysis: An approach to literature developed in the 1970s that examines how language is used in more-or-less continuous discourse, that is, in a running spoken or written conversation or dialogue. Practitioners of discourse analysis, unlike critics using conventional linguistics or stylistics, concentrate on the larger pattern of discourse (the totality of words used in a given passage or conversation) rather than on smaller linguistic units such as individual words or phrases.
Speech-act theorist H. P. Grice played a major role in the development of discourse analysis. In his 1975 essay “Logic and Conversation,” Grice coined the phrase communicative presumption to refer to the set of assumptions that he claimed are shared by speakers of any given language. These assumptions, Grice argued, form the baseline from and the framework within which we interpret what we read and hear. How we interpret any given statement depends on how it conforms — or fails to conform — to our expectations. Other language theorists have further explored Grice’s theory of the communicative presumption, identifying a number of shared assumptions that function to make discourse comprehensible and meaningful. Such assumptions include the supposition that the speaker or writer seeks to communicate with others and thus employs language in a deliberate manner in accordance with commonly accepted rules and conventions, as well as the supposition that the meaning of any given statement can vary and must be examined in light of the situation at hand. What is a threat in one circumstance (“You’re going to get it”) may be a promise in another.
Discourse analysis has influenced the practice of stylistics as well as critical examination of dialogue in literary works. Those who analyze dialogue often seek to demonstrate how characters and readers alike infer meanings from utterances when those meanings are not directly revealed. Such critics typically draw on Grice’s theory, arguing that these inferences also depend on a set of shared assumptions, the agreement with or breach of which determines how a given phrase is interpreted. Discourse analysis has had particular impact on dialogic criticism, whose practitioners examine the way in which contrary voices representing opposed social, political, and cultural viewpoints or perspectives often compete within polyphonic works. The multiple voices of a polyphonic work include those of the characters and, of course, the narrator’s “authoritative” voice (which often, but not always, represents the prevailing or “official” ideology of the author’s culture).
Influential discourse analysts include Malcolm Coulthard, Teun A. van Dijk, and Walter Kintsch.