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King Saud University

College of languages and Translation

Text-linguistics for students of translation

Hand-out No.1


Text-linguistics: Introduction


1. The notion ‘text’


A lot of emphasis has been placed on the sentence as a self-contained unit, thus neglecting the ways a sentence may be used in connected stretches of language; hence the presentation of language as sets of sentences. Nevertheless, many examples of text linguistics demonstrate awareness of the shortcomings, and recognition of the text as an obvious tool of communication has developed.

The notion ‘text’ has helped to extend the system of linguistic levels put forward by modern linguistic theories that are based on the sentence. This extension has facilitated the understanding and explication of a number of textual issues such as cohesion and coherence and their relevance to such problems as text typology. It has also made it possible to shed better light on a number of problems that have suffered certain shortcomings in treatment when based on analyses at the sentence level. These problems include issues related to translation theory and practice, foreign language teaching, etc.

Text is one of the main elements that play a significant role in communication. People communicating in language do not do so simply by means of individual words or fragments of sentences, but by means of texts. We speak text, we read text, we listen to text, we write text, and we even translate text. Text is the basis for any discipline such as law, religion, medicine, science, politics, etc. Each of these is manifested in its own language, i.e. it has its special terminologies. A text is above all a multidimensional unit and as such is not liable to a simple unifying definition. The sum of parameters used to define text differs from linguist to linguist so that the list of definitions could be very long. Bearing this in mind, the following selected definitions shall be considered: 

We generally express our needs, feelings, etc. by using text whether orally or in writing. Cultures are transferred to other people via texts. One may agree with Neubert (1992) who says:


Texts are used as tools and, at the same time, they reveal the tool-user. They communicate something and about someone.


Werlich (1976: 23) defines text as follows:


A text is an extended structure of syntactic units [i.e. text as super-sentence] such as words, groups, and clauses and textual units that is marked by both coherence among the elements and completion…. [Whereas] A non-text consists of random sequences of linguistic units such as sentences, paragraphs, or sections in any temporal and/or spatial extension.


For Beaugrande and Dressler (1981: 63), the notion ‘text’ is defined as:


A naturally occurring manifestation of language, i.e. as a communicative language event in a context. The SURFACE TEXT is the set of expressions actually used; these expressions make some knowledge EXPLICIT, while other knowledge remains IMPLICIT, though still applied during processing.


For Halliday and Hasan (1976: 1-2), the notion ‘text’ is:


[A term] used in linguistics to refer to any passage- spoken or written, of whatever length, that does form a unified whole [….] A text is a unit of language in use. It is not a grammatical unit, like a clause or a sentence; and it is not defined by its size [….] A text is best regarded as a SEMANTIC unit; a unit not of form but of meaning.


For Kress (1985a), text is “manifestations of discourses and the meanings of discourses, and the sites of attempts to resolve particular problems”.


Fowler (1991: 59) defines text as:


A text is made up of sentences, but there exist separate principles of text-construction, beyond the rules for making sentences.


Hatim and Mason (1990) define text as “a set of mutually relevant communicative functions, structured in such a way as to achieve an overall rhetorical purpose”.

Although nearly all text linguists are in agreement that the notion ‘text’ is the natural domain of language, they vary in their views on what constitutes a text. This variance is mainly due to the fact that different linguists have observed this notion from different angles depending on the approaches adopted. This has resulted in the loose definition of the notion and left it to some extent obscure. Nevertheless, these attempts formulate the bases for such studies. Many suggestions have been put forward for the identification of the text such as looking for the properties of the proper text. However, here too, there has been disagreement.


2.2 Halliday and Hasan’s approach to text


A very comprehensive study of text is displayed in Halliday and Hasan’s (1976) treatment of features of English texts, and Halliday, in Halliday and Hasan (1985). In their work Cohesion in English, Halliday and Hasan (1976: 2; already quoted in section 2.1 above, but repeated here for convenience) define the notion ‘text’ by saying:


Text is used in linguistics to refer to any passage, spoken or written, of whatever length, that does form a unified whole […]. A text is a unit of language in use.  It is not a grammatical unit, like a clause or a sentence; and it is not defined by its size. A text is sometimes envisaged to be some kind of super-sentence, a grammatical unit that is larger than a sentence but is related to a sentence in the same way that a sentence is related to a clause, a clause to a group and so on […]. A text is best regarded as a SEMANTIC unit; a unit not of form but of meaning.


Halliday and Hasan (1985: 10) define text as:


[A] language that is functional. […] Language that is doing some job in some context, as opposed to isolated words or sentences […]. So any instance of living language that is playing some part in a context of situation, we shall call it a text. It may be either spoken or written, or indeed in any other medium of expression that we like to think of.


For Halliday and Hasan, a text is a semantic unit. Halliday stresses the importance of language as an instrument of social interaction among the members of any speech community. He views language as a living entity for the achievement of communication among fellow-communicants in a context of situation. He believes that text cannot be approached without its situational context in which it is embedded. Hence, text is a continued stretch of connected sentences and not an ad hoc accumulation of isolated structures in a non-situational vacuum.  The inter-connectedness that exists along a stretch of sentences of utterances constituting a text bestows upon it a unique and distinctive character.

Halliday argues that although text is made of words and sentences, when being written down, “it is really made of meanings” because meanings have to be expressed or coded in words and structures in order to be communicated; “but as a thing in itself, a text is essentially a semantic unit […]. It is not something that can be defined as being just another kind of sentence, only bigger”(Halliday, 1985:10). Halliday believes that because text is basically a semantic unit a componential analysis of the text must be approached from a semantic perspective. The phonological, lexical, and syntactic structures should be analytically studied as being functionally contributing to the explication of the text’s semantic significance. In this context, Halliday brings in yet another notion, that is, text is both “a product and a process”. A text is a product in the sense that it is an output, a palpable manifestation of a mental image that can be studied and recorded, having a certain construction that can be represented in systematic terms. It is a process, on the other hand, in the sense that it is a continuous movement through the network of meaning potential which involves a lot of choices and decision-making.

Halliday believes that text is not only a semantic unit but also an instance of social interaction. In its social-semantic perspective, text is an object of social exchange of meanings. Halliday merges semiotic with both sociology and linguistics. Accordingly, text is a sign representation of a socio-cultural event embedded in a context of situation. Context of situation is the semio-socio-cultural environment in which the text unfolds. Text and context are so intimately related that neither concept can be comprehended in the absence of the other.


Halliday and Hasan (1985: 5) maintain that:


There is a text and there is other text that accompanies it: text that is ‘with’, namely the con-text. This notion of what is ‘with the text’, however, goes beyond what is said and written: it includes other non-verbal signs-on-the total environment in which a text unfolds.


According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English (fourth edition), the term ‘context’, in its simple form, refers to what comes before and after a word, phrase, statement, etc., helping to fix the meaning; or circumstances in which an event occurs. We may sometimes be able to make inferences about the context of situation from certain words in texts. These texts, short or long, spoken or written, will carry with them indications of their contexts. We need to hear or read only a section of them to know where they come from. Given the text, we should be able to place it into the context that is appropriate to it. In other words we construct the situation. Hence, when discussing text, one should initially bear in mind two important points: context of situation and context of culture. These are highlighted in the following sections:





2.2.1 Text context of situation


According to Halliday and Hasan (1985: 12), texts cannot be approached without reference to the situation as the context “in which texts unfold and in which they are to be interpreted”. They distinguish three situational parameters that help communicants make predictions about the kinds of meaning that are being exchanged. These are: field, tenor and mode of discourse.


1. Field of discourse


Field of discourse refers to “what is happening, to the nature of the social action that is taking place: what is it that the participants are engaged in, in which the language figures as some essential component?” 

Field of discourse plays a vital role in the context of text. It is one of the three basic elements in the textual internal world and external world. Fields of discourse can be non-technical, as is the case with the general topics that we deal with in the course of our daily life.  Or they can be technical or specialist as in linguistics, law, engineering, physics, computer science and many other fields.

In specialist fields lexical mutuality of text, specific structures and certain grammatical patterns belonging to the field of discourse are employed in an appropriate way, for example, terms like plasmodium, anthelmintics, antimalarials and prophylactics in medicine; terms like hydrogen, neutron and molecule in physics; terms like generic, diachronic, phylogentetic and archiphoneme in linguistics.


2. Tenor of discourse


According to Halliday and Hasan, tenor of discourse refers to “who is taking part, to the nature of the participants, their statuses and roles: what kinds of role relationship obtain among the participants, including permanent and temporary relationships of one kind or another, both the types of speech role that they are taking on in the dialogue and the whole cluster of socially significant relationships in which they are involved?” (Halliday and Hasan, 1985: 12)

Tenor of discourse indicates the relationship between discourse participants (e.g. speaker/writer and hearer/reader) as manifested in language use. Participants’ relationship varies from one group to another. It may be that of a patient and a doctor, a mother and her child, a teacher and a student, etc.

As far as addresser and addressee are different in terms of categories, one would always expect the language used between them to vary from one set or group to another.  Language which is used between husband and wife is usually expected to be informal whatever the subject matter, whereas the language which is employed by a politician making a speech in a conference is nearly formal.


3. Mode of discourse


Mode of discourse is a term that refers to “what part the language is playing, what it is that the participants are expecting the language to do for them in that situation: the symbolic organisation of the text, the status that it has, and its function in the context, including the channel (is it spoken or written or some combination of the two?) and also the rhetorical mode, what is being achieved by the text in terms of such categories as persuasive, expository, didactic, and the like” (Halliday and Hasan, 1985: 12).

Mode of discourse is the third basic strand of register. It is the formal strand in which language is used, or to put it in Halliday’s terms, it refers to what part the language is playing.

Mode can take spoken as well as written forms, each of which divides into different sub-divisions. Speaking can be non-spontaneous, as in acting or reciting, or spontaneous, as in conversing.

 As far as writing is concerned, there are various categories such as material written to be read aloud as in political speeches, material written to be spoken (e.g. in acting), and material written to be read which covers a wide range of writings includes newspapers, books of various sorts, journals, magazines, etc.



2.2.2 Text context of culture


Like context of situation, context of culture is an important element through which one can comprehend texts. Halliday and Hasan (1985: 46) point out that:


The context of situation, however, is only the immediate environment. There is also a broader background against which the text has to be interpreted: its context of culture.  Any actual context of situation, the particular configuration of field, tenor, and mode that has brought a text into being, is not just a random jumble of features but a totality- a package, so to speak, of things that typically go together in the culture.  People do these things on these occasions and attach these meanings and values to them; this is what culture is.



2.3 Beaugrande and Dressler’s approach to text


The most direct study of the definition of text was carried out by Beaugrande (1980), and Beaugrande and Dressler (1981). In defining the notion ‘text’, Beaugrande (1980: 11) asserts that:


The multi-level entity of language must be the TEXT, composed of FRAGMENTS which may or may not be formatted as sentence.


Here, Beaugrande is trying to assert some essential distinctions between text and sentence as a start point. The following quotation represents some of these distinctions:


The text is an ACTUAL SYSTEM, while sentences are elements of VIRTUAL SYSTEM […]. The sentence is a purely grammatical entity to be defined only on the level of SYNTAX. The text, [on the other hand], must be defined according to the complete standards of TEXTUALITY […]. A text must be relevant to a SITUATION of OCCURRENCE, in which a constellation of STRATEGIES, EXPECTATIONS, and KNOWLEDGE is active. A text cannot be fully treated as a configuration of morphemes and symbols. It is a manifestation of a human ACTION in which a person INTENDS to create a text and INSTRUCT the text receivers to build relationships of various kinds […]. Texts also serve to MONITOR, MANAGE, or CHANGE a SITUATION. [Whereas] the sentence is not action, and hence has a limited role in human situations; it is used to instruct people about building syntactic relationships. A text is a PROGRESSION between STATES…the knowledge state, emotional state, social state, etc. of text users are subject to CHANGE by means of the text. SOCIAL CONVENTIONS apply more directly to texts than to sentences. PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS are more relevant to texts than to sentences. (1980: 12-14)


 According to Beaugrande (1980: 16), the virtual system is “the functional unities of elements whose potential is not yet to use […] which a particular language offers its users; [whereas the actual system is] a functional unity created through the process of selection among options of virtual system”.

Beaugrande believes that the above-mentioned fundamental differences between the text and the sentence have important implications for the evaluation of linguistics of the text.

Beaugrande differentiates between the two notions- text and sentence- as follows: A sentence is either ‘grammatical’ or ‘ungrammatical’ in the sense that it conforms to the traditional forms of grammar or departs from them. A text, on the other hand, is either ‘acceptable’ or ‘non-acceptable’ according to a complex gradation, not a binary opposition, and contextual motivations are always relevant. It follows that a sentence cannot survive outside its pertinent socio-cultural neighbourhood. Unless motivated by an ad-hoc linguistic situation to demonstrate and exemplify a specific grammatical rule, the sentence restrictively functions as a purely grammatical pattern definable at the level of syntax; the ultimate goal of the sentence being to instruct its recipients on how to construct syntactic relationships between its constituent elements. The text, by contrast, cannot exist or survive in a socio-cultural vacuum. It is motivated, and hence inextricably related to, a situation of occurrence, which is called its ‘context’. Unlike the sentence, the text is not an abstract, decontextualized entity definable only at the level of syntax; on the contrary, its viability derives from its close affinity with its pertinent situational context wherein it is only interpretable. In addition, the text is conceived and actualised within a ‘co-text’, which Halliday (1985: 5) describes as “the non-verbal goings-on--The total environment in which the text unfolds.” While the sentence is used to instruct its recipients about building syntactic relationships and hence has a limited role in human situations, the text motivates its consumers to control, manage, and eventually change human situations.

Another distinction between the text and the sentence ushers in the psychological factor. Sentence formation is easily manageable once syntactic relationships between the constituent elements of the sentence pattern are fully established. A theory of sentences is justified in considering as ‘irrelevant’ such factors as “memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and so on” (Beaugrande, 1980: 14). These psychological factors are by contrast highly relevant to the text if we view the text, basically, as a linguistic manifestation of a pre-conceived picture of reality conditioned by the author’s state or states of mind at the time of actualisation. The psychological factors are fully operative and more easily discernible in the text because it entails an unlimited scope for text processing. Along with this, the text is basically motivated by a specific human situation that is inherently subject to change. In addition, the mental processes involved in text production and text consumption, despite their intense complexities, are susceptible to constant modifications inspired by varied psychological states. This, inevitably, accounts for the wide divergences detectable in the translations of a specific text by various translators. By contrast, the sentence, being a verbal manifestation of a grammatical structure, does not stimulate or anticipate heterogeneous interpretations.

The drawing of distinctions between text and sentence has brought the notion of context into full prominence. While Halliday (1985: 12) refers to ‘context of situation’, Beaugrande defines context as “a situation of occurrence in which a constellation of strategies, expectations, and knowledge are active”. The two definitions are not significantly different; in fact they are almost identical except that Beaugrande’s may seem a bit more empirical. Thus, the text and its relevant context are intimately indissoluble. Functionally, the text is interpretable in the light of, and with reference to, its relevant context. Since the text is originally motivated by the situational context to which it relates, it follows that the context, in spatio-temporal terms, is prior to its subsequent text. This is obviously logical; for in real-life situations stimuli precede and motivate responses.

In addition, Beaugrande and Dressler (1981) give thought to the notion text. They try to determine what makes the text a unified meaningful whole rather than a mere string of unrelated words and sentences. In this particular work they set up seven standards of textuality. A text cannot be considered a text unless it meets these seven standards. They believe that these standards of textuality enable text analysis to be applicable to a wide variety of areas of practical concern: the textuality of the text depends on the communicative features it contains. These are cohesion, coherence, intentionality, acceptability, informativity, situationality, and intertextuality.



Hand-out No.5 [Texttypology].docHand-out No.5 [Texttypology]خالد هادى هادى العمرى
Hand-out No.4 [Coordination and subordination].docHand-out No.4 [Coordination and subordination]خالد هادى هادى العمرى
Hand-out No.3 [Cohesion in Arabic and English].docHand-out No.3 [Cohesion in Arabic and English]خالد هادى هادى العمرى
Hand-out No.2 [Seven standards of textuality].docHand-out No.2 [Seven standards of textuality]خالد هادى هادى العمرى
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