Topic 33 – Descriptive texts. Structure and characteristics

Topic 33 – Descriptive texts. Structure and characteristics

In this topic, I am going to deal with descriptive texts and how description at its most basic level can tell the reader necessary information about the element described. I am going to divide my topic into four sections. In my first section I will explain what a text, of whatever kind, is, and what the main criteria that any piece of language has to fulfil in order to be considered a text. Moreover, I will present the different text types. In my second section I will focus of descriptive texts, and will present their main features and subtypes. In my third section I will introduce some of the techniques employed when describing. Finally, I will give an overview of those aspects of descriptive texts that may pose problems for Spanish speakers.

Let’s start with a definition of text. A text may be defined as “a stretch of language, spoken or written, of whatever length, which forms a unified whole”. However, we should ask ourselves: “What makes a stretch of language form a unified whole and, therefore, be a text?” Seven criteria or standards are given for textuality, that is, criteria that a sequence of sentences must meet in order to qualify as a text:

  • Cohesion is the connection which results when the interpretation of a textual element is dependent on another element in the text.

The store no longer sold porcelain figures. It used to…

The interpretation of “it” is dependent on that of “store”, and the interpretation of “used to” is dependent on “sold porcelain figures”.

  • Coherence is the connection which is brought about by something outside the text. This “something” is usually knowledge which a listener or reader is assumed to possess. The best way to illustrate coherence is giving an example of incoherence. Chomsky gave the following example: Colourless green ideas sleep furiously. The listener’s knowledge tells him that the utterance is non-sensical.
  • Intentionality means that writes and speakers must have the conscious intention of achieving specific goals with their message, for instance, conveying information or arguing an opinion.
  • Acceptability requires that a sequence of sentences be acceptable to the intended audience in order to qualify as a text. For instance, for a teacher it is not acceptable to be told: “You sit down and shut up”.
  • Informativeness is necessary in discourse. A text must contain new information. If a reader knows everything contained in a text, then it does not qualify. Likewise, if a reader does not understand what is in a text, it also does not qualify as a text.
  • Situationality is essential to textuality. It is important to consider the situation in which the text has been produced and dealt with. For instance, you don’t speak about football in church.
  • Intertextuality means that a sequence of sentences is related by form or meaning to other sequences of sentences. For instance, a chapter is a text related to other chapters of a book.

In order to be regarded as a text, any stretch of language must meet all these standards. However, not all texts are the same. Primarily monologic spoken or written discourse may be organized in ways that reveal similar underlying “templates” or “scripts”. Those which have the same or very similar template may be said to belong to a particular “genre” or type of text. Part of a speaker’s communicative competence involves the ability to recognize and manipulate the features of a particular type of text. There are four main genres which are usually mentioned by genre analysts as distinct types: narrative, descriptive, explanatory, which can be either expository or procedural, and argumentative texts. Although these may exist in different languages, there may be important differences between their templates, and in the kind of language that is typically present in each.

Before concentrating on what descriptive texts are, I would like to show what they are not, by giving an overview of the three other text types. A descriptive text is different from a narrative. Narratives are written when people want to give information about an event or a sequence of events, typically in the past. Narrative texts have the following components: an abstract (e.g. title), the orientation, the goal, the problem, steps to resolve the problem, the resolution or climax and the coda. The language typically associated with it is time and place indicators, copula sentences, presentatives, identifying or descriptive relative clauses. The verbs are usually stative or intransitive. There is a sequence of temporally ordered clauses and actions.

A descriptive text is also different from an explanatory text (expository or procedural). The procedural text can be defined as the “how to” discourse, i.e. explains how to do something. Procedural discourse normally consists of a set or ordered steps which will be marked with enumerative or temporal markers. Goals will be expressed in terms of purpose or result which can be accompanied by illustrations. Typically the agent is neutral and imperative or passive constructions will be used. On the other hand, an expository text gives a simple explanation of an idea or fact; defines a concept from an objective point of view and summarise a series of ideas or facts. Some key language used is existential clauses, additive connectors, relative clauses or cohesive devices among others.

Finally, a descriptive text is not an argumentative one since this is defined as the process of weakening or supporting another statement whose validity is questionable or contentious. In it, two or more contrasting opinions are discussed. So we need to present both sides equally, discussing the advantages or disadvantages of either argument and take sides and state our view, providing evidence to convince our readers. The most common structure of argumentative texts is presentation of the argument, evidence, conclusion and instruction. The writer will tend to end with the view s/he defends. Part of the key language present is attitude markers, additive connectors, the potential ‘would’ to offer comments and give suggestions for future actions and so on.

However, the frontiers between these text types are not clear-cut, and any piece of discourse can have details of each type of text. For instance, narration and description complement and combine with each other in literary works. It is impossible to narrate with brilliance and effectiveness without possessing a great sense of observation and description.

Up to this point I have introduced some general notions related to the concept of text and the criteria that any stretch of language must meet to be considered a text, and have presented the text types which are different form description. Now I am going to move on to my second section and I am going to concentrate on descriptive texts. I will begin by giving a definition of description. According to the The New Oxford Dictionary of English, a description is “a spoken or written representation or account of a person, object, or event”. It could be said that there is no set template for description, although there seem to be common ways of describing particular things. For example, descriptions of places seem often to follow a particular visual orientation (bird’s-eye view, al walk around a place, etc.); descriptions of objects tend to be based around the component parts, while the description of a plant, for example, will typically follow a bottom-up orientation (from roots to leaves).

We could differentiate two different kinds of descriptions: connotative and denotative. I am going to begin by having a look at the connotative type. When we write connotative descriptions we try to convey to our reader our impressions about some part of our experience. The writer reflects what is suggested to him/her by the element presented to the reader, independently of whether s/he adjusts the description to reality. Literary writing is characterised, among other things, by connotative description, in which subjective sensations are transmitted.

In connotative description, we may want to focus on people (physical appearance, character, occupation, habits, likes/dislikes…), objects (colours, shapes, use…) or places (characteristics of towns or cities, geographical details of countryside or seascape, feelings that they produce…).

There’re certain language items that are typical of connotative descriptions. Simple present tense is used to describe states in the present. Moreover, the passive voice is used to direct attention to the object of description or to aspects of it. Place adverbials are used to refer to locations. We also find expressions of existence, used to refer to the existence of an object; and expressions of possession, used to refer to characteristic possessions and properties.

Apart from connotative descriptions, sometimes we may also need to describe something from a more objective point of view. In that case denotative descriptions are used. The author adopts an impartial attitude towards what s/he describes, limiting herself/himself to carefully detail the characteristics which best define the object. Scientific writing, for example, is distinguished by its denotative or objective descriptions, due to the universal character that science possesses. All observations in scientific prose must be rigorous and verifiable; thus, value judgements remain excluded. Normally, qualifiers are specific and the present indicative is the most usual verb tense employed with a timeless value, characteristic of the assertions it always fulfils:

In denotative descriptions we may focus on customs and traditions (how people live, how a particular society is organised, traditional events and festivals…); human scenes, facts and experiences (what is happening around us, what people are doing…); processes (the basic stages of a process (input, process, output).), and so on.

The kind of language usually used in denotative descriptions includes the passive voice, used to direct attention to the aspects of an event or the object of a process rather than to the agent (Carbon dioxine is released into the atmosphere); impersonal expressions, used to refer to people in general rather than to a specific person (People often dress up for a party); Used to, which is used to talk about past habits, conditions or states (In Britain, people used to drink tea); expressions of time and frequency, employed to refer to time and frequency of events (In those days, British people used to drink more tea than nowadays); and causal connectors to refer to the purpose of an action (Some people like burning incense sticks (in order) to help them in mediate).

After presenting the different kinds of descriptions, I would like to explain how descriptions of different elements are carried out. When describing animals, it is usually described what the animal is like. Data available must be organised in terms of the features of the species to which it belongs: size, shape…, going from the most general characteristics to the most specific. If on the other hand, the description is freer, the features that most attract our attention may be highlighted such as size or colour. An example is the description of the shark in Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” where the enormous size and ferociousness of its jaws are highlighted by the author to contrast with its beauty.

The descriptions of people can be subdivided into various types. We can find prosopography, which describes the physical appearance of a person; etopeia, which includes a moral or psychological description of a character; and portrait, which combines both physical and psychological features. Another type of description of people is caricature. This type of description exaggerates or ridicules the form of the features in a portrait. Distinctive features are selected and exaggerated; the caricature is a deformation of real elements. An object, an idea, or a person is presented in an excessively unfavourable light, with overdrawn, exaggerated features. Dramatic caricatures in English include: Sir Epicure Mammon (Samuel Jonson, The Alchemist) and Lady Bracknell (Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Ernest)

The description of feeling is more complex. A writer often resorts to comparisons, associating feeling with other concepts. The expression of feelings characteristic of a culture or a period also reflects linguistic tendencies in the way that what is contemplated is written.

Lyric is master in the art of description. Poetic description is only valid when it goes beyond the pure inventory of beings and things, when it uses description as a support for the symbolic world of the poem. A lyric poem may even consist solely of descriptive elements.

Up to this point, I have been dealing with the different kinds of description. Now I am going to move on to my third section, in which I will discuss two aspects related to description: focus and the relationship between description and narration. I am going to begin by having a look at the authorial distance and focus. Different degrees of distance from reality of an event are reflected in what is termed descriptive focus. A newspaper report on a battle would typically give general map references and talk about indefinite strongholds. No attitudinal commitment is revealed and events are recounted in detachment, mention of death of human beings avoided or if unavoidable made with euphemistic reference or factual reporting. However, in a 1st person account there is a narrowing of focus in description, an attempt to come into close-up. Locations become more precise and there is an increase in specific reference to the participants involved. This involvement brings with it expressions of an evaluative kind and possibly emotions.

Now, I will focus my attention on the description in the novel. Due to some tacit law admitted by the reader and for a long time due to critics, the narrative genre granted priority to narration, to which description should be a faithful subordinate. Novels intended to be read rapidly do not contain description, but rather spatial indications to situate the story and set the characters. On the other hand, many literary historians reproached Balzac, as an example, for overfilling his novels with unending descriptions. In fact, the reader often considers descriptions as parasitic elements or at best tolerable.

The need to establish a correspondence between the story and the environment and the effects, have been recognised for a long time by novelists, whereas the notion of description has suffered numerous ups and downs. In novels of the 18th c and above all the 19th c, description of places acquired such importance that it cannot be considered a simple backdrop any longer.

Sometimes, description is used by the author to transmit certain information to the reader by means an informed character who is not present. There are certain types, which have prevailed, for example, in Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola (which carry out this function) where description implies the gaze of a character who in turn needs to be introduced and be situated before the object. This resource determines semantic fields (adjectives that describe physical or psychological attitudes, verbs of perception, etc.), typical characters (the idler, the painter, the expert, the technician, etc.), stereotypical scenes (the visit to an unknown place, contemplation, delight in a landscape) and psychological features (curiosity, uprooting, interior emptiness, etc.) Description provokes, in gradual fashion, chain reactions in the internal structure of the narration: the need to describe leads to the introduction of such and such a character, to setting him/her in such and such situation and endow him/her with motives/reason. Description then, far from being a decorative addition, conditions the whole narrative.

Up to this point I have offered a definition of text and have presented the criteria any text must fulfil; I have dealt with the different types of description; and I have analysed the authorial focus and the relationship between description and narration. Finally, I would like to conclude with a discussion about how second language learners approach the task of writing a description. In a description, it has been found that for native speakers much information may be already known and not presented as new. This contrasts with novice or 2nd language learners, who may tend to produce texts which present all information as new. Compare, for example, a learner describing a kitchen, who says something like “In the kitchen there is a fridge, a table, etc”, using presentatives as in the orientation in a narrative, with more experienced writers or speakers, who would take such information for granted, and say something like “The fridge is next to the cooker…” (assuming that all kitchens have fridges and cookers). Similarly, a common area of weakness in novice descriptions of people is a tendency to describe people as it they were objects, using descriptive adjectival phrases that focus on physical characteristics. This contrasts with native-speaker descriptions, which tend to focus on personality, interests and so on. This may be attributable to lack of experience, confidence, or using this particular kind of description to practice, for example, the word order of adjectives. It may also be due to faulty input; textbooks often take articles from newspapers to illustrate this king of description, but this kind of description is only done in newspapers.

Specifying, classifying and defining are basic components of more academic types of description, and there is often a clear form-function relationship. E.g. phrases like “A/an X is a kind of Y which/that, has/is…” are fairly typical. These classifications are culture-specific and usually a product of education. However, there are quite easily transferred from other subject areas in the curriculum, if the connections between are made (this is only one area where exploration of “temas transversals” may prove extremely helpful).

Much description in the Western tradition is based not so much on specifying what something is in relation to its components, specifying characteristics, etc, but on relating it to something else. Relations of comparison and contrast (and their expression through language) are of particular importance here.

To sum up, within this topic I have focused descriptive texts. I have offered a definition and a classification of texts, and have established a subdivision of descriptive texts. I have dealt with the authorial focus and with the relationship between description and narration. Finally, I have analysed how second language learners approach the task of writing a description. As a final word I would like to point out that, at its most basic level, a description can tell the reader necessary information about the thing or person being described. But, most importantly it can tell us a great deal about the describer and his/her attitude to the thing or person described.