Topic 36 – Dialogical texts. Structure and characteristics

Topic 36 – Dialogical texts. Structure and characteristics

In this topic I am going to deal with dialogic texts or dialogues. I am going to divide my topic into five different sections. In my first section I will include a definition of texts and the criteria that any stretch of language has to fulfil in order to be considered a text. I will also present the main types of texts. In my second section I will define what dialogic texts are and present the main functions of the speech acts that made up dialogic texts. In my third section I will deal with the structure of dialogue. My fourth section will be devoted to the analysis of two mechanisms to make dialogic texts coherent: the cooperative principle and turn taking and adjacency pairs. Finally, in my last section I will deal with non-verbal communication, which is an essential feature of dialogic texts.

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. Traditionally, 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 dialogic texts, I would like to comment briefly on the different types of texts, so that it is possible to differentiate them from dialogic texts. Let’s begin with narrative texts. 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 defined by being a spoken or written representation or account of a person, object, or event that can both be connotative or denotative. The former happens when the writer reflects what is suggested to him/her by the object presented to the reader, independently of whether s/he adjusts the description to reality. Literary writing is characterised amongst other things, by connotative description, in which subjective sensations are transmitted. The latter happens when the author adopts an impartial attitude towards what s/he describes; limiting himself or herself 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.

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 argumentative texts are 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.

After establishing the main features of texts and the different text types, I am going to move to my second section, in which I will deal with dialogic texts. It is difficult to define or place dialogic genre as one more of the possibilities of texts, and in fact it does not appear as such in any of the classifications of text genres. In a simple way, dialogic texts or dialogue can be identified with conversation and it shares its characteristics. A dialogic text, therefore, is usually defined as a type of discourse concerned with a text, oral or written, which is established as a communicative occurrence. I will analyse the features of oral dialogue, since written dialogue is usually a written representation of the oral dialogic texts. The purpose of dialogic texts is to establish an oral or written interaction between two or more participants so as to exchange information in a successful way. Dialogues are always present at all levels, that is, in the domains of literature and everyday life. Therefore it is relevant to remember that dialogic texts are not clearly-cut types and they may interrelate with other types such as narration, description, or argumentation.

Participants are an essential part of dialogue. Oral conversation is depicted as an activity involving two or more people, in which the participants are both hearers and speakers having to react to what they hear and making their contributions at high speed. Each participant has to be able to interpret what is said to him and reply to what has just been said reflecting their own intentions.

The acts of speaking can be regarded as actions intended to accomplish a specific purpose by verbal means. The different types of speech acts were established by Austin. He tried to explain how an infinite number of sentences may reflect a finite set of functions. One of the most widely used taxonomies of speech act types is that proposed by Searle (1976). There are 5 types of general functions performed by speech acts:

  • Directives (Requests). Those speech acts that speakers use to get someone else to do something. They are commands, orders, requests, suggestions; positive or negatives. Some verbs include: suggest, prohibit, order… for example: “Don´t touch that!” The imperative and polite imperative are usually taught in foreign language teaching. The relationship between the roles of the speaker and addressee act as a constraint and if these constraints are ignored or unknown, offence may be taken.
  • Commissives. Those kinds of speech acts that speakers use to commit themselves to some future action. They express what the speaker intends. They are promises, threats, refusals, pledges… Commissives are also language and culture bound differing across status, situation and according to some gender. Some verbs used are: guarantee, swear, promise…. An example is: “I’ll be back”

· Representatives. A speaker expresses his/her belief that the propositional content of the utterance is true so modality is an important element here. He may express an attitude of belief using several types of acts: asserting, predicting, describing, advising… Some verbs include: affirm, advice, suggest… for example: “the earth is flat”.

· Expressives. Also called “evaluatives”, they are utterances that have an expressive function, stating what the speaker feels. They express psychological states and can be statements of pleasure, pain, likes, dislikes, joy or sorrow. They are about the speaker’s experience. Some verbs include: greet, apologise, compliment… for example, “Congratulations!” Many of the stereotypes regarding cultures are bound up with expressives.

· Declaratives/ Performatives. The issuer informs objectively about the external reality or about his/her ideas about it. They, when uttered, bring about a new state of being, for example when a priest says, “I pronounce you man and wife” the status of the couple changes. The person who utters it must have the power to do so.

After seeing the definition of dialogic texts and the main functions of speech acts, I am going to move on to deal with the structure of dialogic texts. The structure of dialogic texts is defined as a sequence of ordered verbal interactions where the minimum structure is based on a binary exchange of addresser and addressee on a specific topic. However, it is worth noting that this type of organization is quite flexible and open, so both structure and content are spontaneous and not previously planned as other types of texts. Participants usually begin a conversation, develop it and bring it to an end. Traditionally, the logical development of a dialogic text is presented into three different phases: opening, body and ending.

Openings are considered the starting point of a conversation since they state the main topic of encounter between two or more participants. Greeting is the most characteristic way of opening a conversation, and varies on the degree of formality and the length of the greeting. Questions are closely related to greetings and sometimes are part of them (How do you do?). Exclamations are another way of introducing a conversation (What an awful weather!)

The body deals with the development of the conversation between two or more participants. It is a continuous process which consists of a series of turn-taking mechanisms carried out by the participants on various aspects of their immediate environment. Within the body participants establish their roles within the conversation. It is common to find adjacency pairs, which are binary utterances which are successively produced by the speaker in a fixed order, where the answer to a certain question is a predictable one (How are you? ”I am fine, thank you”.)

The ending of a conversation is drawn from the feeling of both participants to have successfully fulfilled their initial purpose, although sometimes we find an unsuccessful ending. We often find negotiation strategies such as ending offers (It’s been nice to talk to you), ending acceptances (hope to see you again), farewell (see you) and the ending of the conversation (good bye).

After dealing with the structure of dialogic texts, I am going to deal with two mechanisms that make dialogic texts coherent: the cooperative principle and the notions of turn-taking and adjacency pairs. The cooperative principle was formulated by Grice. According to him, the communicative use of language rests on a set of implicit understandings among language users. He thinks that conversation is an intrinsically cooperative endeavour. To communicate, participants will intrinsically adhere to a set of conventions, collectively termed the cooperative principle, by making their messages conform to four general rules or maxims. These are quality, which envisages messages to be truthful; quantity, by means of which messages should be as informative as is required, but no more; relation, for messages to be relevant; and manner, where messages should be clear, brief and orderly.

Another important aspect attached to dialogic texts is turn-taking. A main feature of conversations is that they tend to follow the convention of turn taking. Simply, this is where one person waits for the other to finish his utterance before contributing their own. This is as much utilitarian convention as mere manners: a conversation would cease to take place if the agents involved insisted on speaking even when it was plain that the other was trying to contribute. Moreover, it is comforting to know that the other person respects your opinions enough not to continually interrupt you.

Another fundamental feature of conversation and dialogic texts is the idea of adjacency pairs posed by Goffman. A conversation is described as a string of at least to turns. An example would be a question-answer sequence. Both conversing parties are aware that a response is required to a question; moreover, a particular response to a particular question. The first part often predicts the occurrence of the second.

How are you?

Fine, than you, and you?


Finally, before finishing I would like to comment on the importance of non-verbal communication in oral interactions. In order to communicate effectively participants have to take into account more than just the grammar and vocabulary used. They may also have an awareness of the culturally-determined patterns of verbal and non-verbal communication which the other speakers follow, the styles of language that are more appropriate for a particular situation and the non-verbal communication signals most commonly used, in this case, in the English-speaking culture. Culturally, different patterns of communication are a common cause of misunderstanding and can be a source of discomfort in cross-cultural situations. We need to develop an understanding of the differences in communication styles between the different cultures involved in communication.

In order to communicate effectively in a culture it is necessary to be familiar with that culture’s non-verbal patterns of communication. Non-verbal things that are acceptable in one culture may be completely unacceptable in another. Furthermore, studies of the communication of attitudes and emotions in the US have shown that up to 93% of a message may be transmitted non-verbally. Apparently, the body language is at least as important as the words we speak. Sometimes, the two can be contradictory. For instance, people may say they agree with you and at the same time they tilt their chair back and lean away from you. By physically distancing from you, they are actually expressing disagreement.

We should have in mind that it is important to know the meaning of body signs. For instance, in Britain a V-sign means victory is the palm is held outwards; if the palm is turned inwards the gesture is rude and offensive. In Spain this is not so, and it is important to take it into account. Another difference between the two cultures is, for instance, related to personal space. British people prefer to have more distance between the speakers, whereas Spanish people tend to touch their interlocutor more often.

To sum up, in this topic I have dealt with dialogic texts or dialogues. I have divided my topic into five different sections. In my first section I have included a definition of texts and the criteria that any stretch of language has to fulfil in order to be considered a text. I have also presented the main types of texts. In my second section I have defined what dialogic texts are and presented the main functions of the speech acts that made up dialogic texts. In my third section I have dealt with the structure of dialogue. My fourth section has been devoted to the analysis of two mechanisms to make dialogic texts coherent: the cooperative principle and turn taking and adjacency pairs. Finally, in my last section I have dealt with non-verbal communication, which is an essential feature of dialogic texts. As a final word I would like to mention that when teaching a foreign language it is important to pay much attention to dialogue. Our students must be able to carry out conversations taking into account the basic rules about turn-taking, cooperative principles, adjacency pairs and so on. We should help them acquire the necessary cultural knowledge and knowledge of the conversation patterns in order to achieve effective communication, which is the main goal when learning a foreign language.