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Topic 6 – Written communication. Kinds of written texts. Structure and formal elements. Norms ruling written texts. Routines and formulae

Within this topic I am going to deal with written communication. In order to make my presentation more effective, I am going to divide the topic into five different sections. In my first section I will give an overview of the main aspects involved in written communication by comparing it with spoken language. Then I will present the different types of written texts. In the third section I will have a look at the structure and formal elements of written communication. Then I will analyse the rules which govern written texts. And finally, in my fifth section I will make some remarks about the learning of routines and formulae associated with written texts.

Let’s begin with my first section, in which I am going to establish a comparison between writing and speech, in order to understand writing better. Written and spoken language display a number of important differences over and above the obvious distinction in physical form -that writing uses marks on paper, whereas speech uses sounds. These differences are chiefly to do with language use, arising out of the fact that writers and speakers are operating in fundamentally different communicative situations. But there are also differences in language structure: the grammar and vocabulary of writing is by no means the same as that of speech.

Writing is sometimes thought to be little more than “speech written down”. However, the two mediums function as independent methods of communication. Moreover, the status of the two mediums is not the same. Written formulations, such as contracts, are usually required to make agreements legally binding. Some writings, such as historical documents, are given a kind of respect which is rarely accorded to speech. And above all, written English provides the standard that society values.

Let’s see some features of written communication compared to that of spoken language:

  • Writing is space-bound, static and permanent, as opposed to speech, which is time-bound, dynamic and transient. Writing is the result of a situation in which the writer is usually distant from the reader, and often does not know who the reader is going to be. In speech, on the contrary, the speaker has a particular addressee.
  • Writers must anticipate the effects of the time-lag between production and reception, and the problems posed by having their language read and interpreted by many recipients in diverse settings. Writing allows repeated reading and close analysis, and promotes the development of careful organization and compact expression, with often intricate sentence structure. Units of discourse (sentences, paragraphs) are usually easy to identify through punctuation and layout. On the contrary, in speech there is no time-lag between production and reception, and we find repetition, rephrasing and looser construction. Sentence boundaries are often unclear.
  • In writing, as opposed to spoken language, lack of visual contact means that participants cannot rely on context to make their meaning clear; nor is there any immediate feedback. Most writing therefore avoids the use of deictic expressions, which are likely to be ambiguous.
  • Some words and constructions are characteristic of writing, such as multiple instances of subordination in the same sentence or very long sentences. Certain items of vocabulary are never spoken. On the contrary, in speech we find lengthy coordinate sentences of considerable complexity. There is nonsense vocabulary, obscenity and slang which do not appear in writing or occurs there only as graphic euphemism.
  • Writing is very suited to the recording of facts and the communication of ideas, and to tasks of memory and learning. Written records are easier to keep and scan. Texts can be read at speeds which suit a person’s ability to learn.
  • Errors and other perceived inadequacies in our writing can be eliminated in later drafts without the reader ever knowing they were there. Interruptions, if they have occurred while writing, are also invisible in the final product. In speech, however, errors, once spoken, cannot be withdrawn, and interruptions and overlapping speech are normal.
  • Unique features of writing include pages, lines, capitalization, spatial organization, and several aspects of punctuation. Only very few graphic conventions relate to prosody, such as question marks and underlining for emphasis. On the contrary, unique features of speech include most of the prosody. The many nuances of intonation, as well as contrast of loudness, tempo, rhythm and other tones of voices, cannot be written down with much efficiency.

Now that I have dealt with the main features of written communication, I will move on now to my second section, in which I will focus on the different types of written texts. Users of a language can usually distinguish between different kinds of discourse, and people also have opinions on the suitability of given kinds of discourse for specific types of messages. Many attempts have been made to design a classification system. A large number of these attempts are reminiscent of literary scientific research done in the area of genre theory, in which four genres –fairy tale, myth, saga and legend – were distinguished. The different classifications depend, once more, upon the perspective adopted. I am going to mention some criteria that help us distinguish between the different text types:

  • Literary devices: there are some basic principles of literature that can be applied to all types of texts and that may help us distinguish between them. The subject of a text is expressed in terms of a theme; the writer approaches this subject from a specific point of view, both physical and psychological, and from a definite perspective; the writer’s attitude towards a subject is expressed through his voice, real and assumed, which is marked by a distinctive tone. Satire, irony, hyperbole… are special attitudes and tones. Furthermore, the voice of the writer speaks through his style, which essentially is a product of language, the choice and combination of words, sentence structures…

Taking all this into account, we could say that theme, point of view, perspective, attitude, tone and style are elements that help us to distinguish different types of texts.

  • Order and sequence: the notion of order and sequence can be logical, chronological, special, psychological…
  • Text structure: by studying the textual and lexical elements of text types one can learn to regularly recognize the overall structure of a text. The inclusion or exclusion of elements such as heads, arguments, epigraphs, salutations, etc may give us clues about the type of text we are dealing with.
  • Purpose: text can be classified along with their function. Is it to tell a story? Is it to persuade the listener?

Texts can be classified according to purpose, according to type or mode, etc. I am going to follow Egon Werlich’s discourse typologies, according to which five basic or ideal forms are distinguished that are fundamental to discourse types. Werlich’s basic forms of texts are:

  • Descriptive: the purpose of a descriptive text is to describe and present attributes of people, animal, items or places, or to provide a detailed, neutral presentation of a literary situation. Descriptive texts tend to be organized in terms of space. However, there is set no template for description, although there seem to be common ways of describing particular things. For example, description of objects tend to be based around the component parts; descriptions of places seem often to follow a particular visual orientation (bird’s-eye view, al walk around a place, etc.) while the description of a plant, for example, will typically follow a bottom-up orientation (from roots to leaves). Examples of texts that may fit into the descriptive texts are brochures, descriptions of animal, descriptions of scientific and technical concepts…We may distinguish different modes of description, such as scientific, literary, static or dynamic. Descriptive texts usually aim at precision and clarity. The vocabulary used can be expected to be precise and exact, the overall style neutral, unemotional and sometimes technical and dry. Basic components of description are specifying, classifying and defining. Moreover, much description in the Western tradition is based on relating what is being described to something else.
  • Narrative: It is often considered to be the most universal genre. The purpose of a narrative text is to entertain, to tell a story, or to provide an aesthetic literary experience. Narrative texts are based on life experiences. The genres that fit narrative text structures are folktales (legends, myths, realistic tales…), fiction (contemporary, historic, science fiction….) and fantasy. The main feature of narrative texts is the telling of a story of events or actions that have their inherent chronological order, usually aimed at presenting facts. This story telling involves the participation of elements such as characters and characterization, setting, plot, conflict and theme. With minor differences, it has been found that the template for narratives is universal, and will include the following:
    • An abstract (e.g. a title) or an opening remark (e.g. “Did I tell you about…?
    • The orientation, including time, place and character identification.
    • The goal (I wanted to marry the princess)
    • The problem (But the Queen did not like me)
    • Steps to resolve the problem
    • Resolution or climax
    • Coda (and they lived happily ever after) or moral / lesson to be learned.

Instances of narrative texts are novels, short stories, poetry, drama… Narrative texts are usually organized in terms of time. Typical language components of narrative texts are time and place indicators, copular sentences, presentatives (There is / are), sequence of temporarily ordered relative clauses, and stative and intransitive verbs.

  • Explanatory: explanatory texts are usually written in attempts at analyzing, explaining, describing and presenting facts, events and processes that may be complicated. Examples may be a brochure, lab procedures, government documents… Their structure is mainly determined by logical coherence, but aspects of time and space may be also quite important depending on the subject-matter. An expository text should be fairly detailed and precise in order to convey accurate and objective information. The language used is neutral, objective and analytical. You would not expect to find emotionally loaded terms or subjective comments.
  • Instructive or procedure: instructive texts tell the reader what to do in a clearly specified situation, usually referring to future activities. The author of an instructive text assumes that the reader knows very well what he wants to do, but he needs to be told how to do it. A typical example of an instructive text would be a recipe in a cookery book. Procedural discourse usually consists of a set of ordered steps. These steps may be marked with enumerative or temporal markers. The author’s style and choice of words are usually unemotional and objective, and the style is simple, straight-forward and aimed at precision. Syntax is dominated by imperatives and sentences in the passive voice.

I would like to mention that some authors include expository and instructive texts within the same group.

  • Argumentative: argumentative texts are intended to convince or persuade the reader of a certain point of view, or to understand the author’s reasons for holding certain views on a matter under discussion. Argumentative texts include demonstration brochures, government speeches, debates, face-to-face discussions, etc. The author will analyse the question or problem he wishes to discuss and will present his own opinion to the reader, along with the arguments that led him to that opinion. The language used by the author will reflect his personal views on the subject-matter. It is not neutral and makes use of devices such as irony and sarcasm, as well as rather emotional terminology. The classical template is introduction, explanation of the case under consideration, outline of the argument, proof, refutation and conclusion. However, there are many possible variants.

Up to this point I have dealt with the features of written communication and with the different types of written texts. In my third section I will have a look at text structure and formal elements of written texts. A text is not an undifferentiated set of words. For different purposes it may be divided into different units, of different types or sizes. A prose text can be divided into sections, chapters, paragraphs and sentences. A verse text may be divided into cantos, stanzas and lines. Once printed, sequences of prose or verse writings may be divided into volumes, articles and pages. Structural units of this kind are most often used to identify specific locations or reference points within a text, but they may also be used to subdivide the text into meaningful fragments for analytical purposes.

Punctuation has to a certain extent the same function in written as prosodic devices in spoken English, but, while prosodic devices are acquired naturally by the native speaker, with punctuation the array of devices is well recognised. There are established names for the individual items and their use is quite institutionalised. There are three examples of written language whose bounds are indicated visually. The limits of a paragraph are indicated by beginning it on a new line, sometimes indented, and by beginning the next in the same way. Each sentence consists of one or more words and these are delimited as orthographic units by being preceded by a space and by being followed either by a space or by a punctuation mark and a space. The remaining punctuation marks perform functions within the sentence but they do not delimit clearly defined units like sentences or words.

Up to this point I have been dealing with the physical structure of written texts. I would also like to include some lexical, grammatical and discourse features which are typical of the structure of written texts. As far as lexical features are concerned, writing displays a greater degree of lexical density than speaking. By lexical identity I mean the proportion of structure words to content words in a text. Writing has a higher ratio of content to structure words than speech. This means that information is more densely packed into writing than into speech (e.g: BEST BEFORE). A second feature of writing is that there is little occurrence of general terms for large classes of phenomena (e.g. thing, people, way), favouring more specific, meaning restrictive terms. We find presence of complex vocabulary and the use of more abstract terms with a higher incidence of words of Greek and Latin origin. Finally, there is greater variety in the choice of vocabulary than in spoken language, with lower levels of repetition and little occurrence of the verb “to be” and other non lexical verbs.

Dealing with the grammatical features of written texts, we find full sentences with little abbreviation or ellipsis. Standard grammar, in terms of word order and sentence construction, is often used. Clauses are longer and more complex than in speaking, with embedded phrases and clauses, particularly in the form of densely informative noun phrases. Finally, there is explicit and varied marking of clause relation, for example, use of subordinating conjunctions between clauses or sentence adverbs.

Finally, as far as discourse features are concerned, we find explicit presentation of ideas to a non-present audience. There are few markers of interpersonal or personal-oriented discourse, and discourse is presented as the product of a single participant.

As a final word on text structure and formal elements, I would like to mention that I have presented the general features of written texts. Together with them, every type of texts have a set of features attached to it, affecting aspects such as the organization of information, the kind of language used, the formal constituents and so on.

After presenting the structure and formal elements of written texts, I am going to deal with the rules governing written texts. Written texts conform to rules that most successful writers unconsciously follow and native readers unconsciously expect to find. Text is established as a communicative occurrence which has to meet seven standards of textuality. If any of these standards is not satisfied, the text is considered not to fulfil its function and not to be communicative. The seven standards any text must fulfil are:

  • 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.

After seeing the rules governing written communication, I am going to move on to the last part of my discussion, in which I make some remarks about the learning of routines and formulae in written texts. The ability to write well is not a naturally acquired skill but rather learned or culturally transmitted. Writing skills must be practiced and learned through experience.

The study of texts as genres is closely related to the use of routines and formulae in written discourse. Genre is a macrolevel concept, a communicative act within a discursive network. It makes reference to repertoires of typified social responses in recurrent situations, from greetings to thank yous to acceptance speeches, and written expositions. Genres are used to package speech and make it recognizable to the exigencies of the situation.

It is in the context of genres where routines and formulae speech come into force. At the elementary level we will concentrate on giving learners training and practice in writing down what they would say in various circumstances, with some attention to the differences between cultural conventions in spoken and written style. At the more advanced level, we will encourage them to express themselves with some finesse regarding more important subjects, and then, to write their ideas, with careful attention to lexical and structural choice.

The organization of the structure of a text is dependent upon the genre or form (letter, postcard, editorial…). Then, each type of text shares certain characteristics with the others and at the same time it makes its own demands on the reader through the use of structure, devices, features and conventions. Therefore, we need to teach students how to read and write each kind of text as they encounter it in order to achieve effectiveness in communication.

They must learn to select from among possible combinations of words and sentences those which will convey the meaning they have in mind, and, ultimately, they must be able to do this so that nuances in the appropriate linguistic register are expressed through their writing.

In conclusion I would like to say that I have concentrated on the most general aspects of written communication, those which are valid no matter what kind of text we are dealing with. Further and much deeper analysis of each text type would be possible and will show important differences between them.