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Concourse 2

Genre and theme-rheme structure


When texts share the same general purpose in the culture, they will often share the same obligatory and optional structural elements and so they belong to the same genre or text type.
(Butt et al, p9 [emphasis added])

There are two things to notice, highlighted above.

  1. general purpose: this refers to the reason for a text.  What is it doing?
  2. structural elements: what is each part of the text doing?

The next thing to note is that genre is not defined in its literary, musical or lay sense here.  In those registers genre includes, e.g., science fiction, romance, thriller, detective, heavy metal, folk, classical etc.  That is not a useful definition of genre for our purposes.


General purpose

What are the purposes of texts?  Think for a moment about a text you have encountered recently (written or spoken and including this one if you like) and then click here to see how many purposes you have thought of.

It is not hard to see that there is potential overlap between some of these.
Recount and Narrative are similar as are Procedure, Information report and Explanation; Exposition and Discussion are often confused.  The similarities and differences can be seen in the table below but before we get to that, we need to consider where a text is situated, not physically but socially.


The context of culture

Culture plays a very significant role in how people choose to communicate with each other as you may have discovered if you have been to country whose culture is so far removed from your own that you find it almost impossible to understand what people are doing and saying.  This is not only a linguistic issue because within cultures there are systems of meanings and mutually understood ways of behaving which to others are simply alien and impenetrable.
This cultural knowledge grows more sophisticated and complete as we grow up and children may often break the rules.  Adults, after a period of intense socialisation usually apply the rules of their culture unconsciously.

However, culture varies in two ways:

  1. Synchronically
    Cultures around the world and the languages they use have enormous variations in how texts are constructed and how social, spoken communication takes place.
    In some, for example, deference towards elders and authority is encoded in terms of address, the sorts of verbs which are allowable and even the nouns one uses.
    In others, power distance is much narrower and terms of address rarely used.  In the USA and the UK, for example, it is quite common for banks to address customers in email messages and on websites using the customer's first names.  Such an approach is completely unthinkable (literally) in many other cultures in which a respectful attitude is a social imperative.
    Languages reflect the society in which they develop and change and reflect the needs of their speakers.  In some cultures, for example, a clear distinction is made between the names for and the forms of address one uses with maternally or paternally related people so there is a distinction between grandmother as the mother of my mother and grandmother as the mother of my father.  In other cultures, no difference at all is made between the words describing what in English are signalled by the words brother, sister and cousin and English has no way of distinguishing a male from a female cousin, slightly unusually.
    Such differences do not arise randomly – they are the product of, usually, many hundreds of years of language change and development.
  2. Diachronically
    old young
    It will not be a surprise to you, whatever culture you inhabit and whatever language you speak at home to discover that languages vary over time.
    Ways of expression which were once conventional and often almost compulsory change over time as do the ways in which we communicate with each other.  Each innovation (text messaging, emails, online video chats, virtual meetings and so on) brings with it a change in the form and structure of the language we use.
    For example, two editions of the same newspaper separated by as little as 20 years when put side by side are instantly recognisable by people in the culture in which they were produced and easily assigned to the decades in which they were written.
    Dialogue in a movie made 50 years ago and one made last year will also be recognisably different to people in the culture because the topics, the forms of address and the language structures themselves are phenomena which betray their vintage.
    We have been careful here to refer to people in the culture because, of course, people from other cultures may not be at all sensitive to such changes.  For them, it's all foreign anyway.  Most learners of English, for example, would have no way to distinguish between a letter from a landlord written 50 years ago and one written yesterday.


The context of situation

The context of situation is nested within the context of culture and is the determining factor in how any text, spoken or written, is the way it is.
A conversation between two friends on a riverside bench will be very differently structured from, say, an encounter with a police officer regarding your witnessing a traffic accident.
Equally, a letter expressing a complaint about a service received from a shop and one inviting friends to a party will be very differently set out and use completely different language structures, lexical resources and layout.  In the latter case, too, the medium (probably email or a text message) will differ from the former (which may even be via old-fashioned postal services).

The context of situation, then, consists of three parts:

  1. The field
    1. What is the topic?
    2. What do the participants want to achieve?
  2. The tenor
    1. Who is speaking to whom?
    2. What is their relationship?
  3. The Mode
    1. How is communication happening?
    2. How is coherence maintained?

The field is described as the experiential meaning of the text because it refers to the world outside the language users themselves and their experiences of it.
The Tenor is described as the interpersonal meaning of the text because it refers to the participants in the exchange.
The Mode is described as the textual meaning because it relates to the type of text that is being made and how it will be used or transmitted.

Diagrammatically, it looks like this:


To take our two example situations above, the situation looks like this:

Context of situation Friends on a bench Police officer reporting Party invitation Service complaint
Experiential meaning
Varied mostly personal Specific: a road traffic accident Party A product or service
Maintain social relationships and exchange information To get and give information To make an invitation To complain
Interpersonal meaning
Friends (same sex, similar ages) Representative of authority and member of the public Friends and acquaintances Customer to supplier
Equals: no authority assumed Knower to non-knower Host to guest (potential) Customer assumes authority
Textual meaning
Spoken only Spoken and written (notes and diagrams) Written (text, email etc.) Written (post?)
Informal and unstructured Formal and structured Informal and structured Formal and structured
Potential text types or genres Multiple: recount, narrative, information report etc. Recount: sequence of events
Information report: what was seen
Information report (where, when, who, why etc.) Information report: the situation
Narrative: what happened
Exposition: what should happen

It is simple to see from these examples that the way in which the text is constructed and the language which is used will be radically different in all these cases.  The participants will, for example:

There is more in the guides to verbal processes and circumstances, linked in the list of related guides at the end.


Structural elements

All of these text types or genres have distinct way of structuring information in English or at least most Anglophone countries (other languages and other cultures do things differently).

Genre or text type Staging Very simple example
RECOUNT Orientation: who/what is the story about?
Record of events: in chronological order
Reorientation: what happened in the end?
Coda: how did I feel/think/react?
I was in London for the first time.  I visited lots of museums and galleries.  I went home in the evening.  I enjoyed it all but was tired.
NARRATIVE Orientation: who/what/where?
Complication: the crisis/problem and an evaluation
Resolution: how was the problem resolved?
Coda: how did I feel/think/react?
My friend and I were on the train.  I suddenly realised I had lost my ticket.  I had to pay for a new ticket.  It was not a good day because I lost a lot of money.
PROCEDURE Goal: what do you want to do?
Materials: what do you need?
Steps in sequence
To plant the tree:
You will need a spade and some fertiliser
Dig a large hole, put in the fertiliser and then the tree.  Fill in the hole and water it well.
INFORMATION REPORT Identification: what's it about?
Description: sections bundled in topic areas
Owls live near my house.  They only come out at night and then they hunt for mice and other animals.  They have chicks in the spring time.
EXPLANATION Identification: what am I explaining?
Explanation: the phases in the process
Olive trees are often attacked by a kind of fly which lays its eggs in the unripe fruit.  The fruit does not ripen properly because of this and the oil yield is reduced.
EXPOSITION Statement of position
Preview of arguments
Arguments: statement + evidence in each case
Restatement of position
People should not study grammar.  It's too difficult because there are lots of rules.  It doesn't help you speak because you can't remember the rules.  So don't bother with it.
Arguments for
Arguments against
(All the arguments for can follow each other before arguments against [FFF followed by AAA] or they can be interwoven [FAFAFA].)
Optionally, this genre may have a conclusion stating the writer's view.
Grammar may be useful.  Some people like learning rules and working things out because it interests them.
Other people don't enjoy it because it's boring.
Grammar helps you write well because you have time to think.
Grammar doesn't help you speak because there's too much time pressure.
Grammar maybe useful for some people.

How much can you remember?  Click here for a test before we go on.

There may, of course, be subgenres within these categories so, for example, you may read a news report in a newspaper which happens to be a kind of recount and follows the same pattern as most recounts.  On the other hand, some news reports are Information reports because they do not recount a series of events but try to give the facts of a matter.  Others may be Explanations.
We may also be confronted by a blog page and will need to figure out whether it's a narrative, a recount, an exposition, a discussion or what so we can understand its nature and know where to look for the data we need.  We also need that information to make sure it is what we are looking for.  A page from an instruction manual will usually follow the patterns of an explanation but parts of it will usually be an information report and so on.
Once you have identified the overarching category, we can then say what subgenre the text belongs to.
If you prefer a diagram:

As you can see, genres can be a characteristic of many text types so, for example, a spoken or written anecdote may be a narrative or it may be a simple recount.  It may even be an information report (or contain one).
Although the word genre is used quite loosely in everyday terms to refer to types of literature, painting, film and so on, it is not used that way here.  None of the subcategories above constitutes a genre in its own right although they may loosely be described as text types.
Do not suggest, for example, that a newspaper is a genre.  It isn't because it is a collection of different sorts of texts which have different generic characteristics.  Web pages, too, do not constitute a genre because we have to look at the intentions of the author and the purposes of the texts to identify exactly what the genre really is.


Theme and rheme

This will be familiar territory if you have looked at the guide to spoken discourse, linked below.
You are probably familiar with the idea that the first sentence of many paragraphs in written texts signals the writer's theme for the paragraph.  This is often called the topic sentence.  Consider this paragraph from a popular novel (La Plante, 2006) which is an extended narrative with smaller narrative sequences inserted within it, like most novels:

Arriving at Milan airport, Anna passed through customs way behind Langton and Professor Marshe.  They seemed to be in deep conversation; he was constantly bending down to listen to her, guiding her with one hand at the small of her back.  There was a familiarity about them that Anna found upsetting

  1. The first clause sets the scene and is called the theme (it's the non-finite clause, Arriving at Milan airport).  The rheme of that is Anna passed through customs
  2. This becomes the theme of the next small section with the rheme way behind Langton and Professor Marshe
  3. They (the two characters, Langton and Marshe) form the theme of the next clause which has as its rheme in deep conversation
  4. This idea forms the theme of the next section with the rheme he was constantly bending down to listen to her, guiding her with one hand at the small of her back
  5. That rheme becomes the next theme (a familiarity about them) which has as its rheme Anna found upsetting.

This is how well written paragraphs hang together and guide the reader smoothly through the text.

There is much more to it than this and not all texts (spoken or written) will conform to such a neat structure.  It is possible, for example, for theme 1 to have rheme 1 and for that to become theme 5 later in the text and so on.

Theme-rheme structures can look nice and tidy, like this:

theme and rheme

or they can be much more complicated with, for example, the first rheme becoming the fourth theme and so on, like this:

theme rheme
Theme 1 has rheme 1 which becomes theme 2 with a new rheme 2.
Rheme 2 becomes both theme 3 and theme 4.
Then rheme 3 becomes theme 5 and rheme 4 becomes theme 8 and so on.
The more the theme-rheme structure is disturbed, the more difficult the text is to navigate and comprehend and the more lost the reader (and writer) can become.

Related guides
using a genre approach the next logical step
theme and rheme for a more detailed look at this area
paragraph structure for a guide focusing on parts of texts only and their conventional structure
genre in English for Academic Purposes this has more detail but is linked primarily to EAP
tense and genre for a guide to which tenses are most frequently used in certain generic types and how they are used
spoken discourse a general guide to speaking which draws on discourse analysis but also considers the structure of interactions
verbal processes the guide concerned with what verbs do and what text types they appear in
circumstances the guide to ways of referring to time, place, angle, contingency and so on within a genre approach
tense and genre this guide is concerned with what some refer to as narrative tenses
teaching language skills the overview of skills teaching with links to other guides which considers how to alert learners to Field, Tenor and Mode

Butt, D, Fahey, R, Feez, S, Spinks, S and Yallop, C, 2001, Using Functional Grammar: an explorer's guide, Sydney NSW: NCELTR (If you are interested in teaching using a genre approach, this is an invaluable guide.)
La Plante, L, 2006, The Red Dahlia, London: Simon and Schuster