Text Linguistics

Text linguistics is concerned with larger units of speech, i.e. above the level of the traditional sentence. It investigates how these larger units fit together and how sensible arguments or expositions are constructed by employing specific linking devices. The notion of text here encompasses not only what we traditionally see as text, i.e. a collection of written materials, but also spoken discourse, such as speeches, sermons, dialogues, etc. As should be immediately obvious from the brief list given just before, there is somewhat of a continuum between spoken and written forms of text and we can only give rather vague and approximate criteria for the distinction between these two text modes.

Some Features of Spoken vs. Written Texts

Thus, spoken texts tend to be shorter, potentially less grammatical and usually a little less complex in their syntax in terms of sub- or co-ordination, although this need not necesssarily be the case for written-to-be-spoken genres, such as e.g. political speeches, book readings or news broadcasts. Spoken texts also tend to contain a far larger number of questions because they often represent a kind of ‘question-answer-game’, whereas questions in written texts tend to be more of a rhetorical nature and are often used to raise particular issues. Spoken language is also usually full of ‘filling elements’, such as discourse markers – such as now, well, you know, like, etc. – or hesitation phenomena like false starts and repetitions, etc., and it uses conjunctions in a way that is often considered bad style in written language, e.g. ‘sentence’ initial and or but.

What Makes a Text a Text?

However, it is not the only the choices we make with regard to syntactic complexity or certain vocabulary items, but also how these things are linked together that helps us to create a proper text that fits together in various aspects. In terms of the fitting together of texts, we need to bear various features in mind that help us to establish its coherence, i.e. the impression that the whole text actually makes sense. Just as we have seen that we cannot simply add words together randomly and expect them to make sense, the same goes for the composition of lager textual units into a whole. If I write something like “I got up at six a clock in the morning and then got out of bed.”, this clearly doesn’t make much sense, whereas if I say “I woke up at six a clock in the morning and then got out of bed.”, this makes perfect sense, as long as you believe that getting up around that time is a sensible thing to do – or even if you don’t. So, in a sense, what we need to pay attention to in order to create coherent texts is order and structure. Here’s a more elaborate example to show you how coherence works or what may go wrong when we produce an incoherent text. First read through the original version, then click on scramble sentences repeatedly to see how scrambling the sentences randomly will affect the coherence.

John and Mary were poor. They did not want to stay poor all their lives. So they bought a lottery ticket. They won some money. Because of this, they were able to go on a holiday. On this holiday, John and Mary went mountain-climbing. However, they were careless. Thus they had an accident. Therefore, they had to spend two weeks in hospital. John and Mary did not enjoy the holiday. Now they were poor again.

Coherent structure can e.g. be expressed by structuring a written document clearly into chapters, headings, sub-headings, paragraphs, lists or even single lines. However, just doing this without using any other means of tying these units of text together does not usually provide us with a document that fulfils all our ‘aesthetic expectations’. What we need in order to achieve this goal is something that is called cohesion. Cohesion is a kind of textual glue that helps us to join textual elements together, avoid repetition of the same words, make reference to circumstances or actants in a text, express the temporal/logical order of events, etc. It takes on a number of different forms, described below:

With regard to deixis, we can distinguish between person(al) and local/temporal deixis, where the former is usually expressed through the use of pronouns and the latter through adverbial constructions.


  1. Go through the exercises on this page containing cohesion exercises, play around with the different options to see how the text changes, and try to identify which feature of cohesion is involved in each of the options.
  2. Look through the examples of learner writing on the coherence awareness and attempt to find reasons for the lack of coherence (marked in red) in the writing. Once you have identified a reason, hover over the red text to see a hint as to the possible solution, but not until you have spent a suitable amount of time thinking about this yourself.
  3. Finally, go re-run the scrambling exercise to see how the cohesive devices may lose their effect, along with the loss of coherence, when the text is scrambled.

Sources & Further Reading:

Halliday, M. & Hasan, R. (1985). Cohesion in English. London: Longman.