Discourse and Function

A Framework of Sentence Structure

This web site publishes a book, under the title “Discourse and Function”, which advances a new, concise, and powerful method for describing how language works. Its proposition is that language performs two roles: One is to carry out a conversation or narrative, by introducing a topic, asking and answering questions about it, and making suggestions. This is called Discourse. The other is to describe a state or process performed on an object, which may have an agent or cause and may result in a change to the object or to its relationship with a human being. This is called Function. Both Discourse and Function are realised through a unit of meaning we call a sentence. This distinction is not new, and is sometimes reflected in the linguistic terms “pragmatics” and “semantics”. What is new is the way the book handles it.

Firstly, the book aims to show that the Discourse and Function of a sentence are separate from each other. Any functional part of a sentence can be introduced and have questions, statements or suggestions made about it. If we say that a cat sat elegantly on a mat this morning, we may be remarking on the cat, the mat, the sitting, the elegance, or the time. However, in every case the function of the sentence is “sat”. The logical structure of a sentence in Discourse is quite different from its logical structure under Function. Discourse is expressed through seven types of sentence, called “discourse types.” Function is expressed through 37 types of sentence called “functional types”, which categorise all the states and processes which can occur in the world. Since the world must be more complicated than any system which describes it, the figure of 37 is arbitrary.

Secondly, a notation is introduced by which Discourse and Function can be concisely described. Unlike the tree structure which is sometimes used for sentence description, the notation proposed is linear. In Discourse, conversation and narrative are dynamic. An entity can be stated to exist but is not identified and is therefore {indefinite}. It is then given an identity by relation to a {circumstance} and so becomes {definite}, and so on. Each of the {x} notations refers to a class of entities that has that characteristic. Discourse also relates sentences in time, by what we call “aspect”, and logically, by what we call “inference”. These relations have their own notation, such as {imperfect} or {aorist}.

The same type of notation is used to describe the 37 different processes or states of Function. For example {transform} alters an object, {location} says where it is, {possession} or {benefit} describes its relation to a human being, {constituent} says what it is made of, and {role} refers to the role of a person in society. For each function, the sentence structure is completed by other elements such as {agent}, {object}, or {recipient}. The author has found that it is most convenient to classify functions into those which describe an action on an object and those which describe its relation to a human being. Actions on an object are transitive or intransitive. Relations with a human being are described in many different ways, depending on the resources available to each language.

Thirdly, the book relates Discourse and Function to the traditional notation for describing sentences, such as “subject”, “verb”, and “object”. By so doing, a more robust definition is given of these terms and of others such as “adverbial” and “gerund”. The same notation is employed: {subject}, {verb}, {noun}, {adverbial}, and so on. Each of these elements are called “components” and sentences are shown to be verbal, nominal, complementary, adverbial, or gerundial in their component structure.

The structure of the book reflects the way that it was written. The author first lays down the basics of his method of sentence description and to define the terms used. This is the purpose of Chapters 1. to 12. In Chapter 13. to 18., the book formally defines and applies the proposed notation to Discourse, Function, and components. Illustrations of sentence structure are taken principally from 20 languages, of which 9 are not Indo-European. Chapter 19. applies the system to worked examples to show the power of its application. For each example, the discourse, functional, and component structures are related and aligned.

The book is available in PDF form and can be downloaded complete here or as individual chapters.