Stylistics and Discourse analysis: A contribution in analysing Literature


The essay aims to provide some introduction to Stylistics and Discourse analysis, their major domains and then compares both the disciplines in terms of their contribution in analysing literature. It seems easy to claim that, stylistics and discourse analysis are different disciplines, but it is not so simple in fact, as both the disciplines have got fuzzy boundaries and it is very difficult to draw a clear line of demarcation between them. Discourse analysis, therefore, relies on knowledge and methodologies from a wide range of fields, such as, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, social and cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence and so is the Stylistics. The essay, in this context focuses particularly on either stylistics and discourse analysis are two different domains or former is the sub field of the later, and if this is so then how they differ from literary criticism in analysing literature.

1.     Introduction

Discourse, in Collins dictionary of English, is defined as “verbal communication; talk or conversation” that shows the discipline’s – discourse analysis - major concern with analysing real conversation. Discourse, according to Stubbs (1983:1), is “language above the sentence or above the clause” and ‘the study of discourse is the study of any aspect of language use. (Fasold1990: 65). In simple words, discourse analysis is “the study of language in use”. The discipline is based on the fact that language needs a context for its existence and it is impossible to understand the linguistic items, used in discourse, without a context. As Fairclough states:

“Discourse constitutes the social. Three dimensions of the social are distinguished – knowledge, social relations, and social identity – and these correspond respectively to three major functions of language … Discourse is shaped by relations of power, and invested ideologies.” (Fairclough 1992:8)

Discourse analysis, being a relative social phenomenon solely depends on the wide range of disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology, cognitive and social psychology, philosophy, for knowledge and methodologies and it is difficult to draw a clear line of demarcation between certain linguistic fields, such as anthropological linguistics, psycholinguistic, discourse analysis and cognitive linguistics, as the approaches to “ study of language in use” are borrowed from these sub fields and most of the times the findings are independently supported by the fresh evidences. Discourse analysis, in turn, is composed of a wide range of sub-disciplines, such as pragmatics, conversational analysis, speech act theory and ethnography of speaking. The discipline studies language used in the context, so its subject matter is language as a whole, either written or spoken, in terms of transcriptions, larger texts, audio or video recordings, which provides an opportunity to the analyst to work with language rather than a single sentence.

Discourse, according to Zellig Harris (1951), who first used the term, is a sequence of the utterances. He observes that:

“Stretches longer than one utterance are not usually considered in current descriptive linguistics.[…] the linguist usually considers the interrelations of elements only within one utterance at a time. This yields a possible description of the material, since the interrelations of elements within each utterance (or utterance type) are worked out, and any longer discourse is describable as succession of utterances, i.e. a succession of elements having the stated interrelations. This restriction means that nothing is generally said about the interrelations among whole utterances within a sequence.”

Grenoble (2000), explaining Harris’s definition of discourse, states that:

“Harris interestingly enough ruled out the kind of study which discourse analysis aims to do. He is of the view that linguistic research focuses on the elements within an utterance; discourse can be considered as a sequence of utterance. Harris argues that the study of the interrelations between utterances within a discourse; the scope of a discourse analysis required much more information than the theoretical apparatus of that time could handle. While this held true for 1950s and 1960s, roughly, but 1970s saw an emerging body of different approaches including pragmatics, conversation analysis, textual linguistics, and relevance theory.”

Pragmatics as a general term, according to Grenoble (2000), can be understood in at least as many ways as discourse analysis; some linguists equate the two terms. In its narrow sense, it refers to linguistic theory that has been directly influenced by the philosophy of language. In this paper I am concerned with the approaches, either similar or different, used by stylistics and discourse analysis to analyse different literary genre. 

2.     What is stylistics?

Stylistic analysis in linguistics refers to the identification of patterns of usage in speech and writing.  Stylistic analysis in literary studies is usually made for the purpose of commenting on quality and meaning in a text. Stylistics, in other words, is the study of style used in literary and verbal language and the effect writer or speaker wishes to communicate to the reader or hearer. It attempts to establish principles capable of explaining the particular choices made by individual and social groups in their use of language, such as socialization, the production or reception of meaning, literary criticism and critical discourse analysis.

A literary genre can be seen as a set of style characteristics that is commonly recognized and agreed upon. For example, prose and poetry, the latter often involve rhyme while the former does not. Other aspects include the use of dialogue, the description of scenes, the use of active passive voice and the distribution of the sentence length etc. Stylistic analysis is a normal part of literary studies. It is practised as a part of understanding the possible meanings in a text.  It is also generally assumed that the process of analysis will reveal the good qualities of the writing. Take, for example, the opening lines of Shakespeare's Richard III

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of

 A stylistic analysis might reveal the following points:

i.                    the play is written in poetic blank verse

ii.                 that is - unrhymed, iambic pentameters

iii.               the stresses fall as follows

iv.               Now is the winter of our discontent

v.                  [notice that the stress falls on vowel sounds]

vi.               the first line is built on a metaphor

vii.             the condition of England is described in terms of the season 'winter'

viii.          the term 'our' is a form of the royal "we"

ix.                the seasonal metaphor is extended into the second line

x.                  ... where better conditions become 'summer'

xi.                the metaphor is extended even further by the term 'sun'

xii.             it is the sun which appears, 'causing' the summer

xiii.           but 'sun' is here also a pun - on the term 'son'

xiv.           ... which refers to the son of the King

xv.              'York' is a metonymic reference to the Duke of York

In a complete analysis, the significance of these stylistic details would be related to the events of the play itself, and to Shakespeare's presentation of them.

            In some forms of stylistic analysis, the numerical recurrence of certain stylistic features is used to make judgements about the nature and the quality of the writing.  However, it is important to recognise that the concept of style is much broader than just the 'good style' of literary prose.  For instance, even casual communication such as a manner of speaking or a personal letter might have an individual style. However, to give a detailed account of this style requires the same degree of linguistic analysis as literary texts.

Stylistics, like all other branches of applied linguistics, depends upon the tools provided by the theoretical linguistic; as the techniques of discourse analysis have become more sophisticated, so there has been a growing exploitation in Stylistics, so the techniques of stylistics can be applied to the texts other than those in the established literary cannon. For Example, a stylistics analysis of a road sign that read “NO LEFT TURN” may result into the following observations:

i.          The statement is a command.

ii.                 It is cast in the imperative mode.

iii.               The statement lacks a subject and a verb.

iv.               These are implied [THERE IS].

v.                  The statement is unpunctuated.

vi.               Capitals have been used for emphasis.

vii.             Simple vocabulary to suit wide audience.

viii.          Extreme compression for rapid comprehension.

ix.                Form entirely suited to audience and function.

For a non- literary text, Stylistic analysis for instance means studying in detail the features of a passage from such genres as:



notes for setting video-recorder



a history text book



advert or holiday brochure

The method of analysis can be seen as looking at the text in great detail, observing what the parts are, and saying what function they perform in the context of the passage.  It is, in other words, like taking a car-engine to pieces, looking at each component in detail, then observing its function as the whole engine starts working. Following are features, which are likely to occur in a text whose function is to instruct:



'remove the outer covering'

direct address


'check voltage before installing unit'

numbered points


[sequencing is important in carrying out a procedure]

technical terms


'piston', 'carburettor', 'spark plug'



[an extra level of communication to aid understanding]

These features are dealt with in three ways - identify - describe – explain. The features chosen from any text will be those which characterise the piece as to its function. They will be used by the analyst to prove the initial statement, which is made about the linguistic nature of the text as a whole.

The method is purely scientific, unlike literary criticism.  A hypothesis is stated and then proved. It is a useful discipline, which encourages logical thought and can be transferred to many other areas of academic study. This is one reason why the discipline of stylistic analysis is so useful: it can be applied to a variety of subjects.

3.     Applications of linguistics philosophy in analysing literature

 What sets  stylistics apart from  other types of critical practice is its emphasis, first and foremost, on the language of the text, while discourse analysis is mainly concerned with the real speech situations, verbal communication, talk or conversation, in terms of speech acts. It, in turn, is very difficult to analyse real conversation in terms of speech acts because explicit performative utterances are rare and any attempt to expand primary performatives runs immediately into the problem of what is / are the correct expansion(s).Discourse analysis encounters the same difficulty with the utterances in novels, but some times a reporting verb’s addition on the part of author, which makes performative significance explicit, for example

‘I suppose it’s the thing to do,’ Macomber agreed

Even when the author does not provide a performative gloss, the reader himself can.

            In his earliest published attempt, Ohmann (1971), tried to apply speech act theory to literature, he sets out not to analyse the individual utterances but the whole work , which he argues consists in fact of a series of ‘quasi Speech acts’: a literary work is a discourse whose sentences lack the illocutionary forces that would normally attach to them.’ What he is asserting is that the felicity conditions on real speech acts do not necessarily hold for speech acts in literary texts, or as Sinclair (1981) has more recently expressed it , the author of the text does not aver or assert the truth of any of the sentences in the text .

            According to Coulthard (1985), Pratt herself suggests that one can usefully apply Grice’s co-operative principles and derived maxims to literary texts, both to writer reader interaction and to the reported interactions within the text.

Dali (1979) shows, by discussing a passage from Hemingway’s Ten Indians, how flouting of maxims by one character subtly constraints and controls questions by the other:

What did you do this afternoon?’ Nick asked.

   ‘ I went for a walk up by the Indian camp.’

  ‘Did you see anybody?’

The Indians were all in town getting drunk’

 ‘Didn’t you see anybody at all?’

‘I saw your friend, Prudie.’

‘Where was she?’

‘She was in the woods with Frank Washburn. I ran on to them.

They were having quite a time.’

  His father was not looking at him.

‘What were they doing?’

‘I didn’t stay to find out’

‘Tell me what they were doing’

‘I don’t know,’ his father said. ‘I just heard them threshing around.’

Dali (1971) explains that the father’s reply at line 4 looks initially like a paraphrase of ‘no’, but as the Indian are crucially not the only people he could have seen it is designed as a flouting of the maxim of quality and intended to elicit more questioning. At lines 8 and 9 the father violates the quantity maxim, providing more than was required to answer the question yet not enough to satisfy the curiosity about the new topic. Again at line14 Dali suggests, is a typical violation of Grice’s maxim of manner. It shows how father is able through the manipulation of the conversational maxims, to maintain his relationship with the son by not telling tales and still pass on the information  he wants to convey. Coulthard (1985).

4.     Conversational Analysis

Drama texts, being scripts for the performing of pseudo-conversations, can be successfully approached with techniques originally developed to analyse real conversation. But it must be remembered that these are invented sequences, shaped for an artistic purpose, and some of the rules and conventions are different

Grice’s quality maxim is frequently broken at least of a character’s co-conversationalists who are often told something to indirectly inform the audience.



Stylistics is mainly concerned with:

§         The idea of “Style”

§         The analysis of literary texts

§         The application of linguistics to the literary texts and the ‘style’ is usually understood within this area of study as the selection of certain linguistic forms or features over other possible ones, e.g.

§         What makes the writings of literary writers distinctive?  Idea or Style

Discourse analysis, on the other hand, is concerned with

§         The language in use

§         Conversation analysis

§         Speech Acts

§         Co-operative principles

§         The analysis of language in a social context, political, religious, cultural contexts

§         Discourse analysis relies on a wide range of disciplines

In conclusion it can be said that all the three disciplines, stylistics, Discourse analysis and literary criticism in one way or other analyse literature. Stylistics focuses on texts and gives much attention to the devices, parts and figures of speech, for style in language. Discourse analysis on the other hand tries to analyse literature in terms of Co-operative principles, with derived maxims, speech acts and conversational analysis, which is an approach totally different from that followed by stylistics in analysing literary texts. Literary criticism, in turn is the practical implication of literary theory. It has got a subjective approach to analyse and evaluate literature, while stylistics and discourse analysis claim to follow object approach. Beside these differences all the three disciplines have one thing common that they analyse literature, draw knowledge and methodologies from each other, so it is very difficult to put a clear line of demarcation to separate them.



Coulthard, M. 1985. An introduction to discourse analysis, London: longman

Grenoble, L.A. (2000) ‘Discourse Analysis’, SLIN2K position paper, Dartmouth college: USA

Fairclough, N. (1992) ‘Introduction’, in Fairclough, N. (ed) Critical Language Awareness, London:   Longman

Fasold, R. (1990) Sociolinguistics of language, Oxford: Blackwell.

Haris, Zellig .(1951). Structural linguistics. Chicago: UP Way of Words, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. (The essays on meaning and conversational implicature provide a framework for distinguishing speaker meaning from linguistic meaning and for explaining

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