How To Discourse Analysis

We make errors. When we write, speak, or communicate, we make errors in communication, it is inevitable. Our errors can manifest in poor grammar choices, poor pronunciation, or poor conversations. And these errors occur rather frequently; for example, autocorrect errors have become a cultural joke because, although autocorrect can predict the correct word, it frequently chooses words unsuitable for the particular conversation. Nearly everyone has experienced an autocorrect error. Yet, despite these errors in communication, we are able to comprehend one another nonetheless. How come?

The answer, as a discourse theorist would argue, is due to a few fundamental features that characterize human social interaction. We will discuss each one at a time, starting with cohesion.


Uncles, cousins, and aunts; these all get at the essence of cohesion. That is, all three are related to one another, not just biologically, but semantically. Cohesion refers to overall relatedness. For example:

Jack shot a 3 pointer and scored, but he also tromboned the player guarding him.

Clearly, the feature that lacks cohesiveness is “trombone,” and so we assume an error has been made; indeed, some of us may have already replaced “tromboned” with “elbowed”. The discourse was evidently about basketball, so “tromboned” fails to cohere.

Cohesion not only tells us when to recognize something as an error, but it also tells us something about the types of discourses we are involved in. For example:

Speaker 1: Can you tell me my grade?

Speaker 2: 88%, well done, Jack.

Speaker 1: Great, see you, next class!

Right away, we can assign roles to the discourse agents; that is, speaker 1 is a student and speaker 2 is a teacher. The semantic properties, in addition to learning through experience, inform us of these roles because students and teachers use language in that manner. Their phrase selections cohere with certain types of roles, and their word selections within those phrases also cohere to the role. It would be odd to walk-up to a teacher and say, “can you sell me some Jade”. Primarily because the phrase lacks cohesion.


Speaker 1: Can you get that

Speaker 2: its taco Tuesday

Speaker 1: Okay

Reading this certainly seems odd, but I suspect some of you could fit this into a real-life event. That is, when we talk about coherence, which is different from cohesion, we are necessarily talking about how to fit words into concrete scenes. Some conversations, when removed from their environment, are absolutely bonkers. But, thanks to our brains, we can place them back into context.

So, if context impacts the meaning of language, then coherence would be the process of fitting language into its appropriate context. We constantly try and fit phrases into appropriate environments, and we do so not only with literal phrases but also with abstract phrases as well.

Speaker 1: Our relationship is at a dead-end

Speaker 2: So should we go our own ways?

The important difference with the abstract language, however, is that we are mapping experiential meanings onto physical environments. That is, we characterize the meaning of a relationship with the physical characteristics of something like a Journey; hence, “our love is at a dead-end”. So, when we place words into their appropriate physical environment, we do not always make literal connections.

When it comes to the linguistic content, there are evidently extra-linguistic variables involved with understanding the content; culture, psychology, and context all play an important role. However, some of these extra-linguistic variables also influence our interpretation of language far before we ever hear or read phrases.

Social Status

How do you react when someone approaches you and says, “I’m going to give you an F”. Well, if you are a human being, then it depends on who uttered the phrase. If it was your relationship partner, then it might be interpreted positively. If it were a professor, then it would be interpreted negatively, I hope.

Social statuses prime us to think in a certain way about utterances. That is, social status primes influence how we filter the world. For example, in the notoriously dank meme “toucha my spaghet” , the father of the family utters “somebody touch my spaghet”. The entire family takes this utterance seriously. However, if the youngest child were to make precisely the same utterance, it has a higher probability of being dismissed or taken less seriously. By the same token, when younger monkeys make warning calls, they are taken less seriously than the older members. The logic being, the older members have proven their reliability.

Even furthermore, when we think about our own social circles, we can see the impact that status has on meaning. That is, some utterances are acceptable amongst our friends that would otherwise be unacceptable to say: namely, phrases involving cuss-words like “b*tch,” “c*nt nugget,” or, the classic, “mother f*cker”. If we were to use these phrases to denote law enforcement, like we do friends, while in a discussion with law enforcement, the meaning would be far from benign.

The Influence of Influence

The story being told by our discussion on discourse is that expectation impacts linguistic interaction rather significantly. We have begun to expect a network of words to show up when certain topics or phrases are brought up; for example, when people mention Donald Trump, words like “president,” are more relevant than words like, “spaghet”. That being because an association between “president” and “trump” has been developed through Pavlovian conditioning, whereas “Trump” and “spaghet” have yet to be semantically paired.

On top of the semantic expectation, there is a context expectation; meaning, some phrases can violate or agree with the expectations we have for certain physical contexts. Consider, if someone yelled, “throw the puck,” at a hockey game, it would be odd; only because the phrase violates the expectations for that context, and so the phrase fails to cohere.

And lastly, we can expect different utterances and phrases from those with specific social statuses, and we can have words which contain a unique meaning for certain social relationships. When I am speaking with a police officer, I’d be caught off-guard if he or she spoke in memes rather than in a professional manner. In addition, social statuses may alter the meaning of a phrase or utterance; for example, cuss-words become more benign when used with friends than with strangers.

Therefore, discourse, to some extent, can be explained by a series of compartmentalized top-down cognitions. We’ve learned to have nuanced expectations based on social status, coherence, and cohesion. This also means our language processing capacities depend on more than just linguistic devices; meaning, the perceptual-recognition process for a friend would more than likely call upon the fusiform-face-area, the recognition of cohesion would more than likely call upon the association cortex, and the recognition of coherence would more than likely call upon the para-hippocampus. Language processing, thus, cannot be localized to a few structures within the brain but instead would be distributed throughout.


Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

3 thoughts on “How To Discourse Analysis

  1. Was an interesting read. Thaks for sharing! I guess this article did scratch the surface of something infinitely complex! 😊
    Will wait to read more on this from you!

    1. Thanks!

      And yes, discourse is so complex that I’ve yet to find a satisfactory account of it. Gricean maxims are interesting, but they don’t account for much of the evidence within cognitive science.

      Definitely a subject I’ll come back to.

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