What Makes a Text a Text? A Survey of the Criteria for Text Functionality

Term Paper, 2018

19 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1 Introduction and Content

2 General Definitions
2.1 Text
2.2 Textuality

3 Key Criteria for Textuality
3.1 Cohesion
3.2 Coherence
3.3 Intentionality
3.4 Acceptability
3.5 Informativity
3.6 Situationality
3.7 Intertextuality

4 Conclusion

Primary Source Text

Works cited

1 Introduction and Content

One might question the necessity of several scientific fields putting lots of effort into the venture of defining what makes a text a text.

Any native speaker who hears or reads a passage in his own language, which is more than one sentence in length, can normally decide without difficulty whether it forms a unified whole or is just a collection of unrelated sentences (Halliday & Hasan 1976: 1). However, it remains elusive for scholars in the field of linguistics to come up with a comprehensive definition of what a text is. The reason becomes clear when one is trying to determine what stands behind the term “text”.

A text doesn`t have a clearly defined form or length. “It may be spoken or written, prose or verse, dialogue or monologue. It may be anything from a single proverb to a whole play, from a momentary cry for help to an all-day discussion on a committee” (Halliday & Hasan 1976: 1)

Thus it is obvious that a text is something we encounter everywhere in our daily lives and yet we do not have a clearly defined notion of what it is that distinguishes a text from a compilation of unrelated words or sentences. It´s the difference between knowing something and being able to express that knowledge to others.

To remedy the lack of a definition, the field of text linguistics was established. Studying the elements that define a text and developing approaches to a definition is what linguists in this field of research do. However, any scholars who systematically study language usually refer to themselves as linguists (Bieswanger & Becker 2017: 2). Typical fields of research in linguistics are the human language, the human capacity to express ideas and feelings by voluntarily produced speech or writing (Bieswanger & Becker 2017: 2) and the communication between humans. When viewing those disciplines it becomes clear that the field of text linguistics is among the fundamental disciplines of linguistics as it is trying to define what actually makes the verbal and/or written utterances of human beings a comprehensive text.

To develop an understanding for this matter is of importance for anyone who is working in the field of text production. As examples may serve the professions of journalists, authors, translators, teachers and many more.A thorough understanding of the criteria for textuality will bring with it an expanded capacity of producing, analyzing and understanding texts.

Thus, it can be easily determined that it would be of an advantage to be able to clearly define a text.

To approach such a definition, several linguistic theories were developed over the years, although it can be said that major theoretical works and frameworks have not been overly numerous in the history of the “science of language” (de Beaugrande 1991: 1).

A detailed discussion of linguistic theories would lead astray from the question posed in this body of work. However, among the most prominent representatives in the field of (text) linguistic research, Ferdinand de Saussure should be mentioned, who as early as 1894 found himself “disgusted with the difficulty” of “writing ten lines concerning the facts of language which have any common sense” (de Beaugrande 1991: 6). Thus, it becomes clear that the problem of finding universal truths about linguistics is a rather old one and that it has presented a noteworthy challenge for several generations of scientists.

During the first topic of this body of work, which serves as an introduction, it was already determined why it is important for many professions to possess a basic understanding of linguistics and of seemingly basic terms such as “text” and “textuality”.

During the course of the second topic the existing definition or, to be precise, the existing approaches to a definition of the terms „text“ and „textuality“ will be presented as a first step. Over the years, several authors, namely de Beaugrande and Dressler, have come up with different objective criteria, which are suitable for defining a text. These criteria are an important part of the definitions of “text” and “textuality”.

As they will require further explanation, the third topic will deal with the criteria for textuality exclusively and will offer definitions of each of the chosen terms. To help the reader to understand the key criteria for textuality, this chapter also includes examples of how the seven criteria come to bear in a text and therefore how they determine its textuality.

Throughout this body of work examples from Martin Luther King`s famous speech “I have a dream” will serve to illustrate the use of the seven key criteria. The original text is enclosed at the end of this assignment. If German sources are cited in English, all translations were done by the author of this assignment in the course of writing it.

2 General Definitions

2.1 Text

When it comes to a definition of the term “text”, it becomes clear that humans may have a very clear conception of what they consider to be a text but find it immensely difficult to determine why they do so and which criteria help them to recognize words and sentences as a coherent text.

As of today, scientific research couldn`t yet determine a precise and universally recognized definition of the term “text”. In a general understanding, text is defined as a contextually coherent sequence of several phrases (Glück & Rödel 2016: 707). Alternatively, as Halliday and Hasan (1976: 1) put it: “the word text is used in linguistics to refer to any passage, spoken or written, of whatever length, that does form a unified whole”. The third chapter is presenting the seven key criteria, which are used to define this “unified whole”.

The historical meaning of the term stems from the Latin noun textum, which stands for “woven fabric” (Glück & Rödel 2016: 707) and is deduced from the verb texere, which means “to weave something.” Thus, a parallel between the structure of woven textiles and the elements of extensive linguistic structures is suggested here (Schubert 2012: 31). A text makes the whole more than the combination of its parts, e.g. words or phrases.

Halliday and Hasan (1976: 23) also offer an approach to a definition, which goes like the following:

“A text is a passage of discourse which is coherent in these two regards: it is coherent with respect to the context of situation, and therefore consistent in register; and it is coherent with respect to itself, and therefore cohesive.”

This definition already mentions two main criteria for the perception of a passage of phrases as a text - cohesion and coherence. These two are among a set of seven key criteria for textuality which were developed by de Beaugrande and Dressler (1981) and which shall be discussed as primary aspects of interest during the course of this work.

Everything of the above shows that so far scientific research has only managed to develop several approaches to a definition of the term “text”. None of these approaches is all-encompassing and generally accepted. Some definitions are contradictory to others or only correspond in part.

Thus, this body of work will focus on the seven criteria for textuality to enable the reader to develop an understanding of the features of a text, which are considered to be indicators for textuality.

Therefore, the next term under discussion is textuality itself.

2.2 Textuality

Textuality is defined as the decisive criterion that distinguishes a text from a non-text (Glück & Rödel 2016: 709).

However, as it has already been determined that there isn`t an all-encompassing definition of the term “text”, it can be concluded that it is hardly possible do define sharp criteria for the distinction between texts and non-texts (Glück & Rödel 2016: 709).

The key criteria for textuality, which were developed by de Beaugrande and Dressler in 1981, encompass:

Cohesion, coherence, intentionality, acceptability, informativity, situationality and intertextuality (Glück & Rödel 2016: 709).

De Beaugrande and Dressler (1981) have come up with the following definition as to when the textuality of a text is evident:

“A text will be defined as a communicative occurrence which meets seven standards of textuality. If any of these standards is not considered to have been satisfied, the text will not be communicative. Hence, non-communicative texts are treated as non-texts […]” (De Beaugrande & Dressler 1981: 3).

This definition emphasizes the communicative quality of texts and puts it into focus as the essential requirement of textuality (Schubert 2012: 20). All seven criteria must be observed to create communicative quality in a text.

However, it has been under discussion in scientific dispute whether intentionality and acceptability shouldn`t rather be seen as basic requirements of human communication than as criteria for textuality (Glück & Rödel 2016: 709). In that regard, there is consensus about the fact that coherence is the central criterion of textuality. The following chapter will provide an overview over the seven key criteria and define their meaning.

3 Key Criteria for Textuality

3.1 Cohesion

Cohesion occurs where the interpretation of some element in the discourse is dependent on that of another (Halliday & Hasan 1976: 4). That means that one element cannot be effectively decoded except by recourse to the other element. One element thus presupposes the other and the cohesion lies in the relation that is set up between the two (Halliday & Hasan 1976: 4). This also shows in the Latin original meaning of “cohesion” (cohaerere) which stands for “to stick together” or “to be connected” (de Beaugrande & Dressler 1981: 50).

To connect different occurrences in text, the most obvious illustration in use is the language system of syntax. It imposes organizational patterns upon the surface text (de Beaugrande & Dressler 1981: 48). Referring to Keele (1973) and Loftus and Loftus (1976) Syntax is necessary, as the human mind is rather limited in its capacity to store surface materials long enough to work on them and therefore needs to organize them, for example, into sentences (de Beaugrande & Dressler 1981: 48).

In closely connected units such as phrases, part-sentences and sentences cohesion is maintained by inserting these elements into grammatical dependencies. In longer texts, it must be determined how the elements and patterns used before can be re-used, modified or put together in a different way (de Beaugrande & Dressler 1981: 54). Thus, cohesion serves to present a text as a comprehensible unit.

There are various devices for creating cohesion in long-range stretches of text (de Beaugrande & Dressler 1981: 49). Among the most important ones are:

- Recurrence: The straightforward repetition of elements or patterns.
- Partial recurrence: The shifting of already used elements to different classes (e.g. from verb to noun).
- Parallelism: Repeating a structure but filling it with new elements.
- Paraphrase: Repeating content but conveying it with different expressions.
- Ellipsis: Repeating a structure and its content but omitting some of the surface expressions.

Several elements creating cohesion can be found in the following section of “I have a Dream”:

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.”

This passage clearly shows that the speaker`s first sentence is referring to former parts of the speech. The receiver would not be able to determine who is meant by “we” (the Civil Rights Movement), what the other reasons are the speaker and his followers came for (we have also come…), where the hallowed spot is (the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.) and why he sees it as hallowed (because Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, thus abolishing slavery). All this information was given at an earlier stage of the text.

King also makes use of recurrence and parallelism to emphasize his point and to make his argumentation easy to follow (Now is the time….).

3.2 Coherence

Glück and Rödel define coherence as the decisive factor for the reception of content as a text. The receiver can only interpret coherent sequences of characters as a text (2016: 342). It describes the continuity of senses in a text (Schubert 2012: 65). While perceiving a text, coherence is giving mutual access and relevance within a configuration of concepts and relations (de Beaugrande & Dressler 1981: 85).

To create coherence, the configuration of concepts and relations of a text has to match the receivers` prior knowledge of the world (de Beaugrande & Dressler 1981: 86). Thus, coherence refers to the contextual consistency of texts. If text receivers can discover no such continuity, the text will be perceived as non-sensical.

De Beaugrande and Dressler divide between meaning and sense when it comes to the perception of content in a text (1981: 88). They see “meaning” as the term used to designate the potential or a language expression for conveying knowledge and the term “sense” as the knowledge actually conveyed by expressions occurring in a text (1981: 88). This distinction is important as many expressions have several virtual meanings but usually only one sense in a text (De Beaugrande & Dressler 1981: 88). The following sentence does illustrate this quite well:

“In a sense we´ve come to our nation´s capital to cash a check.”

The meaning of the term “to cash a check” can vary between going to the bank to receive actual money in exchange for a check, to call in a favor or, in this case, to hold someone to a promise he made before. King actually explains in what sense the expression is used here.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


What Makes a Text a Text? A Survey of the Criteria for Text Functionality
AKAD University of Applied Sciences Stuttgart
Text analysis an text production
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Feedback Sheet: Karin Sterz Structure Good clear structure. 15/ 15 Content The analysis is extensive, showing that the author has engaged deeply with the material. Could have used a clearer thesis statement. 15 /13 Style/Language English grammar and vocabulary need some work. Punctuation is mixed between German and English. 15 /11 Referencing Consistent method of referencing. 15/ 15 Total The text would have benefited from a careful final round of editing. 60/ 54
Criteria for textuality, De Beaugrande, Dressler, Cohesion, Coherence
Quote paper
Karin Sterz (Author), 2018, What Makes a Text a Text? A Survey of the Criteria for Text Functionality, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/470707


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