What makes a text a text?

The seven criteria for text functionality by Beaugrande and Dressler

Essay, 2020

11 Pages, Grade: 1.3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Definition of a Text

3 The Seven Key Criteria of Textuality

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

The question at what point a text is a text or whether a text can be called a text at all is one of the core questions of linguistics and goes all the way back to the ancient Greek language theory of Plato and Aristotle, which dealt with this topic at the most basic level.

In the 1960s, the expression “text” became a focus of linguists with the development several definitions of what a text is. Since then, numerous definitions have been formed and there is no consensus about which one is the best, but one can find many similarities among them.

The 1981 work of the Austrian linguists Robert-Alain de Beaugrande and Wolfgang U. Dressler has been used as the the basis for many discussions and definitions of text ever since. Their work is often seen as a good framework for agreement which is based on seven criteria of textuality.

In the following essay, the question of what makes a text a text will be discussed further. The seven key criteria of textuality defined by Beaugrande and Dressler will then be explained using an example of a classic American drama.

2 The Definition of a Text

The question of which conditions a cluster of words has to meet in order to be called a text is one of the questions every linguist or literary scholar will face at some point. When looking for a definition of “text”, we often stumble across the two expressions “text” and “textuality” which can be quite confusing. The expression “text” comes from the latin word textum which means fabric, whereas textuality is more like an interpretation than an expression and denotes the characteristics that sculpt linguistic structure into the text.1

Peter Auger defines textuality as the state of being expressed in written language, inseparable from written form.2 This implies not only the written word but also the interpretation and meaning behind the written word. So, textuality can differ with each reader and his/her mood, culture, education, etc. for the same text whereas, ‘text’ will always be the same text for each reader. Professor emeritus of philosophy and intellectual history Vivienne Brown provides a very nice and picturesque presentation of a text in her work “Textuality and the History of Economics,“ where she explains that a text is woven out of the threads of language.3 Another significant definition that is worth mentioning comes from W.F. Hanks who states that a text is composed of interconnected sentences when used as a mass noun.4 It should be noted that Hanks limits the definition of text to the written word despite the fact that in descriptive linguistics a spoken text also exists. According to Halliday and Hasan “the word TEXT is used in linguistics to refer to any passage, spoken or written, of whatever length, that does form a unified whole“5. A text can be pictorial, cinematic or digital and new technologies such as social media offer even way more ways to create texts. Several linguists even go so far as to say that any given sequence of verbal signs can form a text as long as there is an appropriate context for it. By this definition no matter how disconnected these signs appear to some recipients, every form of communication is a form of text and there is no such thing as a “non-text” even though other definitions clearly separate text and non-texts from each other by several pragmatic and linguistic criteria. The more one dives into the ocean of linguistics in order to find the right definition of what a text is, the clearer it becomes that there is no simple definition.

There are innumerous definitions both of text and textuality which agree in one point: a text must be an artifact. A text is something created by a human, not randomly appearing but willingly created. This may be easier to understand if we compare it to trying to build a house out of a pile of stones. The pile of stones are our words. What differentiates a text from words that are randomly put together is that a text is a unit of words linked in a certain way. This is like connecting stones in order to form a building. Textuality is comparable to the things that give the building its spirit – wall coverings, decorations, etc. It is what makes the text a unique piece of art.

We will now examine why this comparison is an oversimplification of reality.

3 The Seven Key Criteria of Textuality

In “Introduction into Text Linguistics”, de Beaugrande and Dressler distinguish a text from a non-text by the existence of its seven criteria of textuality. These are, cohesion, coherence, intentionality, acceptability, informativity, situationality and intertextuality.6

These criteria will be further explained using examples from the American classic “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder.

3.1 Cohesion

The expression “cohesion” comes from the Latin word cohaerere which means sticking together in the widest sense.7 If we do speak of cohesion in the field of physics for example, it refers to the inner cohesion of the atoms or even molecules in a liquid or solid substance which is caused by the force of attraction. The substance only becomes a certain material by this cohesion of the atoms.8

In linguistics, cohesion is the semantic tool which connects various single linguistic elements to form a structure. To create cohesion, there are several grammatical structures, such as reference, substitution, ellipsis, conjunction and lexical cohesion. These structural aids are called the “five types of ties” by Halliday and Hasan,9 but there are many more linguistic devices to create this relationship between elements in order to form a text such as repetition, recurrence, parallelism, or paraphrasing. These grammatical tools can be used to clarify, emphasize, or accentuate passages and contents of a text. The following passage shows how some of these grammatical tools give this text a certain cohesive structure:

“ Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners… Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for any body to realize you.” (Emily, S.93 Act III)

The use of ellipses emphasize the extreme length of this farewell while tying together numerous different subjects covered within it.

3.2 Coherence

Coherence is what makes a text semantically meaningful. It makes a sentence or a text understandable. It does not have to make it true. Many linguists do not distinguish between cohesion and coherence because they are closely related.

For example, the German linguist Klaus Brinker distinguishes between thematical coherence and grammatical coherence and thus devalues the differentiation in coherence and cohesion.10

However, his distinction aids in the understanding of de Beaugrande and Dressler’s key criteria. Coherence is created by grammatical elements and coherence is the thematic part achieved by lexical elements used within text parts and sentences to give the recipient a better understanding of the context. Coherence can be dependent on a recipient’s abilities to understand and interpret or on pre-existing knowledge, as the following example will further elucidate. This monologue, delivered by the Stage Manager of the play, is about the true significance of our existence and implies how we do not understand this part of nature.

“ We all know that something is eternal. And it ain ’ t houses and it ain ’ t names, and it ain ’ t earth, and it ain ’ t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you ’ d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There ’ s something way down deep that ’ s eternal about every human being.” (The Stage Manager, p. 77 Act III)

At this point, Wilder spins a web over the previous story of the play to connect the contents by having the reader think and imagine.

3.3 Informativity

Informativity refers to the contents and structures of a text. It is almost self-defining for it concerns the quality and quantity of information in a text. Although there is a slight disagreement between linguists whether this criteria is an essential indicator for textuality, de Beaugrande and Dressler state that the extent of unknown and new information being transmitted to the recipient equals the informational value of a text. They even go so far as to distinguish three levels of informativity11 that range from fully predictable to a normal level of interest - creating information to absolutely non-predictable. In the following passage, Wilder provides information that is certainly unexpected for the reader in this kind of text:

“ The name of the town is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire - just across the Massachusetts line: latitude 42 degrees 40 minutes; longitude 70 degrees 37 minutes.” (The Stage Manager, p.6/7 Act I)

Another example of informativity is the following, where the reader is awarded with a small history lesson to open up his mind to a further understanding of what the author wants the reader to get out of his text.

“ Y’know - Babylon once had two million people in it and all we know about ‘em is the names of the kings and some copies of wheat contracts… and contracts for the sale of the slaves. Yet every night all those families sat down to supper, and the father came home from his work, and the smoke went up the chimney, - same as here.” (The Stage Manager, p.32, Act I)

3.4 Intentionality

A further criterion of textuality is intentionality. Intentionality is also almost self-defining. It means that a piece has been created willingly and intentionally by a human being and therefore meets the requirements for interpretation and intention. The creator of a text follows a certain plan or has a certain goal in mind such as the transfer of knowledge or emotions. Wilder uses his figure of the Stage Manager to articulate his own philosophical thoughts. In this monologue he talks about all the famous documents and texts he would put in a time capsule alongside with a copy of Our Town. The example chosen here particularly clarifies Wilder’s general intent in writing this play.

“ So - people a thousand years from now - this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. - This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.” (The Stage Manager, S. 33 Act I)

Although intention, and hence intentionality, are the fundamentals of each deliberate communicative action, some linguists tend to dispute this criteria to be a real indicator for a text.12 It becomes clear that it is nearly impossible to see the real intention of an author, but the recipient can assume a certain intent and this shows how the different criteria of textuality are interlocked.

3.5 Acceptability

Acceptability is “the attitude of the text recipient to expect a cohesive and coherent text that is useful and relevant for himself”.13 The acceptability depends a lot on the comprehensibility of a text and on the information a piece contains, but it also depends to a very great extent on the expectations of the reader of the text.

What is meant to have the intention to be a text is not always recognized as such and, so, de Beaugrande and Dressler perceived the challenge that a text can only be discovered as such by people who are well-read or educated in the corresponding field to detect that. This means that even though the intention of a creator of a text could have been very clear, the acceptability can be lost simply due to a lack of knowledge of the recipient.

What happens in that case? Is an intentionally created piece then considered not to be a text?14.

Since acceptability alone would be a very personal criteria for textuality, that would cause a lot of discussion. It makes sense to have it combined with a bundle of six other key criteria that all are connected with each other.


1 comp. to Vater (2001) p. 10-17

2 comp. to Auger, Peter (2010) p. 309

3 compare to Brown, Vivienne (2003): Textuality and the History of Economics: Intention and Meaning. In: Samuels, W.J.; Biddle, J.E. and Davis, J.B.: A Companion to The History of Economic Thought pp. 538–552.

4 W.F. Hanks (1989), retrieved August 3, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/2155887

5 Halliday/Hasan (1976), p.1

6 comp. to Beaugrande/Dressler (1981)

7 comp. to Glück (2010): Metzler Lexikon Sprache p. 339

8 comp. to Myers (2006), p.109

9 comp. to Halliday/Hasan (1976)

10 comp. to Brinker (2005) p. 21

11 comp. to Beaugrande/Dressler (1981) p. 147

12 comp. to Vater (2001) p.48

13 Beaugrande/Dressler (1981) p. 9

14 comp. Beaugrande/Dressler (1981)p. 10

Excerpt out of 11 pages


What makes a text a text?
The seven criteria for text functionality by Beaugrande and Dressler
AKAD University of Applied Sciences Stuttgart
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what, beaugrande, dressler
Quote paper
Ulrike Gabert (Author), 2020, What makes a text a text?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/925133


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