Context of Situation

The Context of Situation is the “environment in which meanings are being exchanged”¹ and is comprised of three elements:

  • Field of Discourse: “refers to what is happening, to the nature of the social interaction that is taking place: what is it that the participants are engaged in, in which the language features as some essential component?”
  • Tenor of Discourse: “refers to who is taking part, to the nature of the participants, their statuses and roles: what kind of role relationships of one kind or another, both the types of speech role that they are taking on in the dialogue and the whole cluster of socially significant relationships in which they are involved?”
  • Mode of Discourse: “refers to what part the language is playing, what it is that the participants are expecting the language to do for them in that situation: the symbolic organisation of the text, the status that it has, and its function in the context, including the channel (is it written or spoken or some combination of the two?) and also the rhetorical mode, what is being achieved by the text in terms of such categories as persuasive, expository, didactic, and the like.

It is these three elements of field, tenor and mode that constitute the context of a text, which will “enable us to give a characterisation of the nature of this kind of text, one which will do for similar texts in any language”. These context choices are then realised through lexico-grammatical choices which, in turn, are realised through the sound and/or writing systems.

For my own EFL classes I usually simplify this down to talk about the ‘What/Why’, ‘Who’ and ‘How’ of a text. For example, a short dialogue from the TV show Friends:

Monica: What you guys don’t understand is, for us, kissing is as important as any part of it.

Joey: Yeah, right!…Y’serious?

Phoebe: Oh, yeah!

What: Friends in a coffee shop discussing relationships (realised lexically through ‘you guys’ and ‘kissing’ and grammatically through mental (‘understand’) and relational (‘is’) Processes)/
Why: Maintenance of long-term social bonds (‘you guys’, ‘for us’);

Who: Equal status participants exchanging opinions (realised through the use of both statements and questions, and through minor (‘yeah, right’)/ellipted (‘Y’serious) clauses and informal/shared lexis (‘guys’, ‘us’);

How: Spoken dialogue

I think it should be noted as well, however, that this is also an embedded text, in the context of the ‘TV sit-com’, which affects the lexico-grammatical choices in the text: it is written to be spoken, the turn-taking is fast and without hesitation or backtracking, the ‘shared’ lexis is also easily understood by a general audience, there are a limited number of topics of conversation, there are no nicknames or inside jokes/knowledge, they don’t refer directly to sex, only ‘it’, the characters are of a certain age played by actors who are not. In this way it has a lot in common with many EFL listening tasks.

1. All references from: Halliday, M.A.K & Hasan, R., 1985, Language, context, and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective, Deakin University Press

9 thoughts on “Context of Situation

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