Tenor of discourse

The second part of the context of situation is the tenor of discourse. Tenor refers to:

who is taking part, to the nature of the participants, their statuses and roles: what kinds of role relationship obtain among the participants, including permanent and temporary relationships of one kind or another, both the type of speech role that they are taking on in the dialogue and the whole cluster of of socially significant relationships in which they are involved?

(Halliday & Hasan, 1985, p.12)

There are three basic factors within tenor:

  1. agentive role, or the institutional (or not) roles of the participants, such as doctor/patient, teacher/student, etc.;
  2. social role, or the power relationship between them which may be hierarchic or nonhierarchic and includes expert/novice and also conferred social status and gender, etc.;
  3. social distance, or the amount or nature of contact the participants may have, which ranges from minimal (close friends) to maximal (formal settings).

Rather than an either/or situation, these tenor factors exist on a cline, as may be represented here:


It is also possible for these tenor relationships to change over time. A regular patient, for example, may have less social distance than one on a first-time visit. They may also be affected by field choices: an office-worker talking to their manager about football may use a different register than when requesting leave. This may also be affected by the context of culture with each factor given more or less value. In a Japanese work-place context (and in general) agentive and social roles have comparatively more prominence: even after years of close working contact (and even after retirement) many Japanese will continue to use formal work-place terms of address that encode these roles.

Activity: tenor, language choice and procedures

Here is an slightly different take on teaching the genre of procedures. The lesson was on giving ‘how-to’ instructions, for example ‘how to buy a ticket at train station’ or ‘how to make cup noodles’. Usually I would just teach the features of this genre, i.e. imperative Mood, temporal conjunctions, but this time, taking a cue from an interesting paper by Kawashima¹ on Japanese and English women’s magazines, we focused instead on tenor relations. Within register, tenor operates along three dimensions: power, contact and affect. We focused mainly on the first of these.

Power refers mainly to ideas of authority, status and expertise. These, however, are also influenced by the culture within which they operate which conditions the settings that are most appropriate for that context. This, in turn, influences the language choices from the lexico-grammar. Kawashima points out that, while women’s magazines in Japan and Australia ostensibly operate under the same genre, the differences in tenor greatly affect the language choices. The language used in Cleo in Australia stems from an tension between expert-novice power relations on the one hand yet close contact and familiarity on the other. Japanese magazines on the other hand stem more from the assumption of ‘distant’ relations situating the reader as outsider.

For the lesson, we took as a text first a very simple recipe for making baked fish. Before we looked at the text, however, we discussed the tenor choices that might be assumed for a ‘recipe’ text and how they might differ between English and Japanese. We then looked at how these are expressed in the lexico-grammatical choices in the text. The difference is quite clear. English uses directly congruent Imperative forms to express the commands (bake) whereas Japanese uses grammatical metaphor to express the commands as Statements (焼くyaku – ‘(you) will bake’). The effect of this is to make the English recipe sound more of a collaborative effort whereas the Japanese recipe implicitly assumes that only the reader will be making the recipe with the writer in the position of outside expert imparting information.

The students found this approach interesting and led to a lot of classroom discussion of other situations where this tenor positioning may affect language choices in other ‘how-to’ situations which was impressive considering it’s an Elementary-level class.

1. Kawashima, K (2005) “Interpersonal Relationships in Japanese and Australian Women’s Magazines: A Case Study”, Proceedings of the 2004 Conference of the Australian Linguistics Society

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