Literature is discourse discourse
Source (via Wikipedia): "Discourse into the Night,"
from Pentateuch of Printing with a Chapter on Judges by William Blades (1891)

Literature is discourse. It is a conversation. 

Over the course of several thousand years, classic authors have alluded to each others' works and ideas, adding threads of thought that have been woven into a complex tapestry we call 'culture'. When people are widely read, the background knowledge they acquire helps them to make connections between authors, times, and events. The big picture bridges religion, politics, social movements, science, music, art.  

You can contribute to this Great Conversation, 

but first you should have something to say. Begin by listening, by thinking, by digesting, by discussing, mental exercises that are the natural by-products of reading classic works.

From A New English Grammar for Schools, by Thomas Harvey:


From the Latin "discors," meaning "to run."

Language is the expression of thought, using spoken or written words. 

1. Discourse is a succession of "running" thoughts on one subject expressed in language. 

 Written discourse may be intended for private reading, as letters and diaries, or for publication.

2. Literature is published discourse, intended for general reading.

a. Literature that interests readers for only a short time after its publication is called ephemeral.

Such are, for the most part, newspapers, magazines, Internet articles and blog posts, as well as many novels and nonfiction books. 

b. Literature so valuable that it is reprinted and read long after its author's death is called classic.

The classic authors are studied to find what is valuable and appropriate in discourse; the best modern authors are studied to find what is now correct.

3. Literature is classified according to the way it treats its subject.  

a. Narration is discourse giving a chronology of actions or events. Example:

As through the land at eve we went
And plucked the ripened ears,
We fell out, my wife and I,
Oh, we fell out — I know not why — And kissed again with tears.
For when we came where lies the child
We lost in former years,
There above the little grave —
Aye, there above the little grave — We kissed again with tears.
Tennyson, "The Princess: As thro' the Land"

b. Description is discourse that tells the qualities of things. It is a picturing in words. Example:

The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more somber every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun. —Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

c. Exposition is discourse that explains the nature of things, or the principles upon which things depend. Example:

Dissolved in oil, as it usually is, DDT is definitely toxic. If swallowed, it is absorbed slowly through the digestive tract; it may also be absorbed through the lungs. Once it has entered the body it is stored largely in organs rich in fatty substances (because DDT itself is fat-soluble) such as the adrenals, testes, or thyroid. Relatively large amounts are deposited in the liver, kidneys, and the fat of the large, protective mesenteries that enfold the intestines. —Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

d. Argument is discourse giving reasons for or against a certain belief.

Milton, in Areopagitica, writes, "Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making." Example:
Hypolito. Thou art jealous.
Victorian. No, I am not jealous.
Hypolito. Thou should'st be.
Victorian. Why?
Hypolito. Because thou art in love.
And they who are in love are always jealous —
Therefore thou should'st be.
Longfellow, The Spanish Student


1. Find and present an example of narration; of description; of exposition; of argument. Be prepared to identify those elements that place the selection in its category.
2. Write a short narrative telling your experiences during one day.
3. Write a short description of some person whom you know, or of some place that you have visited.
4. Write a short exposition explaining the fact that two plus two equals four.
5. Write an argument to prove that honesty is the best policy. 

Previous                              Harvey's A New English Grammar                            Next

Pin It button on image hover