Linguistic Library (Mike Green)

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A glossary of linguistic terms, designed for A Level (UK) English Language Students.

Browse the glossary using this index

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a dialect is a variety of language used in a particular geographical region. It refers to the particular words chosen, (the word 'bread roll' has a number of different names in different parts of the country such as 'cob', 'bap' and 'bread cake') and also regionally specifically grammatical features (I weren't happy in Yorkshire, we wasn't happy in London)

Some linguists also include accent as a part of dialect.



Discourse is a word that causes much confusion - but it shouldn't! A discourse is any stretch of language used for the act of communicating (rather than an artificial stretch made up for, say, the act of studying, for example, to demonstrate how grammar works).

Discourse analysis means looking at aspects of a stretch of language, for example its style - and this includes its social, cultural, historical and contextual aspects as revealed by aspects of the user's stylistic choices.

  • Grammar is only useful to allow an analysis of syntax and morphology up to the level of the sentence.

  • Discourse analysis allows a commentary on a whole stretch of text.

A discourse might be a conversation, a discussion, a letter, a novel, a newspaper article, or whatever - discourses are everyday and everywhere and have been in existence since language began. We can usefully label individual discourses: 'the discourse of early 21st century broadsheet newspapers', for example; 'the discourse of 19th century working men and women'; 'medical discourse'; 'doctor-patient discourse', and so on.

  • The key point about discourse is that it is an example of real language used by people in some or other social circumstance (even if there is but one person - as when we think or talk to ourselves!)

  • Commenting on the social circumstances of a text means taking account of aspects of its context. This is a key aspect of all English language courses!

Of course, we all have the ability to create discourses. When we speak, we know how to combine phonemes into words (or when we write, we combine morphemes into words); we then combine these words to make phrases, the phrases combine to make clauses, and the clauses make sentences on their own or combine to make longer sentences. Finally, we join sentences to make a text which is what forms our discourse - a discourse that we have instilled with certain stylistic elements that we have deemed suitable for whatever genre, context, purpose and audience we need to address.

When analysing a text, it can be fascinating (and gain many extra marks because of its subtlety) to dig deeper than the surface meaning of the words to try to reveal interesting cultural, societal or contextual aspects of the text's creator. To make this clearer, you can imagine that our own society is far more liberal-minded than, say, the society of a century ago. This aspect will show up in the texts written in these periods through a variety of aspects including word choice and grammar. Similarly, aspects of social hierarchy and social power always manifest themselves within texts. Imagine a conversation between a patient and a doctor, for example  - again, discourse analysis seeks to reveal this.

  • You should have recognised by now that an important aspect of discourse analysis is pragmatics.

  • Another important aspect of discourse analysis is discourse structure.

An important part of discourse analysis is to determine what is called orders of discourse. In any discourse, it is clear that speakers or readers are rarely 'on equal terms'. Usually there is a hierarchy of power or a power relationship involved, wherein one participant - through language choices - can 'position' the other participant in a less powerful position. An analysis of men and women in conversation has revealed many ways in which apparently innocent uses of language create a power relationship between the participants.

Discourse structure is the study of how we combine sentences into longer passages to create a fluent discourse. To be effective, a discourse needs to be clear, coherent and meaningful. Discourse analysis sets out to uncover the linguistic and other means by which sentences are linked.



An element is a distinct grammatical unit - a 'building block' or segment of a sentence there are three important grammatical elements: word, phrase and clause. Some of the elements of a discourse or text are their sentences, paragraphs, chapters and so on.


English grammar allows certain words to be missed from a grammatical construction (i.e. for a sentence to be grammatically abbreviated) and yet for it still to allow full meaning to be achieved, e.g. 'I bought half a dozen eggs and [...I also bought...] six rashers of bacon.' The reader or listener is able to 'add back in' the elements that have been left out and thus understand what is meant.



This word applies to verbs. A finite verb is one whose meaning is 'held' or 'bounded' by its attached subject, as in the clause, 'The athlete fainted'. Here, the past-tense verb 'fainted' is made finite by (i.e. it is limited by) its subject. This perhaps becomes clearer when you consider what a 'non-finite' verb is! Some forms of a verb do not take subjects and so are not 'bounded' by them with regard to their meaning as in these three sentence: 'Cooked meat is safer than uncooked' 'Cooking is fun' 'I like to cook' and 'Let's cook!'. One of the definitions of a sentence is that it is a group of words containing a finite clause.


Form means the sound, shape and appearance of something, e.g. two forms of the word please, are pleases and pleased. The form of the sentence, e.g. 'He pleased himself.' can be explained by referring to two kinds of structure: that of its individual words (i.e. their morphology) and the way its words relate to each other (i.e. their syntax). The study of both of these aspects of sentences is called grammar.  The study of the form of a text is called discourse analysis.

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Formality is an important aspect of register. Informal language is friendly, familiar, and casual. Strict accuracy and correctness are not important in informal language. Formal language is authoritative, and more impersonal.

Speech tends to be informal, Writing tends to be formal.


The function of a word is what it 'does' in its sentence, e.g. its function is to act as a subject, object, verb, etc. The function of a sentence is what it is intended to 'do', e.g. to make a statement, ask a question or give a command or order.



Genre is a way of categorising texts according to similarities they share with those we already know. Texts that share content (e.g. chain saws, fondling couples), function (e.g. to frighten, to arouse), and form (e.g. books, films) are categorised and 'made safe'. But because, as they say, familiarity breeds contempt, genres can and do change – but slowly (see Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs for evidence).

Genre is an important idea because it affects the production as well as the reception of texts. Writers know what we expect from a particular genre, and – to keep us receptive and comfortable (and hence – importantly for language study – more easily influenced or persuaded) – they will stay broadly within a particular genre’s expectations. Typical genres of fiction are adventure, detective and horror, and of non-fiction, reports (e.g. newspaper, school), biographical writing, advertising, recipes, etc. Taking account of genre allows you to comment on effective genre indicators and stylistic devices within a text. Texts may conform closely to the typical features of their genre, or challenge, mix and play with those genre expectations.


Grammar is the set of rules that tells how words can be put into a sequence and a form that allows their meaning to become unambiguous in a sentence. The order of words in a phrase, clause or sentence is called its syntax and the form of words is called morphology (for example, to show plural we add the morpheme s, to show possession, we add the morpheme  's).

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