Getting above the Sentence Level

It is strange to hear people talk about discourse grammar as though it is something altogether removed from discourse analysis based on the misconception that it doesn’t move “above the sentence level.” After all, if discourse analysis is really about discussing higher-level features and structures, how can what I do possibly qualify? This sounds like a reasonable criticism at face value, but it overlooks the reality of how many discourse devices actually operate. The sentiment seems to presuppose that there is a class of discourse devices that only operate above the sentence level that I am apparently ignoring, but how many can you name that only operate above the sentence?

Discourse analysis—at least the cognitively-based models like Walter Kintsch’s on reading comprehension—recognizes that understanding the function of the lower-level features is key to understanding their role at the higher-levels. Why? Because there are precious few “discourse-level only” features. Instead the vast majority play double duty, influencing and shaping our comprehension of the text at multiple levels.

Language has been studied and analyzed for centuries. Philosophers, linguists, logicians, and others have accumulated a rich store of knowledge about language. What has emerged, however, is not a uniform, generally accepted theory but a rich picture full of salient details, brilliant insights, ambiguities, and contradictions. Most of this work has focused on analyzing language as an object, rather than on the process of language comprehension or production. The importance of the actual process of language comprehension has not gone unrecognized, for instance, by literary scholars who have understood very well the role that the process of reception plays in the appreciation of a literary work, yet the tools for explicit modeling of comprehension processes have not been available until quite recently.