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  • Modes of discourse: The local structure of texts by Carlota S. Smith
  • Betty J. Birner
Modes of discourse: The local structure of texts By Carlota S. Smith. (Cambridge studies in linguistics.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xiv, 320. ISBN 0521781698. $95 (Hb).

In this work, the author’s last major work before her death on May 24, 2007, Carlota S. Smith offers a detailed analysis of discourse units above the level of the sentence, which she categorizes into five ‘discourse modes’ (narrative, report, description, information, and argument). Each mode is characterized by certain features, including the types of situations it introduces (e.g. events, states, generics), its temporality (e.g. dynamic, static, atemporal), and its method of progression (e.g. in narrative time, in speech time, spatially). The narrative mode, for example, primarily introduces events and states, is dynamic, and advances in narrative time, whereas the information mode primarily introduces general statives, is atemporal, and advances via metaphorical motion through the text domain. S describes each of these features, situates them with respect to the modes they are characteristic of, and offers implementations of them in discourse representation theory (DRT). She then temporarily departs from the discussion of discourse modes to examine some characteristics that are common to all five modes, including subjectivity, surface presentation, and noncanonical structures, and discusses their implementation in DRT. Finally, she returns to the discourse modes, summarizes findings from earlier chapters, and gives examples of discourse representation structures (DRSs) incorporating most of the features discussed in the book.

The book is divided into four parts: ‘Discourse structure’, ‘Linguistic analysis of the discourse modes’, ‘Surface presentational factors’, and ‘Discourse modes and their context’. The first part introduces the central ideas of the study; the second part focuses on the features that characterize each of the discourse modes; the third part focuses on presentational factors that are common to all five discourse modes; and the fourth part returns to the discourse modes, pulls together the various factors that have been discussed throughout the book, and discusses their formalization in DRT. Each of these sections is in turn divided into a number of chapters.

Ch. 1, ‘The study of discourse’, introduces the basic structure and approach of the book and briefly presents the discourse modes themselves as well as four ‘key ideas’: situation type (e.g. [End Page 904] events, states), text progression (which may be temporal or atemporal), subjectivity (i.e. point of view), and surface structure presentation (e.g. topic vs. comment, focus vs. background). Several short texts in different discourse modes are presented and annotated with respect to these factors. The chapter concludes with a list of the primary characteristics of each of the five discourse modes with respect to situations, temporality, and progression.

Ch. 2, ‘Introduction to the discourse modes’, presents a more detailed discussion of the discourse modes and their features. S describes three categories of ‘situation entities’ that may be introduced in a text: situations (events and states), general statives (generic sentences and generalizing sentences), and abstract entities (facts and propositions). She describes the patterns of text progression in the five modes: reports and narratives progress temporally, descriptions progress spatially, and information and arguments progress metaphorically through some semantic domain. The remainder of the chapter discusses the foreground/background distinction and relates the discourse modes to similar classifications in the field of rhetoric and elsewhere in linguistics.

In Ch. 3, ‘Text representation and understanding’, S describes some central concepts of pragmatics and discusses inference and presupposition. She introduces DRT and some basic construction rules, and provides partial DRSs for several very simple sentences. In Ch. 4, ‘Aspectual information: The entities introduced in discourse’, S presents an overview of aspectual systems, and then discusses the situation entities that are introduced by the discourse modes and their internal temporal structures. Expanding on Vendler 1957, she offers a taxonomy of situation types, discusses their interaction with the perfective and imperfective viewpoints, and describes some of their linguistic correlates. Finally, she illustrates the representation of aspectual information in DRT.

Ch. 5, ‘Temporal and spatial progression’, describes three patterns of tense interpretation (continuity, anaphora, and deixis), discusses how they correlate with the discourse modes...


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