You are on page 1of 7


In this unit we are going to look at descriptive texts . Within this area we
are going to include an examination of the constituents of texts in
general so that we can see the principles that will be included in any type
of description. This will involve an examination of the word text and the
cohesive devices that go into providing a text with coherence.
The information will be taken from Halliday and Hassan, Ramon Seldon
and The Penguin Guide to Literature.
We will begin by looking at the meaning of the word text in general, so
that we can see the foundation of descriptive texts.
Definition of text
Basically, a text can be taken to mean a stretch of language that can
form the process of communication. This can be made either through a
linear pattern of sound waves. Otherwise known as speech, or a linear
sequence of marks on paper, or writing. This communication must make
coherent sense in the context of its use. The linguistic form is important,
but it is not in itself sufficient to give a stretch of language the status of a
text. For example, a road sign reading No Overtaking is an adequate
text, though comprising only a short noun phrase. It is understood as a
statement, paraphraseable as something like: it is dangerous to overtake
here. By contrast, the same sign placed out of context, for example in a
supermarket, is not an adequate text because although we can
recognise the structure and understand the words, the phrase can
communicate nothing to us as we pass by, and is therefore meaningless.
This is the key to understanding the text. In order for the communication
to work, it has to be placed in context. This is as true for descriptive texts
as it is for any other type.
We will now look at text and context in connection with descriptive texts
in greater detail.
Text is all about meanings. However for those meanings to have any
value, they need to be received by someone who understands them.

In order for the communication to be successful, the message which is

received by the addressee has to be identical to that which is sent by the
addresser. However, this in itself is no guarantee of success, the sender
should also take care over how he sends the message. It should, in the
words of Paul Grice, be: TRUE, BRIEF, RELEVANT AND CLEAR.
Not only that, but the text has to be received within its correct context if it
is to be understood properly. The communication is only conceptually
successful if it is conceptually relevant. In a descriptive text, the receiver
has to be aware of all the relevant facts surrounding the description if
he isnt, the description will fall. This is where the context plays a major
The Context of the descriptive text takes into account the intention of
meaning and how that intention is to be interpreted by someone. This is
deeply affected by the environment in which the message is sent, as well
as the previous or assumed knowledge of the receiver. This sharing of
knowledge by the participants is known as the implicit context.
The explicit context refers solely to the message itself, and not to any
external elements.
In a descriptive text, the implicit context is often irrelevant; the fact that
something is being described suggests that one of the parties does not
have any previous knowledge of the item.
Now that we have seen how the text can be made clear through the
context, we will move onto the principles that are also needed to
complete a descriptive text.
A descriptive text, like any other type of text, can be divided into two
different categories of principles: Regulative and Constitutive. We will
begin with the regulative:
The regulative principles takes three areas into account. These are: the
efficiency, the effectiveness and the appropriateness of a text.
The efficiency determines whether or not a satisfactory result can be
achieved by the participants. This means that the communicants should
be able to reach a mutual understanding without having to make huge
efforts in order to negotiate meaning. If this happens then the text can be
said to be effective, in other words, the intended result has been
produced. However, there has to be some kind of suitability or

correspondence between the text and the context. If this is so, the
appropriateness of the text is adequate.
The Constitutive principles, on the other hand, refer to situationality, the
text has to have meaning within the context; informativity, if the
information that is provided is pointless or unneeded, the description is
unlikely to succeed; intertextuality, the text can be dependent on the
receivers previous knowledge of other texts, for example when a film is
in two parts; intentionality, the speaker tries all that he can to ensure that
the message that is received is the one that he intended to send; and
finally, acceptability, for the text to be acceptable, it has to be both
cohesive and coherent. We will look at this last point in greater detail.
In order to achieve coherence, or clarity, in descriptive or any kind of
text, we have to pay attention to the cohesive devices that are used to
hold the text together as a whole. According to Halliday and Hassan,
cohesion is the combination of register, or how we speak, and a variety
of devices that go together to make a text coherent. We will examine
these devices, also known as cohesive ties, in greater detail in a
moment, but first lets look at register.
The way that we speak can say a lot about us as people. Our accent
and our choice of words can have a profound effect upon those with
whom we are in contact. Generally speaking, an accent from the upper
classes will be considered as superior to some of the northern accents,
and anyone with an R.P. accent will be considered educated and so will
be treated with some respect.
Register can be divided into two classes, open and closed.
Open register is where we have the freedom to use the words that we
wish to use. This can be seen in day-to-day conversation. In the
descriptive text the register is rarely open, as the person doing the
describing is limited by the characteristics of the object he wishes to
Closed register is very restricted. An example of this could be the
language used in a radio conversation between a pilot and the control
tower. This can be applied to the descriptive text when we think about
instruction manuals, where the language only relates to the relevant

We will now move onto looking at some of the cohesive devices that also
go into making a descriptive text coherent.
Cohesive devices
There are 5 major cohesive ties: lexis, reference, substitution, ellipsis
and conjunction.
Lexis refers to the way that words are used throughout the text to
provide cohesion. This can be done through the repetition of a word or
through the use of synonyms; reference, this area uses anaphora and
cataphora to refer to words that are mentioned somewhere else in the
text. Substitution is when one word is used to replace another, the idea
being that repetitions are avoided; ellipsis is when a part of the sentence
is cut, the meaning being made clear through the context. In conjunction,
clauses are tied together with words such as and, these are used to help
the receiver to interpret the relationship between the clauses.
These devices can be found in all types of texts, not just descriptive.
With this in mind we will move onto looking at the various characteristics
that we can find as being unique to descriptive texts.
One thing has to be taken into consideration when discussing descriptive
texts in their relationship to other types. This is because it is unusual to
find a description that stands alone. Normally they are found as a part of
other texts, for example, the narrative. If we think of a novel, for
example, we find that in order to convey a setting, a character or a
mood, some form of description is involved. This essentially is the
purpose of a descriptive text.
We will begin by looking at some of the ways that a descriptive text can
be used to set the scene.
A descriptive text may be said to have the qualities of a portrait, only
instead of using paint it uses words. Through the use of adjectives a
descriptive text can paint an image in the mind of the receiver.
The descriptions help to fix the setting in the mind of the reader. Some
significant details can be added, but the author can do more. It is
possible to go into detail about the scene from an aspect that appeals to

other senses than the visual, such as by the addition of smells, sounds,
temperature, etc.
Respect to the characters, the author has the choice over how he
presents this person, and how he relates to the surroundings. For this
purpose he can add as many details as he wishes to until a complete
mental image is produced. He may wish to add to his appearance, such
as the clothes he is wearing, his facial characteristics and any other
aspect of the character that may be considered of importance. The main
point is that whatever description is given, the reader can ascertain as to
the characters appearance and role within the scene, and, hopefully, his
interest will be aroused.
Now the author may wish to refer to the psychological condition of the
character, in order that we may have an insight into the workings of his
If we place these three together, as often happens in texts, we see that
the description has not only set the scene, but it has also introduced the
The type of description we have been talking until now is subjective on
the part of the writer. However, not all descriptions correspond to art.
Technical or scientific matters can also require describing, and here the
description is far more objective.
The novel writer gives us a description that appeals to our senses, he
tries to portray a sense of vividness, and of course everything relies on
his imagination, so its completely subjective.
An objective description on the other hand can be said to deal with facts,
either internal or external to the author. It may be argued that as we are
all influenced by our emotions it may be difficult to present a truly
objective description, but as the main aim of objective or technical
descriptions is to provide information related to factual things we can say
that they are more in touch with reality and impartiality than the
subjective variety.

The setting of the scene that we were talking about previously is perhaps
one of the most common forms of description. However, this can be
expanded on. It is not only the physical characteristics of a setting that
are important to us. The author can take other factors into account, such
as the period of the setting. In this case he may wish to add details
about the surroundings, the way people lived etc. that relay to the reader
information about a time that the reader has no knowledge of.
Having said this, lets move now to see the various patterns of
We can divide the patterns of descriptive texts up into the following
categories: Pictoric, Topographic and Cinematographic.
Pictoric, here we have to think about a photograph. Nothing is moving.
The writer will describe the scene but in terms of colour and light.
Topographic, here the writer is moving past an object that is stationary
such as the description of the view from the train.
Cinematographic, here it is the writer who is stationary whilst the object
is in motion.
Words used in descriptive texts
We have already mentioned how adjectives can be used in descriptive
texts. Clearly their very nature makes them the most important means of
expression, but there are other ways of creating an effect. For example,
it is possible to use nouns and verbs to make a description of a scene. In
addition to this, we can find certain rhetorical devices within the text,
such as metaphor, simile, repetition, synonymy, etc.
In this unit we have seen the ways that texts are formed and held
together to make a cohesive unit. The descriptive text, which mainly
forms a part or other text types, is no exception to the maxim of True,
Brief, Relevant and Clear. The vocabulary that is used within the text can
be poetic or functional, depending on the wishes of the author. The point
is that the students should have as much exposure to the forms as
possible in order for them to become familiar with the use of this
important element of communication.
The sources for this topic include:

Understanding Grammar by Paul Roberts, published in 1954 by Harper

and Row in New York;
Linguistic categorization: Prototypes in Linguistic Theory by John
Taylor, published in 1995 by Oxford.
The structure of English clauses by David Young in 1980, in New York
And The study of language by George Yule, published in 1996 by
Thanks for your kind attention