Discourse is a broad term used to refer to spoken and written language. We use language in many different social contexts, and our discourse can vary based on audience and purpose of our speech or writing.
While the term is broad, typically when we talk about discourse related to literature and writing, we are talking about the discourse in a paper or presentation related to a specific subject. When we talk about different categories of writing, we are also talking about different types of discourse. For example, narrative writing is a type of discourse, and argumentative writing is another type. There is also a specific type of discourse that is used in poetry versus in technical manuals that seek to explain how to use something. Generally, scholars talk about four main types of discourse: argument, narration, exposition/explanation, and description.
In his "I Have a Dream" speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. uses argumentative discourse as he talks about the Constitution and how racism has kept the promise of the Constitution unfulfilled for black Americans:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."
In the same speech, there is also narrative discourse, as Martin Luther King, Jr. tells a story about his own dream for America:
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Literary Terms Examples