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There are traditionally four different types of discourse, namely argument, narration, description, and exposition. Discourse is generally understood to encompass almost any type of communication whether written or oral, and there are some cases in which entire papers or speeches depend on just one style; most of the time, though, authors, writers, and speakers use two or more methods at once. Different types are usually better suited for different circumstances, and there are usually some pretty distinguishable features of each. The goals tend to be different, as well. Most of the time writers and speakers will use the methods they think will be most effective at getting their points across and reaching their intended audiences.
Argumentative writing or speaking is when the composer is attempting to convince an audience that his or her opinion is correct, typically by using logic and appealing to the audience’s sense of reason. Almost anything can use this form, from essays and lectures to sermons and political speeches. In an argument, the writer or speaker begins with a thesis, which is a clear, explicit statement of beliefs or opinions. Evidence must then be presented in a clear and orderly way. If a listener accepts the evidence, he or she should agree with the thesis.
In most cases argumentation is not the same as persuasion, though the two are commonly confused. The difference usually has to do with tactic, and many linguistic experts see persuasion more as a matter of style and voice than an actual level of discourse. Argument-driven writers or speakers present evidence to get the audience to logically agree with their point of view on a certain topic. Persuasion, however, is designed to get an audience to both accept a particular point of view and to actually act on that belief. For example, a successful argument might make the audience agree with a particular political candidate’s stance on an issue, but successful persuasion should make the audience vote for that candidate.
The main goal of narrative writing or speaking is usually to tell a story, often in order to make the audience feel differently about a certain topic. Narratives might take the form of a play, novel, folk tale, memoir, or myth. Things usually unfold from a single person or character’s perspective, and tend to be very descriptive. This type of communication usually appeals to an audience’s humanity, often by drawing on common experiences or emotions that are easily relatable or by depicting circumstances that pique the imagination.
When people use description, they generally rely on one of more of the five human senses to describe something so that it becomes instantly memorable and relatable. It is usually used to help the audience visualize people and places, but it can also put the audience in a particular mood or create a certain type of atmosphere. The writer or speaker uses nouns and adjectives to give the readers and listeners a sense of what something is like materially.
The tool known as “exposition” is designed to inform the audience about a particular topic. There are several different expository tools writers and speakers can use, including definition, analysis, compare-and-contrast, problem-and-solution and cause-and-effect. There are many strengths and weaknesses associated with each type of exposition, and each type has a completely different purpose. For example, giving someone the definition of a word provides one type of information, whereas comparing and contrasting two differing opinions often paints a really different picture.
Writing students are often assigned to complete papers or essays that focus on particular styles, and the same is often true in speech or oral presentation courses. In “real life,” though, it’s usually somewhat rare to encounter communication that fits squarely into just one category. Writers, speakers, and authors often make use of all four types within their works, and may actually jump back and forth quite a bit. In many cases the key to effective discourse is the ability to choose the right method and style for the each piece of information that needs to be conveyed.