The importance of studying metadiscourse


Calvin College, USA


This essay focuses on metadiscourse, a name for elements of texts that convey meanings other
than  those  that  are  primarily  referential.    The  essay  provides  some  theoretical  background  to
the  study  of  metadiscourse,  briefly  reviews  a  taxonomy  of  metadiscourse,  and  explores  four
reasons why the study of metadiscourse is interesting and important: (a) Such study shows how
intricately  structured  language  is;  (b)  Such  study  opens  up  intriguing  questions  about  ethics
and  language  use;  (c)  Such  study  reveals  differences  in  how  metadiscourse  is  used  in  similar
texts in different languages; (d) And such study provides reasons why metadiscourse deserves
a special place in second-language instruction.


Main Subjects

Metadiscourse: Theoretical background
In  the  last  several  years,  few  elements  of
language  have  elicited  more  study  from
scholars  in  various  related  academic  fields
than  have  elements  that  can  be  classified  as
metadiscourse.    Scholars  involved  in  the
study of metadiscourse represent fields such
as  discourse  analysis,  linguistics,  applied
linguistics, pragmatics, rhetoric, and second-language  theory  and  pedagogy.    And  the
languages  in  which  they  have  focused  on
metadiscourse  are  numerous;  in  his  2005
book  Metadiscourse:  Exploring  Interaction
in  Writing,  Ken  Hyland  (2005)  refers  to
studies  of  metadiscourse  in  at  least  eleven
different  languages,  ranging  from  Arabic
through Iranian to Vietnamese.   
The term metadiscourse is closely related to
terms  such  as  metatalk  (cf.  metalanguage
and  metacommunication),  which  some
researchers in conversational analysis use to
name  the  language  people  employ  to  talk
about language (cf. Schiffrin, 1980).   In my
work,  I  have  focused  mainly  on  written
language,  and  I  have  used  metadiscourse  to
designate  elements  of  texts  that  convey
meanings other than those that are primarily
In  describing  such  meanings,  I  follow
Halliday  (1973),  who  has  shown  that  when
people  use  language,  they  usually  work
toward  fulfilling  three  macro-functions.  
They  try  to  give  expression  to  their
experience,  to  interact  with  their  audience, 
and  to  organize  their  expressions  into
cohesive discourses that their addressees can
make  coherent  sense  of.    In  other  words,
Halliday  (1973)  asserts  that  people
communicate  with  messages  that  are
integrated  expressions  of  three  different
kinds of meaning, which he calls ideational,
interpersonal, and textual.   
Linguistic  elements  that  convey  ideational
meaning “are concerned with the content of
language,  its  function  as  a  means  of  the
expression  of  our  experience,  both  of  the
external world and of the inner world of our
own consciousness” (Halliday, 1973, p. 58).  
Some examples of these elements in clauses
are those that express transitivity.  The most
accessible  labels  for  these  are  identical  to
those found in many case grammars, such as
“agent,” “process,” and “goal.”
Elements that convey interpersonal meaning
are  concerned  with  “language  as  the  
mediator  of  role,  including  all  that  may  be
understood  by  the  expression  of  our  own
personalities  and  personal  feelings  on  the
one  hand,  and  forms  of  interaction  and
social interplay with other participants in the
communication situation on the other hand”
(Halliday,  1973,  p.  58).    These  elements
show  how  a  person  steps  into  the  rhetorical
situation  and  tries  to  affect  others;  these
elements  carry  essentially  social  meanings.  
In  clauses,  some  of  these  elements  indicate
choices  of  mood;  others  are  some  of  the
modal verbs.
Finally, elements within the textual set have
“an enabling function, that of creating text,  
which  is  language  in  operation  as  distinct
from  strings  of  words  or  isolated  sentences
and  clauses.      It  is  this  component  that
enables  the  speaker  to  organize  what  he  [or
she]  is  saying  in  such  a  way  that  it  makes
sense in context and fulfills its function as a
message” (Halliday, 1973, p. 58).   
What  I  up  to  this  point  have  labeled
referential  meaning  is  equivalent  to  what
Halliday  (1973)  calls  ideational  meaning.  
And  I  suggest  that  kinds  of  metadiscourse
convey  interpersonal  or  textual  meanings.  
Interpersonal  metadiscourse  helps  writers
express  their  personalities,  reveal  their
evaluations  of  and  attitudes  toward
ideational  material,  show  what  role  in  the
communication  situation  they  are  choosing,
and  indicate  how  they  hope  readers  will
respond  to  the  ideational  material.    Textual
metadiscourse  helps  writers  show  how  they
relate bits of ideational material within a text
and how that text makes sense in a particular
situation or situations.
What  this  analysis  suggests  is  that  as  we
write,  we  generally  proceed  on  more  than
one level (cf. Williams, 1981, p. 47). On one
level, we expand ideational material.  On the
levels  of  metadiscourse,  we  do  not  expand
ideational  material  but  help  our  readers
connect,  organize,  interpret,  evaluate,  and
develop  attitudes  toward  that  material.  
Thus, although a well-formed text is, strictly
speaking,  an  integrated  expression  of  three
kinds  of  meaning,  there  is  a  sense  in  which
what  I  have  called  metadiscourse  is
discourse about discourse.
Kinds of metadiscourse
In  2002,  I  offered  a  taxonomy  of
metadiscourse  that  included  six  main
categories (Vande Kopple, 2002):
1.  Text  Connectives:  These  show
readers how the parts of texts are
connected  to  one  another  and
how  texts  are  organized. 
Specific  examples  of  these  are
elements  that  indicate  sequences
(first,  next,  in  the  third  place)  as
well as those that indicate logical
or  temporal  relationships
(consequently,  at  the  same  time).  
Also  included  with  the
connectives  are  reminders  about
material presented earlier in texts
(as  we  saw  in  Chapter  One)  and
statements  about  forthcoming
material  (as  we  shall  see  in  the
next  chapter).    Finally,
sometimes  writers  use  what
Williams  calls  topicalizers  (as
for, with regard to, in connection
with).    These  are  words  that
“focus attention on a particular
phrase  as  the  main  topic  of  a
sentence,  paragraph,  or  whole
section . . .” (p. 50).
2.  Code  glosses:  These  “help
readers  grasp  the  appropriate
meanings of elements in texts”
(Vande  Kopple,  1985,  p.  84).  
Sometimes  we  judge  that  we
should  define  a  word  or  phrase
for  our  readers.    Or  sometimes
we  signal  that  there  is  a  problem
with  the  ordinary  interpretation
of  a  word;  we  use  expressions
such  as  so-called  or  what  some
people  call  (cf.  Stubbs,  1986,  p.
13).    At  other  times,  we  signal
how  strictly  or  loosely  we  wish
readers  to  take  our  words—we
use  expressions  like  strictly
speaking  or  technically  to  signal
strict  or  technical  interpretations,
and  expressions  like  sort  of  (cf.
Aijmer,  1984)  and  roughly
speaking  to  signal  loose
interpretations.    At  still  other
times,  we  predict  that  readers
might  be  having  trouble
interpreting  passages,  and  we
signal  that  we  will  re-phrase:  I’ll
put it this way or What I mean to
say is.  
3.  Illocution  Markers:  With  these
we “make explicit to our readers
what  speech  or  discourse  act  we
are  performing  at  certain  points
in texts” (Vande Kopple, 1985, p.
84).    For  example,  we  can  use
elements  such  as  I  hypothesize
that,  to  sum  up,  we  claim  that,  I
promise  to,  and  for  example.  
Further,  we  can  modify  the
amount  of  force  that  many
illocution  markers  and  the  acts
they  signal  have.    For  instance,
we  might  add  a  modal  verb  to  a
direct  request:  I  must  ask  that
you.    All  elements  that  attenuate
the  force  of  speech  acts  can  be
called  mitigators  (cf.  Fraser,
1980,  p.  342).    On  the  other
hand,  we  can  increase  the  force
of  certain  speech  acts  with
boosters  such  as  enthusiastically
and most sincerely.   
4.  Epistemology  Markers:  Several
kinds of metadiscourse are linked
in  the  overarching  function  of
indicating  some  stance  on  our
part  toward  the  epistemological
status  of  the  ideational  material
we convey.  One stance has to do
with  how  committed  we  are  to
the  truth  of  ideational  material.  
Sometimes  we  are  cautious,  and
we  signal  that  caution  with  what
I  call  shields  (such  as  it  is
possible  that  and  perhaps).  
Sometimes  we  as  writers
“underscore  what  we  really
believe—or  would  like  our
reader  to  think  we  believe”
(Williams  49)  by  using  what  are
called emphatics (such as without
a  doubt  and  most  certainly).    A
second kind of stance that we can
take  with  regard  to  the
epistemological  status  of
ideational material has to do with
the  “kinds  of  evidence”
(Anderson,  1986,  p.  273)  or
bases  we  have  for  that  material.  
Chafe (1986) notes that there are
several  different  bases  we  might
have for ideational material, from
our  personal  beliefs  (I  believe
that)  through  sensory  experience
(it  feels  like)  to  what  we  hear
from  others  (the  professor  told
me that).
5.  Attitude  Markers:  The  function
of the fifth kind of metadiscourse
is  to  help  us  reveal  what  attitude
we  have  toward  ideational
material.    To  express  such
attitudes,  for  example,  we  can
use  adverbs  such  as  fortunately,
parenthetical  expressions  such  as
I regret and I rejoice, and clauses
such as I am grateful that.   
6.  Commentary:  The  final  kind  of
metadiscourse  in  my  2002
taxonomy  is  commentary,  with
which  we  address  readers
directly,  often  appearing  to  draw
them  into  an  implicit  dialogue.  
For  example,  we  can  comment
on  their  probable  moods,  views,
or  reactions  to  our  ideational
material  (some  of  you  will  be
amazed that) or even recommend
a  mode  of  reading  (You  might
wish to skip to the next chapter).
In  Metadiscourse:  Exploring  Interaction  in
Writing,  which  is  probably  the  best  place
now for those interested in metadiscourse to
become  oriented  to  it  and  its  study,  Ken
Hyland  offers  a  somewhat  different
taxonomy from mine.  Here it is not my goal
to  try  to  reconcile  these  two  taxonomies  or
expand  upon  them.    Rather,  I  would  like  to
devote  a  few  pages  to  some  thoughts  about
why  the  study  of  metadiscourse  is  so
interesting and important.  And I am hoping
that  these  thoughts  will  stimulate  others  to
add to them in the future.
The study of metadiscourse: Aspects of its
interest and importance
One  of  the  reasons  the  study  of
metadiscourse  is  so  interesting  and
important  is  that  it  shows  how  intricately
structured  language  is  and  how  attentive  to
detail  one  must  be  in  the  study  of  language
and  its  effects.    Consider  some  examples
directly  related  to  metadiscourse:  In  some
sentences  readers  can  find  several  different
kinds  of  metadiscourse.    For  instance,  in
Finally, I am sorry to proclaim that you are
guilty,  readers  find  a  text  connective,  an
attitude  marker,  and  then  an  illocution
marker  before  they  get  to  the  ideational
Further,  in  other  sentences  some  linguistic
forms  appear  to  fulfill  more  than  one
metadiscoursal function  at a certain point in
a  text.    As  Barton  (1995)  suggests,  some
kinds of metadiscourse may fulfill functions
in  both  the  interpersonal  and  textual
domains.  She suggests that text connectives,
which  clearly  have  textual  functions,  can  in
academic  argumentation  also  serve
“complex  interpersonal  purposes”  (235).  
Similarly,  I  hypothesize  that  probably
functions in some texts as both an illocution
marker  and  a  shield.    And  phrases  like  to
conclude  this  section  probably  often
function  both  as  text  connectives  and
illocution  markers.    Perhaps  the  kind  of
categorization  that  will  emerge  in  future
research  will  show  overlaps  between
Halliday’s  (1973)  macro-functions  of
Finally,  it  is  important  to  note  that  some
linguistic  forms  can  function  as
metadiscourse  in  some  contexts  but  as
conveyors  of  ideational  information  in
others.  The clause I guess in “He is, I guess,
at work” functions as a shield.  The same
clause,  albeit  now  lacking  the  commas  that
set  it  off  parenthetically,  conveys  ideational
content in “I guess a lot on standardized
tests.”  Similarly, may  (along  with  be)  in
“There may be a correlation between the two
findings”  functions  as  a  shield;  however,
may  in “Teachers in that school may never
reprimand  students” functions as part of the
ideational content.
Just  these  few  examples  show  how  finely
nuanced  meanings  conveyed  by
metadiscourse  can  be  and  how  carefully
researchers  must  examine  linguistic
elements,  meanings,  and  probable  effects  of
those meanings within particular contexts.
Another  reason  why  research  on
metadiscourse is interesting and important is
that  it  opens  up  intriguing  questions  about
ethics.    A  good  study  to  examine  in  this
connection is Simpson’s (1990)  “Modality
in  Literary-Critical  Discourse.”   Simpson
examined F. R. Leavis’s use of shields.  He
notes that in “The Great Tradition,” Leavis
shields  relatively  uncontroversial  statements
(for  example,  about  influences  of  Dickens
on  Conrad)  and  then  leaves  truly
controversial  statements  unshielded  (for
example, “D. H. Lawrence . . . was the great
genius of our time”; cited in Simpson, 1990,
p.  89).    Simpson  points  out  that  this  tactic
helps  Leavis  nudge  his  readers  into  asking
the little questions but skipping the big ones
about  issues  in  the  history  of  English
One  especially  interesting  thing  about
Leavis’s  tactic  is  that  it  raises  important
questions about how to convey material that
is  not  accepted  as  certain.    When  a  writer
uses  an  emphatic  such  as  obviously  (as  in
“Obviously, Trollope was a great writer”),
or when a writer uses an attitude marker like
regrettably (as in “Regrettably, they stopped
doing meaningful research last year”), is the
writer  in  any  way  seeking  to  “sneakily
strengthen  the  force  of  the  proposition  by
presupposing its truth” (Holmes,  1984,  p.
So which ways of using  metadiscourse with
debatable material are fair and just?  If some
ways are not fair and just, how serious is the
harm  that  those  ways  cause?    In  this
connection,  I  believe  that  beyond  shields,
emphatics,  and  attitude  markers,  evidentials
and bits of commentary could reward further
A  third  way  in  which  the  study  of
metadiscourse  is  interesting  and  important
has to do with how metadiscourse is used in
similar  texts  in  different  languages.  
Mauranen  (1993)  has  found  that  native
speakers of Finnish use few text connectives
in  economics  texts  in  Finnish,  whereas
native speakers of English, in similar texts in
 The importance of studying metadiscourse   44   
English, use a good many connectives.  This
finding  accords  in  part  with  research  by
Clyne  (1991),  who  found  that  texts  in
linguistics  and  sociology  produced  “by
English speakers are far more likely to have
advance  organizers  than  those  [in  German]
by Germans” (54).
Mauranen  (1993)  writes  that  the  Finnish
school system teaches that using connectives
“is not only superfluous, but the sign of a
poor writer” (8).  Many North American
schools,  on  the  other  hand,  stress  using
connectives,  especially  between  paragraphs.  
Mauranen  comments  that  the  different
Finnish  and  Anglo-American  practices  of
using textual metadiscourse probably  reflect
different  ideas  of  politeness  and  of  what
should  be  expected  of  readers.    She  would
say  that  Finnish  writers  show  respect  for
their  readers  by  leaving  more  of  the  textual
processing up to them.
These  points  lead  me  to  wonder  about  how
much  misunderstanding  and  possibly  even
conflict  might  be  associated  with  different
practices  with  and  understandings  of
metadiscourse.    For  example,  imagine
people from a cultural-linguistic background
that  values  individual  deference  and  group
identity  encountering  important  messages
full  of  attitude  markers  from  people  from  a
different  cultural-linguistic  background.    Or
imagine  people  from  a  cultural-linguistic
background  that  leads  them  to  be  very
careful  about  the  truth  value  and  sources  of
their  ideation  conveying  such  material  to
people whose cultural-linguistic background
leads  them  to  view  messages  containing
shields  and  evidentials  as  exhibiting  a  kind
of  weakness.    Or  consider  the  following
example, one that students often bring to my
attention:  Imagine  how  people  from  a
cultural-linguistic  background  that  shuns  all
direct  references  in  writing  to  writers  and
readers  would  react  to  texts  full  of
commentary  including  the  pronouns  I  and
One  final  example  in  this  connection:  I
remember  hearing  James  Paul  Gee  giving  a
talk  at  a  convention,  a  talk  that  dealt  with
different  understandings  of  uses  of
interpersonal  metadiscourse,  among  other
things.  He told about how a doctoral student
from a non-Western culture for some reason
lost  her  dissertation  director  at  a  university
in the United States and was nearly in panic
trying  to  line  up  a  new  one.    She  came  to
Gee  and  said,  “You  must  be  my  new
director.”    Gee  never  revealed  how  he
ultimately  responded  to  her,  but  he  made  it
clear  that  her  approach,  with  its  very  strong
modal  verb,  shocked  him  in  that  it  was  not
the  polite  and  deferential  one  that  he  had
become  accustomed  to  in  North  American
graduate education.
The  final  way  that  I  would  like  to  discuss
about  how  the  study  of  metadiscourse  is
interesting and important is actually implicit
in some of the comments appearing directly
above.    That  is,  metadiscourse  deserves  a
prominent  place  in  second-language
instruction.    We  have  seen  that  texts  in  one
language  might  contain  more  text
connectives  than  do  similar  texts  in  other
languages.    It  is  easy  and  reasonable  to
assume  that  certain  kinds  of  texts  in  some
languages  would  pay  more  attention  to
expressing precise degrees of certainty about
information  than  would  texts  in  other
languages.    Similarly,  it  is  easy  and
reasonable  to  assume  that  texts  in  some
languages would contain more instances of I
and  you  within  bits  of  commentary  than

would  similar  texts  in  other  languages.  
Expanding this list of possible differences in
uses  of  metadiscourse  would  be  relatively
What  is  more  important  now,  however,  is
seeing  how  much  detailed  instruction  in
metadiscourse  would  be  needed  to  lead  a
speaker  and  writer  of  one  language  to
approach  fluency  and  facility  in  another.  
Such  teaching  would  probably  have  to
include at least the following several steps:
1.  Looking closely at a variety of
texts  in  the  L2  to  discover
what  elements  of
metadiscourse appear.
2.  With  the  help  of  a  native
speaker  of  L2,  discovering
whether  the  uses  of
metadiscourse are natural and
successful or not.
3.  Deciding  which  function  or
functions  the  elements  of
metadiscourse  are  meant  to
4.  Discussing  whether  or  not
other  specific  elements  of
metadiscourse  could  be
substituted  for  the  elements
of  metadiscourse  that  do
5.  Discussing  whether  there  is  a
link  between  functions  of
metadiscourse  and  aspects  of
the culture that sustain and is
sustained  by  the  particular
6.  Discussing  why  there  might
be  a  link  between  functions
of  metadiscourse  and  aspects
of the culture that sustain and
is  sustained  by  the  particular
7.  Working  on  analyses,
exercises,  and  real-world
tasks  to  help  the  students
learn  appropriate  uses  of  the
This  list  probably  only  hints  at  the
pedagogical steps necessary to help students
acquire  skillful  use  of  metadiscourse  in  an
L2.    And  even  though  the  list  is  probably
incomplete,  it  shows  how  challenging  the
task  of  teaching  something  like  full
acquisition of an L2 is.  But such teaching is
certainly  worth  pursuing,  for  it  is  with  such
teaching  that  we  move  toward  true  cultural
and linguistic meeting of minds.

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