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The term genre traditionally means ‘type of text’. Texts become ‘typical’ when they have characteristics that can also be recognized in other texts.  Such characteristics can pertain to content (as in the case of the genre of ‘detective story’), to purpose (as in the case of the genre of ‘advertisement’), to form (as in the genre of the ‘limerick’), etc. Halliday’s account of genre recognizes this complexity: “Labels for generic categories are often functionally complex: a concept  such as ‘ballad’ implies not only a certain text structure with typical patterns of cohesion but also a certain range of content, through highly favoured options in transitivity and other experiential systems” (1978: 145)

But from the 70ies onward, social semiotic definitions of genre became narrower, focusing on text as a form of strategic action, and analysing genres as sequences of functionally defined stages (e.g.  ‘problem statement’, ‘appeal’, ‘solution’), which then, in their particular linear order, realize a strategy  for achieving an overall goal, for instance the solution of a problem (cf. Martin, 1992: 546ff; Eggins, 1994: 25ff). Some stages may be ‘optional’, others cannot be missed if the overall goal is to be achieved: to offer a solution to a problem, a problem-solution genre must at least contain a ‘problem’ and a ‘solution’, though it may also contain other elements, for instance:

I lied on my CV  Problem
Should I come clean with my boss?  Appeal for help
Yes  Solution
But be prepared for the possibility of
losing your job if you have a
scrupulous boss 
The bright side is, having got this burden
of your chest will help you focus better
on your work
Predection of result

Other forms of representing generic structure have been developed.  Hasan (1979) used a formulaic ‘structure potential’ which would represent the above text as follows (assuming the Warning (W ) and Prediction of Result (P) are optional): P ˄ A ˄ S (˄W) (˄P).  Ventola’s flowchart notation (1987) also allows for optional stages.

Generic structure analysis has been applied to face to face interaction (eg  Hasan, 1979, Ventola, 1987) as well as written text (e.g. Martin, 1985, Van Leeuwen, 2008). Generally, analysis has been ‘top down’, positing the stages and then describing the realization of these stages. Gregory’s ‘phasal analysis’ worked ‘bottom up’, determining the boundaries between the stages on the basis of shifts in the configuration of grammatical choices (Gregory and Carroll, 1978), and van Leeuwen has followed a similar approach (e.g. 1987, 2005).

It is clear that generic structures can be realized multimodally.  Narrative structure, as described by Labov (1972) can be, and has been, applied to spoken and well as written stories, and to writing as well as comic strips and films. In face to face interaction some stages may be mostly verbally realized, others mostly non-verbally, and even the most austere written genres combine a range of modes. Recipes for instance, typically contain an ‘enticement’ stage (Eggins, 1994) which praises the recipe (“This delightful and highly unusual haute cuisine soup truly lives up to its name”), but enticements can also be realized by photographs that make the dish look enticing (cf. Baldry and Thibault, 2006; Van Leeuwen, 2004 ).

This approach to generic structure analysis has not been restricted to social semiotics. Many others have moved in the same direction. (e.g. Hoey, 2001; Swales, 1990; Dudley-Evans, 1994) and Bateman (2008) has applied Mann and Thompson’s  rhetorical structure theory to the design of multimodal documents. Quite separately, similar work was published in IT and management journals, with the explicit purpose of automatizing interactions (e.g. receptionist telephone calls) and standardizing work practices through flowcharts, now often referred to as ‘algorithms’.

Clearly genres, defined in this way, abstract away from content as well as context. They create templates that can fit a variety of contents (in the case of the above example, health problems, beauty problems, relationship problems and so on) and a variety of contexts. Applications are often prescriptive, providing students with models for writing, engineers with algorithms for automatization, and managers with templates for standardizing and controlling the work of employees. Perhaps we need to ask whether such a strategic, procedural model is the right model for all kinds of text, whether we run the risk of meaning being superseded by function, and whether we should not consider returning to Halliday’s view of genre as functionally complex.

Citing this entry

van Leeuwen, Theo. 2015.  “Genre.” In Key Terms in Multimodality: Definitions, Issues, Discussions, edited by Nina Nørgaard. Retrieved


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