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Ministry of Education.

Patterns of Text: Genre

The Grammar Toolbox has described the grammar within the sentence. However, written texts have linguistic and structural patterns that go beyond these features and that are also important in our knowledge of grammar. The structure, grammar, and vocabulary of written texts vary depending on why we are writing, who we are writing for, and what we are writing about. We refer to these predictable patterns in written language as genres. Becoming a writer and reader involves understanding the patterns and being able to use them flexibly.

In this book, the term "genre" is not used to define a set of rigid text structures but rather to describe the range of processes (such as explaining, instructing, recounting, describing, arguing, and narrating) used to produce texts that reflect the purpose and the intended audience. Genre is different from forms or types of writing, such as letters, plays, sonnets, formal debates, and so on. A letter, for example, can be written for a whole range of reasons: to thank someone, to explain why an assignment is late, to argue the case for not enforcing a parking fine. These purposes help to determine the genre.

Most texts produced and read by students combine a range of genres. The basic grammatical features tend to remain the same across genres, but distinct genres do have recognisable linguistic characteristics and structures. A skilled writer has a core of linguistic knowledge to draw on when making decisions on how to apply these characteristics and structures for different social and communicative functions.

Collerson, in Writing for Life, summed up genre well:

We can think of genre as a social process, i.e. as a particular set of activities or a way of doing something [...] these activities are carried out for some purpose. This is true of any genre; it is a social process which has a purpose - some goal that people are working towards. It also has a recognisable structure or pattern. Finally, a genre is something that arises within a particular culture; it is a product of the culture.

The purpose of the writing, the intended audience, and the topic together influence the choice of genre.

Writers have a range of choices they can make about the way they organise the text, develop the topic or theme, use particular grammatical structures, and choose the vocabulary. All these decisions influence how the message is read by the reader. For example, in reading about grammar teaching in New Zealand schools, readers would have very different expectations of texts that began:

"Once upon a time ..."


"A return to teaching formal grammar in New Zealand classrooms is long overdue ..."

Readers would expect the first beginning to lead into an anecdote or narrative of some sort, whereas the second is likely to set out an argument. Readers would anticipate quite different structures in the texts, depending upon the writers' intentions.

Texts are structured in different ways to achieve their purposes. The purpose of a recount is to tell about a past experience - to tell the reader what happened. The focus is on a sequence of episodes, all usually related to one particular event. The time sequence of the episodes structures the text. A recount usually begins with an orientation, giving the reader sufficient background information to understand the text. The reader is told who is involved and where and when the event took place. A series of episodes unfolding in a chronological sequence then follows. Linguistically, this type of text can be identified by the use of verbs that describe actions or events and sentences that are joined by connectives such as after, then, next, and that.

The purpose of an argument, on the other hand, is to persuade the reader to agree with a point of view. Arguments often begin with a statement of position and some background information about the issue. There is usually a logical sequence to an argument, with points being raised and supported by evidence and finishing with a summing up of the position. The resulting text can often be linguistically identified by the use of emotive words, verbs in the timeless present tense, and connectives associated with reason such as so, because of, first, therefore.

The structure of texts is so much part of the whole that it usually goes unnoticed by the reader. Sometimes this inherent internal structure is referred to as "global coherence", and it is only when it breaks down, or changes in some way, that we become aware of the structure itself. In the following extract from Julius: the Baby of the World, by Kevin Henkes, the language patterns change when Lilly tells her story to the baby.

One morning, while Lilly was busy playing opera, her mother said, "Why don't you put some of that verbal exuberance to good use? Why don't you tell Julius a nice story?"

"He's too little to understand a story," said Lilly.

"He can understand it in his own way," said Lilly's mother.

"Okay," said Lilly, smiling.


"Once upon a time," said Lilly, "there was a baby.

His name was Julius.

Julius was really a germ.

Julius was like dust under your bed.

If he was a number, he would be zero.

If he was a food, he would be a raisin.

Zero is nothing.

A raisin tastes like dirt.

The End," said Lilly.

The story earned her ten minutes in the uncooperative chair.

The author changes the physical layout of the text at the same time as it changes from conversation into the narrative tale. Repetition of sentence beginnings is used, along with more emphatic statements and simplified vocabulary. These changes help make Lilly's story stand out from the rest of the text.

The purpose of the writing influences the overall structure of texts; however, writers also use different language, depending upon the situation in which the texts are to be used. Writing can range from "close" personal writing (expressive) at one end of a continuum, to "distant" impersonal (often transactional) writing at the other. The type of language used depends on several factors.

One factor is the writer's relationship to the subject matter, sometimes referred to as the "field".

At the most personal end of the continuum, writers write about themselves and people they know. This type of writing is characterised by the extensive use of personal pronouns, in particular "I", "he", "she", "we", and "they", as the following extract shows.

I see her come up the street all ready for school, and as soon as her hand moves upwards to wave my whole composure changes. It's time to start pretending for another six hours that I am a carefree girl only interested in getting out of school quick. The third year of hiding my feelings, shielding them away from everyone else. Just so I can fit nicely into place like a well-rounded jigsaw piece.

Rebecca Spratt (Maidstone Intermediate School)

At the impersonal end of the continuum, the writer writes about objects, ideas, and processes rather than people. Personal pronouns can occur, but they tend to be restricted to "it" and "they". In the following extract, Jamie uses noun phrases rather than pronouns.

Early forms of tennis are thought to have been played in Egypt, Persia, and Arabia. A form of the game where the players used their fists instead of a racket, was introduced into France in the 14th century.

Jamie (11 years)

There is a whole range of writing between the two extremes described above. This indeterminate area of writing is personal in that it is about people, but people who are not personally known to the writer. The focus may be on ideas, but written from the point of view of someone involved. The predominant pronouns used are "he", "she", and "they".

Another factor is the relationship between the writer and the reader, sometimes referred to as the "tenor".

How well the writer knows the reader, the age of the audience, their relative status, and how a writer feels about the reader(s) all influence the language used by the writer. When writers write for themselves or for someone they know, they frequently use the pronouns "I" and "you". Such writing is most often found in memos, personal letters, diaries, and stories written by students for the teacher, themselves, their friends, or close family. Personal writing often uses language that expresses emotion, feelings, or opinions.

In impersonal writing, the writers are writing for an audience that is distant and unknown. The writers do not appear in the text, nor do they acknowledge the reader. Impersonal writing is characterised by no expression of personal feelings, no use of personal pronouns, and a formality arising from the choice of vocabulary and the use of the passive voice. This is the type of writing often found in academic texts. The extract from Jamie's writing shows an example, especially the use of the passive verb in the first sentence:

Early forms of tennis are thought to have been played in Egypt, Persia, and Arabia.

A third factor is the means of communication, sometimes referred to as the "mode".

In this chapter, we are looking at the written mode. New modes of communication often develop new sets of appropriate language behaviours. With electronic mail, it is considered rude to type in upper case letters because this is seen to be the equivalent to shouting.

These three factors: the writer's relationship to the subject, the writer's relationship with the audience, and the means of communication, together determine the style of the text. There is no hard and fast rule for the sort of language typically used in each situation, but we can generally predict the patterns of language most likely to be used for each purpose and audience.

In some older texts, the term register was used to classify language and style used in different situations. In this book, we have used a narrower meaning of register to describe specialised vocabulary associated with specific situations.

To summarise, texts vary in a number of ways according to their purpose (genre) and their situation (style). The genre determines the structure of the text, whereas the style and register determine the language patterns and vocabulary used within the text.

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Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 25 Feb 2009