This document contains all of the materials found in the separate pages found in the frames document version. 


Dr. Bruce L. Edwards

Professor of English and Africana Studies
Associate Vice Provost for Academic technology

Bowling Green State University 
Bowling Green, Ohio 43403

e-mail: edwards@bgnet.bgsu.edu

1995 marked the 25th anniversary of the publication of Young, Becker, and Pike's Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. There continues to be a need to rediscover its relevance to contemporary questions how about writers and readers interact with texts to make meaning, especially by attention to its roots in Kenneth L. Pike's linguistic theory, tagmemics, which remains to this day relatively untapped by rhetoricians and compositionists as a source of insight into these issues.

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All materials © 2008-09, Bruce L. Edwards. All rights reserved.


Tagmemic discourse theory, as developed from the work of linguist, Kenneth L. Pike, is a theory of discourse founded upon certain axioms about human behavior and language use that foreground the situatedness of all communication and the necessity of viewing every act of discourse as a form-meaning composite inseparable from communicators, their audiences, and the varied worlds they may construct and inhabit through the use of language.

At Left: Evelyn and Kenneth Pike, circa 1979.

Kenneth L. Pike's evolving linguistic theory, tagmemics, has focused from its inception upon solving the problems Bible translators face in understanding and describing languages in primarily oral cultures. (It should be noted that Evelyn Pike has had a considerable influence on the development of tagmemic discourse theory; see Bibliography below.) While devising practical tools of inquiry for identifying and charting similarities and differences in target languages lacking an alphabet or codified grammar, Pike intuited that the resolution of translators' challenges lay both beyond the sentence in discourse and beyond discourse itself in the socio-cultural frameworks in which language is used. Pike and his colleagues thus began to formulate a theory of discourse based upon the centrality of language use to human rationality and to the building of human community.

Out of this originally linguistic inquiry have come the bases of tagmemic rhetoric, which posits composing as a problem-solving process and recenters the goal of rhetoric away from the narrower concerns of Aristotelian persuasion toward the broader goal of building bridges between rhetors who profess potentially conflicting worldviews, bridges that make possible both discovery of alternatives and volitional change. Pike and other tagmemic rhetoricians concluded, contra Noam Chomsky, that no theory of syntax and no rhetoric that ignored the situational context of utterances--and thereby programmatically dismissing inquiry into the cultural bases of thought and communication--could yield insights into the nature of language acquisition or use. More importantly, such theories could not produce ultimately useful tools or strategies with which to investigate and solve actual communication problems.

When Pike's tagmemics came to the attention of his University of Michigan colleagues Richard Young and Alton Becker in the 1960s, together these three began the task of harvesting Pike's insights for a "modern theory of rhetoric," a theory most fully articulated in their 1970 textbook, Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. Seeking to free rhetoric from a moribund "current- traditional" model that seemed to them to emphasize a product- oriented pedagogy focused primarily on style and arrangement, the authors' broad purpose was to restore invention to its proper place at the heart of practical rhetoric and to reconceive writing as a discovery, i.e., "problem-solving" process that could be assisted by systematic heuristic tools.

Young, Becker, and Pike found the communication strategies derived from work of psychotherapist, Carl Rogers, most congenial to their evolving modern rhetoric, specifically his emphasis on reducing an audience's sense of threat so that they are able to understand and then consider alternatives to their own belief system.

Rogerian principles meshed well with Pike's concepts of "etic" and "emic" perspectives in language inquiry, i.e., the distinction between "alien" and "native" perspectives on discourse generation and reception, and the necessity of finding the right bridge or "tagmeme" that would yield mutual insight. From the tagmemic point of view, every rhetor's task is inevitably analogous to the kinds of challenges "alien" translators in a new cultural environment encounter: locating a point of entry into a particular language ambiguity, problem, or challenge that will provide a true bridge for nonthreatening exchange and that, therefore, might make possible meaningful change. Thus, in tagmemic terms, a rhetorical task involves deliberately leaving behind a default "etic" or outsider's perspective on data under consideration, and employing heuristics that assist a communicator in approximating an "emic" or insider's perspective conducive to reaching the projected audience.

Rhetoric: Discovery and Change consequently defines composing in terms of four components: (1) preparation; (2) incubation; (3) illumination; and (4) verification. In the preparation stage, a writer seeks to identify and explore the nature of a problem or felt dissonance, and is assisted by systematic heuristic inquiry, exemplified in the textbook by the "tagmemic discovery matrix." This nine-celled, multiperspectival grid has become well known apart from the textbook, offering users particle, wave, and field views of data arrayed according to its contrastive/identificational features, its range of variation, and its distribution in context.

The incubation stage names a period of "subconscious" exploration during which a writer is less inclined to perform analytical inquiry and depends more upon the intuitive or "creative" activity of the mind for contribution to the task at hand. During the illumination stage, the writer is poised to hypothesize a solution based upon both analytical and nonanalytical means, producing a "leap," as it were, to imaginative insight that can be neither forced nor placed on a timetable. The fourth stage, verification, consists of some test of the hypothesis, using the criteria of correspondence, consistency, and usefulness, and reflects the tagmemic principle that all hypotheses and theories must ultimately be testable to be productive of insight.

Researchers and theorists such as Janice Lauer and Lee Odell have investigated the effectiveness of Young, Becker, and Pike's heuristics and related tagmemic principles, attempting to verify experimentally the utility and theoretical soundness of tagmemic postulates for a variety of applications in composition, including, especially, the teaching of invention. As tagmemic rhetoric has emerged within the field of rhetoric and composition, it has faced opposition to its assertion that its axioms hold true not only for language inquiry but for all of human behavior. Nevertheless, tagmemic rhetoricians continue to investigate and proffer viewpoints upon not only literacy and pedagogically-related issues but also the complexities of human psychology and anthropology, pursuing advances that illuminate the taxonomic, epistemic, and heuristic functions of language in human discourse toward the project of building an ever-more comprehensive theory of human behavior.


The overiding goal of tagmemic inquiry is a movement toward an emic understanding of a text or experience. Emicity and Eticity are thus defined:
ETICITY: surface, distant, reality-as-appearance, outsider objectivity. Initial etic inquiry typically yields particles whose wave or field relationships (i.e., situatedness) to other particles are undetected, indistinct, or ambiguous and which must be identified before progress can be made toward emic understanding.

EMICITY: deeper, reality-as-experience, insider-subjectivity. ìEticî inquiry, informed by incrementally more accurate and comprehensive account of particles as understood and experienced within wave/field realationships by insiders, yields ever closer approximation of ìalienî meaning.


A. Tagmemic Discourse Theory (TDT) searches for a natural way into a text or experience (i.e., looks for the appropriate tagmeme , or unit-in-context, that will provide fruitful pathways of inquiry to discover other features of the phenomenon under investigation)

B. TDT begins with what one knows.

SUPPOSITION: There will be particles, recognizably repeatable units, and/or larger contextual (wave/field) cues and clues that will provide helpful information along the road of inquiry.

C. TDT tries to learn as much from the text/experience in view before moving outside of it.

SUPPOSITION: No text or experience is self-explanatory or self-evident, and one's account of it will by necessity entail discovering and breeching boundaries beyond the unit under investigation; however, the unit with which one is concerned must be thoroughly canvassed before inquiring elsewhere.

D. TDT is prepared to discover or generate questions or problems, unanticipated in the initial approach to the unit under investigation, which will yield new goals, different insights, and further pathways for study.

SUPPOSITION: One will form a series of mini-hypotheses in the processs of inquiry that will be affirmed, rejected, or modified in the process of interacting with the unit under investigation.

E. TDT creates appropriate landmarks by which the investigator can judge the effectiveness or fruitfulness of a line of inquiry.

SUPPOSITION: Not all pathways yield relevant, problem-solving information; intuition, previous experience, corroborative testimony, et al. is necessary to check oneís strategies that the data they yield.

F. TDT pursues inquiry until original goals, new goals, or modified goals are reached and corroborated by both etic and emic measures.

SUPPOSITION: Knowing when to stop comes from experience and accumulated expertise, i.e., the development of ìindigenous approximation skills.





  • Entry into inquiry begins with well-defined goals, a working hypothesis, or finite set of research questions. The ultimate goal of every tagmemic inquiry is an "emic" understanding or etically-verified hypothesis about the investigated phenomenon.
  • Point of entry may be the somewhat known or recognizable unit (usually, but not always a "particle") which serves as the bridge to other contextualized particles, waves, etc.
  • Goal is progressively pursued and modified by incremental progress toward an emic understanding of (or etically-verified hypothesis about) the unit being investigated, with certain universals evoked at appropriate stages to give the inquiry boundaries and landmarks by which to judge progress.
  • The tools of the investigation include, characteristically, the particle, wave, and field perspectives whose application yields data that may classified as contrastive/ identificational features, range of variation features, and distribution features.
  • Observations, including initial, projected relations between and among and within particle, wave, and field data are progressively sharpened with references to the four-celled tagmeme notation, which is intended to assist the inquirer both heuristically to explore and in terms of storage as a convenient matrix with which to record information.
  • The tagmemic inquirer continues the inquiry until, in one way or another, the goals of the inquiry are met, modified, or satisfied by other means.
  • The end of the inquiry is achieved by either (a) corroboration by a reliable or credentialled "native" observer that the description approaches tolerable emicity; or (b) an empirical test, etic-based, that satisfies the criteria of correspondence, consistency, and usefulness.
  • A tagmemic "report" (1) prefaces the etic/emic description of the investigated phenomena with a discussion of goals and expectations; (2) provides a chronology of the investigation; (3) offers an overview of the data generated and/or explored; (4) states the emic (or, etically-tested) conclusions; (5) projects further fruitful angles of vision and/or research questions to pursue in follow-up.
  • The tagmemic inquiry/analysis/report is unique in so far as its final product is intended to be qualified by and sensitive to the maximum context, the discernible intra/inter/outer relationships, and corroborably-identifiable features available to the observer/inquirer. Its claims are never to exhaustive comprehensiveness but to tolerable similitude to "the thing itself," or an emic understanding of it.


    5.1 GENERAL

    5.2 SPECIFIC


    6.1. Tagmemic Musings on Rhetoric as Social

    6.2 Foundations of a Tagmemically-Inspired Communication Model

    6.3. A Tagmemic Syllabus

    1. Understanding the places of conventions in language within a particular universe/community of disocurse: emic/etic exercises; nuclear/marginal exercises; problem-solving exercises.
    2. Inquiry assignments that move from the frame of self (emic) to other (etic), i.e., discourse that moves from personal narrative to other forms; continual movement between private and public, self and other, through language-based bridges.
    3. Text-making that moves from the frame of other (etic, i.e., research) to self (emic, i.e., the incarnation of self in other frames of reference [worlds], employing, shaping, and reshaping its lexicon, syntax, etc.)
    4. Genres of report: the public presentation of self/other in various forms of discourse sensitive to community and projected audience.


  • Becker, Alton. Beyond Translation. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 1996.
  • Edwards, Bruce L. The Tagmemic Contribution to Composition Teaching. Manattan, KS: Kansas State University Occasional Papers in Composition Theory and History, No. 2., 1979.
  • Jones, Linda K. A Synopsis of Tagmemics.Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 13. New York: Academic P, 1980: 77-95.
  • Pike, Kenneth L. Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.
  • ---. Talk, Thought, and Thing. Arlington: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1993.
  • ---. Text and Tagmeme. With Evelyn Pike. New York: Ablex, 1983.
  • ---. Tagmemics, Discourse, and Verbal Art. Ed. Richard Bailey. Ann Arbor: Michigan Studies in the Humanities, 1983.
  • ---. Linguistic Concepts. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1982.
  • ---. Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior. 2nd. rev. ed. The Hague: Mouton, 1967.
  • ---. The Intonation of American English. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1947.
  • ---. "Cultural Relativism in Relation to Constraints on Worldview--An Emic Perspective." Bulletin of the Institute of History and Philology. 59 (1988): 385-99.
  • ---. "A Linguistic Contribution to Composition: A Hypothesis." College Composition and Communication. 15 (April 1964): 82-88.
  • ---. "Beyond the Sentence." College Composition and Communication. 15 (October 1964): 129-135. Young, Richard, A. L. Becker, and Kenneth L. Pike. Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. New York: Harcourt, 1970.


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    This page was created and is maintained by Dr. Bruce L. Edwards, Professor of English and Africana Studies, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Technology, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH 43403. Fax: 419-372-8667; Office: 419-372-7302