Text stems from the Frech, and old Northern French of the 1200’s, texte and has other roots in the Latin textus meaning that which is woven. We often hear text used to reference a piece of literature, a poem, and these days even films or TV shows. It is one of the earliest entries in the Oxford English Dictionary and has been used with consistent meaning since the 14th Century. In recent times, it has been complicated by concepts like reader-response theory,multimodal/transmedia storytelling, and film and media studies, but largely remains unchanged when referenced in scholarship. Some of the earliest dictionary entries make reference to the scriptures and deal with translations or portions of copied verses. Generally speaking, however, text refers to anything written or printed. This basic definition also makes reference to the structure formed by the words in their order[1].

Related Ideas

When considered in the context of scholarship and its use in classrooms, text still very much resembles this conception. When a professor says, “Cite evidence from the text” he or she means look to the current book or poem we are currently reading and find a sentence or paragraph that supports your conclusions. This usage hinges upon the structure and order of the words and sentences. Without this structure, the meaning would be distorted or incomprehensible. It is easy to see, then, how this meaning played a part in the development of critical literary theories like Formalism and New Criticism that were prevalent in 1940’s and 1950’s. Within these critical frameworks, the text is seen as a spatial configuration (the basic arrangement of letters on a page). Furthermore, this arrangement is meant to hold certain interpretive power—that is, the meaning of the words depends entirely upon this arrangement. What the reader understands and comprehends is inexorably tied to the spatial arrangement. Prominent New Critics, Wimsatt and Beardsley, explain this concept as follows: “A poem can be only through its meaning–since its medium is words–yet it is, simply is, in the sense that we have no excuse for inquiring what part is intended or meant (original italics)[2]. This fundamental tenet, which is largely responsible for our current conception and reverence for “text”, was a response to older Romantic ideals that said art (poems, paintings, novels, etc.) were a reflection of the artist’s soul and, thus, embodied her intentions or psychological circumstances.


It is not until literary theorists like Stanley Fish begin advocating a transition from the text-as-authority to reader-as-authority that we see a shift in our understanding of text. Contrary to the spatial nature of the text as understood in text-centered theories like Formalism and New Criticism, reader-response theories consider the text to be a temporal entity. This is a very important distinction and one that plays heavily into our modern conception of text. According to Formalism, the text is “an entity which always remains the same from one moment to the next.” It is precisely this nature that allows it to function as an authority. Reader-response theorists like Fish or Rosenblatt understand the text to be “the structure of meanings that is obvious and inescapable from the perspective of whatever interpretative assumptions happen to be in force.” This means that, over time, the meaning of a text can change and is ultimately subject to the interpretative framework applied in the efforts of analysis and comprehension. The text is a production of interpretation[3].

Fish provides a great example of this”text is a production of interpretation” idea. He bids us imagine walking into a room in which there is a whiteboard with the words:

                    "Jacobs-- Rosenbaum
                        Ohman (?)"

These are the names of some prominent linguists and authors arranged in a vertical column. In between two of Fish’s classes he drew a frame around the assignment and wrote “p. 43” at the top. He then told his students in the next class that this was a religious poem and asked them to interpret it. The students go on to utilize a number of techniques to analyze the poem in the ways they had been taught. Many of the interpretations are very complex and elaborate. Fish uses this example of how a list of names that constituted the students homework assignment was transformed into a complex religious poem by an interpretative community, of which Fish argues we are a part[4]. These communities inform the way we recognize texts and any interpretations of the text are thus the product of the reader, not the spatial or rhetorical configurations of the text.

There are a number of other dialectics we can use to help us understand the differences in conception from the perspective of the New Critics and reader-response theorists. Formalists understand the text to have certain and identifiable integrity while reader-response theorist would argue the text is ambiguous and dependent. Formalists see the text as the producer of meaning while reader-response theorists argue for the reader as the producer of meaning. This idea is complicated further by arguments that argue whether the text is constituted by the author or the reader. Young Adult literature has been incorporated into classrooms and curriculum in new ways, largely because reader-centered theories create much more room for alternatives to the traditional canon of English literature, but also because they offer students the chance to utilize different and developed literacies. A Young Adult novel can become just as complex as a novel from the traditional canon with context and certain interpretational scaffolding.

Additionally, authors are beginning to incorporate multimodal/transmedia elements into their works, especially in Young Adult literature. These works often make use of the internet as a way to supplement or enhance the text. Film and Media studies have also found inclusion in classrooms as these fields stem largely from the application of literary theories, like textual analysis, to other forms of art like television shows and movies where narrative is a predominant feature of the work. A movie may be studied and analyzed in much the same way that a novel or poem can, and teachers are instructing students to think of movies and TV shows as if they were texts. If we understand the text to be the product of the reader, as Fish would suggest, textual analysis can be applied to various types of media and mediums and still result in the creation of a text. In today’s more progressive classrooms, many teachers and professors are incorporating the use of multimedia elements to enhance instruction of important themes and ideas found in literature.

Works Cited

  1. Jump up “text, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 3 April 2015.
  2. Jump up Jr., W. K. Wimsatt, and M. C. Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy.” The Sewanee Review 54.3 (1946): 468-88. Print.
  3. Jump up Fish, Stanley Eugene. Is there a Text in this Class?. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1980. Web.
  4. Jump up Fish, Stanley Eugene. Is there a Text in this Class?. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1980. Web.