Consider the following two text-initial passages:
a. fire nut caged a psychopath was jailed for life yesterday for killing a mother and her two kids by torching their home. (2000 Sun; Rostock Newspaper Corpus)
b. One of the things we celebrate as we gather forworship week by week is God's ability to bring good out of evil.We often have to do so, don't we, in the teeth ofmuch evidence to the contrary. Evidence that God has lost the plot, as it were. For, as we look around our world we see a neverending catalogue of headline-grabbing events which, again and again, spell bad news. (c. 2000 David Stone; see Claridge and Wilson 2000)
We recognize these texts more or less immediately for what they are, i.e., what genres they represent, and to which larger discoursal and social contexts they belong – namely, newspaper reportage and a sermon, respectively. We can do this because texts consist of features that are not only functional, but also conventional, and because we have acquired textual competence by growing up in a given culture. Even with altered layout, the news report headline (with characteristic ellipsis; cf. was/has been caged) and the following lead, referring to the major journalistic questions in a nutshell (who, when, what, why), are probably easily recognizable as typical genre features of (1a). Similarly, the sermon beginning (1b), which we recognize by the reference to the communicative situation (gather for worship) and the topic (God), contains interactive features (the pronoun we, the tag question don't we, colloquial expressions such as lost the plot) typical of face-to-face communication. Now look at beginnings of the “same” discourse of earlier times for a contrast:
a. Newcastle, Dec. 29. Thursday arrived here, by the London Waggon, the Arms for the Northumberland Militia. (1760 London Evening Post; Rostock Newspaper Corpus)
b. The eternall HappineVsse of our immortall souls is to be found only in union and communion with Iesus Christ; Religion is that which gathers and binds up the spirit to close fellowship with Him; … “ (RelA1642; Lampeter Corpus)
(2a) contains neither a proper headline (but a dateline instead) nor a lead. While (1a) is followed by a report that spells out the lead in more detail, the older news text continues with different information on unrelated company movements and officer deaths (not cited here).