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B. Cope and M. Kalantzis

Making Sense

Reference, Agency, and Structure in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning

Cambridge University Press 2020

New Books in LanguageNew Books in Politics & Society September 9, 2020 Daniel Shea

What do all these have in common: Disneyland and the Dreamtime, the shopping mall and the planned economy, Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures and Halliday’s Functional...

What do all these have in common: Disneyland and the Dreamtime, the shopping mall and the planned economy, Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures and Halliday’s Functional Grammar, Unicode and door handles? All mean something.

The companion volumes Making Sense: Reference, Agency, and Structure in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning (Cambridge University Press) and Adding Sense: Context and Interest in a Grammar of Multimodal Meaning (Cambridge University Press), by Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, are about being about: the topic is meaning, the activity in our lives which happens to us and which we make happen. Meaning is an inescapable fact of the universe, and though meaning may not be a defining trait of our species, we humans make meaning and add meaning everywhere and all the time.

Cope and Kalantzis are at the top of their fields: intellectual history, education, communication studies, linguistics. In this two-volume set, though, Cope and Kalantzis bring everything they have achieved to another level. All of meaning––which is everything there is and has been and ever will be––all of meaning becomes, in their handling, six forms (text, image, space, object, body, sound, speech) and five functions (reference, agency, structure, context, interest).

This is not reductive, and the reason it’s not reductive is transposition. All five functions are switched on always, in all meaning; the form a meaning takes, on the other hand, is indeed quite often limited to just one. However, this limitation is, through a sweeping move in their theory, shown to be no limitation at all. Every form immanently and imminently becomes other forms, or in the terms of their multimodal grammar, things transpose.

Cope and Kalantzis are good writers. Books of such informational and theoretical density do not normally read like your favorite biography or novel. Making Sense and Adding Sense, though, do read like that, thanks to clear prose on complex matter, to orienting tables and boxed definitions, and to the storylines of thinkers and doers whose lives relate in all manner of ways to multimodal theory. The text is expanded online (meaningpatterns.net) by images and videos, where Cope and Kalantzis make good on their point of just how naturally meaning exceeds any given form. The user’s experience of Making Sense and Adding Sense is complete.

Bill Cope is a Professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Mary Kalantzis was from 2006 to 2016 Dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.


The interviewer, Daniel Shea, heads the podcast series Scholarly Communication, where the world of research publishing is brought to your ears. Daniel is Director of the Writing Program at Heidelberg University, Germany. Just write Daniel.Shea@zsl.uni-heidelberg.de