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An English Teacher's Glossary - Paradigm shift

This occurs when one theory is dramatically replaced by another, for example when science (Copernicus) displaced dogma (the mediaeval church). The church claimed that the world, more specifically, Rome, was the centre of our solar system; Copernicus discovered, by scientific investigation, that it was the sun. Darwin’s theory of evolution created another paradigm shift. These shifts are not as neat as this definition makes them seem. There is plenty of overlap involving denial, death, and damnation.


In the study of literature, paradigm shifts occurred in the twentieth century when a historical approach gave way to practical criticism and when practical criticism gave way to branches of theory (poetics) like structuralism, mythopoetics, Marxism, formalism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, and so on. You can talk of a ‘Derridean paradigm of literary theory’.


In a general sense a paradigm is a clear example or pattern of the subject in question. For example: ‘Venus is the paradigm of classical beauty’. Don’t confuse it with paragon, which means excellent in the supreme: ‘Venus is (also) the paragon of classical beauty’.


In linguistics a paradigm is the vertical (paradigmatic) structure of a sentence. For example the word ‘his’ in the horizontal (syntagmatic) sentence, ‘I stole his apple’ has got hovering above it words like ‘her’, ‘an’, ‘that’, ‘their’....


Some writers, in my opinion, who have created paradigm shifts in the history of English literature are Geoffrey Chaucer (1340? - 1400), William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616), John Milton (1608 - 1674), and William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850).

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