Generic Structure Potential (GSP)

When you go to buy something in a convenience store you can be reasonably certain of what’s going to happen in that situation. First, you’ll walk in and you might say ‘hello’. Then you’ll ask for some batteries and then pay. We can guess this sequence due to our previous experience with these kinds of situations and the fact that they are nearly always the same. Some parts may change (you might not say hello) but you always have to pay.

Within certain recurring sets of texts then, coherence of structure is formed through obligatory and optional elements, the totality of which forms the Generic Structure Potential (GSP) (Halliday & Hasan, 1985) for that set. For example, the GSP for ‘service encounters‘, is:


In other words, there are certain obligatory elements that characterize the genre, in this case the ‘Sale’, ‘Purchase’ and ‘Purchase Closure’, and other optional ones that add elaboration but are not necessary. There is thus a ‘structure’ to social interactions. We can call it ‘Potential’ because it has a predictive quality that allows us to navigate these social situations almost unconsciously.

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For SFL, a text can be defined as “a unit of language in use” (Halliday & Hasan, 1976, p. 1) and is distinguished from non-text by the two-fold concept of unity: unity of structure and unity of texture (Halliday & Hasan, 1985). This can also be termed as coherence and cohesion.

Cohesion is concerned with how the text ties together internally and is formed when one element of a text is dependent for its interpretation on another (Halliday & Hasan, 1976). Without it the surface features of a text may not relate to each other and it is thus central to the way in which text is produced and comprehended. According to Halliday & Hasan (1976), cohesion can be divided into grammatical and lexical cohesion.

Grammatical cohesion consists of:

  • cohesion between messages, or the system of CONJUNCTION (e.g. but, so)
  • cohesion in meaning, or REFERENCE (e.g. he, she, this)
  • cohesion in wording, which consists of ELLIPSIS (e.g. Yes, I am [O]) and SUBSTITUTION (e.g. one, some, no)

Lexical cohesion also consists of three parts:

  • elaborating which may also be divided into:
    • identity, which consists of REPETITION (e.g. bear – bear) and SYNONYMY (e.g. sound – noise)
    • attribution, or HYPONOMY (e.g. tree – oak)
  • extending, or MERONYMY (e.g. tree – trunk)
  • enhancing, or COLLOCATION (e.g. smoke – fire)


Here are some examples with the cohesion underlined.


John walked to town, because he wanted some fried chicken.


John lives near the park. He often goes there.

Types of reference

  1. Exophoric – refers to outside the text

John borrowed some money from me.

     2. Endophoric – refers to within the text

           a. Anaphoric – refers back to previous text

I saw John. I asked him for the money.

           b. Cataphoric – refers forward to text

This will surprise you. He paid me back!


Most of the students had an ice-cream but Eva didn’t have an ice-cream.


John loves fried chicken. He has some every day.


John ran to the shop and then he ran home.

Synonymy / Hyponomy / Meronymy

      Eva walked to town and strolled around the park.

      She looked up at the autumn trees. The oaks had a beautiful colour.

She climbed up a tree and sat on the branch.


It was hot. John was sweating.


Here is an example of cohesion in a sports text:

スクリーンショット 2015-03-24 19.17.48


Halliday, M., & Hasan, R. (1976). Cohesion in English: Longman.

Halliday, M., & Hasan, R. (1985). Language, context, and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective: Deakin University Press.

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Tag Questions

Tag questions are concerned more with establishing interpersonal relations and suggesting whether some kind of response is required (or to close off any response), rather than requesting any specific information.

Andersen (Andersen, Gisle. “Are tag questions questions? Evidence from spoken data.” 19th ICAME Conference. Belfast. 1998.) identified eight main functions of tag question which differ mainly according to the intonation, pitch and stress patterns:

1. Confirming info (=I think so) – High falling tone; response required:

You ordered fish, didn’t you?       

2. Checking info (=Is it so?) – High rising; response required:

You like dogs, don’t you?  

3. Chatting (=Let’s chat) – Mid slight rising; response required:

Nice day, isn’t it?

4. Challenging (=You’re wrong!) – Low falling-rising; response required:

I told you so, didn’t I?   

5. Closing (=I don’t want to talk) – Low rising-falling; no response required:

Well, I forgot, didn’t I

6. Antagonizing (=I don’t like you!) – Low falling; no response required:

I’m not stupid, am I.  

7. Aggravating (=Do it!) – Low rising; no response required:

Just stop it, will you

8. Softening (=Let’s not argue) – Mid slight rising; response required:

Please don’t forget, will you

Personally though, I would also add two more in keeping with the full range of intonation patterns. So as well as 4. and 5. above, a high rising-falling and high falling-rising would also be possible:

10. Questioning (=I’m surprised) – High falling-rising; optional response:

That isn’t a cat, is it?

9. Acknowledging (=I’m grateful) – High rising-falling; optional response:

Oh, that’s wonderful, isn’t it?

The difference in function is also often recognisable through extra-linguistic factors, depending more on tone of voice, body language and the situation or context of the conversation. The same sentence may thus have different interpersonal functions depending on these factors.

If a response is required, there are a number of possible options:

1. Minimal responses: yeah, yes, mm, right etc

A: you have to get back by train won’t you, obviously.

B: yeah

2. Repetition of entire proposition

A: You’re not open on Saturday are you?

B: We’re closed Saturday.

 3. Elliptical repetition of proposition

A: She wouldn’t do that would she?

B: She would.

 4. Repetition of propositional element

A: You’re almost fluent in English aren’t you?

B: Almost.

 5. (Near-) synonymous expression

A: But that’s really quite quite bad, isn’t it?

B: Dreadful, poor parents.

 6. Implicature

A: Her father’s got money hasn’t he?

B: They’ve all got money.

(Implicature: yes, confirmation)

A: Never phone her do you?

B: Can’t be bothered.

(Implicature: no, confirmation)

A: You missed a lot did you?

B: Only the first lesson, which is …

(Implicature: no, rejection)

 7. Responses expressing reduced commitment/uncertainty

A: But you never used to hang around with her though, did you?

B: Well, sort of.

(Adapted from: Andersen, G. 1998. ‘Are tag questions questions? Evidence from spoken data’)


It is also possible to replace the question tag with an invariant one such as ‘OK?’, ‘right?’, ‘yeah?’, ‘correct?’, or ‘eh?’ among others. These can be dialectical or regional. There are some differences between them.

  • ‘Right’ often functions to check information and ask ‘Is this correct?’:

AD9 2214 ‘You’re the kid with Leila, right?’

ALJ 555 The compartment under the passenger seat in the front, right?

BN1 2508 So that last option is favourite, right?

G0N 2730 She’s your niece, right?’

G1W 2061 ‘It might just be possible though, right?’

G5E 28 I paid forty pound ninety five, right?

GV6 1922 ‘And they were married in Ireland, at Rathdrum in County Wicklow, right?’

H5K 80 You took it out the other night, right?

  • ‘OK’ often functions to close debate. It is often used with imperatives:

A0F 1101 ‘If this bounces, you’re out on your ear, OK?’

A0F 2901 Listen, you sit down, I’ll get a couple of coffees and we’ll have a chat, OK?’

C8E 3057 We all love you here, OK?’

C8T 346 Look, if I knew who he was I might know where he was, OK?’

CCW 70 Count me out, OK?

F9X 2691 I said I’ll do it, OK?

F9X 4049 ‘Look, I know what I’m doing, OK?’

FP7 342 ‘Let’s go, OK?

  • ‘Yeah?’ functions mainly to facilitate conversation, overtly indicating a response is required:

A0F 1560 ‘You were reckoning on trying your luck abroad, yeah?’

C8E 2182 ‘You liked it, yeah?’

ECT 2319 Maybe I’ll have one more shot at it, yeah?

FM7 728 Well done, that’s a good word, when we use our little circle of words you can use that word, yeah?

FM8 20 He was white slim and quite tall, yeah?

KB7 11755 Alright, yeah?

KBW 9719 You’re gonna have beans instead of tomatoes, yeah?

KCP 6739 Pat’s gone to theatre has she, yeah?

KPW 827 You’ve read this book called Roll Of Thunder, yeah?

(All examples from British National Corpus)

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Polarity is, the “choice between positive and negative” (H & M, p.116). The concept of polarity in general, and specifically the negative, doesn’t seem to get much attention or specific textbook treatment (except perhaps in old audio-lingual drills) but, as Halliday says, “choosing positive is just as substantive and meaningful as choosing negative” (H & M, p.143). Polarity is one way that allows speech functions to be arguable in terms of exchange by setting up an opposition between ‘yes’ and ‘no’: “either ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’ (proposition), either ‘do’ or ‘don’t’ (proposal)” (p.116).

The polarity may be attached to either the Finite (temporal or modal) or the proposition*. Thus we may have:

  • I don’t have to go. (finite)
  • I have to not go. (proposition)

Which may also be combined:

  • I don’t have to not go.

The difference between them may be shown with a question tag, where the unmarked form of the tag reverses the polarity. As such, if the polarity is attached to the Finite we get:

  • She couldn’t have known, could she?

But if the polarity is attached to the proposition it becomes a distinct modal Adjunct and the tag is reversed:

  • She could have not known, couldn’t she?

As a modal Adjunct, the polarity then has the ability to form a mood element itself, often in non-finite clauses for example:

  • Not being funny but…
  • Never having been myself…

It is also seen with a corresponding change in intonation:


However, polarity is most commonly associated with the Finite which “reflects the systemic association of polarity with mood” (H & M, p.143). This is shown in English with contracted forms where the “negative marker may be reduced to the point where positive and negative are more or less equivalent in weight” (H & M, p.143) and it is only the Finite element that allows this to happen. From this we can also see that reduced forms are more than just ‘sounding natural’ but represent a meaningful distinction.

*The choice of one or the other does seem to be affected by context: I’ve noticed that English spoken in the North of England, such as Liverpool, tends to focus more on the proposition in negative question forms (Did you not want to come?) while that spoken in the South focuses more on the Finite (Didn’t you want to come?). As EFL textbooks are largely based on upper middle-class language of the South this distinction tends to get overlooked.

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I’ve just noticed that on the cover of IFG it spells ‘grammar’ with an ‘e’ 🙂

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Process + Circumstance v Process

Here are some examples that came up in a business class that might cause problems for students but can be clearly explained:

1. I passed on the idea.

  • I (Participant) passed (Process) on the idea (Circumstance) because I didn’t think it would work.
  • I (Participant) passed on (Process) the idea (Participant) to management because I thought it was good.

2. We went over the bridge.

  • We (Participant) went (Process) over the bridge (Circumstance) driving from North Sydney.
  • We (Participant) went over (Process) the bridge (Participant) that we were designing.

3. I looked up the picture.

  • I (Participant) looked (Process) up the picture (Circumstance) to see how the frame was hung.
  • I (Participant) looked up (Process) the picture (Participant) to see who the artist was.

It might also be helpful to point out the phonological changes that can reflect the patterning of the ideational and textual meanings:

  • I passed / on the idea
  • I passed on the idea/


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Interpersonal modal Adjunct v Experiential Circumstance

I always do that. (Adjunct)
I do that all the time. (Circumstance)

I usually do that. (Adjunct)
I do that almost everyday. (Circumstance)

I often do that. (Adjunct)
I do that at times. (Circumstance)

I sometimes do that. (Adjunct)
I do that now and then. (Circumstance)

I rarely do that. (Adjunct)
I don’t do that much. (Circumstance)

I never do that. (Adjunct)
I don’t do that at all. (Circumstance)

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Context and Register

An important distinction can be made between the context of situation and register of a text. They often seem to be conflated but Halliday does distinguish between the two.

Here is a headline from the satirical magazine The Onion:

Coarse Sponge Excited To Join The Smith Family Dishwashing Team

The humour here works only because we can make a distinction between the context of situation and the language that typically accompanies it – by a mixing of the register of a company announcement (excited to join, the ~ team) with an unexpected field choice (sponge).

Context of situation, as the name suggests, is “the immediate environment in which a text is actually functioning ” (H & H, p.46), or the social and physical environment where the action takes place in terms of its field, tenor and mode. Importantly, this may or may not involve language. In fact, there are certain contexts in which the use of language is actively discouraged or even proscribed, such as Berstein’s (1971) concept of ‘resticted codes’ or the cultural value of silence in Japan (King, 2011). If you’ve ever been on a visit to the Sistine Chapel in Rome, with the attendants continually calling for silence, you’ll see one good example.

Register, on the other hand, is entirely semantic and is the “configuration of meanings that are typically associated with a particular situational configuration [and] include(s) the expressions, the lexico-grammatical and phonological features, that typically accompany or REALISE these meanings” (H & H, p.38-39). Register is a probabilistic tendency for certain items from the semantic and lexico-grammatical (and phonological/graphical) systems of ideational, interpersonal and textual meanings to co-occur in certain contexts. It is the semantic interface between the external context and the internal language of a particular text, and may range from restricted registers (the language of aviation, for example) to relatively open ones (casual conversation) although no registers are completely open as even casual conversation exists within certain boundaries and conventions.

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EFL Listening Tasks

I must admit I find most EFL listening tasks a little strange. The usual format in most textbooks I’ve used is to listen to a conversation and then answer set questions about it. It is a conversation as product, with the student relegated to the role of observer of the text, rather than text as process with the student being an active participant in the text as it unfolds. In effect, it is teaching them the skill of eavesdropping…

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Contextual Configuration

The field, tenor and mode of the context of situation function “as a point of entry to a situation as a set of possibilities” (Halliday & Hasan, 1985, p.55). Within a culture, there are sets of certain recurring situations with the same values of field, tenor and mode being present, or “a specific set of values that realises field, tenor and mode” (p.56). This can be termed the Contextual Configuration, or CC. The example Hasan gives is of a service encounter – buying oranges – which has a clear recurring set of field, tenor and mode values.

Contextual Configuration is “not the statement of one specific situation, but rather…the expression of a type of situation” (p.102, their emphasis). So, the CC is not like a snapshot view of one situation, or the “material situational setting” (p.99) of the physical environment where the text takes place (although an individual text may be affected by it), but is instead instantiated through many instances of the same type, “a particular calibration of values frozen at a particular point in delicacy for a particular purpose” (p.105-6).

I think a good example is the US Supreme Court. In its history the Court has occupied a number of different buildings (and not just in Washington) and there have been a number of Justices, which is the material setting, yet the Contextual Configuration of ‘Supreme Court’ has essentially remained the same since its inception. It is made up of certain recurring sets of practices codified as texts that remain constant and are re-produced over time.

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