The Subject is the item that is “being held responsible” (H & M, p.117) for the validity of the argument and is identifiable by the tag question. If we take the example:

That teapot was given to your aunt, wasn’t it?

The teapot functions as both the Theme and the Subject and, as such, is unmarked. If we compare this, however, to:

That teapot the Duke gave to your aunt, didn’t he?

Here, the question is still ‘about’ the teapot, but it is the Duke who is “made to sustain the validity of the statement” (p118). Hence, the tag is “he”. We can see this responsibility in the case of certain offers and commands where the Subject is made responsible for the success of the outcome. For example, in I’ll be guided by your wishes, shall I? the speaker is not the Actor of the event but nonetheless is made to be responsible for its outcome.


For the clause as exchange, dialogue consists of four fundamental functions: statement, question, command and offer. The difference between them lies in the relationship of the Subject to the Finite. The Finite is the element that indicates either tense (is/was, do/did) or modality (can/must) and is often “fused into a single word” (H & M, p.111). He plays tennis, for example, can be expanded to He does play tennis. The Subject and the Finite can be identified through the Mood tag: He plays tennis, does he?
For statements, the relationship is Subject + Finite. This is called the declarative Mood:

I play tennis
Subject Finite Residue
For questions, the relationship is reversed. This is called the interrogative Mood. The interrogative Mood may either indicate polarity or content:

Do you play tennis?
What sports do you play?
Residue Finite Subject Residue
For commands, however, both the Subject and the Finite may be omitted. This is called the imperative Mood:

Play tennis!
We may, however, mark the imperative Mood to make it more emphatic or inclusive:

Do play tennis!
Let’s play tennis!
Subject Finite Residue

Offers, however, have no particular realization, although they often employ modal verbs.


Semantically, the clause is an “interactive event involving speaker, or writer, and audience” (H & M, p.106). The move in this event is whether we want to initiate or have to respond. This may seem a rather obvious point, that we speak to someone who is listening, but it one that is often overlooked, especially within EFL. Looking at the two sentences below might help demonstrate the importance of this concept of exchange more clearly:

  1. It is a pen.
  2. This is a pen.

These two might commonly be found in beginner EFL or young learner texts yet rarely is the difference between them made clear. The first is how you might respond within an exchange to provide new information:

A: What’s that you’ve got there?

B: (It’s) a pen.

This is also evident in written text. The following headline (from is, in fact, a response to an assumed question on the part of the reader signalled intertextually by a picture which takes the role of initiating the exchange:

Picture: (What’s this?)

Headline: It’s a pen! It’s a bullet! It writes upside down and underwater! It’s a bullet pen!

The second example, however, is how we might initiate an exchange, explicitly drawing attention to the topic of discussion and inviting a response:

Jack: This is an astronaut pen. It writes upside down. They use this in space.

Jerry: Wow.

(Seinfeld, S3, E3)

From these two examples we can see that the move of the exchange, whether to initiate or respond, can thus influence the lexico-grammatical choices made within the clause. The choice between it and this is not the result of sentence-level rules but is instead dependent on how the clause functions within the exchange. It also demonstrates the interactive nature of the exchange, that “the speaker adopts for himself a particular speech role, and in doing so assigns to the listener a complementary role which he wishes him to adopt in his turn” (H & M, p.106). The added consequence of this is that the choices available for the response are constrained by those made in the initial move (see also Eggins & Slade, 1997, p.181-2).

There are two types of initiation: open, which is dependent on whether it is an offer, a command, a statement or a question and generally takes the form of a major clause, or a response request, which is the function of the tag question. I think it is important for learners to be aware that the tag question is not just a request for a response, as it is generally presented in textbooks, but it may also function as a request to not respond, to close down the conversation.

There are also two types of response: expected or discretionary. How the two functions of response operate may vary according to nature of the interaction. In the case of an offer, the response may be either one of acceptance or rejection:

              Offer:                    Would you like it?

              Acceptance:        Yes, please.

              Rejection:            No, thanks.

Where a demand is made, the response may be either an undertaking or a refusal:

               Command:           Give it to me!

              Undertaking:       Here you are.

              Refusal:                I won’t!

For questions, we may have either an answer or a disclaimer:

              Question:            What is it?

              Answer:               A teapot.

              Disclaimer:          I don’t know.

For statements, there may be either a response or a contradiction:

              Statement:          He’s giving it to her.

              Response:            Is he?

              Contradiction:     No, he isn’t.

(all examples from H & M, p.108)

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One of the key aspects of Systemic Functional Linguistics for EFL teaching is the notion of the language as an exchange, that “the clause is organised as an interactive event” (H & M, p.106). At a semantic level, language simultaneously operates through a system of three speech-act functions:

  • Move – initiating or responding;
  • Role – giving or demanding, and;
  • Commodity – information or goods & services.

This is the fundamental system of exchange in language. The importance of this for EFL is that all the seemingly infinite number of social functions of language we might initiate, such as requesting something or borrowing a pen or giving instructions, may in fact be reducible to just two combinations of role and commodity:

1.  Propositions

  • Giving information – It’s a pen.
  • Demanding information – What is it?/ Is it a pen?

2. Proposals

    • Demanding goods & services – Give me a pen!
    • Giving goods & services – Would you like a pen?

Essentially, everything within the clause is semantically related to one of these four functions. We may want to expand this with regards to how sure we are (Admittedly, it almost certainly must not be a pen) but it is still just giving information.

Clause as Representation.

The clause as representation, or system of Ideational meanings, is the grammatical system for “imposing order on the endless variation and flow of events [and] construes the world of experience” (H & M, p170).

The system of Ideational meanings is how we experience, and interpret, the world around us. For EFL, the important implication of this is that language is not an abstract set of tools to talk about experience. Language is our experience of the world, the semiotic space within which we operate as human beings. The grammar of experience divides the world into three different semiotic spaces:

  • The physical world (doing);
  • The world of abstract relations (being), and;
  • The world of consciousness (sensing).

Each of these semiotic spaces has its own prototypical process types. Importantly, however, is the concept of ‘indeterminacy’ – these semiotic spaces are not exclusive but are fuzzy and shade into one another. This fact can be particularly frustrating for EFL learners.

An example of this is pain. As Halliday (1998, ‘On the grammar of pain’) demonstrates, pain and our experience of it may be construed different ways through grammar. It may be described as a quality of a part of the body (my leg is sore/painful) or an injury (the cut is sore). It may exist seemingly independently (there’s a pain in my leg). It may also be described as if doing something (my leg is hurting), doing something to you (it’s hurting me) or even given an external behaviour (my leg is throbbing). It may also be described as a metaphorical entity to be examined by a doctor (I’ve got a pain in my leg). While the actual experience of ‘pain’ may be real, it is only through the system of Ideational meanings that this experience can be given meaning and the experience shared with other members of the culture.

The figure of the clause as representation consists of three components:

  1. a process unfolding through time
  2. the participants involved in the process
  3. circumstances associated with the process.

These three together “are organized in configurations that provide the models or schemata for construing our experience of what goes on” (H & M, p.175). The sentence “The birds are flying in the sky”, for example, consists of a process are flying, a participant birds and a circumstantial element in the sky.