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.

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.

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.

Mode of discourse

The third part of the context of situation is the mode of discourse. Mode refers to:

what part the language is playing, what it is that the participants are expecting the language to do for them in that situation: the symbolic organisation of the text, the status that it has, and its function in the context, including the channel (is it spoken or written or some combination of the two?) and also the rhetorical mode, what is being achieved by the text in terms of categories such as persuasive, expository, didactic, and the like.

The mode is generally divided into three main areas:

1. language role, or how important is the language in this context, is it ancilliary (not important) or is it constitutive (the central element in the context);

2. channel, which may be either phonic or graphic;

3. medium, which may be either written or spoken.

These three together generally form the mode of discourse. A politician’s speech, for example, would be constitutive (the language itself is the central focus), phonic (the politician is speaking) but written (it is generally prepared on paper).

Tenor of discourse

The second part of the context of situation is the tenor of discourse. Tenor refers to:

who is taking part, to the nature of the participants, their statuses and roles: what kinds of role relationship obtain among the participants, including permanent and temporary relationships of one kind or another, both the type of speech role that they are taking on in the dialogue and the whole cluster of of socially significant relationships in which they are involved?

(Halliday & Hasan, 1985, p.12)

There are three basic factors within tenor:

  1. agentive role, or the institutional (or not) roles of the participants, such as doctor/patient, teacher/student, etc.;
  2. social role, or the power relationship between them which may be hierarchic or nonhierarchic and includes expert/novice and also conferred social status and gender, etc.;
  3. social distance, or the amount or nature of contact the participants may have, which ranges from minimal (close friends) to maximal (formal settings).

Rather than an either/or situation, these tenor factors exist on a cline, as may be represented here:


It is also possible for these tenor relationships to change over time. A regular patient, for example, may have less social distance than one on a first-time visit. They may also be affected by field choices: an office-worker talking to their manager about football may use a different register than when requesting leave. This may also be affected by the context of culture with each factor given more or less value. In a Japanese work-place context (and in general) agentive and social roles have comparatively more prominence: even after years of close working contact (and even after retirement) many Japanese will continue to use formal work-place terms of address that encode these roles.

Field of discourse

Here is a recipe for Lemon Risotto from

We know this is a recipe, and not say a research report, partly through the field of discourse.

Within the context of situation, field refers to:

what is happening, to the nature of the social action that is taking place: what is it that the participants are engaged in, in which language features as some essential component?

(Halliday & Hasan, 1985, p.12)

We can divide field into three areas:

1. experiential domain, or what the text is about. In the case of a recipe, it is about food and food preparation.

2. goal orientation, or what the text is for in terms of both short-term and long-term goals. The short-term goal is obviously to make the recipe but the long-term goal is, I think, a little more complicated. Why are we making this dish? For example, as some research shows, there are cultural differences between Japanese and English that affect the long-term goals of food preparation. In Japan, cooking is, to a large degree, a serious matter and the goal is to reproduce the recipe exactly as shown, as opposed to the life-style/aspirational aspect of more Western cooking. I think also there are differences in the idea of the home as a private space, as in Japan, or a more public space for entertaining, as in English. This in turn affects the last area:

3. social activity, or what the text is doing. The activity of cooking in Japan is essentially a private or family activity. There is no real equivalent of the English-speaking or European idea of entertaining in your home or the dinner party. You can see this difference most clearly when looking at portion sizes. Googling ‘lemon risotto recipe’ or ‘レモン リゾット レシピ’ brings up recipes that in English, such as the one above, nearly always serve 4-6, or more, whereas the Japanese ones are for 1-2 people.

These three areas together make up the field of discourse, which is expressed through the experiential metafunction: there are specialised lexical items, such as broth, arborio and peel as well as material Processes, like simmer and stir. To a large degree, I think we also know that the above is a recipe (and the field of discourse is recognised by) external features such as lay-out, pictures, and the fact it says ‘recipe’.

Although I think there is a lot more to it and Hasan, in particular, has gone much further into the system of field in more detail, for the purposes of EFL I’ve found discussing just these three to be useful.

Genre of cooking classes

Further to my last post on recipes, I’d also highly recommend an interesting read on similar differences between American and Japanese cooking classes in:

Mayes, P., 2003, Language, Social Structure, and Culture: A Genre Analysis of Cooking Classes in Japan and America, John Benjamins

As she states: “…in the Japanese classes, the teacher was expert and the students were relative novices [and] would focus on task-oriented content and on giving precise procedural instructions. On the other hand, though the American teachers might be considered experts relative to the students, there was less focus on this professional relationship and more on creating a friendly relationship” (pp. 14-15). The Japanese classes were serious and focussed on ‘following the rules’ whereas the American classes were characterised by a relaxed individualism and creating original recipes.

I have noticed, however, a slight shift in Japanese cooking classes that I’ve noticed on TV. Traditionally, cooking in Japan was a female domain (ALL of the Japanese participants in the study above were women while the Americans were a roughly equal mix of men and women). Recently, more cooking shows featuring male celebrity non-professional hosts. These are decidedly more slap-dash affairs and often don’t even feature measurements at all (and lots of salt in one case). I do wonder if this in some way reflects on-going social changes occurring in Japan due to the ways in which economic pressures over the last twenty years have affected the traditional (conservative) boundaries between male and female domains and also those between older generations (full-time stable ‘job-for-life’) and younger ones (part-time non-stable careers).


Register and Participants

Register can be a tricky concept for a lot of students. They often focus solely on the grammatical plane and forget about the social context in which it occurs (most EFL textbooks don’t really help in this regard). On the other hand, one mistake I think that some students (and teachers) make is thinking that register is determined solely by mode and that the situation automatically dictates language choice – that business English = more polite. If you look at the business e-mails section on the BNC, for example, you’ll find they are mostly about football. Important in register is also field and tenor choices.

I think, however, it is not the context of situation itself that is the sole determiner but the participants’ perception of that situation that leads to variation in language. Register is not a pre-existing independent set of truth-conditions but is negotiated by the participants as the situation unfolds. There is a wonderful Peanuts cartoon that illustrates this quite well (you can see it here) where Snoopy is sitting outside and one by one other characters walk past and greet him. The interesting thing is that, while the mode and field is the same, each character varies slightly in the level of formality used in the greeting, from Lucy’s simple ‘Hi Snoopy’ to Violet formally shaking Snoopy’s hand, reflecting perhaps differences in how each character perceives the tenor relationship between themselves and Snoopy. It’s quite a useful little cartoon to use in class.

Register is not, however, open-ended choice but is, I think, also constrained by the context of culture. I think the relation between the two is that the culture makes certain linguistic choices available within a given context of situation from which the participants are able to draw from as the text unfolds. This is one reason why the Peanuts cartoon is funny, in that it plays with our expectations of what is permissible within that context. I think this is also an important point for EFL teaching in general as well. It is often the teacher, or the textbook, who determines the linguistic resources for the student to then use, and the student is judged on how well they use these predetermined lexicogrammatical choices. I think instead the role of the teacher is to provide the range of lexicogrammatical options available from which the student may then choose. I had an Advanced student once who, no matter how many times we would ‘practise’ polite requests, would invariably end each lesson with a direct “Please give me that paper”. But then I realised that he was just that kind of guy.

Activity: Register and text

I’ve been doing a lot of activities recently trying to get students thinking about how context affects language choice. Here is one featuring three texts related to travel – two from a tourist booklet and one from the SMH travel section. Here are the texts:

Text 1:

The Upper Mountains continue to be very popular with many visitors to Sydney and the Blue Mountains.

Day trippers come to roam and take in all that is wonderful about our villages. Others come for the challenge of an 8 hour bush walk or rock climbing.

(imag free guide, 2008)

Text 2:

Megalong Books

Full range of books for adults and children.

Friendly service.

Orders taken.


(Printed in imag)

Text 3:

Tipping Point

In the wacky world of gratuities, it’s hard to know how much to give to whom, writes Peter Preston.

If it’s Monday, it must be Belgium; so plan to leave 10 per cent on the brasserie plate. Tomorrow, in France, we’ll do service compris, though a few more euros more may reward an unlikely smile or a spurt of speed. Wednesday? Spain, where those who run restaurants themselves insist that 3 per cent or 4 per cent is quite enough…Welcome to the wonderfully wacky world of tipping.

(Sydney Morning Herald, 2008)

After looking briefly at the three texts, we discuss the field, tenor and mode of each of them. To make it simpler for EFL classes I often refer to it as the ‘what’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ of the text.

FIELD (what): The domain for texts 1 & 3 is ‘travel/tourism’ while text 2 is commercial (although being in a travel magazine and located in a predominantly tourist area it could be said that it also falls within the ‘tourism’ domain). Text 1 is perhaps written by a tourist board for promotional purposes and the goal-orientation could be persuading tourist to visit the region. Text 2 is an advertisement, essentially informing potential customers of its existence. Text 3 is a newspaper travel article, so its purpose is entertaining regular readers.

TENOR (who): The social distance for Text 1 would be medium: it is appealing to people with an interest in travel but also wants its appeal to be broad to encourage new visitors. Text 2 is a vendor-customer relationship but at maximum social distance – it wants as many customers as possible but perhaps would have few repeat customers. Text 3, on the other hand, despite being a newspaper text, might have the closest social distance – it has a known demographic and a regular readership.

MODE (How): All three texts are written and have a similar language role, yet they do differ when it comes to how they are organised.

After looking at the field, tenor and mode, we then go on to discuss how these affect the language choices in the texts. In particular, it’s interesting how these register choices affect the length and complexity of the words and sentences in each text. It is a useful activity because many EFL learners come to class with pre-conceived ideas of language that are often very structural – that language is just a set of structures to be learnt independent of any social context. For the same reason it can also be challenging.

Register and demonstratives

Here is an exchange (1) from the TV show Friends:

Ross: [Entering] What is this dive? Only you could’ve picked this place.

Mrs. Bing: Oooh, c’mon, shut up, it’s fun. Gimme a hug.

At first this seems a simple exchange but I think for an EFL learner it actually could be quite difficult. It’s not entirely clear what is going on. It begins with the phrase, generally taught in the first lessons of EFL classes, ‘What is X?’ and so we would expect an answer of ‘It’s a Y.’ Yet from the exchange it is quite clear that they both know exactly what they are talking about. There is a chain of reference across the turns: this dive…this place…it. It seems then that it is not a simple request for information.

When we teach the structure ‘What is X?’ we are generally focused on some kind of unknown object or exchange of information, as in this example (2) from Friends:

Monica: What is it?

Rachel: Country club newsletter.

In this next example (3), however, the reference is known and the exchange is actually a request for an explanation:

ROSS: What is that? [referring to the sandwich]

JOEY: For the ride.

This results in an appropriate response, invoking Gricean conversation rules, of ‘For the ride‘ and not ‘It’s a sandwich‘. This difference between example 2 and 3 may not be entirely clear for an EFL learner.

Example 3 is, however, still essentially an exchange of information. In both example 2 and 3 the focus remains on the field of discourse which finds expression in ideational meanings and the choice of Participant in the Relational clause. The choice is between Country club newsletter (identifying intensive) or for the ride (attributive circumstantial). In example 1, however, there is no real clear link between the question (What is this dive?) and any apparent answer. Ross, in fact, seems to answer it himself (Only you could’ve picked this dive).

I think the focus here is actually on the tenor of discourse, the relationship between the speakers and evaluation of choice of venue. Mrs Bing (re)establishes the dominant power position between them with an imperative clause (shut up) yet the lexical choices (dive, picked, fun) indicate a close relationship between them. The choices at an expression stratum also reinforce this closeness (c’mon, gimme).

The choice of demonstrative, then, seems to reflect choices made at a register level and not really what they actually refer to.