Here is the end of a 1-star review for a book which shall remain anonymous.

Why I bothered to read to the end still baffles me! The most irritating thing about the book was the incredible number of times language of today was used when the time was supposed to be centuries ago. RIDICULOUS!

The complaint that it used “language of today” is brings up an important point for learning a language. We of course have no idea how people really spoke centuries ago – we may have written sources but that is not necessarily how people spoke. What the reviewer actually means is that the writer did not use the language that we commonly expect to see in historical fantasy novels. This language is not from personal experience of the time, we do not have recordings from the 1400’s, but from our experience of reading other historical fantasy novels. It is a conventional language, one that has been stylistically formalized by countless writers of this fiction. The writing has certain elements of vocabulary and use of grammar that we as readers expect.

This patterning of lexico-grammar that we commonly associate with a particular situation is what we call register. Register is “the configuration of semantic resources that the member of a culture typically associates with a situation type” (Halliday, 1978). It is through register that we can easily recognize types of language use, e.g. scientific English, or a sports report. Every individual text is produced out of the range of options provided by the system of language, yet certain groups of texts within similar contexts display similar linguistic features and it is this that gives us the register. Also, as Matthiessen (2019) puts it, “the more specific the settings of parameters of field, tenor, and mode are within context, the more constrained the range of options in the semantic system will be”. In other words, if you have a very constrained context of situation, say for example, a legal contract agreement, there will be a corresponding constraint on the language choices available. Register (sometimes called text-type) thus lies midway on the cline of instantiation between system and instance. It may be represented as:


The importance of this for language learners is two-fold. First, it is common for language learners to ‘know’ a word or phrase but not how to use it. Learners may sound overly casual in formal situations or vice-versa. They are unable to adapt their language use to fit the situation. Or they may overextend the range of register of vocabulary. I remember being somewhat alarmingly instructed by a Japanese doctor to ‘expire’ until i realized that had taken an item from a ‘science: biology’ register and used it incorrectly in a ‘medicine: consultation’ register, and said expire/inspire instead of breathe out/breathe in.

Conversely, learners are often unable to recognize a particular register and be able to respond or react appropriately. Part of learning to read is learning to recognize differing text-types. An incongruity between register and situation is a commonly used trope in humor, as in this cartoon from the New Yorker:

Binding Agreement That You Didnt Want Dessert Print by Kendra Allenby

A learner unfamiliar with ‘legalese’ would probably miss the joke.

Yet register is rarely taken into account in textbooks, where grammar and vocabulary is very often presented in a completely decontextualized situation. One textbook I used started every lesson with a short conversation, regardless of the usual context and register. It is difficult to see how a learner can get any sense of appropriate language use. In my own experience learning Japanese, grammar items were presented, and drilled, without any reference to when, where, or how it was actually used. However, this should really be the goal of helping learners to become competent and confident language users.




Nominal Group

When describing things generally in English it is common to (metaphorically?) refer to “bodies”: the human body, a body of water, the body politic, etc. The picture below here is a camera body.

What kind of camera body? It is a single reflex camera body, or SLR. But there are two types of SLR – film or digital. This one is a digital SLR. Many companies make digital SLR cameras and this one in particular is made by Nikon. Nikon produces a range of digital SLR cameras in two main formats. One of them uses a full-frame sensor and the other uses a smaller, crop sensor. Nikon calls these FX- or DX-format  cameras. The one above is a Nikon FX-format digital SLR camera. In the FX-format range, this one is an entry-level model, which Nikon has called the “D750”. It is a popular model. Here it is on Amazon:

Nikon D750

Notice however, that you have to buy a lens for the camera separately. So this is only the camera body for sale. At quite a good price.

If we put all of this information together we get a group of words:

Nikon D750 FX-format Digital SLR Camera Body

This forms what is called the Nominal Group. Although there are many words in the group above, it is actually only comprised of two parts: a Head Noun (“body”) and long string of Classifiers that tell us what kind of Head. We know they are all Classifiers for two reasons. They either do not “accept degrees of comparison or intensity” ( we cannot say it is a very digital camera) or they are “organized in mutually exclusive and exhaustive sets” (there are only a certain number in the set of Dxxx Nikon cameras) with which to “classify a set of things into a system of smaller sets” (H&M, p.377). Importantly for EFL learners is that we use Classifiers from the outside in. For example, a long product description like “Dyson Ball Multi Floor Origin High Performance HEPA Filter Upright Vacuum” would be referred to casually first as a ‘Dyson Vacuum’, then as a ‘Dyson Ball Upright Vacuum’, and so on.

At times though, we may want to do more than just classify something. We may want to describe it using what are termed ‘epithets‘. Here is an excerpt from an Amazon review:

I could not get good snaps … with this defective camera.

Looking at the underlined words, we can see that they function in two different ways. The first, “good”, gives us the author’s subjective opinion of the pictures, while the second, “defective”, presents some objective property of the camera itself. These are called attitudinal Epithets and experiential Epithets respectively (H&M, p.376).

Additionally, it may be necessary to distinguish between talking generally about cameras (“I want a camera”) or one specific camera (“I want the D750″),  a specific location (“I want that camera”), or a specific person (“I want her camera”). This is the Deictic element of the noun group. It may also be necessary to indicate how many belong to  a particular class using a Numerative, which may also be definite (“Those two cameras on the bottom left are made by Olympus”) or indefinite (“I have several cameras”).

Image result for compact cameras range

These elements of the noun group all combine in a certain fixed order, as in this example from H&M (p.364):

Noun Group



Textual Theme

Here is a quote from dprview comparing two cameras:

In most circumstances the Z7’s image quality will be remarkably similar to that of the D850. However, it’s not quite fair to say it’s the same.

We can see that it is comprised of two marked clauses, both beginning with the Themes underlined. The first clause is a marked topical Theme with a prepositional phrase, but the Theme of the second clause, ‘however’, serves to link the two clauses together. This is called a textual Theme.

Textual Themes are made up of:

  • Continuatives (e.g., umm, yeah,)
  • Conjunctions, either paratactic (‘linking’ e.g., and, or, but, …) or hypotactic (‘binding’ e.g. when, while, if, because, …)
  • Conjunctive adjuncts, which are adverbial groups or prepositional phrases that link one part of discourse to another (e.g. in other words, actually, as a result, …).

(See SFG Page for more and better info).

Genre of Going to the Doctor

“Going to the Doctor” is a common lesson theme in EFL textbooks. They tend, however, to have either a grammatical focus, e.g. practising ‘should’, or a vocabulary focus, illness vocabulary. Usually, of course, it is a combination of the two. However, the genre of the Doctor Consultation varies greatly from culture to culture and these differences and the genre expectations that are involved in visiting the doctor are not generally treated much in textbooks.

Even before the consultation, there are differing cultural expectations of where and when to seek help. Japan, for example, does not have the equivalent of a General Practitioner or family doctor. Every doctor specializes in a particular area, like internal medicine, or ear/nose & throat. So rather than visiting a G.P. who then refers you to a specialist, you effectively diagnose yourself and then go to the appropriate specialist. It is also much more common to go straight to the hospital, even for a cold. In England, on the other hand, you are required to register with a local practice and would be turned away from a hospital without a referral. It would be important, therefore, to explain the wider medical system in which the consultation takes place, something that textbooks rarely if ever take into account.

The basic genre stages of a medical consultation, as usually presented in textbooks, could be summarized as:

1. opening
2. complaint
3. examination or test
4. diagnosis
5. treatment or advice
6. closing


Yet this has always felt somewhat too perfunctory. So based on the British Corpus it could in fact be extended to include:


Here is a Powerpoint (GOING TO THE DOCTOR’S) I use to demonstrate the differences between the stages.


Theme & Rheme

The Theme of the clause is:

the element that serves as the point of departure of the message.

It is the Theme that helps us organise the clause as a message. Everything else is the Rheme. In English, the Theme is the first part of the clause, such as this example from H&M (p.90):

The duke

has given my aunt that teapot.



The Theme can be identified as:

the first group or phrase that has some function in the experiential structure of the clause, i.e. that functions as a participant, a circumstance or the process


These are called topical Themes. Whatever follows the topical Theme is the Rheme.


shall I put the pot?


the pot on the table.


put the pot on the table.

On the table

I put the pot.

Did you

put it there?


leave the pot there.



More correctly though, the topical Theme marks the end of the Theme. It might also be the case that there are other elements that come before the topical Theme. We might want to foreground our opinions or feelings about the topic, in which case we might use an interpersonal Theme, or we might want to link to some other message, and so use a textual Theme. This cartoon from Footrot Flats is a good example of an extended multiple Theme:

Related image

NO = Textual Theme

REALLY = Interpersonal Theme (modal adjunct)

HORSE = Interpersonal Theme (vocative)

THIS LITTLE GUY = Topical Theme

Now that we can identify a topical Theme, the next element is the Rheme:


In extended longer text, the Theme also enables us to repackage discourse as a message. We can see this in the author bio for Murray Ball, where the preceding passage is repackaged into the following Theme (underlined):

…for a while it seemed that his cartoons would serve only to agitate – All this changed in the mid-1970s


TRANSITIVITY, along with MOOD and THEME, is one of the three “principal systems of the clause” (H&M, p.10) which the the central unit of lexico-grammar. The world around us is constantly changing and in flux. Think about the action in a game:

Image result for viv richards hitting a cricket ball

We can represent this picture is several different ways. The batter is Viv Richards, he is hitting the ball for six, or he is out. The system of TRANSITIVITY allows us to represent the world as this constant flow of experience, who does what to whom under what circumstances, and construe this experience as “a quantum of change in the flow of events as a figure” (H&M, p.213). There are three elements to the system of TRANSITIVITY as a figure:

Transitivity structures express representational meaning: what the
clause is about, which is typically some process, with associated participants
and circumstances (H&M, p.361)

We can thus represent the picture above as being composed of these three elements, centered around the Process:


For EFL, viewing the clause from the perspective of TRANSITIVITY is particularly useful in highlight the differences between phrases that may appear the same to  a learner. For example, consider the two sentences:

  1. I looked up the building
  2. I looked up the building

While they have the same words, there are fundamental differences between them which can be explained through the transitivity. In sentence 1., the Process ‘looked up’ refers to searching on, for example, Google Maps, while the second refers to physically looking:



looked up the building
Participant Process




looked up the building
Participant Process


It can also highlight the differences between Participants and Circumstances, for example:



is hitting the ball for six


Process Participant




is hitting the ball for the West Indies
Participant Process Participant




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)


The compositional structure of language (the stratification of Content and Expression) comprises a small number of “compositional layers…organised by the relationship of ‘is a part of'” (H & M, p.20). This ordering is termed rank. The rank scale for the grammar of English is:

  • clause (little miss muffet sat on a tuffet + eating her curds and whey);
  • phrase or group (eating + her curds and whey);
  • word (eating + her + curds + whey);
  • morpheme (eat + ing).

Thus “each rank consists of one or more units of the rank next below…units of every rank may form complexes…there is the potential for rank shift…[and] it is possible for one unit to be enclosed within another” (H & M, p.10).

Within my own EFL classes I try to introduce the concept of rank for even very low level classes as it is a fundamental concept of understanding the system as a whole and why certain choices are made within the lexico-grammar. As an example, a common exercise for beginner classes is to introduce basic personal information:

  • This is Jane. She is 42 years old. She lives in Tokyo. She is a doctor.

By this, we are construing the information as four separate units of information of equal importance linked textually through reference (Jane – she – she – she). Whe can, however, construe it as two units of information by rank-shifting to form two sentences with two clause complexes:

  • This is Jane who is 42 years old. She is a doctor living in Tokyo.

We could then take this further and construe it as one unit of information with three clauses by rank-shifting to form noun groups (note the change from 42 years old as a separate Participant to 42-year old as a rank-shifted Qualifier):

  • This is Jane who is a 42-year old doctor living in Tokyo.

In this case there are three clauses that are being modified (This is – Jane who – doctor living). We could, however, additionally construe the information as one unit with only two Particpants (an Identified and an Identifier) by rank-shifting who is a doctor and living in Tokyo from clause level down to noun group level:

  • Jane is a 42-year old doctor in Tokyo.

Text and Teaching EFL

For Systemic Functional Linguistics, text is “language that is functional” (H & H, p10). A text has a purpose and a goal. The implications of this were made clear for me in a recent listening lesson. As is their wont, the textbook listening exercise ended with a joke. While, I suppose, this is intended to keep the teacher amused, the student got quite upset that he wasn’t able to follow this particular listening as it was presented. It occurred to me that his problem was not one of vocabulary, he could understand the words well enough, but was instead one of interpretation. He was frustrated because he could ‘get’ the text.

The exercise was a normal EFL exercise to listen to a story and answer some questions about the situation. In other words, the student was trying naturally enough to interpret the text as a straight information-giving text. Yet, when we went back and reinterpreted the text as a joke it suddenly ‘made sense’. We were able to follow the text as each stage unfolded, leading to the final ‘joke’, and could unpack certain key items that ‘signalled’ that text as a joke. It was only then that the student was able to fully access the text. And he told me that was the case. It made me realise the importance for the interpretation of a text of viewing it both as a product, as having some goal or function, and as a process, of unfolding elements leading to that goal. Without keeping this in mind, it seems pointless studying the grammar and vocabulary of a text and miss what it is actually trying to do.


A key concept within SFL is the idea of ‘system’ (hence Systemic). Language as semiotic, the ability to create meaning, is the result of interconnecting systems at different levels of stratification – context, semantics, lexico-grammar, phonology/graphology. A text is an ‘instance’ of language (product) that is made possible from language as a system (potential). The system-potential of language is therefore instantiated in the form of a text-product. On the other hand, however, the system is not a closed one. As the text unfolds through time (process) it also adds to, and affects, the system. System and text are not, therefore, separable but opposite ends of a cline. Halliday uses the analogy of climate (system) and weather (text).