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).


Text and EFL

A text may be seen as both a product, or an instance of language in time, and a process, an unfolding of language through time. I think there are a number of implications of this for EFL.

Firstly, if we look at the text as a product then we must also consider the function of that text in relation to the listener/reader. In other words, what is the goal of the text? Why am I speaking or writing?

Secondly, it affects how text is treated in class. What is generally ignored in EFL classes is how text is also the result of a process – a realisation of choices made at other levels of stratification. It also ignores the importance of how the text progresses, or unfolds, through time and how, through the dialogical nature of text, this unfolding is affected by the writer’s (or speaker’s) perception of the audience. It also ignores the function of the text in relation to other texts within the culture. For EFL, it is important to consider text both as a product and as a process – to “think of the text dynamically, as an ongoing process of meaning” (H & M, p524).

Thrirdly, I  think it is important to consider the EFL lesson itself as a text. That is, the lesson is affected by the participants’ perceptions of the context in which the lesson takes place and what they feel is appropriate for that context. For example, in a Japanese context a lesson constitutes a ‘public’ space. As such, many students feel that the use of silence is a perfectly valid (or at least available) strategy for dealing with the potential loss of face that a foreign language environment, especially one with a foreign teacher, can produce. The lesson as text thus needs to be negotiated over time to meet the expectations of students, the instructor, and also the institution in which it takes place. It is also, however, affected by the wider cultural context in which it takes place. At many Japanese universities and colleges, for example, EVERY student graduates and as such the students do not view the lesson as a ‘learning’ context where participation is required but instead view it as a ‘public performance’ context where the only goal is attendance. The challenge for the teacher here is to re-negotiate the lesson-as-text. (See also King, J. (2013). “Silence in the second language classrooms of Japanese universities.” Applied linguistics, 34(3), 325-343.)

One implication of this I think is that the SFL conception of genre teaching might require a slight shift. Often it is taken to mean something like ‘the teaching of genres’ where texts like narrative, or recount are explicitly taught using the genre cycle developed in Australia in the 1980’s (for an overview see Martin, J. R. (2009). “Genre and language learning: A social semiotic perspective”. Linguistics and Education, 20(1), 10-21.). That approach would be appropriate for a Second Language Learning context where learners are expected (and expecting) to become members of the target language community. For a Foreign Language Learning context, however, this may not be the case (see Ryan, S. (2009). “Self and identity in L2 motivation in Japan: The ideal L2 self and Japanese learners of English”. Motivation, language identity and the L2 self, 120-143.) . Instead, it may be more useful to see the lesson itself as the genre and evaluate learners not on how well they produce an independent ‘text’ but on how well they are able to negotiate the demands of the lesson as it unfolds through time and interact with the participants in it.


Text and SFL (1).

What is a text? A text is basically “language that is doing some job in some context” (Halliday & Hasan, 1985, p10). A text may be written or spoken, long or short, but must be ‘functional’. A single sentence can not generally be considered a text. “I’m in the bath”, for example, is not a text but the famous dialogue here is:

  • A: The phone’s ringing.
  • B: I’m in the bath!
  • A: Ok.

This implies that both spoken and written text is essentially interactive – just as a speaker has a listener, a writer has an imagined reader – and has a goal or purpose. It also implies that texts take place, function, within particular contexts, or register, and those contexts affect the choices made within the texts.

A text can be recognised as such through ‘textuality’. This is the external and internal factors that bind it as text. The first can be called its coherence, which has two parts. The first is generic coherence which gives the text a sense of completeness – we can recognise a staged conversation of ‘request followed by refusal followed by acknowledgement’ – and the second is register coherence – we know it is a casual conversation.

As well as this, a text has what is termed cohesion. This is what ties a text together internally. At first glance the conversation above does not seem to have any internal ties to make it cohesive but, looking more closely, we could say that both ‘the phone’ and ‘the bath’ refer to shared experience of household routines and thus join the two statements together (cf ‘a phone’ and ‘a bath’).


What is Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL)?

What is Systemic Functional Linguistics? Basically, SFL views language as a social semiotic, a socially situated resource for expressing meaning within a culture. The most important consequence of this for EFL is that language here does not proceed from an underlying, universal set of rules but is a negotiated set of choices that operates on, and is in turn influenced by, a number of different levels, or stratum. Here’s an example.

In the TV show ‘Friends’, the first line from Episode 2 is:

“What you guys don’t understand is, for us, kissing is as important a part as any of it.”

Just from this line, the viewer is able to make a number of assumptions regarding the nature of the situation and the participants in it. On a global level, the conversation takes place in a coffee shop between a group of late-20-somethings. Immediately, we form ideas of what kind of conversations take place in cafes based on our own experience and whether the conversation proceeds according to these expectations. This we could call the Context of Culture. This, in turn, influences the choices made by the speakers (and our interpretation of them) at another lower level. Here, we know it is a casual conversation between close friends and we know that they are not just talking about kissing. We can know this from the Context of Situation, or register.

Below these two contexts, we can also interpret the statement grammatically. We interpret the clause in three simultaneous ways (metafunctions). Firstly, the opinion is being presented as a statement of fact – there is no doubt or hedge or question. This is the Clause as Exchange, or Interpersonal metafunction. Secondly, kissing is being presented as being of equal, not part, importance to ‘it’ and this opinion is coming from a female point of view. This is the Clause as Representation, or Ideational metafunction. And thirdly, this point of view is being contrasted with a male one but the opinion itself, kissing, is presented as the most important part of the message. This is the Clause as Message, or Textual metafunction. These three together make up the grammar of the clause.

Finally, below all this, is the level of sounding, phonology. This is largely ignored in most EFL textbooks. The concept of ‘blending’, for example, is treated in EFL as an interesting afterthought of good pronunciation but, if you listen to the piece of dialogue above, the phrase “what you guys don’t understand” and “kissing” take approximately the same time. “Kissing” and “part” are also louder. In other words, by varying the sounding of the phrase various parts of that may be highlighted as new or important information and the phonology does, in fact, contribute a vital role for meaning.

What all this means for EFL, then, is that the ‘meaning’ of this dialogue is expressed at a number of different strata and that changing something at one level affects its interpretation at another. Changing ‘guys’ to ‘you people’ would affect how we view the relationship between the speakers. Changing ‘is’ to ‘kissing can be as important’ alters the force of the message. Similarly, varying the stress to ‘kissing IS as important’ highlights the polarity. My goal within EFL classes is to enable students to see language as a system of choice to express meaning.