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





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…

SMH technology

Here’s a little example from the Sydney Morning Herald of new technology causing language change:

”Why is it that the new compact Herald eschews the words ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ in every article it presents?” asks Rod Blackmore, of Thornleigh. It’s because these days the paper appears in many forms, is read in various time zones and updated electronically throughout the day, that ”yesterday” and ”tomorrow” can cause confusion. Column 8 has fallen into line too, you may have noticed.

‘Truthiness’ and Expression

There was an interesting article on Huffington Post by Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, about the word ‘truthiness’ which was first used by Stephen Colbert on his The Word segment to describe the ‘quality of knowing something in your gut or your heart, as opposed to in your head’. It turns out that this relative bias does actually have some scientific basis in psychology and neuroscience as Mooney describes it in the article. He goes on to discuss the possible differences between conservative vs liberal brains.

Interesting, but what really caught me from a linguistic point of view what Colbert’s use of Expression stratum to emphasize this difference. Here is his definition of Truthiness:

Truthiness is, ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.

Note the difference in meaning between “I feel it”, where the mental Process is emphasized (the “emotional quality”), and “I feel it”, which highlights the self as Participant (“selfish”). The key for Colbert’s definition, therefore, hinges not on a lexico-grammatical distinction but on a phonological one. I imagine this difference would be difficult for most learners if they only consider Expression in terms of ‘sounding natural’ and not how it relates to the Content stratum.

Relative Clauses

There’s an activity in New Headway Advanced (2003, p.106) comparing two sentences which “mean the same”:

1. There are white coral sands fringed by coconut palms.
2. There are white coral sands which are fringed by coconut palms.

I wonder, though, whether they do, in fact, “mean” the same thing. Perhaps ‘construe’ is a better term. While it might be true that the first sentence is a “reduced past participle”, I’m interested more in why we would make a choice between these two sentences. I think the first one might be used if we want to construe both the island and the palm trees as representing one event together – ‘There are [white coral sands fringed by palm trees]’ – whereas the second sentence, for me, construes them as two separate parts – ‘There are [[white coral sands] which are [fringed by palm trees]]’. Here’s a picture:

Activating as Process

I was watching the Colbert Report the other day and noticed an interesting new Process (it seems actually to originate from Glenn Beck in 2010). Two people from Occupy Walk Street were talking about the movement:

The thing about this movement is that people are spontaneously activating with it

It seems interesting that the new OWS has moved from ‘activism’ as a Participant to be acted upon or discussed to ‘activate’ as an intransitive material Process (as opposed to the transitive ‘activate your account’). While it is suggestive of something more ‘active’ it also seems perhaps temporary, almost a lifestyle choice.

Actually I think it was Glenn Beck who originally used it, as a transitive verb meaning something like ‘to cause or induce political activism’:

Jon Stewart has shown his colors along with Comedy Central and Stephen Colbert and they are going to activate the youth to try to get them to vote with the Labor Unions

The Alphabet Song

Here, in Japan, there are two versions of the Alphabet Song. There’s the familiar one:

W-X-Y- and Z–,
Now I know my A,B,C,
Won’t you come and sing with me?

The version used in most Japanese schools, however, is:

Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing,
Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing.

Now I know my A,B,C,
Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing, Sing.)

This got me wondering what exactly the function of the ABC song actually is. You might think that it is obviously to teach children the alphabet but I’m not sure this is the case. If it were, then the Japanese version is much clearer and does perform, and is designed to perform, this function. Yet the original version is quite different. I personally think that the role of teaching the alphabet for the original version is, in fact, secondary. I think the primary function of the ABC song, and similar nursery rhymes, is to teach fundamental concepts of how a text is constructed – it provides a bridge between the spoken and written worlds.

Firstly the original version rhymes. Each line ends with a lengthened /i:/ sound. Textually, this introduces the concept of rhyme as a resource for cohesion across a text. Secondly, it introduces the concept of rhythm, in this case a regular trochaic (strong + weak) pattern, introducing rhythm as a resource for cohesion within a text. These two together provide some idea of generic coherence – they hold it together as a text and we can recognise it as such.

The second part of the song provides a link between the stratum of Expression and that of Content. Both the rhythm and the rhyme are the same yet it is now mapped onto the lexico-grammar. This demonstrates formally the interaction between the two stratum and how lexico-grammar is realised through Expression. Semantically it also introduces a basic clause relation of statement + suggestion (in the form of Now that…Why don’t...).

I think then that the ABC song does, in fact, do more than just teach the alphabet. It introduces the fundamental concepts of texture and textuality and the operation of the three stratum of Expression, Content and Context. The importance of songs and nursery rhymes is also well-recognised in L1 acquisition (see Guardian) and it would be interesting to see any effects on L2 acquisition. The Japanese version of the ABC song, however, is quite different.