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




Process + Circumstance v Process

Here are some examples that came up in a business class that might cause problems for students but can be clearly explained:

1. I passed on the idea.

  • I (Participant) passed (Process) on the idea (Circumstance) because I didn’t think it would work.
  • I (Participant) passed on (Process) the idea (Participant) to management because I thought it was good.

2. We went over the bridge.

  • We (Participant) went (Process) over the bridge (Circumstance) driving from North Sydney.
  • We (Participant) went over (Process) the bridge (Participant) that we were designing.

3. I looked up the picture.

  • I (Participant) looked (Process) up the picture (Circumstance) to see how the frame was hung.
  • I (Participant) looked up (Process) the picture (Participant) to see who the artist was.

It might also be helpful to point out the phonological changes that can reflect the patterning of the ideational and textual meanings:

  • I passed / on the idea
  • I passed on the idea/


Interpersonal modal Adjunct v Experiential Circumstance

I always do that. (Adjunct)
I do that all the time. (Circumstance)

I usually do that. (Adjunct)
I do that almost everyday. (Circumstance)

I often do that. (Adjunct)
I do that at times. (Circumstance)

I sometimes do that. (Adjunct)
I do that now and then. (Circumstance)

I rarely do that. (Adjunct)
I don’t do that much. (Circumstance)

I never do that. (Adjunct)
I don’t do that at all. (Circumstance)

Behavioural Processes 1

Behavioural processes construe “(typically human) physiological and psychological behaviour, like breathing, coughing, smiling, dreaming and staring” (H & M, p248). The participant who is ‘behaving’, typically a conscious being, is labelled the behaver (H & M, p250).

I’ve noticed that in some ESL teaching behavioural Processes are often lumped in with material ones. This does make it easier for students, but it may also be slightly misleading. Characteristically, behavioural clauses are partly material (the unmarked tense is the present-in-present) but also partly mental (we do find non-habitual present tense – Why do you laugh?). I think also for students it’s important to point out that “certain types of circumstance are associated with behavioural processes” (H & M, p251). Here is an example from the BNC:

   1284 Stok looked at me blankly — still listening through the wall — and nodded

Students will often interpret the Circumstance as Goal, producing *He looked me. A simple way to introduce this is using a picture of a party and describing the varous behaviours and the associated Circumstances.



The third element in the figure of the clause as representation is the Circumstance. Circumstantial elements are “attendant on the process” (H & M, p.260) by giving more information about such notions as when, where, how or why the process happens. Circumstances are a minor element in the clause,”have not got the potential of becoming Subjects” (H & M, p.260), and are “typically expressed not as nominal groups but as either adverbial groups or prepositional phrases” (H & M, p.261).

There are nine types of Circumstance:

  in the mountains LOCATION
  happily MANNER
  for fresh air CAUSE
  with his wife ACCOMPANIMENT
The movie star went hiking despite the rain CONTINGENCY
  as a refreshing break ROLE
  for four hours EXTENT
  talking about movies MATTER
  according to a website ANGLE


For EFL, I think the important thing to remember is that Circumstances are a minor element in the clause, that is, they are experientially seen as not as important as the Process or Participant. This can be seen if we compare ways of giving opinions – such as I think it’s a pen, if you ask me it’s a pen, and in my opinion it’s a pen – which are often presented in EFL as being somewhat interchangeable. Experientially, I think it’s a pen consists of two clauses in which it’s a pen is projected as an idea whereas, while If you ask me it’s a pen also consists of two clauses, it’s a pen is raised in status to the main clause and if you ask me is dependent. In the case of In my opinion it’s a pen, however, there is only one clause, it’s a pen, and the opinion element is now a minor Circumstance.

Material Processes 1

Material clause construe “a quantum of change in the flow of events as taking place through some input of energy” (H & M, p.179). The unmarked tense is present-in-present (e.g. is doing). Material clauses answer the questions: What did X do? or What happened to X?

The material clause consists of one participant, the Actor, which “brings about the unfolding of the process through time” (H & M, p.180). The clause in its most basic form is Actor + Process to produce the intransitive clause:

  • The lion (Actor) ran (Process: material).

Alternatively, “the unfolding of the process may extend to another participant” (H & M, p.180), the Goal, to produce a transitive:

  • The lion (Actor) caught (Process: material) the tourist (Goal).

We may also add more information to both of these clauses with a Circumstance:

  • The lion (Actor) ran (Process) towards the tourist (Circumstance).
  • The lion (Actor) caught (Process) the tourist (Goal) quickly (Circumstance).

Note here the change in function of the word tourist.