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.