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.

Discourse function of “How are you?”

A bit further to my post on the XKCD comic, I’ve been spending time recently in class on the discourse function of “How are you?”. While it may seem like a small and basic point I think it actually gets to the heart of what an SFL approach to teaching can bring to the classroom. Because very few students can answer the question appropriately. The most common responses I get are: “I’m tired/sleepy”, “I’m happy/hungry” (from kids), “Today is busy”, “Not good” (with no explanation) through to the always charming “I have diarrhea”. What’s going on here?

I think part of the problem is the result of a traditional approach to teaching that emphasises grammatical forms over everything else. The responses above are grammatically correct and, as one student told me, that’s what they were taught in their very first English lesson in Junior High School – focus on the verb ‘to be’. This, however, entirely misses the point of the question “How are you?”.

The question is not concerned with the Ideational content of its lexico-grammar – I’m not really concerned with the current state of your physical condition – but in fact operates at the strata above. At the context level it serves to both establish and reinforce interpersonal relationships and power structures in an indirect way. Slight variations in turn-taking, lexical, phonological selections are used for “constructing and signalling degrees of solidarity and intimacy in relationships” (Eggins & Slade, 1997:117). If we compare, for example, “Good morning. Now young lady, how are
you today?” spoken by a doctor in a consultation with “Hallo Stewie, how are you mate!” in casual conversation (both examples from BNC) we can see these differences quite clearly.

Also on a generic level the question plays an important role. Here, it functions as an opening, or way in, to the conversation. Even in a medical examination, where we might expect a focus on Ideational content, it in fact functions as an Opening stage before the Examination stage. Here is an extended conversation from the BNC:

(Doctor) Good morning, good morning.
(patient) Good morrow.
(Doctor) How are you today?
(Patient) I’m fine. How are you?
(Doctor) I’m alive. Causing trouble.
(Patient) (laugh) I suppose you’re ahead of the game if you’re alive.
(Doctor) Yes. That’s it. Now then young man, what can we do for you today?

Note here that it is the Doctor who opens the conversation and also the Doctor who makes a little joke, both of which establish the Doctor as the participant with higher power and authority yet also reinforce the (possibly) on-going nature of the Doctor-Patient relationship.

In a slightly different form, “How are you?” is also an important generic component of letters, as this example from the BNC shows:

Dear Laura, I hope you are well, we’re
all fine. Are you enjoying school?

There is a cultural difference to this. Japanese correspondence, even highly formal, will insert a digression on the weather that serves a similar opening function.


Here’s a XKCD strip:


It’s often said that you can’t ‘teach conversation’ yet I think this is only partly true. Of course it’s not possible to teach how to have a conversation, that comes naturally and unfolds as the situation and participants interact, but it’s also the case that quite a lot of ‘conversation’ is a socially-enacted activity with certain expectations of which learners must become aware.

For more see: McCarthy, M., 1991, Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers, CUP


Metaphors of time and grammar

One of the most common EFL grammar lessons, especially at Beginner or Pre-Intermediate levels, is the ‘Present Continuous to Talk About Future Plans’ lesson. While this is an important usage for the present-in present and should be introduced at some stage, the problem I’ve always had with these kinds of lessons is that it doesn’t explain why we might choose that tense in that situation. Recently however, I’ve been trying to introduce the notion of grammatical metaphor in relation to time and tense choice: the dichotomy between real-world time and grammatical time. Let’s call then R-T and G-T.

If R-T and G-T match, then we are presenting some fact about the world directly. For example, I go hiking on weekends, where R-T and G-T both construe a primary present, expresses a true condition about my habitual action while I’m going hiking on weekends these days, where the G-T shifts to a secondary present-in present, expresses some change that has occurred (hence the Circumstance these days – we want to know when the change started). Often, when R-T and G-T match it can be too pragmatically direct. Compare, for example, Do you want a drink? (R-T = G-T) with Did you want a drink? (R-T ≠ G-T).

When talking about the future this grammatical metaphor also comes into play. Imagine explaining there is a meeting tomorrow (there is/tomorrow – R-T ≠ G-T construing the meeting as a hypothetical event). We may wish to construe this as confirmation of a fact about the future with primary future (I’ll have a meeting tomorrow – R-T = G-T) or shift it slightly into the primary present (I have a meeting tomorrow – R-T ≠ G-T) to suggest some slight hypotheticality or that it is one as usual out of a regular scheduled series. This slight difference can be used by writers to subtle effect. Here are two newspaper versions of the same story written by the same reporter. Note the shift in the last two sentences of each:

Power firm angry over new rule on shipments By Barry Turnbull A ROW has erupted over the construction of the controversial coal imports terminal in Bootle. Furious bosses of electricity giants Powergen claim environmental protection measures demanded by Sefton Council will add £12m to the cost of the £40m project. The company is to challenge the conditions imposed by Sefton Council on the grounds that they are unnecessary. Powergen got the go-ahead for the £40m Gladstone Dock facility earlier this year. But cautious councillors demanded that all coal-laden rail wagons leaving the site should be fully enclosed and washed down to avoid spreading dust. Hazard claim Campaigners claim deposits of coal dust released into the atmosphere are a health hazard. But Powergen bosses have reacted angrily to the new council demands. A spokesman for the electricity generators said today: ” There is no evidence that the release into the atmosphere of coal dust from rail wagons will be in quantities which are harmful. The cost would be grossly excessive when compared to any environmental benefit. ” The company claims providing covered wagons would cost £12.6m, with an additional £900,000 a year running costs. Instead, the company suggests installing a £30,000 spray system at the terminal to dampen coal. Local councillor Eddie McEvilly said: ” I don’t really want to talk about conditions on the operation, because I don’t want to see it at all. ” Councillors on Sefton’s environment committee meet tonight to discuss the issue. The Bootle coal mountains are to be the focal point of a demonstration against imports and pit closures tomorrow.

Costs row over coal terminal By Barry Turnbull A MULTI-MILLION pound row has erupted over the construction of the controversial coal imports terminal in Bootle. Electricity giants Powergen claim environmental protection measures demanded by Sefton Council will add £12m to the cost of the £40m project. The company is to challenge the conditions imposed by Sefton Council on the grounds that they are unnecessary. Powergen was given the go-ahead for the Gladstone Dock facility earlier this year, but councillors demanded that all coal-laden rail wagons leaving the site should be fully enclosed and washed down to avoid spreading coal dust. Campaigners claim deposits of coal dust released into the atmosphere are a health hazard and a nuisance. But Powergen bosses have reacted quickly to the new council demands. A spokesman for the electricity generators said today: ” There is no evidence that the release into the atmosphere of coal dust from rail wagons will be in quantities which are harmful. The cost would be grossly excessive when compared to any environmental benefit which may result. ” Instead, the company suggests installing a £30,000 spray system at the terminal to dampen coal. Councillors on Sefton’s environment committee will meet tonight to discuss the issue . The dockside coal depot will be the focal point of a demonstration against imports and pit closures tomorrow.

Why does the writer do this? Note the use in the first article of evaluative language – furious bosses, cautious councillors, reacted angrily – which is largely absent from the second which is more concerned with taking a factual tone. This change is then also expressed through the shift from metaphorical grammatical choices (meet tonight, are to be…tomorrow) to non-metaphorical (will tonight, will be…tomorrow).

To return to our meeting, a shift to primary present (I have a meeting) may then be narrowed in focus with the present-in present to express who (I’m having a meeting with John), where (We’re meeting in the boardroom) or what time (We’re starting at 2pm). It’s also possible, however, that we might want to put some metaphorical distance between speaker and event. In this case we might shift to a present-in future (I’ll be having a meeting with John).

Hopefully, by presenting the event in this way the students can begin to think about the ways in which speakers make grammatical choices and the reasons why those might be made.

Activity: Verbal group, discourse and Harry Potter

If we teach ‘the tenses’ separately, I think students might not get the interaction between them and how they are used in discourse for different effects. Here is an activity I’ve used with Upper Intermediate – Advanced students, though you could use it in a more simplified form for lower levels. The activity compares the first paragraph of each of the Harry Potter novels and the tense choices made for each one and why.

Here is the first book:

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Here we can see it is the primary past that is mainly used, with one modal ‘would’. Taking it a rank up to clause, we can also see that it is mainly relational clauses. The first book of a series like this establishes the tone and introduces the characters. The Dursleys are ‘proud’, ‘normal’ and not ‘strange or mysterious’, to be compared of course with the characters to come. The opening establishes a simple tension between the two worlds.

The second book is slightly different:

Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive. Mr Vernon Dursley had been woken in the early hours of the morning by a loud, hooting noise from his nephew Harry’s room.

Here the past-in past is mainly used. The tense choice in the opening here provides a continuity link between the action in the first book (secondary past) and the action to come (primary past). On a higher rank, we have also shifted from relational clauses (establishing character) to material clauses (continuing story).

Here is the third opening:

Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways. For one thing, he hated the summer holidays more than any other time of year. For another, he really wanted to do his homework, but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of night. And he also happened to be a wizard.

Here we have a much more complicated interplay of primary past and hypotactic expansion of the verbal group. Whereas the first book introduced the characters and the second built on the story, the third book now expands on the character of Harry, reflected in the language choices. Notice also the shift from relational ‘was’ to mental processes ‘hated’, ‘wanted’.

By the fourth book, the characters, story and Harry are fully established and so there is a shift in tone from this narrow focus to introduce the wider wizarding community and the larger story arc that is to come:

The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it ‘the Riddle House’, even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there. It stood on a hill overlooking the village, some of its windows boarded, tiles missing from its roof, and ivy spreading unchecked over its face. Once a fine-looking manor, and easily the largest and grandest building for miles around, the Riddle house was now damp, derelict and unoccupied.

Here we have an interaction between the main action of the story (primary past) and its causes (past-in past). This presages the story arc of Dumbledore delving into Tom Riddle’s past and his evolution into Voldemort.

Book Five sees a pause in the story and back to the Dursley’s:

The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive. Cars that were usually gleaming stood dusty in their drives and lawns that were once emerald lay parched and yellowing – for the use of hosepipes had been banned due to drought. Deprived of their usual car-washing and lawn-mowing pursuits, the inhabitants of Privet Drive had retreated into the shade of their cool houses, windows thrown open in the hope of tempting in a non-existent breeze. The only person left outdoors was a teenage boy who was lying flat on his back in a flowerbed outside number four.

After all the Horwarts action of the first four books and battle within the wizarding world that is to come, here is the mid-point between them. The past-in present takes us out of the main story and gives us a respite away from all the drama, almost like taking a breather before your second wind. Literally the calm before the storm.

Here is the penultimate sixth book:

It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting alone in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind. He was waiting for a call from the president of a far-distant country, and between wondering when the wretched man would telephone, and trying to suppress unpleasant memories of what had been a long, tiring and difficult week, there was not much space in his head for anything else. The more he attempted to focus on the print on the page before him, the more clearly the Prime Minister could see the gloating face of one of his political opponents. This particular opponent had appeared on the news that very day, not only to enumerate all the terrible things that had happened last week (as though anyone needed reminding) but also to explain why every one of them was the government’s fault.

In this book, all the various strands of the story that have been introduced so far come together and move towards the final denouement and showdown with Voldemort that will come in the final book. Here also, all of the primary and secondary tense choices, as well as expansion, that have been made previously are used in one long passage. This almost creates a kind of exophoric cohesive tie to the other six books – not of reference or collocation but of tense choice.

The seventh book is the final battle:

The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other’s chest; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction.

Here we have the primary past. It is literally and metaphorically a final showdown. We have no more need of background. Only the primary past is needed.

I think this exercise is useful for demonstrating that tense choices are also discourse choices and it is the interaction of these choices that is important. Notice also how the passages get progressively longer, reflecting the increasing ages of the characters and the increasing complexity of the story.

Verbal group 4: tense, discourse and trains.

When teaching the future tenses it’s very common to talk about ‘present tense as scheduled future’. For example, ‘The train leaves at 7.30′. Personally, however, I think this might be somewhat misleading. The present tense is the present tense. Importantly, this is the eternal present. I believe, then, that the trains in ‘The train leaves at 7.30‘ and ‘The train will leave at 7.30‘ actually refer to two different trains. The first is an idealized, scheduled train that may, or may not in the case of Sydney trains, actually exist. The second, however, refers to an actual train.

Here is an advertisement from the BNC:

A special ” Victorian Belle ” period costume evening train will also be run over the line on Saturday July 4 headed by ” City of Truro “. Dining accommodation for this train is already fully booked, but ordinary seating is still available for this 40-mile special run, price £6.00 per head. A commemorative headboard will be carried featuring the Taunton 150 logo and the train leaves Bishops Lydeard at 19.15. Trade stands, ephemera stalls and a real ale/cider bar tent, including a limited anniversary beverage, will also add to the carnival atmosphere of this event.

Here we can see both the primary present and future used, and I think there is a subtle difference between them. The first is referenced by a long noun group describing an actual train, ‘A special ” Victorian Belle ” period costume evening train’, while the second, ‘the train’, refers to the scheduled time that this particular train is supposed to leave. Notice, also, that all other references to the event itself carry future tense.
So as I said I think the ‘simple present describing future event’ is a bit misleading. It is a future event but that does really help explain why we might use that form and not use future ‘will’. Another common example is ‘I catch the 4.30 train tomorrow‘ but I think this actually carries a meaning of ‘I am scheduled to catch the 4.30 train tomorrow’ so we are, in fact, talking about the present state of the schedule and not really the future event.

Verbal group 3 – tense and discourse

Here is a picture of two people on a date:

The language we use to represent the picture depends upon discourse choices. The picture may be represented as a series of completed events or, in other words, a story. In this case the primary tense would mainly be used:

Last week, Jun and Mae went on their first date. First, they went to a fancy Chinese restaurant in Yokohama for dinner. After dinner, they left the restaurant and walked arm-in-arm through the colourful streets of China Town. It was still quite early so they went to a coffee shop and talked for hours.

On the other hand, it may also be represented as a series of interconnected events that unfold through time. For example, if the photographer were describing the picture:

Here’s a photo of my friends on their first date. They look cute together, don’t they! I think they were walking through China Town, in Yokohama here. I think so. Yeah, they had just finished dinner and were walking through China Town to a coffee shop where they were going to have coffee.

Of course, it may also be possible to combine the two, in which case the primary tense unfolds the main events while the secondary tense adds more detail:

Last week, Jun and Mae went on their first date. They had met at a lecture in college three months before and had been flirting ever since. First, they went for dinner to a fancy Chinese restaurant in Yokohama – it had even appeared on TV. After dinner, they left the restaurant and walked arm-in-arm through the colourful streets of China Town. Lots of other couples were walking there too. It was still quite early so they went to a nice coffee shop that they had noticed before and talked there for hours.

The choice of tense, then, is not so much a function of time but one of discourse – it is a realization of how the speaker of writer wishes to represent the event.


Activity: Polite requests and grammatical metaphor

We often try to introduce students, especially in higher Elementary and Pre-Intermediate levels,  to ‘Could you …’ type polite requests  but I’ve found that textbooks do not always explain quite adequately exactly WHY one form is more polite than another. This is a simple little activity that might make it a little clearer and students have found helpful.

First, think about household requests (field), like hang the washing out, do the washing up, etc. and write each request on a piece of small paper. Next, write on the whiteboard the following:

1. Open the door please.
2. Will you open the door please?
3. Can you open the door please?
4. Could you open the door please?
5. Would you mind opening the door please?
6. You wouldn’t mind opening the door would you please?

The activity is then very simple. A student picks up a piece of paper with an activity written (‘turn on the heater’), rolls a dice (‘5’) and uses the corresponding form from the list (Would you turn on the heater please?).

Either before or after the activity we can look at just why some forms appear more polite than others. Students often assume that one form is inherently more polite than another but this is not really the case. I think the answer is in different forms of grammatical metaphor. In terms of the discourse semantics  of exchange all six of the requests above are exactly the same – a demand for service. In only first one, however, does the lexico-grammar match the semantics with an imperative clause. From there we go through a series of changes through grammatical metaphor that puts distance between the discourse function and lexico-grammatical form.

From 1. to 2. we change from imperative to interrogative clause. Then, in 3., we change the element of modality and then from 3. to 4. there is a further shift from present to past tense. This use of the past tense for politeness, by putting (metaphorical) distance between the speaker and the lexico-grammar, is often new to most students but can be an important part of politeness in English (compare Do you want…? with Did you want…? for example). Then, in 5., there is an example of nominalisation (open opening) and a shift from a material Process to a mental one (mind). Finally, there is a change from an interrogative clause to a declarative clause + tag.

Sports commentary and tense choice

Usually when teaching tenses for EFL classes we focus on time as the key element that differentiates each one. We compare simple and continuous in terms of ‘usually’ and ‘now’. Recently, however, I’ve been trying to take a more discourse approach to tenses by focusing on why each tense is selected a text and, rather than just comparing present simple and continuous tenses (aspect really), Halliday’s notion of Primary and Secondary tenses is more useful. A good way to do this is with sports commentary.

Ideationally, sports commentary really has two main focii: the game as a whole and the participants in it. Interpersonally, we also need to distinguish between describing the game and commenting (offering opinions) on it. Often, these are distinguished through varying Primary and Secondary tenses.

For example, in football the main focus of describing the game is on the ball – he gathers the ball, threads a pass through, shoots and scores! – and here the Primary present tense is used. When switching the focus to the teams and comment, on the other hand, the Secondary present-in-present or past-in-present tenses are more commonly used – Liverpool are playing particularly well here, they have shut done the Manchester attack all night – while the players often need a further level of delicacy to a present-in-past-in-present – Gerrard has been playing particularly well. The choice of tense then reflects not so much the passage of time of the game but the focus of discourse about the game.