Generic Structure Potential (GSP)

When you go to buy something in a convenience store you can be reasonably certain of what’s going to happen in that situation. First, you’ll walk in and you might say ‘hello’. Then you’ll ask for some batteries and then pay. We can guess this sequence due to our previous experience with these kinds of situations and the fact that they are nearly always the same. Some parts may change (you might not say hello) but you always have to pay.

Within certain recurring sets of texts then, coherence of structure is formed through obligatory and optional elements, the totality of which forms the Generic Structure Potential (GSP) (Halliday & Hasan, 1985) for that set. For example, the GSP for ‘service encounters‘, is:


In other words, there are certain obligatory elements that characterize the genre, in this case the ‘Sale’, ‘Purchase’ and ‘Purchase Closure’, and other optional ones that add elaboration but are not necessary. There is thus a ‘structure’ to social interactions. We can call it ‘Potential’ because it has a predictive quality that allows us to navigate these social situations almost unconsciously.


Genre of cooking classes

Further to my last post on recipes, I’d also highly recommend an interesting read on similar differences between American and Japanese cooking classes in:

Mayes, P., 2003, Language, Social Structure, and Culture: A Genre Analysis of Cooking Classes in Japan and America, John Benjamins

As she states: “…in the Japanese classes, the teacher was expert and the students were relative novices [and] would focus on task-oriented content and on giving precise procedural instructions. On the other hand, though the American teachers might be considered experts relative to the students, there was less focus on this professional relationship and more on creating a friendly relationship” (pp. 14-15). The Japanese classes were serious and focussed on ‘following the rules’ whereas the American classes were characterised by a relaxed individualism and creating original recipes.

I have noticed, however, a slight shift in Japanese cooking classes that I’ve noticed on TV. Traditionally, cooking in Japan was a female domain (ALL of the Japanese participants in the study above were women while the Americans were a roughly equal mix of men and women). Recently, more cooking shows featuring male celebrity non-professional hosts. These are decidedly more slap-dash affairs and often don’t even feature measurements at all (and lots of salt in one case). I do wonder if this in some way reflects on-going social changes occurring in Japan due to the ways in which economic pressures over the last twenty years have affected the traditional (conservative) boundaries between male and female domains and also those between older generations (full-time stable ‘job-for-life’) and younger ones (part-time non-stable careers).


Hemmingway, genre and metaphor

In the 1920’s, Hemingway was bet that he could write a story using only six words and came up with the famous:

For sale:
Baby shoes.
Never worn.

The story works on many different levels, with the pathos of the image contrasted brilliantly with the banality of the language. Beyond that, however, it got me thinking about just how it manages to achieve this.

On the surface, it appears to belong to a genre of ‘For Sale’ classifieds as might be found in a newspaper or, these days, on Craigslist type websites. A closer look at this genre, however, shows that it is missing a number of features. There is no price or contact name/number. There is also no listed size or colour for the shoes. You could say that this is just because of the nature of the bet, only to use six words, and so these features were omitted. That, I think however, is the important point here: The text only looks like a ‘For Sale’ genre but in fact functions as a story genre. If it were actually posted in the classifieds it would fail as a text but it succeeds as a story.

I wonder, then, if there isn’t a generic metaphor, similar to grammatical metaphor, where a text takes on the surface features of one kind of genre but, in fact, functions as something different?


Daily Routines as a genre

We often use ‘Daily Routines’ lessons to introduce or practise the simple present. Recently, however, I’ve tried looking from a genre perspective and asking what, exactly, is the purpose of these kinds of text. Who, also, is the audience? They are, I think, a kind of report genre with evaluative lexis. You can find these kinds of texts in, for example, city guides for expats (“What’s it like living in …?”). A good site is matadornetwork which has a whole series of “A day in the life of an expat in…” texts. They’re great for higher level students. Another idea is university career guides that often have overviews of different kinds of jobs and what they involve.

For lower or beginner level students I’ve found the genre approach particularly useful in enabling the students to think about the purpose of their writing. A simple GSP for a report is a General Opening followed by a Sequence of Related Statements. To adapt this for a Daily Routines text I tell the students they are writing a letter to a foreign pen-pal, explaining their daily life. The opening then establishes the evaluative mood (I am busy everyday) while the sequence expands on and explains the opening (I get up really early at 6am and rush around getting ready for work). We also group the sequence (into morning, afternoon, evening, etc) and show how changes in Theme can highlight the change from one group to the next.



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.