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






Polarity is, the “choice between positive and negative” (H & M, p.116). The concept of polarity in general, and specifically the negative, doesn’t seem to get much attention or specific textbook treatment (except perhaps in old audio-lingual drills) but, as Halliday says, “choosing positive is just as substantive and meaningful as choosing negative” (H & M, p.143). Polarity is one way that allows speech functions to be arguable in terms of exchange by setting up an opposition between ‘yes’ and ‘no’: “either ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’ (proposition), either ‘do’ or ‘don’t’ (proposal)” (p.116).

The polarity may be attached to either the Finite (temporal or modal) or the proposition*. Thus we may have:

  • I don’t have to go. (finite)
  • I have to not go. (proposition)

Which may also be combined:

  • I don’t have to not go.

The difference between them may be shown with a question tag, where the unmarked form of the tag reverses the polarity. As such, if the polarity is attached to the Finite we get:

  • She couldn’t have known, could she?

But if the polarity is attached to the proposition it becomes a distinct modal Adjunct and the tag is reversed:

  • She could have not known, couldn’t she?

As a modal Adjunct, the polarity then has the ability to form a mood element itself, often in non-finite clauses for example:

  • Not being funny but…
  • Never having been myself…

It is also seen with a corresponding change in intonation:


However, polarity is most commonly associated with the Finite which “reflects the systemic association of polarity with mood” (H & M, p.143). This is shown in English with contracted forms where the “negative marker may be reduced to the point where positive and negative are more or less equivalent in weight” (H & M, p.143) and it is only the Finite element that allows this to happen. From this we can also see that reduced forms are more than just ‘sounding natural’ but represent a meaningful distinction.

*The choice of one or the other does seem to be affected by context: I’ve noticed that English spoken in the North of England, such as Liverpool, tends to focus more on the proposition in negative question forms (Did you not want to come?) while that spoken in the South focuses more on the Finite (Didn’t you want to come?). As EFL textbooks are largely based on upper middle-class language of the South this distinction tends to get overlooked.

Activity: tenor, language choice and procedures

Here is an slightly different take on teaching the genre of procedures. The lesson was on giving ‘how-to’ instructions, for example ‘how to buy a ticket at train station’ or ‘how to make cup noodles’. Usually I would just teach the features of this genre, i.e. imperative Mood, temporal conjunctions, but this time, taking a cue from an interesting paper by Kawashima¹ on Japanese and English women’s magazines, we focused instead on tenor relations. Within register, tenor operates along three dimensions: power, contact and affect. We focused mainly on the first of these.

Power refers mainly to ideas of authority, status and expertise. These, however, are also influenced by the culture within which they operate which conditions the settings that are most appropriate for that context. This, in turn, influences the language choices from the lexico-grammar. Kawashima points out that, while women’s magazines in Japan and Australia ostensibly operate under the same genre, the differences in tenor greatly affect the language choices. The language used in Cleo in Australia stems from an tension between expert-novice power relations on the one hand yet close contact and familiarity on the other. Japanese magazines on the other hand stem more from the assumption of ‘distant’ relations situating the reader as outsider.

For the lesson, we took as a text first a very simple recipe for making baked fish. Before we looked at the text, however, we discussed the tenor choices that might be assumed for a ‘recipe’ text and how they might differ between English and Japanese. We then looked at how these are expressed in the lexico-grammatical choices in the text. The difference is quite clear. English uses directly congruent Imperative forms to express the commands (bake) whereas Japanese uses grammatical metaphor to express the commands as Statements (焼くyaku – ‘(you) will bake’). The effect of this is to make the English recipe sound more of a collaborative effort whereas the Japanese recipe implicitly assumes that only the reader will be making the recipe with the writer in the position of outside expert imparting information.

The students found this approach interesting and led to a lot of classroom discussion of other situations where this tenor positioning may affect language choices in other ‘how-to’ situations which was impressive considering it’s an Elementary-level class.

1. Kawashima, K (2005) “Interpersonal Relationships in Japanese and Australian Women’s Magazines: A Case Study”, Proceedings of the 2004 Conference of the Australian Linguistics Society


Activity: Expression and new information

A difficulty for all levels is recognising what is presented as new information within the clause. New information comes through stress in the Expression stratum and differs from the Theme – Rheme distinction of the clause. Here is a short activity to get learners focusing on new information in a simple dialogue. The dialogues all feature a repetition of the same lexico-grammatical clause but the focus of the new information shifts in each case. Learners could try predicting where the stress might fall and then work with a teacher to discuss why it changes. The dialogues are below (possible stress in bold):

Dialogue 1:

A: What‘s your name?

B: It’s Bob. What’s your name?

A: It’s Jane.

Dialogue 2:

A: How old are you?

B: I’m 24. How old are you?

A: I‘m 25.

Dialogue 3:

A: What do you do?

B: I’m a doctor. What do you do?

A: I‘m a lawyer.

Dialogue 4:

A: Where are you from?

B: I’m from Sydney. Where are you from?

A: I‘m from London.


‘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.


Register and Participants

Register can be a tricky concept for a lot of students. They often focus solely on the grammatical plane and forget about the social context in which it occurs (most EFL textbooks don’t really help in this regard). On the other hand, one mistake I think that some students (and teachers) make is thinking that register is determined solely by mode and that the situation automatically dictates language choice – that business English = more polite. If you look at the business e-mails section on the BNC, for example, you’ll find they are mostly about football. Important in register is also field and tenor choices.

I think, however, it is not the context of situation itself that is the sole determiner but the participants’ perception of that situation that leads to variation in language. Register is not a pre-existing independent set of truth-conditions but is negotiated by the participants as the situation unfolds. There is a wonderful Peanuts cartoon that illustrates this quite well (you can see it here) where Snoopy is sitting outside and one by one other characters walk past and greet him. The interesting thing is that, while the mode and field is the same, each character varies slightly in the level of formality used in the greeting, from Lucy’s simple ‘Hi Snoopy’ to Violet formally shaking Snoopy’s hand, reflecting perhaps differences in how each character perceives the tenor relationship between themselves and Snoopy. It’s quite a useful little cartoon to use in class.

Register is not, however, open-ended choice but is, I think, also constrained by the context of culture. I think the relation between the two is that the culture makes certain linguistic choices available within a given context of situation from which the participants are able to draw from as the text unfolds. This is one reason why the Peanuts cartoon is funny, in that it plays with our expectations of what is permissible within that context. I think this is also an important point for EFL teaching in general as well. It is often the teacher, or the textbook, who determines the linguistic resources for the student to then use, and the student is judged on how well they use these predetermined lexicogrammatical choices. I think instead the role of the teacher is to provide the range of lexicogrammatical options available from which the student may then choose. I had an Advanced student once who, no matter how many times we would ‘practise’ polite requests, would invariably end each lesson with a direct “Please give me that paper”. But then I realised that he was just that kind of guy.