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/



The second element in the figure of the clause as representation is the Participants, which “are inherent in the process: every experiential type of clause has at least one participant” (H & M, p.175). The type of participant (bold) is dependent on the process (underlined) involved:

1. Actor + Process: material – The lion ran.

2. Senser + Process: mental The tourist noticed the lion.

3a. Carrier + Process: relational + AttributeThe lion was hungry. 

3b. Token + Process: relational + ValueThe lion was the king of the jungle.

4. Behaver + Process: behavioural The tourist screamed.

5. Sayer + Process: verbalThe police announced there would be a search.

6. Existent + Process: existential – There was no trace.

Material Processes 2: Participants

Besides the Actor, there are “a number of other participant roles involved in the process of a material clause” (H & M, p.190).

  1. Scope: The lion crossed the field.

 2.  Recipient: I gave her a letter./ I gave a letter to her. This could also be metaphorical: The ranger sent a warning to the tourist/ The lion gave the tourist a bite on the leg.

3.  Client: I made myself a drink and one for her.

4.  Attribute: The lion ate the tourist clean.