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/


Activity: verbal and relational clauses

Here is a quick activity I often do with young learners or lower level students. It’s a quick way to highlight the difference between relational and verbal clauses.

All you need is two sets of animal cards (or any semantic set really), one with the picture and one with the name of the animal printed. The game is then a simple pelmanism game but, as they turn over each card, they have to say either ‘This is (Process: relational) a dog’ for the picture or ‘This says (Process: verbal) “dog”‘ for the printed word. It’s useful also to point out the difference between the relational ‘a dog’ with the article and how the verbal “dog” is said exactly as it is written without the article.

Difference between ‘look’, ‘watch’ and ‘see’

For me, one of the advantages of using Systemic Functional Linguistics in class is being able to answer clearly all those common EFL questions that generally pop up, especially ‘What’s the difference between…?’-type questions.

One of the most common is the difference between ‘look’, ‘see’ and ‘watch’, as in this (made up) example:

I wanted to watch TV yesterday so I looked through the TV guide but saw nothing interesting

The difference between them is often answered semantically by bringing in vague notions of intentionality, which I’ve never found to be particularly helpful. It is actually quite clear when looking at the transitivity:

  • Watch – is a material Process. It describes an action that unfolds through time and so usually takes the present-in-present: “I’m watching TV”.
  • Look – is a behavioural Process. It construes physiological behaviour and generally takes a Circumstance: “I’m looking in the TV guide”.
  • See – is a mental Process. It takes place within the world of our consciousness, our perception of events around us. The unmarked tense is thus simple present and it is also able to project an additional clause: “I see there’s nothing on TV again”.

Behavioural Processes 1

Behavioural processes construe “(typically human) physiological and psychological behaviour, like breathing, coughing, smiling, dreaming and staring” (H & M, p248). The participant who is ‘behaving’, typically a conscious being, is labelled the behaver (H & M, p250).

I’ve noticed that in some ESL teaching behavioural Processes are often lumped in with material ones. This does make it easier for students, but it may also be slightly misleading. Characteristically, behavioural clauses are partly material (the unmarked tense is the present-in-present) but also partly mental (we do find non-habitual present tense – Why do you laugh?). I think also for students it’s important to point out that “certain types of circumstance are associated with behavioural processes” (H & M, p251). Here is an example from the BNC:

   1284 Stok looked at me blankly — still listening through the wall — and nodded

Students will often interpret the Circumstance as Goal, producing *He looked me. A simple way to introduce this is using a picture of a party and describing the varous behaviours and the associated Circumstances.


Existential Processes 2

Most, if not all, EFL textbooks first introduce existential clauses through either singular/plural (There is a…/There are some…) or mass/count (There is some…/There are some…) distinctions. This, however, I think misses the whole point of the existential process. Singular and mass etc. are additional information that is mapped onto the clause. The unmarked existential Process seems to be actually There’s…, with a negative of There’s no…, regardless of whether it is count or mass. I’ve tried it a few times with native English (usually British or Australian) speakers with picture description. Show a picture of fruit and ask them what fruit is in the picture. Invariably, when they are just indicating existence, they will use There’s… for both count and mass.

On the BNC, some numbers are:

  • There’s – 32,210 hits
  • There is – 58,353
  • There are – 40,007
  • There’s no – 4,386
  • There isn’t – 944
  • There aren’t – 439
  • There’s [noun.SG] – 610
  • There’s [noun.PL] – 353

So, I think the traditional approach of concentrating on the count/mass distinction does not really reflect accurately the usage of the existential clause. In my own classes, I try to use There’s…/There’s no… for speaking activities without worrying so much about mass or count and then for writing activities, where more information needs to be made textually explicit, I’ll get students using There is…/There are… more consciously.

Existential Processes

An existential clause, such as There was an old person of Dover, functions to “represent that something exists or happens…The word there in such clauses is neither a participant nor a circumstance – it has no representational function in the transitivity structure of the clause; but it serves to indicate the feature of existence, and it is needed interpersonally as a Subject” (H & M, p.257). The second part of the clause, the “entity or event which is being said to exist” (H & M, p.258) is labelled the Existent.

Students may often confuse the existential ‘there’ with the circumstantial ‘there’. A good example from H & M (p.258) is to compare There’s your father on the line (existential) with There’s your father (circumstantial relational). Note that the response to the first is Oh, is there? while that for the second is Oh, is he?

The existential clause itself, however, may contain “a distinct circumstantial element of time or place” (H & M, p.258) in which, if thematic, the Subject there may be omitted, such as On the wall (there) was a Picasso painting, but will appear in the response Oh, is there? This circumstantial element may also be reflected in the choice of verb as Process, which is not necessarily be but may almost merge into the material, such as On the wall (there) hangs a Picasso painting. This may also be followed by a non-finite clause as a “way of ‘locating’ the process in space-time” (H & M, p.258):

There stood G. F. Westerby, looking pleased with
himself, staring out over the decades (BNC)

Activity: relational & material Processes

Here is an activity I often do with Elementary or Pre-Intermediate students that gets them noticing and thinking about the difference between relational Processes which construe ‘states’, and material Processes construing change through time.

On a piece of paper, you need three columns: the middle column is blank while on either side there are opposing relational clauses (either written or visual), for example:

[The cup is empty]    [    blank    ]    [The cup is full]

The task for the students is to explain how the change in state occurred, which requires a material clause, such as, She is pouring the tea. This also gets students noticing that there is no ONE right answer but may be construed in many different ways: She is filling the cup, The cup is being filled, The tea is being poured, etc. Some other relational clauses I’ve used are: The water is cold/ The water is hot; He is in the hall/ He is in the living room; I have the pen/ She has the pen; The door is closed/ The door is open; She is on the platform/ She is on the train, etc.

For more advanced students, the activity may also be expanded to include choices involving transitive (She is filling the bottle) or intransitive (The bottle is filling up) clauses. The sequence may also be linked into one sentence with conjunction:

The cup was empty and then she filled it until it was full;


Relational Processes (1)

A typical EFL first lesson often includes self-introductions of the kind like:

My name is Taro. I am 12 years old. 

These clauses use relational Processes, which “serve to characterize and to identify” (H & M, p.210). These two categories may also be termed attributive, such as Taro characterized as a member of that class of beings called ’12 years olds’, and identifying, such as the identity of the person named ‘Taro’. Note the important difference between the two is that identifying relational clauses may be reversed (My name is Taro/ Taro is my name) whereas attributive clauses may not (I am 12/ *12 am I).

Within these two categories of attributive and identifying, we may also provide more information about Taro through three different types:

1. Intensive:  Taro is tall (attributive) / Taro is the tallest in the class; the tallest is Taro (identifying)

2. Possessive: Taro has a black bag (attributive) / The black bag is Taro’s; Taro’s is the black bag (identifying)

3. Circumstantial: Taro is at home (attributive) / Home is Tokyo; Tokyo is home (identifying)

Relational processes “prototypically construe change as unfolding ‘inertly’, without an input of energy” (H & M, p.211). They are construed as ‘static’ as opposed to material processes which are ‘dynamic’. Also, whereas material processes construe the world of ‘outer’ experience (Taro is watching TV) and mental processes construe ‘inner’ experience (Taro likes Conan), relational processes may construe both ‘outer’ (Taro is in the living room) and ‘inner’ (Taro is happy).

Mental Processes

Mental clauses “are concerned with our experience of the world of our own consciousness” (H & M, p.197). Mental clauses consist of a Sensor, which is a human participant, and a Phenomenon:

Mary (Sensor) liked (Process: mental) the gift (Phenomenon)

Alternatively, this example may also be construed as:

The gift (Phenomenon) pleased (Process: mental) Mary (Sensor)

There are, therefore, two directions of mental Process: those that emanate from the Sensor (‘like’-type) or those that impinge upon the Sensor (‘please’-type). More examples can be seen here. As well as this, mental Processes may be divided into four distinct types:

  1. Perceptive – He saw the car
  2. Cognitive – He knows the car
  3. Desiderative – He wants the car
  4. Emotive – He likes the car

The Phenomenon may be a thing, as in ‘the gift’ above, or it may be an act or a fact. In the case of the Phenomenon as thing, this may also be metaphorical:

Amnesty (Sensor) found (Process: mental) persistent abuses (Phenomenon)

Where the Phenomenon is an act (termed macrophenomenal clauses) it is usually realized by a non-finite clause and the Process is usually restricted to those of perception:

He (Sensor) saw (Process: mental) [[the sand dredger heading for the cruiser]] (Phenomenon)

The macrophenomenonal Phenomenon may also function as Subject, yet it is usually only the Subject of the non-finite clause that is picked out rather than the whole Phenomenon:

The sand dredger was seen heading for the cruiser

Where the Phenomenon is a fact (termed metaphenomenal clauses) it is typically realized by a finite clause:

I (Sensor) can see (Process: mental) this town is going to hell fast (Phenomenon)

(All examples from H & M, p.200-205)

One further option available to mental clauses that distinguish them from both material and relational ones is the ability to project another clause as an idea, as in this Peanuts cartoon where Charles and Linus project their ideas and opinions (underline) using mental Processes (bold) (but I don’t actually know how to embed a cartoon in here) –

Charlie: You know Linus, I admit I can see some value in this blanket business…It seems to put you in a mood for contemplation…I imagine it really quiets your mind so you can think about things…

Linus: On the contrary. I find that, to be done properly, sucking your thumb and holding your blanket requires complete concentration!