Here is the end of a 1-star review for a book which shall remain anonymous.

Why I bothered to read to the end still baffles me! The most irritating thing about the book was the incredible number of times language of today was used when the time was supposed to be centuries ago. RIDICULOUS!

The complaint that it used “language of today” is brings up an important point for learning a language. We of course have no idea how people really spoke centuries ago – we may have written sources but that is not necessarily how people spoke. What the reviewer actually means is that the writer did not use the language that we commonly expect to see in historical fantasy novels. This language is not from personal experience of the time, we do not have recordings from the 1400’s, but from our experience of reading other historical fantasy novels. It is a conventional language, one that has been stylistically formalized by countless writers of this fiction. The writing has certain elements of vocabulary and use of grammar that we as readers expect.

This patterning of lexico-grammar that we commonly associate with a particular situation is what we call register. Register is “the configuration of semantic resources that the member of a culture typically associates with a situation type” (Halliday, 1978). It is through register that we can easily recognize types of language use, e.g. scientific English, or a sports report. Every individual text is produced out of the range of options provided by the system of language, yet certain groups of texts within similar contexts display similar linguistic features and it is this that gives us the register. Also, as Matthiessen (2019) puts it, “the more specific the settings of parameters of field, tenor, and mode are within context, the more constrained the range of options in the semantic system will be”. In other words, if you have a very constrained context of situation, say for example, a legal contract agreement, there will be a corresponding constraint on the language choices available. Register (sometimes called text-type) thus lies midway on the cline of instantiation between system and instance. It may be represented as:


The importance of this for language learners is two-fold. First, it is common for language learners to ‘know’ a word or phrase but not how to use it. Learners may sound overly casual in formal situations or vice-versa. They are unable to adapt their language use to fit the situation. Or they may overextend the range of register of vocabulary. I remember being somewhat alarmingly instructed by a Japanese doctor to ‘expire’ until i realized that had taken an item from a ‘science: biology’ register and used it incorrectly in a ‘medicine: consultation’ register, and said expire/inspire instead of breathe out/breathe in.

Conversely, learners are often unable to recognize a particular register and be able to respond or react appropriately. Part of learning to read is learning to recognize differing text-types. An incongruity between register and situation is a commonly used trope in humor, as in this cartoon from the New Yorker:

Binding Agreement That You Didnt Want Dessert Print by Kendra Allenby

A learner unfamiliar with ‘legalese’ would probably miss the joke.

Yet register is rarely taken into account in textbooks, where grammar and vocabulary is very often presented in a completely decontextualized situation. One textbook I used started every lesson with a short conversation, regardless of the usual context and register. It is difficult to see how a learner can get any sense of appropriate language use. In my own experience learning Japanese, grammar items were presented, and drilled, without any reference to when, where, or how it was actually used. However, this should really be the goal of helping learners to become competent and confident language users.




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.

Activity: Register and text

I’ve been doing a lot of activities recently trying to get students thinking about how context affects language choice. Here is one featuring three texts related to travel – two from a tourist booklet and one from the SMH travel section. Here are the texts:

Text 1:

The Upper Mountains continue to be very popular with many visitors to Sydney and the Blue Mountains.

Day trippers come to roam and take in all that is wonderful about our villages. Others come for the challenge of an 8 hour bush walk or rock climbing.

(imag free guide, 2008)

Text 2:

Megalong Books

Full range of books for adults and children.

Friendly service.

Orders taken.


(Printed in imag)

Text 3:

Tipping Point

In the wacky world of gratuities, it’s hard to know how much to give to whom, writes Peter Preston.

If it’s Monday, it must be Belgium; so plan to leave 10 per cent on the brasserie plate. Tomorrow, in France, we’ll do service compris, though a few more euros more may reward an unlikely smile or a spurt of speed. Wednesday? Spain, where those who run restaurants themselves insist that 3 per cent or 4 per cent is quite enough…Welcome to the wonderfully wacky world of tipping.

(Sydney Morning Herald, 2008)

After looking briefly at the three texts, we discuss the field, tenor and mode of each of them. To make it simpler for EFL classes I often refer to it as the ‘what’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ of the text.

FIELD (what): The domain for texts 1 & 3 is ‘travel/tourism’ while text 2 is commercial (although being in a travel magazine and located in a predominantly tourist area it could be said that it also falls within the ‘tourism’ domain). Text 1 is perhaps written by a tourist board for promotional purposes and the goal-orientation could be persuading tourist to visit the region. Text 2 is an advertisement, essentially informing potential customers of its existence. Text 3 is a newspaper travel article, so its purpose is entertaining regular readers.

TENOR (who): The social distance for Text 1 would be medium: it is appealing to people with an interest in travel but also wants its appeal to be broad to encourage new visitors. Text 2 is a vendor-customer relationship but at maximum social distance – it wants as many customers as possible but perhaps would have few repeat customers. Text 3, on the other hand, despite being a newspaper text, might have the closest social distance – it has a known demographic and a regular readership.

MODE (How): All three texts are written and have a similar language role, yet they do differ when it comes to how they are organised.

After looking at the field, tenor and mode, we then go on to discuss how these affect the language choices in the texts. In particular, it’s interesting how these register choices affect the length and complexity of the words and sentences in each text. It is a useful activity because many EFL learners come to class with pre-conceived ideas of language that are often very structural – that language is just a set of structures to be learnt independent of any social context. For the same reason it can also be challenging.

Register and demonstratives

Here is an exchange (1) from the TV show Friends:

Ross: [Entering] What is this dive? Only you could’ve picked this place.

Mrs. Bing: Oooh, c’mon, shut up, it’s fun. Gimme a hug.

At first this seems a simple exchange but I think for an EFL learner it actually could be quite difficult. It’s not entirely clear what is going on. It begins with the phrase, generally taught in the first lessons of EFL classes, ‘What is X?’ and so we would expect an answer of ‘It’s a Y.’ Yet from the exchange it is quite clear that they both know exactly what they are talking about. There is a chain of reference across the turns: this dive…this place…it. It seems then that it is not a simple request for information.

When we teach the structure ‘What is X?’ we are generally focused on some kind of unknown object or exchange of information, as in this example (2) from Friends:

Monica: What is it?

Rachel: Country club newsletter.

In this next example (3), however, the reference is known and the exchange is actually a request for an explanation:

ROSS: What is that? [referring to the sandwich]

JOEY: For the ride.

This results in an appropriate response, invoking Gricean conversation rules, of ‘For the ride‘ and not ‘It’s a sandwich‘. This difference between example 2 and 3 may not be entirely clear for an EFL learner.

Example 3 is, however, still essentially an exchange of information. In both example 2 and 3 the focus remains on the field of discourse which finds expression in ideational meanings and the choice of Participant in the Relational clause. The choice is between Country club newsletter (identifying intensive) or for the ride (attributive circumstantial). In example 1, however, there is no real clear link between the question (What is this dive?) and any apparent answer. Ross, in fact, seems to answer it himself (Only you could’ve picked this dive).

I think the focus here is actually on the tenor of discourse, the relationship between the speakers and evaluation of choice of venue. Mrs Bing (re)establishes the dominant power position between them with an imperative clause (shut up) yet the lexical choices (dive, picked, fun) indicate a close relationship between them. The choices at an expression stratum also reinforce this closeness (c’mon, gimme).

The choice of demonstrative, then, seems to reflect choices made at a register level and not really what they actually refer to.

Context of Situation

The Context of Situation is the “environment in which meanings are being exchanged”¹ and is comprised of three elements:

  • Field of Discourse: “refers to what is happening, to the nature of the social interaction that is taking place: what is it that the participants are engaged in, in which the language features as some essential component?”
  • Tenor of Discourse: “refers to who is taking part, to the nature of the participants, their statuses and roles: what kind of role relationships of one kind or another, both the types of speech role that they are taking on in the dialogue and the whole cluster of socially significant relationships in which they are involved?”
  • Mode of Discourse: “refers to what part the language is playing, what it is that the participants are expecting the language to do for them in that situation: the symbolic organisation of the text, the status that it has, and its function in the context, including the channel (is it written or spoken or some combination of the two?) and also the rhetorical mode, what is being achieved by the text in terms of such categories as persuasive, expository, didactic, and the like.

It is these three elements of field, tenor and mode that constitute the context of a text, which will “enable us to give a characterisation of the nature of this kind of text, one which will do for similar texts in any language”. These context choices are then realised through lexico-grammatical choices which, in turn, are realised through the sound and/or writing systems.

For my own EFL classes I usually simplify this down to talk about the ‘What/Why’, ‘Who’ and ‘How’ of a text. For example, a short dialogue from the TV show Friends:

Monica: What you guys don’t understand is, for us, kissing is as important as any part of it.

Joey: Yeah, right!…Y’serious?

Phoebe: Oh, yeah!

What: Friends in a coffee shop discussing relationships (realised lexically through ‘you guys’ and ‘kissing’ and grammatically through mental (‘understand’) and relational (‘is’) Processes)/
Why: Maintenance of long-term social bonds (‘you guys’, ‘for us’);

Who: Equal status participants exchanging opinions (realised through the use of both statements and questions, and through minor (‘yeah, right’)/ellipted (‘Y’serious) clauses and informal/shared lexis (‘guys’, ‘us’);

How: Spoken dialogue

I think it should be noted as well, however, that this is also an embedded text, in the context of the ‘TV sit-com’, which affects the lexico-grammatical choices in the text: it is written to be spoken, the turn-taking is fast and without hesitation or backtracking, the ‘shared’ lexis is also easily understood by a general audience, there are a limited number of topics of conversation, there are no nicknames or inside jokes/knowledge, they don’t refer directly to sex, only ‘it’, the characters are of a certain age played by actors who are not. In this way it has a lot in common with many EFL listening tasks.

1. All references from: Halliday, M.A.K & Hasan, R., 1985, Language, context, and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective, Deakin University Press

Text and SFL (1).

What is a text? A text is basically “language that is doing some job in some context” (Halliday & Hasan, 1985, p10). A text may be written or spoken, long or short, but must be ‘functional’. A single sentence can not generally be considered a text. “I’m in the bath”, for example, is not a text but the famous dialogue here is:

  • A: The phone’s ringing.
  • B: I’m in the bath!
  • A: Ok.

This implies that both spoken and written text is essentially interactive – just as a speaker has a listener, a writer has an imagined reader – and has a goal or purpose. It also implies that texts take place, function, within particular contexts, or register, and those contexts affect the choices made within the texts.

A text can be recognised as such through ‘textuality’. This is the external and internal factors that bind it as text. The first can be called its coherence, which has two parts. The first is generic coherence which gives the text a sense of completeness – we can recognise a staged conversation of ‘request followed by refusal followed by acknowledgement’ – and the second is register coherence – we know it is a casual conversation.

As well as this, a text has what is termed cohesion. This is what ties a text together internally. At first glance the conversation above does not seem to have any internal ties to make it cohesive but, looking more closely, we could say that both ‘the phone’ and ‘the bath’ refer to shared experience of household routines and thus join the two statements together (cf ‘a phone’ and ‘a bath’).

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.