Grammar: SFL

Grammar in EAP

The approach taken for this grammatical description and analysis is Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). Only Systemic-Functional Linguistics would seem to provide a description of how the structure of English relates to the situational variables of the social context (e.g. business, engineering, education) in which the language is functioning. Functional grammar is uniquely able to understand how the grammatical form of language is structured to achieve purposes in a variety of social (e.g. academic, occupational or professional) contexts.

The analytical approach taken here is mainly taken from the work of Michael Halliday, in particular the model of language set out in An Introduction to Functional Grammar (Halliday, 1985, 1994; Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004), following on from Malinowski (1923), Firth (1957) and Hymes (1967) (Halliday & Hasan, 1985, pp. 5-9).

Systemic Functional Linguistics has a number of beliefs that make it particularly useful as a basis for developing such a description:

  • Language is functional. That is, language is the way it is because of the meanings it makes. Resources available within the systems of semantics, grammar and vocabulary are utilised in specific ways to make specific meanings.
  • It is a theory of language in context, and suggests that language can only be understood in relation to the context in which it is used. So different purposes for using language and different contexts result in different texts. The construction of language texts in turn impacts on the context. There is thus a two-way relationship between text and context.
  • The process of using language is a semiotic process, a process of making meanings by choosing.
  • The theory focuses on language at the level of the whole text. By text is meant any connected stretch of language that is doing a job within a social context. Thus the term ‘text’ is used to refer to stretches of spoken and written language. Text may be as short as one word, e.g. EXIT, or may be as long as a book such as a training manual. This theory differs from most other approaches to language study, which offer systematic analyses of language only up to the level of sentence, and provides little guidance to the language learner, who needs to know about structure, organisation and development in connected oral discourse and written texts.

The starting point is culture. In the EAP case, the culture is the international academic world; in the EPP case, the culture is the international professional world.  All language use takes place within this culture. The context of culture includes:

  • The attitudes, values and shared experiences of the people working in the culture.
  • The culturally evolved ways of behaving.
  • The culturally evolved ways of achieving goals.

Systemic Functional Linguistics

Systemic-Functional Linguistics is concerned with understanding how the ways in which language is used for different purposes and in different contexts and situations shape its structure.

The key argument is that to understand linguistic meaning we have to appreciate the function of items in a structural context.

The ways in which human beings use language – the meanings that we can make with language – are classified by Halliday (1978, pp. 36-58) into three broad categories or metafunctions (Bloor & Bloor, 2004, pp. 10-11).

  1. Language is used to organise, understand and express our perceptions of the world and of our own consciousness. This function is known as the ideational function. The ideational metafunction is about the natural world in the broadest sense, and is concerned with clauses as representations. The ideational function can be classified into two subfunctions: the experiential and the logical. The experiential function is largely concerned with content or ideas. The logical function is concerned with the relationship between ideas.
  2. Language is used to enable us to participate in communicative acts with other people, to take on roles and to express and understand feelings, attitude and judgements. This function is known as the interpersonal function. The interpersonal metafunction is about the social world, especially the relationship between speaker and hearer, and is concerned with clauses as exchanges.
  3. Language is used to relate what is said (or written) to the real world and to other linguistic events. This involves the use of language to organise the text itself. This is known as the textual function. The textual metafunction is about the verbal world, especially the flow of information in a text, and is concerned with clauses as messages.

From the perspective of Systemic Functional Linguistics, the oral and written texts we understand and produce have their particular linguistic form because of the social purposes they fulfil. The focus is not on texts as decontextualised structural units in their own right, but rather on the relationships between texts and the social practices they realise.

SFL, then, treats language and social context as complementary semiotic levels, related by the concept of realisation. The relationship between language and social context has been represented using the image of co-tangential circles (Halliday and Martin, 1993, p. 25).

Language & Situation

This representation is intended to establish the semiotic system of language as the realisation of the more abstract semiotic system of social context. That is, the system of social context is realised by the system of language.

Levels of Social Context

The interpretation of social context includes two levels of communication: genre (context of culture) and register (context of situation) (Martin,1992, p. 495).

Levels of Social Context

The context of culture can be thought of as deriving from a combination of all of the genres which make up a particular culture. Genres are the culturally evolved ways of achieving goals that involve language. They are “staged, goal oriented social processes” (Martin, 1992, p. 505) in which people engage as members of their culture. They are “social because we participate in genres with other people; goal-oriented because we use genres to get things done; staged because it usually takes us a few steps to reach our goals” (Martin & Rose, 2003, pp. 7-8). Each genre is therefore characterised by a distinctive schematic structure with a clear beginning, middle and end through which the function of the genre is realised.

These genres include all of those routines from everyday experience such as purchase of goods (food, clothing etc), medical consultation, eating in a restaurant etc to the genres of particular forms of social life including church services, TV interviews, getting arrested etc. They also include genres which are valued in education and business. Lectures are genres, as are seminars and tutorials etc and written genres such as narratives, reports, explanations, procedures, and expositions. These genres have their own distinctive structures (or well-established stages) because of the social purposes they fulfil in the culture in which they are used. They occur in particular situation types and it is the characteristics of this situation type that influence the forms of language that realise the genre. So the context of situation (register) is the second aspect of social context that influences the linguistic realisation of the genre.

Within the business culture in which the language is used, there are many different situations. Within any context of situation, there are three main variables that largely determine the language choices that are made. These variables function together and are responsible for the configuration of language features in the text. This configuration of language features constitutes the Register. This context of situation of a text has been described by Halliday (Halliday and Hasan, 1985, p. 12) in terms of the variables of Field, Tenor and Mode.

  • The FIELD OF DISCOURSE refers to what is happening, to the nature of the social action that is taking place: what is it that the participants are engaged in, in which the language is an essential component?
  • The TENOR OF DISCOURSE refers to who is taking part, to the nature of the participants, their statuses and roles: what kinds of role relationships obtain among the participants, including permanent and temporary 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?
  • The 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 spoken or written 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.

Context of Situation: Field, Tenor & Mode

According to Martin (1992), text structure is produced at the level of genre and, as part of the realisation process, generic choices select Field, Mode and Tenor options associated with particular elements of text structure. The interpretation of context then includes two levels of communication, genre (context of culture) and register (context of situation), with register functioning as the expression form of genre, at the same time as language functions as the expression form of register. Martin (1992, p. 495) schematises this three plane model as shown below:

Three Planes

Functional Grammar

Language provides a bridge from the cultural meanings of social context to sound, gesture or writing. It does this by moving from higher orders of abstraction to lower ones. These orders of abstraction are organised into two main levels: the content level of language and the expression level of language. In this way the extralinguistic contexts are realised in the content of the language, and the content is given form in expression.

Content and expression

The content level of language is more accurately two levels, the second realising the first. The first level is a system of meanings which are realised in the second level, systems of wordings or signs. The systems of meanings are referred to as Discourse-Semantics and the systems of wordings or signs as Lexico-Grammar.

There are different ways of expressing the Lexico-Grammar which realises the meanings. At the expression level we make choices from systems of sounds (Phonology), gestures and systems of writing (Graphology).

Levels of language

or (Martin, 1992, pp. 20-21):


Including the social context, this gives (Martin, 1992, p, 496):

Levels of Communication

Discourse-Semantics is the interface between language and context of situation (register). Discourse-Semantics is therefore concerned with the meanings that are involved with the three situational variables :Field, Tenor and Mode. Ideational meanings (the propositional content) realise Field; interpersonal meanings (concerned with speech function, exchange structure, expression of attitude, etc) realise Tenor; and textual meanings (how the text is structured as a message, e.g., theme-structure, given-new, rhetorical structure etc.) realise Mode. Lexico-Grammar is a resource for putting meanings into words, ie. realising them as configurations of lexical and grammatical items. It concerns the syntactic organisation of words into utterances, involving analysis of the utterance in terms of roles such as Actor, Agent, Medium, Theme, Mood, etc.

Levels - Discourse Semantics

It follows, then, that Lexico-Grammar has the same kind of metafunctional categories discussed above, where functional grammar includes three separate analyses, each describing the construction of one of three different kinds of meaning (ideational, interpersonal & textual) which all operate simultaneously in each clause (see below for example).

Central to SFL is the use of systems, used to represent the choices present in making an utterance. The three systems related to the three metafunctions are: Transitivity, Theme/Rheme and Mood & Modality.

Ideational (experiential and logical) meanings construing Field are realised Lexico-Grammatically by the system of Transitivity. This system interprets and represents our experience of phenomena in the world by describing experiential meanings in terms of participants, processes and circumstances.

Interpersonal meanings are realised Lexico-Grammatically by systems of Mood & Modality. The Mood system is the central resource establishing an exchange between interactants by assuming and assigning speech roles such as giving or demanding goods and services or information. Thus the giving of information or goods and services is grammaticalised as declaratives, questions are grammaticalised as interrogatives and commands as imperatives.

Textual meanings are concerned with the interaction of interpersonal and ideational information as text in context. Lexico-Grammatically textual meanings are realised by systems of Theme/Rheme. Theme/Rheme selections establish the orientation or angle on the interpersonal and ideational concerns of the clause.

Or, putting all this together (Eggins, 2004, p. 111):

  • The field of a text can be associated with the realisation of ideational meanings; these ideational meanings are realised through the Transitivity systems of the grammar.
  • The mode of a text can be associated with the realisation of textual meanings; these textual meanings are realised through the Theme/Rheme systems of the grammar.
  • The tenor of a text can be associated with the realisation of interpersonal meanings; these interpersonal meanings are realised through the Mood /Modality systems of the grammar.

Levels - Lexico-Grammar

Other Similar Diagrams

Clause Structure

The main units recognised by SFL are: sentence, clause, group, word and morpheme. These can be hierarchically organised in a rank scale from the largest to the smallest.



Members of a unit are grouped and assigned to a particular class. For example, there are nominal, verbal, adjectival and adverbial groups, and nouns, verbs, adjectives as classes of word. Within a unit, systems of choices are available.

For example:

group class

The most important unit for a functional grammar analysis is the clause. Analysing clause structure involves identifying the functional parts of the clause from each of the three different perspectives: ideational, interpersonal and textual. In each metafunction, an analysis of a clause gives a different kind of structure composed from a different set of elements. In the ideational metafunction, a clause is analysed into the functional parts: Process, Participants and Circumstances. The participants element can be further described in terms of various participant roles such as Actor, Agents, Goal, Carrier or Sayer. The process divides into three basic process types: Material, Relational & Projecting.

For example, if we take an ideational approach to the clause:

(1) Recently Microsoft have expanded in China.

we can identify four functional parts (Martin, Matthiessen & Painter (1997, pp. 7-8):

Four Functional Parts

or more simply:

Time, Actor, Process, Place

The labels in bold print provide functional names for the parts of the clause when viewed as an ideational structure. This kind of labelling is semantically oriented. The functional parts of the clause take the form of, or are realised by, phrases of various kinds. For example the Process part is realised by a verbal group.

Constituents: Process

A functional role like Actor is expressed, or realised, by a nominal group.

Constituents: Actor

Functional roles indicating Time or Place are realised as adverbial groups or prepositional phrases.

Constituents: Time & Place

The functional analyses of this clause therefore indicates how the grammar realises ideational meaning (or metafunction) – the meaning concerned with constructing reality as configurations of people, places, things, qualities and the different circumstances of these configurations. The grammatical systems that realise ideational meanings are those of Transitivity.

A different ideational meaning would be:

(2) Recently Apple have expanded in China.



(3) Recently Microsoft have expanded in Korea.

ideational 3

But there are other kinds of meaning operating in this clause (and all clauses). In the textual metafunction, a clause is analysed into Theme and Rheme. For example, supposing we restructure the clause above: as follows:

(4) Microsoft have expanded in China recently.

Constituents: Theme/Rheme

In this case the ideational meanings here are the same before. But the orientation or point of departure of the clause is different. In the first version (1):

(1) Recently Microsoft have expanded in China.

the point of departure is the time (Recently) – you are going to find out something that happened recently.


In the second version (4) the point of departure is “Microsoft” – in this clause you are going to find out something about Microsoft. These differences are concerned with the organisation of communication and are part of the textual meaning of the clause. They are realised grammatically by the Theme/Rheme system.


In English the Theme is the first element in the clause and this is what provides the orientation or point of departure for the clause. By changing the Theme we do not change the ideational meaning of the clause but we do change the textual meaning i.e. the arrangement of information.

There is also a third type of meaning constructed in all clauses. This is the interpersonal meaning – the meaning that reflects the nature of the interpersonal relationship among those who are using the language. Part of this relates to the interpersonal roles that are operating. For example, is the speaker a giver or a demander of information? Again these interpersonal roles, and hence interpersonal meanings, can change independently of the ideational or textual meanings. In the interpersonal metafunction, a clause is analysed into Mood and Residue, with the mood element further analysed into Subject and Finite.

Constituents: Mood/Residue

compared with:

(5) Have Microsoft have expanded in China recently?

The grammatical systems that realise interpersonal meanings are those of Mood and Modality.

The metafunctions spreading through register at the level of social context and also the Discourse-Semantic and Lexico-Grammatical levels of language, are simultaneous and complementary systems. In the clause each metafunctional resource (Transitivity, Theme/Rheme and Mood & Modality) generates one layer of structuring, but the layers are simultaneous as shown below:

Metafunctional Layers

In a typical declarative clause such as this one, Actor, Subject and Theme coincide and are realised in one wording, in this case Microsoft. But in natural language use, a situation can be expressed in different ways, in which the order of clause elements can vary, since different elements of structure can move to initial position. The speaker/writer organises the content of the clause in order to communicate their meaning.


There are different ways of expressing the Lexico-Grammar which realises the meanings. At the expression level we make choices from systems of sounds (Phonology), gestures and systems of writing (Graphology).

Phonology is a resource for realising abstract wordings as sound and includes intonation, rhythm and syllabic and phonemic articulation. Alternatively this level may be the graphological system of a language. In general, the systems of phonology and graphology are related in an arbitrary or purely conventional manner to the Lexico-Grammar.

(1) Recently Microsoft have expanded in China.

(6) /ʹri:səntlɪ ʹmaɪkrəsɒft həv eksʹpandɪd ɪn ʹʧaɪnə/

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