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Concourse 2

Verbal processes


The verb is "Our most powerful impression of experience"
(Halliday 1994:106)

This guide is concerned with what are called main or lexical verbs in English, not auxiliaries or modal verbs of any sort.  There are guides elsewhere to those verbs (links at the end).

In primary schools the world over, verbs are called 'doing words'.  Among much else taught in schools, however, that's only partly right.
What follows here is a brief summary of verbs (better, clauses) seen from the perspective of functional grammar.  In other words, we are concerned with what they do rather than their grammatical characteristics.


Verbs as processes

Verbs do all kinds of things in language.  They say what's happening, how things are related to each other, what the situation is like, how people feel, what they say, what they think and so on.
Here are some examples

  • That dog's barking (what's happening)
  • That cat belongs to her (how she and that cat are related)
  • The weather is awfully wet (what the situation is)
  • I feel ill (how someone feels)
  • I told him to go home (what someone said)
  • I enjoyed the film (what someone thought)

If you have followed the guide to stative and dynamic verb use, you will already be aware that the meaning a verb conveys affects the construction of the clause it's in.  For example,
    Be quiet, I'm thinking
    I think it's noisy in here
The fact that we can't use the progressive aspect in the second example but we can in the first is because the verb is being used to express a different kind of process.  It is not a mystery of stative and dynamic verbs.
It is in the effort to make sense of the things verbs do and the meanings they convey that functional linguists have developed an analysis which focuses on the process (i.e., function) rather than the structure.


The three essential types

Before we go on, can you divide the following nine clauses into three types?  Just jot down three headings and then put the numbers of the examples under each.  To make things slightly easier, there are three in each section.
Click here when you have done that.

1 They have arrived 4 There's a bus stop at the corner 7 They remembered meeting me
2 I thought he was a bit dim 5 She sneezed 8 The bridge collapsed
3 She said goodbye 6 I'm the boss 9 The office lies on the left

As you can see, the categories can each be subdivided into two areas.  We'll take them one by one.


doing verbs

MATERIAL processes
These include verbs such as the ones in these examples:
    the machine works well
    the string broke
    the bomb exploded
    the house fell down
They are to do with what happens in the external, material world of our experience.
These include verbs such as the ones in these examples:
    they watched TV
sang in church
sneezed constantly
worried half to death
These verbs refer to psychological or physical behaviour.


thinking, feeling, saying verbs

(projecting verbs)

MENTAL processes
These include verbs such as the ones in these examples:
    I enjoyed the film
noticed his nervousness
remembered his face
    they hated the place

The verbs refer to thinking, wanting, perceiving and emoting.
VERBAL processes
These include verbs such as the ones in these examples:
    he told me what to do
    I said I was angry
    they explained the problem
    they asked to be allowed to go

These verbs refer to putting thoughts (mental processes) into words.


being verbs

These include verbs such as the ones in these examples:
    there are no cigarettes left
    there were some potatoes in the cupboard
    there's nothing to be said
    is there anything more to say?

These verbs almost always come with the word 'there' and refer to whether something exists or not (hence the name)
RELATIONAL processes
These include verbs such as the ones in these examples:
    the office is down the hall
    this tastes of garlic
    it feels rough
    we were in Paris

These verbs express the relationship between two entities (called participants, in the trade) and refer to something's attributes (where, when etc.) and to its identity, either of a class (It's a language book) or specifically (It's called "How to teach").  In fact, the process is often subdivided in relational attributive and relational identifying processes.  The first refers to what something is like and the second to what, when or where something is.
A more traditional view is to analyse the verbs here as copulae.

Here's a small cut-out-and-keep summary of the 6 main types of verbal process with examples of each.
verbal processes summary

Now we can return to our initial examples and be a little more precise.

Look again at the examples and see if you can identify which is which in each category:

material and behavioural processes projecting (mental and verbal) processes existential and relational processes
They have arrived I thought he was a bit dim There's a bus stop at the corner
She sneezed She said goodbye I'm the boss
The bridge collapsed They remembered meeting me The office lies on the left

Click here when you have done that.

so what

So what?

How does this way of looking at verbs help me to teach them and help my learners to use them and understand them?

  1. It makes it easier for learners to find out how to use verbs especially in the area of transitivity and qualification.  It also helps in a number of other areas.  You could help them notice, e.g., that MENTAL process verbs are often followed by the -ing form (I considered going home, They disliked doing the work etc.).
    Other areas are also made easier to grasp by this categorisation:
    1. Stative vs. dynamic uses: believe is a MENTAL process so is unlikely to be used in the progressive but MATERIAL and BEHAVIOURAL processes are often used that way.
      hence, we generally prefer
          I believe he's coming
          I hope it rains

      etc. to
          *I am believing he's coming
          *She is understanding my point of view
      because these examples refer to MENTAL processes.
      However, we do use progressive aspect forms with BEHAVIOURAL and MATERIAL processes as in:
          The ladder is shaking
          He's driving tomorrow
          We are running out of beer
      especially if we are concerned to emphasise the continuous or progressive nature of the event or action.
    2. VERBAL processes can be better understood as making the internal MENTAL processes external in some way.  This helps with the natural production of indirect speech forms.
      For example,
          I want her to come (a mental process)
      can be externalised as
          I tried to persuade her to come (a verbal process)
    3. Verbs which vary their meaning can be more easily understood with a grasp of process types:
          He felt the surface of the carving
          He felt ill
          He felt the play was very poor
  2. It is especially important for anyone who is taking a genre approach to teaching.  If you have done the guide to genre and/or the guide to circumstances, this will be familiar territory.
    To explain: once we have a grasp of the concept of verbs as processes, we can begin to predict the sorts of ones we will need to understand and deploy to match the text type we are writing, speaking, hearing or reading.  Here are some examples:
    1. in a text whose purpose is a narrative, such as telling an anecdote, we need to deploy and understand MATERIAL (the bus crashed), BEHAVIOURAL (the passengers screamed), and VERBAL (the police officer suggested) processes because texts of this sort are used to describe what happened, what people did and what they said about it.
    2. in a text whose purpose is a to explain a procedure, such as a recipe or experiment, MATERIAL and BEHAVIOURAL processes will again be important (heat the water, the product of the reaction combines with ...) but we also need RELATIONAL ATTRIBUTIVE (the mix is placed in a furnace, the beans are flavoured with salt and garlic) processes.  We are unlikely to deploy VERBAL or MENTAL processes in text types like this because what people say or think is not relevant.
    3. in a text whose purpose is a discussion (arguing both sides of an issue), such as an academic essay, processes are very important.  They are often MATERIAL (cars produce pollutants), EXISTENTIAL (there is an increasing number of cars on our roads) and RELATIONAL (many families now have two or more cars).
      However, if the text is an exposition (arguing a point of view) then MENTAL and BEHAVIOURAL process verbs will be needed (I believe, I often notice etc.).  If there is a need to focus on people in the text, we will deploy BEHAVIOURAL (people use cars too often to get to work) and MENTAL (people do not understand how damaging ...) process verbs.

The second point is important because instead of simply practising producing or understanding the text types, we can prepare our learners by teaching them how to use the various verb types (see point 1).
There's little point in asking learners to produce narrative until they have at least some grasp of how to use MATERIAL and BEHAVIOURAL verbal processes.
You can't properly understand a discussion or appreciate the writer's point of view unless you can decode the language that betrays MENTAL process rather than objective MATERIAL process.

There is no test on this; you have done enough.

Related guides
circumstances for a functional way of seeing adverbials and prepositional phrases
genre for a way to consider text typing and more
stative and dynamic verb use which considers verb meaning and how it affects tense form
modality for the index to this area which will lead you to modal auxiliary verbs and much else
primary auxiliary verbs which will take you to a guide to another type of verb altogether
verb and clause types for a guide to the six main sentence structures in English

Butt, D et al, 2001, Using Functional Grammar: an explorer's guide. Sydney: NCELTR
Halliday, M, 1994, An introduction to functional grammar: 2nd edition. London: Edward Arnold