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Concourse 2

Functional grammar: experiential meanings


One central function of language is to picture reality to others.
Things, events and circumstances are encoded into language through three types of constituents of clauses:

Who or what?
These are called the participants in a clause
Did what?
This is the pivot of the clause: the verbal process
When, where, to what extent, as what? etc.
These are the circumstances.

These three constituents of a clause are, naturally, intimately connected but the core remains the Process: what happened, who did what, who felt what? and so on.
One way to picture the relationship is:
At the core lie the Processes without which nothing else can be said.

There are four main ways that these constituents can co-occur:

  1. We can have the simple Participant-Process clause such as
        The dog barked
        The house will be redecorated
        I drank

    etc. in which the only participant is what would be called the subject in other analyses.
  2. We can combine that with a second Participant so we get, e.g.:
        The dog bit me
        The house pleased her
        I drank the beer
    in which there are two participants, the subject and the direct object.
  3. We can add a Circumstance to the first pattern and get, e.g.:
        The dog barked all night
        The house will be redecorated by George
        I drank in the garden
  4. We can combine the Process with two Participants and a Circumstance
        The dog bit me in the arm
        The house pleased her immensely
        I drank the beer in the garden

It is possible for some verbs to take three processes in all so we might have:
    I gave the man the money on Thursday

It is also possible to for some clauses to project another clause so we may encounter:
    She told me that she loved the house
    Mary said the dog was hungry


Three Process types

There is a much fuller guide to verbal processes linked at the end of this page.  For now, it will be enough to exemplify the three major types and the two sub-categories in each:

  1. Doing processes
    1. Material:
          The house caught fire
    2. Behavioural:
          Mary coughed
  2. Projecting processes
    1. Mental:
          She enjoyed the concert
    2. Verbal:
          She told me that she enjoyed the concert
  3. Being processes
    1. Existential:
          There's a man at the door
    2. Relational:
          The house belongs to Mary



With each Process type come specific participant roles and we now turn to these.

With most Material processes we have Actors, Goals and Beneficiaries.  Here are some examples of how they take on the roles of Participants with Material processes:

With Behavioural Processes we have, unsurprisingly, a Behaver and something which is generally called the Range which is separate from the Behaver.  Behavers are either conscious entities or a personification of something unconscious that is perceived as conscious metaphorically.  For example:

With Mental Processes we also have an aptly named main Participant, the Senser.  The other Participants of Mental processes are either Phenomena or Projected clauses.  For example:

With Verbal Processes we have Sayers, Receivers, Projected clauses and Verbiage (what is said).  For example:

With Existential Processes, there is only one Participant: the Existent.  For example:
    There is a shop on the corner
in which a shop is the Existent and on the corner is a Circumstance.

Relational Processes are more complicated but usually, the main Participant is the Carrier and the Attribute.  There is also a distinction between the Identifier and the Identified.  For example:



Dancing alone on stage for hours  

There is, linked below, a separate guide to the area of Circumstances.  Here, therefore, we'll just summarise the area briefly.
The usual way in which Circumstances are encoded in the language is via a prepositional phrase or another kind of adverbial (including simple adverbs).
Circumstances set the process in a context.  For example:

How long, far, many times?
for a year
to the end of the road
in two kilometres
Where and when?
in the bathroom
before dinner
at 6 o'clock
If what?
if it rained
without good luck
in case she called
to get better
since that was how it was
so it would be easier
With whom?
with his sister
without a friend
What about?
about the war
on the meaning of life
concerning the letter
As what?
as the captain
in the role of a colleague
being a friend
by bus
by post
What with?
with a hammer
using a chair
with my help
What like?
like a maniac
as if he were angry
as quick as a flash
According to whom?
for John
according to her
to me


Implications for learners and learning

One of the problems with using a traditional grammar in classrooms is that the learners have no way of knowing what sorts of verbs go with which sorts of participants.  You may explain to learners, for example, that a verb such as arrive is intransitive and one like tell is transitive but that does not help people to form acceptable sentences in terms of the communication of ideas.
Analysing experiential meanings in terms of the type of verbal process allows a bit more precision because we can then see what sorts of participants are involved.
For example:

  1. Material processes can have a simple Actor and neither Goal nor Range (i.e., they are functioning intransitively) and form an easily learned and duplicated set of simple sentences which even beginner learners can handle with confidence.
    They can have Goals and Goals can be raised to the Subject position with the Actor dispensed with.  In other words, a Passive can be formed with a Goal but with a Range as a participant, the passive is far less likely and even wrong.  Compare, for example:
        The window was broken by the stone
    in which we have the Goal raised to Subject position
    with the very doubtful:
        ?The wall was climbed by Mary
    A traditional grammar which sees The wall as the object of the verb and does not distinguish between Range and Goal is unable to distinguish between these events.
  2. Behavioural processes usually have animate Actors.  If they are used with inanimate Actors, the meaning is frequently metaphorical so we may have, e.g.:
        The engine coughed and spluttered
    Seeing the verb as behavioural allows the learner to unpack the meaning of this kind of sentence.
  3. Projecting processes, whether Mental or Verbal also usually take animate, sentient Actors in Sayers and Sensers and these are almost invariably human.  Knowing this simple fact allows learners to avoid simple errors and also allows them to unpack the meaning of
        The sign told us to keep out
    which might otherwise be obscure.
  4. The distinction between Existential and Relational processes also helps learners to distinguish between the identified and the identifier and that enhances comprehension.

The choice of Participants is determined by Register in many cases so, for example, learners who need to operate with technical or scientific texts can be trained to use the appropriate actors in material processes, avoiding the human and selecting ideas, phenomena and concepts to form appropriate language.

Recognising that words have functions and class is a first step in recognising that how we teach grammar must take into account meaning as well as the formal characteristics of items in the language.
This does not mean abandoning tradition concepts but it does mean refining them in terms of meaning.
The ability to identify, describe and categorise requires the competent use of relational process verbs and the ability to handle them can be taught providing the analysis of a model text focuses on the ways the processes are realised.

When it comes to genres such as Narrative and Recount, learners need to be able to handle:

All genres will have their particular characteristics in terms of the appropriate circumstances to select.  Recounts need to set events in place and time, procedures need to include the means of doing something, discussions and expositions often need circumstances relating to cause and effect and conditionality and so on.  For a little more, see the guide to Circumstances.

The overall take-away point of this kind of functional analysis is that it enables teachers to help learners build a vocabulary and set of structural tools which are relevant to their needs and their learning aims.

Related guides
an introduction to functional grammar a short overview to set things in some context
verbal processes for more detail
circumstances for a guide to this important area of experiential meaning
genre for some consideration of how particular forms of circumstances will appear in text types

Butt, D, Fahey, R, Feez, S, Spinks, S and Yallop, C, 2001, Using Functional Grammar: an explorer's guide. Sydney: NCELTR
Halliday, M, 1994, An introduction to functional grammar: 2nd edition. London: Edward Arnold
Lock, G, 1996, Functional English Grammar: An introduction for second language teachers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press