Systemic-Functional Grammar

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News is a special approach to report or comment the latest and important facts. Its purpose is to influence the Mass Public Opinion. The definition of the news demonstrates that news is the fact, different from the fabrication of literature. Besides the general characteristics of news, broadcasting news has its own distinct features. This paper analyzes the English broadcasting news from the choice of the process types and the transitivity of the clause by using the transitivity theory for the purpose of discovering the distribution law of the process types of the English broadcasting news text and its genre characteristics.


In the 1960s, Halliday, the Professor of linguistics, developed a systematic and comprehensive theory of language, called “Systemic-Functional Grammar (SFG)”, and published his book An Introduction to Functional Grammar in 1985 and 1994. Many scholars also published a number of books and papers on systemic grammar. The research of Systemic Functional Grammar began in 1970s and became popular in the late 1980s.

In Halliday's book An Introduction to Functional Grammar, he says “the theory on which this description is based, systemic theory follows in the European functional tradition. It is largely based on Firth's system-structure theory, but derives more abstract principles from Hjelmslev and owes many ideas to Prague School. The organizing concept is that of the “system”, which is used essentially in Firth's sense of a functional Paradigm but developed into the formal construct of a ‘system network'.” (Halliday, 2000:52)

SFG has two components: systemic grammar and functional grammar. In Hu Zhuanglin's book Linguistics. A course Book, he holds that “Systemic grammar aims to explain the internal relations in language as a system network, or meaning potential. And this network consists of subsystem from which language users make choices. Functional grammar aims to reveal that language is a means of social interaction, based on the position that language system and the forms that make it up are inescapably determined by the uses or functions which they serve.” (Hu Zhuanglin 2001:409)

“In a functional grammar, on the other hand, the direction is reversed. A language is interpreted as a System of meanings can be realized.” Halliday(1985) “Functional Grammar aims to reveal that language is a mean of social interaction, based on the position that language system and the forms that make it up are inescapably determined by the uses or functions which they serve.” Hu Zhuanglin(2001) The functions of language are the most important things in Functional Grammar.

As the tool of human being's communication, language possesses many different kinds of functions. Halliday divided the functions of language into three types. They are ideational metafunction, interpersonal metafunction, and textual metafunction. In this paper, the emphasis is on ideational metafunction.

The ideational metafunction is to organize the speaker or writer's experience of the real or imaginary world. It includes experiential function and logical function. The meaning of experiential function is that language expresses people's experiences in external world (things, events qualities, etc) and internal world (thoughts, beliefs, feelings, etc). What logical function refers to is that language expresses the logical relationship between two or more than two meaning units.

Experiential function is chiefly embodied by transitivity and voice. “… Parallel with its evolution in the function of mood, expressing the active, interpersonal aspect of meaning, the clause evolved simultaneously in another grammatical function expressing the reflective, experiential aspect of meaning. This later is the system of transitivity. Transitivity specifies the different types of process that are recognized in the language, and the structures by which they are expressed.” (Halliday,1985) Transitivity is a semantic system. Its purpose is to divide something around people into several processes involving participants and circumstantial elements. Halliday contents that transitivity includes six processes: (a) Material process. (b) Mental process. (c) Relational process. (d) Behavioral process. (e) Verbal process. (f) Existential process.

(a) Material Process: process of doing

Material process is a process of doing. The process usually consists of verb, actor (logical subject) and goal (noun or pronoun). Material Processes express the notion that some entity ‘does' something- which may be done ‘to' some other entity (Halliday, 1985) For example,

A fungus


the coffee plant leaves




(b) Mental Process: process of thinking

Mental process is a process of thinking involving perception (see, look), reaction (like, fear) and cognition (knowing, believing, and understanding) and so on. Mental process has two participants: sensor and phenomenon. Sensor refers to the person who perceives and phenomenon is the something that is perceived by the sensor. Phenomenon includes concrete person or objects, abstract things, happened events and so on. For example,



the whole room.




(c) Relational Process: process of being

Relational process is a process of being. Actually, relational process is a very complex type of process, which covers the many different ways that ‘being' is expressed (Eggins 1994). However, in this analysis, we only refer two simple types, they are attributive process and identifying process. In the attributive process, the participants are attribute and carrier. For example,

Her face


a bloated spotty mask.




In the identifying process, the participants are identified and identifier.

This car






(d) Behavioral Process: process of behaving

Behavioral process is a process of behaving, such as breathe, dream, smile, laugh, cry, and cough. The basic components of the process are “behaver” and “process”. This point is similar to the mental process, but different from the material process. Bloor and Bloor (1995) described behavioral process as the grey area between Material and Mental processes.







(e) Verbal Process: process of saying

Verbal process is a process of saying. “Saying” has to be interpreted in a rather broad sense; it covers any kind of symbolic exchange of meaning. The verbal words are “tell, say, talk, describe, boast, praise”. The verbalization itself is called the verbiage.

The informants


the police






(f) Existential Process: process of existing

Existential process is a process of existing. In every existential process, it must have an “Existent”. “There” has no representational function.

There are

ten of us

in the party.




Generally speaking, most of the processes representing descriptive meaning are the relational, existential process and the mental processes. However, most of the processes representing narrative meaning are material processes.

“Voice is the ways in which a language expresses the relationship between a verb and the noun phrases which are associated with it. Two sentences can differ in voice and yet have the same basic meaning. However, there may be a change in emphasis and one type of sentence may be more appropriate.” (Jack C.Richards, John Platt and Heidi Platt, 2000) It is represented commonly by active voice and passive voice. In order to make the structure of the text reasonable and the context consistent, speakers or writers need to do an appropriate choice to the voice.

Approach to Analyze the Text

According to Huang Guowen, SFG is more suitable for analyzing a text. The reasons for it lie below. First, SFG is a text grammar, which means this kind of grammar can describe how the use of language. In this way, the meaning of the text can be understood clearly. Second, in SFG, functions of language are divided into three metafunction. The description of the systemic network of the three metafunction is quite clear. Thus, the application of the framework of SFG to analyze a text can avoid evaluating at will.

Choice of Text

The text chosen for analysis is from BBC Broadcasting news on its website on Thursday, 2 July, 2009. This news report can be heard in the air and its transcription is on BBC website after the reporter made an interview with Alain Bouillard, of France's BEA accident investigation agency. This news is written in English originally, so when I picked it up, I made no translation. What's more, this piece of news is completely authentic in that it is not edited or used for the purpose of language teaching.

Context of Situation

Definition of context: It is immediate environment of language activity, which is time, place, talking content, the relation among people related to transfer communicational meanings. Halliday and Hasan (1985) divided context of situation into three parts: field, tenor and mode.

(a) Field refers to what is being talked about, what is it that the participants are engaged in, in which the language s as some essential components. This chosen news report is talking about the result of investigation of the France air crash. Most of the contents are from an officer, in this way, the media wants to give the public an authoritative explanation of the investigation process.

(b) Tenor refers to the people involved in the communication and the relationship between them. 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 refer to. Here the participants are the news writers or editors and the listeners of the radio or visitors or ‘readers' of the websites.

(c) Mode refers to how the language is functioning in the interaction, e.g. whether it is written or spoken. As for the chosen news report, its main purpose is to read to the listeners. Therefore, the language usage is rather simple and oral, which is to reduce the burden of listeners.


Air France jet 'broke on impact'

Brazilian military personnel retrieve part of the Air France plane from the Atlantic Ocean (08 June 2009)

Search teams recovered 51 bodies from the crash area

①French investigators trying to find out why an Air France plane crashed in the Atlantic say they believe it broke up on contact with water, not in the air.

②They also found that the plane's speed sensors had been "a factor but not the cause" of the crash.

③All 228 people on the plane were killed when it plunged into the ocean en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on 1 June.

④Teams looking for the plane's flight data recorders will continue operations for another 10 days.

⑤Alain Bouillard, of France's BEA accident investigation agency, said the crash had been an extremely difficult one to understand.

⑥"Between the surface of the water and 35,000ft [10,700m], we don't know what happened," Mr Bouillard said.

⑦"In the absence of the flight recorders, it is extremely difficult to draw conclusions."

Table 2

Type of Transitivity





















In the news above, the most processes are verbal and material process, and with only one relational process and zero existential, behavior and mental process. Generally speaking, a certain text usually contains many different kinds of transitivity process, especially material process. Hu Zhuanglin contents that people living in a material world, ‘do'or'make' is the primary and basis, only with this can human beings hold other physiological feature to proceed other process. In this piece of news, material process takes up 43%, which is quite high in total. According to Halliday, What experiential function is that language expresses people's experiences in external world (things, events qualities, etc) and internal world (thoughts, beliefs, feelings, etc). News is the record of the fact, is the response to the fact. News without fact is not news, news without fact or truth cannot be good news. The theory of the news writing is objectively reporting and speaking with the fact. In this news, material process takes up such a high proportion, which is just right to obey the rules that news is due to truth or fact. However, one certain process occurs more frequently is one of the factors to form the feature of a text. Halliday classes the Process Material, Mental and Relational as major process and the others as minor. The verbal process that originally belongs to the less important process in this news takes up 43%, which is the highest of all. Verbal process is a process of saying; the saying is to exchange information. Broadcasting news as a tool of media has a responsibility to transmit information to the public. It is not difficult to find out that the transitivity process of this piece of news lays particular stress on verbal process.

According to other statistics I find out in another 10 pieces of BBC news show that verbal process occurs quite high in broadcasting texts. In the total 172 sentences, there are 56 verbal process, occupying 32%, only a little lower than material process. In some certain broadcasting news (such as above), verbal process equals even overruns material process. To some extent, the distribution of transitivity of discourse has a regular discipline. What's more, the discipline has something to do with the genre of the discourse.

Now we will have a further study of the news above. There are seven sentences in the news, and they are divided into separated process, each sentence and its belonging process is in the tables below.

① Verbal Process

French investigators trying to find out why an Air France plane crashed in the Atlantic


they believe it broke up on contact with water, not in the air




②Material process


also found

that the plane's speed sensors had been "a factor but not the cause" of the crash.




③Material Process

All 228 people on the plane

were killed

when it plunged into the ocean en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris on 1 June




④ (Material Process)

Teams looking for the plane's flight data recorders

will continue


for another 10 days





⑤ (Verbal Process)

Alain Bouillard, of France's BEA accident investigation agency


the crash had been an extremely difficult one to understand.




⑥ (Verbal Process)

“Between the surface of the water and 35,000ft [10,700m], we don't know what happened”

Mr. Bouillard





⑦ (Relational Process)

In the absence of the flight recorders



extremely difficult to draw conclusions





In the news above, there are four sentences involved in verbal process. The first one as a headline lays essential place in the whole passage. Headline is a conclusion and extract of the main event. In a news report, choosing the words from an authority that responsible for the investigation of the accident is absolutely the best choice. In fact, so did the writer do. Then, to report the process of the investigation, the writer chose to use material process in that Material Process is to narrate the real world. In the second and the forth Material Process sentences, the French investigators (referred to ‘They ' and ‘the team' in the news) are main participants. They found, they continue operations, the using the investigators to be the main participants in the continuous two material process , on one hand can make sure of the continuity of the news report, on the other hand, this news report is mainly to report the situations and opinions from investigators. In this way, put the words from the investigators in an essential place can illustrate the most important content of the news in front of the listeners, which is the main responsibility of a successful news report. In the second material process, the writer chose the passive voice to emphasize the victims of this accident. In this material process, these 228 people on the plane had no hope to be survived. When listening to here, we have realized something about the result of the rescue activity. Then the Material Process is finished, and led to Verbal Process. In the following 2 Verbal Materials, the contents of the speech are all from Mr. Bouillard, who is from France's BEA accident investigation agency. By his words, the writer told the readers that the reason for the airplane accident was still unsolved and it could be a difficult task to find out clearly. The writer chose to quote the words from the investigation agency is to make sure the reliability and the depth of the news report. What's more, it also can tell readers the resource of the news report, which is from the authority.

Mr Bouillard, he is an officer from BEA accident investigation agency, is the direct participant of the whole survey, in that way, he could hold one-hand results of the whole search. In most cases, when an accident happens or a research being preceded, a news reporter may not be involved directly or witness at spot. Most of the report resources are due to interview afterwards. If we can contact the direct participants or the direct researchers in a research such as in this case, it will make a more vivid atmosphere for listeners or readers, and adding the reliability as well. News reports usually get the aid from the participants, the witness of the event or the people from authorities to give a hint or proclaim the resource of the news. Nevertheless, we could also see that in a news report there exists report from a reporter, which in another way explains the reason why there are more verbal processes in a news report.

We can have a further look of the verbal material 1,5,7. In these three verbal material, the writer chose say, said, said, all of which are variations from say. They are very simple and oral. This is because in a broadcasting news report, the main method is to make audience listen. Broadcasting should transmit the most information in a limited period of time, so that the words chosen from broadcasting news report should be simple and near to daily life, avoiding adding burden to listeners. In fact, in this broadcasting news report, the sentence structure used are quite simple, the words chosen are rather succinct, and without many complex clauses. When it comes to the tenses used in this news report, we can find out there are not any complex tenses, just simple past and simple in turn.

In the whole news report, the material process states the main fact, and the verbal process proclaims the resource of the news, and to move forward to supply and illustrate the main event. In this news report, the material process and the verbal process occur in turn, and hold different duties each other. The structure of this news report makes it active and filled with variations. The words from the authority from different ways can explain the reason why they still cannot find out the reason for the airplane accident immediately. In a word, it is a successful news report to tell audience the process of the investigation of the air crush.


In this paper, Halliday's transitivity theory and the types of transitivity have been used to analyze a piece of news report from BBC. It is found that there is a distribution law of the process types in the English broadcasting news text; Verbal Process is one of the features that form the news text. It is also illustrated that broadcasting news has its own characteristics; such as the tendency to be oral, most of sentences are short, the roughly narration that can be easy to read aloud, etc. This analysis proves that the application of functional grammar in discourse analysis is practical and operable. By the transitivity theory to analysis a discourse, it can help to seize the essence and features of a text. In addition, it can also promote to understand the connotation of a discourse.


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Eggins, S. 1994. An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics. London: Pinter Publishers

Halliday, M.A.K. and R. Hasan. 1976. Cohesion in English. London: Longman.

Halliday M.A.K. 1985. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Edward Arnold.

Halliday,M.K.A. 2000 An Introduction to Functional Grammar, Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press.

Hu Zhuanglin 2001 Linguistics, A course Book Beijing: Beijing University

Huang Guowen 2002 Discourse and Language Functions Beijing: FLTRP

Thompson, G. 1996. Introducing Functional Grammar. London: Arnold