What is Systemic Functional Grammar? (Part 1)

Systemic Functional Grammar (Part 2 – The Interpersonal Metafunction)Several people I know have expressed an interest in finding out more about Systemic Functional Linguistics. Some have attempted to read Michael Halliday’s Introduction to Functional Grammar and have ‘feedbacked’ to me about it being dense and not the most accessible…So here is a summary of my research on the subject.

This post is based on research from the following books

An Introduction to Functional Grammar

The Functional Analysis of English

Using Functional Grammar: An Explorer’s Guide

I’ve found it almost impossible to do this in one blog, so I’ll be dividing my summary into 5 parts. This first part is mainly an introduction into the subject, and in Part 2, I will look at the Interpersonal Metafunction, in Part 3, the Experiential Metafunction, and in Part 4, the Textual Metafunction. The final part would also contain some applications of SFG to EFL teaching (although I’ll try to pepper the next three partts with as many EFL perspectives as possible) and some of my conclusions.

I hope I will be able to do SFG some justice with my limited knowledge and research. If you are an EFG expert, feel free to correct me or add on to what I have written. If you are an EFL professional, I’d very much appreciate it if you feel free to share your thoughts on how you use or could use SFG in your teaching.

1.    What is Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG)?

Language is used to express meanings and perform various functions in different contexts and situations of our daily lives. If grammar is ‘the way in which a language is organised’ (Butt et al, 2000), SFG attempts to explain and describe the organisation of the ‘meaning-making resources’ (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004) we use to achieve such goals. Every linguistic choice we make is systematic, and the reason we say something in a certain way is the result of a choice, albeit unconscious. Such choices are made from a set of systems containing structures, allowing us unlimited ways of creating meaning (Bloor
and Bloor, 2004), while our experiences of the world, of text types and socially- and culturally-bounded situations, help build up our schemata of these systems. Van Djik’s (1977, in Brown and Yule 1983) Assumed Normality of the World could serve to explain how these experiences enable us to distinguish between different genres of texts (spoken or written) by their patterns of linguistic choices, and to notice when choices are inappropriate. SFG is, thus, a study of meaning construction through systems of lexicogrammatical choices that serve functions within social and cultural contexts.

To understand SFG, it is important to look at other theories of language and how they compare, after which I will briefly outline Halliday’s three basic metafunctions and how the systems of choices within each component are realised in the lexico-grammatical structures within clauses and how this could benefit teachers and students of English as a
Foreign Language. Due to space constraints, I will not be looking at theories on group- and clause-complexing, cohesion, grammatical metaphors, appraisals, or theories on genre and register.

2.       Views on Language and Language Acquisition

Often referred to as the father of modern linguistics, De Saussure (1916, in Coffin et al, 2004)  made a distinction between  paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations in
language, which closely corresponds to Halliday’s system and structure. The
paradigmatic phenomenon is one of choice.
For example, in my last sentence, I chose to make it declarative instead of interrogative, and positive instead of negative. The syntagmatic dimension refers to prescribed sequences in which elements (phonemes, morphemes, words, groups) are combined e.g. Subject^Finite^Predicator (^ means ‘followed by’). In SFG, this chain of elements is a result of paradigmatic choice (Bloor and Bloor, 2004), structures being realisations of systems.

Alongside paradigmatic and syntagmatic distinctions, De Saussure distinguished between two aspects of language: langue, the language system, and parole, the use of this system (ibid). Chomsky later developed this view, focusing on the language system (competence) and not the use of language (performance), and strived for a ‘Minimalist Programme’ in order to formulate a limited set of principles, i.e. transformational-generative rules, which govern the formation of an unlimited number of grammatically correct sentences (ibid). Although he does not deny that meaning in language is a social phenomenon, Chomsky regards grammar as autonomous from meaning. He further asserts that such transformative-generative capacity is ‘hard-wired’ into the human brian, thus explaining the universal phenomenon of language acquisition and the biological determination of how we use language (ibid). Chomsky was interested in a model of such mental grammars,
where the basic use of language is for thought and not communication (Thompson, 2004).

Halliday, conversely, took Malinowski’s view that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, i.e. by explaining natural adult language and language acquisition in terms of social functions, one can understand the evolutionary origins of language (Halliday, 1976). Like Malinowski and Firth, Halliday saw language acquisition as an interplay between nature and nurture (Bloor and Bloor, 2004), suggesting that the language acquisition process of a child and the linguistic structures he/she masters reflect the functions required to serve his/her life. Learning a language was thus ‘learning how to mean’ (Halliday, 1975). Unlike Chomsky, Halliday did not believe in a finite system of rules, and preferred a descriptive approach of examining sentences as being appropriate or inappropriate to the prescriptive approach of
labelling them ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ (Eggins, 2004). In the tradition of Malinowski, Whorf and Firth, he believed language is moulded by culture, and the world is seen through the language we speak (Kress, 1976). Meanings are determined by the texts’ relationship with the context of culture (genre) and the context of situation (register) (Eggins, 2004), and the study of sentences should, therefore, be inseparable from its social, cultural and
situational contexts, and not done in isolation. Hence, the use of authentic texts and corpus data has become the norm in the study of Systemic Functional Linguistics. SFG has been called an ‘extravagant’ grammar (Bloor and Bloor, 2004) as it is a huge area that attempts a multi-dimensional description of how language is organised, and its linguistic viewpoints are best seen through the main issues underlying Halliday’s three metafunctions of language.


Bloor, T., and M. Bloor. (2004) The Functional Analysis of English: A Hallidayan Approach, (2nd Edition), London: Arnold

Brown, P., and S. Levinson. (1987) Politeness: some universals in language use, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Butt, D., R. Fahey, S. Feez, S. Spinks, C. Yallop. (2000) Using Functional Grammar: An Explorer’s Guide, (2nd Edition), Sydney: Macquarie University.

Coffin, C. (ed.) (2006) English Grammar in Context Book 3: Getting Practical – Evaluating everyday texts (2nd Edition), Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Eggins, S. (2004) An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics (2nd Edition),
London, New York: Continuum.

Halliday, M. (1975) Learning How to Mean: Explorations in the Development of Language, London: Edward Arnold.

Halliday, M. (1976) ‘The form of a functional grammar’, in Kress, G. (ed.):7-25.

Halliday, M., and C. Matthiessen. (2004) An Introduction to Functional Grammar (3rd
Edition), London: Arnold.

Kress, G. (ed.) (1976) Halliday: System and Function in Language, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, G. (2004) Introducting Functional Grammar (2nd Edition), London: Hodder Education


Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

21 thoughts on “What is Systemic Functional Grammar? (Part 1)”

  1. Fascinating and exciting stuff. Having this sort of summary and applicable references in one place creates a valuable resource, thanks! As someone very new to the world of EFL teaching, I find the whole concept of SFL/SFG, and a preference for “…a descriptive approach of examining sentences as being appropriate or inappropriate to the prescriptive approach of labelling them ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’…”, liberating.

  2. thank you for such an informative article. In my MA I used the Transitivity approach in the data analysis; now in my PhD research I will use the SFG approach.

  3. hello, thanx for sharing ur knowledge, I have a question regarding SFL, in Halliday 1994 page 313 and in Halliday and Matthiessen 2004 page 561 there are tables that refer to comparative references. in both tables “&c.” has been repeated in some cells but there is no explanation about it. do you know what does &c. refer to? I really appreciate your answer because my analysis is totally stuck into this.

  4. This is really helpful for me. It simplifies SFG for someone who is studying it newly. It’s comparison with other theories also helps one to understand the approach, how it relates to and differs from others.

  5. I felt relieved and contentd while reading your write up on S F G. Am a student of English language in Nigeria and working seriously to know more, which gave rise to be seeking for knowledge across the globe on my area of specialization. I wil love to have you the more to better my carrier. Thank you so much.

  6. I really appreciated this because i am a student from University of Maiduguri, Nigeria. And SFG is the topic given to me for my presentation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s