Systemic Functional Grammar (Part 2 – The Interpersonal Metafunction)

In my last post, we looked at an overview of what Systemic Functional Grammar is. Halliday divides the way we use language into different metafunctions. This post will explore the Interpersonal Metafunction, and in Part 3, we shall look at the Experiential Metafunction, and in Part 4, we will be examining the Textual Metafunctions and I will also be suggesting some ideas as to how we could apply SFG to our language classrooms.

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

We use language to enact our personal and social relationships (the interpersonal metafunction), to construe our experience of the world and our consciousness (the experiential metafunction), and to organise discourse and create continuity and flow in
our texts (the textual metafunction) (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004).

Although the term ‘function’ was used in Halliday’s earlier work (1976) and other books on SFG (Butt et al, 2000), the term ‘metafunction’ is now preferred, to avoid potential confusion with ‘communicative functions’ in relation to Searle’s (1965) Speech Acts, and grammatical functions of words or groups (Bloor and Bloor, 2004). Each metafunction has its own systems of choices, each choice resulting in a structure. However, realisations of these 3 metafunctions occur simultaneously, allowing language to create different meanings at the same time (Eggins, 2004).

          I  must      finish      this blogpost
   Subject  Finite Predicator Complement
InterpersonalMetafunction   Mood   Residue
 ExperientialMetafunction   Actor  Process:material Goal
 Textual Metafunction   Theme                   Rheme
  Given                   …………………..  New

The Interpersonal Metafunction

Language involves interactions where we initiate or respond to the act of giving or demanding for goods-and-services or information. Thus, Halliday and Mathiessen (2004) regard this function as one of exchange. The principle grammatical system here is the MOOD network, within which is a choice between imperative and indicative. If indicative is chosen, there is a choice between declarative and interrogative. These choices are
realised by manipulating the Mood element.

1. Mood

The Mood carries the interpersonal functions of the clause and consists of Subject+Finite. The Subject is realised by a nominal group that the speaker gives responsibility to for the validity of the clause (ibid), while the Finite is realised by the first of the verbal group. The rest of the verbal group is the Predicator, which forms part of the Residue. A clause thus
consists of Mood+Residue. The Mood element can be identified in Mood tags (pedagogically, question tags).

Josh can speak English.
Subject Finite Predicator Complement
Mood Residue
Josh can speak English, can’t he?
Subject Finite Predicator Complement Finite Subject
 Mood    Residue   Mood Tag

and is also used in short answers, the Finite being the core that is bandied about in exchanges because it carries the validity of the proposition (Thompson, 2004).

Notice how the finite is used to argue the validity of the proposition in this childish exchange:

A:      You                                didn’t                           read                                my blogpost!





    Mood    Residue

B:            Yes,                                   I                                       did.

Mood Adjunct Subject Finite

A:          No,                                 you                               didn’t!

Mood Adjunct Subject Finite

B:              Did!


A:              Didn’t!



The giving of goods-and-services is labelled an offer, usually realised by Finite^Subject signalling an interrogative, but can also be non-linguistic (I present you biscuits). A command demanding goods-and-services takes the imperative, where the Mood is non-existent, although the assumed Subject ‘you’ appears in a marked imperative (see below).  Goods-and-services are tangible commodities or activities, and responses to proposals (offers and commands) can be non-linguistic and limited to either accepting or
refusing.  Language merely facilitates the success of the exchange.

An offer realised as an interrogative

Would you like some biscuits?
Finite Subject Predicator Complement
Mood Residue

 A command realised as an unmarked imperative

    Pass the biscuit.
No Subject No Finite Predicator Complement
No Mood Residue

A command realised as a marked imperative

You,   pass the biscuit!
 Subject No Finite Predicator Complement
No Mood Residue

 A statement realised as a declarative

I           made   those biscuits.
Subject ‘past’Finite ‘make’Predicator Complement
         Mood            Residue

A question realised as an interrogative

Did you make those biscuits?
Finite Subject Predicator Complement
Mood Residue

The exchange of information involves an intangible, verbal commodity and language is the end in itself. The giving of information often takes the form of a statement, a declarative denoted by Subject^Finite. The demanding of information is expressed by a question realised by an interrogative. Statements and questions (propositions) can be argued with, denied, adjusted, etc., and the response is varied and has to be linguistic, unlike proposals. The position and existence of both Subject and Finite therefore indicates whether a clause is declarative (statement), interrogative (question, offer) or imperative (command) (see above examples with ‘biscuit’).

However, declaratives andinterrogatives could also be polite requests for goods-and-services since basic commands might be considered Face Threatening Acts, and thus highly impolite (Brown and Levinson, 1987). Modals are also often used to disguise demanding proposals or soften propositions (Bloor and Bloor, 2004), but it is important that EFL students initially learn the most straightforward grammatical realisations of the
interpersonal metafunction, before shifting towards increasing interpersonal distance through less straightforward structures (Butt et al, 2000).

In ‘I made those biscuits’, the Finite appears to be missing, but is in fact fused with the Predicator ‘make’ (made = Finite: ‘did’ + ‘Predicator: ‘make’). This could help EFL beginners understand why the so-called ‘dummy’ auxiliary ‘do/does’ magically appears in some interrogatives and negatives, while not in others that contain a separate Finite. Through the Finite, the speaker can signal the primary tense, polarity (positive or negative) and modality (the extent of validity) of the clause, seen from his/her standpoint. Teachers can help students anchor such viewpoints within the Mood.

Included in the Mood is the word ‘not’, attached to the Finite to signal negative polarity. However, according to Halliday and Matthiessen (2004), this is not always the case. Consider the two possible meanings in ‘You may not go to the party.’

If we take that sentence to mean ‘you are not allowed to go’, ‘not’ would be included as part of Mood. In the second possible meaning ‘you are allowed not to go’, ‘not’ is part of the Residue. This is a useful distinction, but interestingly, if we followed the above logic, then the ‘not’ in ‘you must not go’ ought to belong to the Residue. Halliday (ibid)
lists the above ‘not’ as part of the Finite because of the existence of the contraction ‘mustn’t’. Arguably, recognising ‘not’ as the Residue in this case might be helpful to EFL students, who are often confounded with the difference between ‘You don’t have to go’ (‘not’ in Mood, therefore ‘don’t’ negates the validity of the Residue ‘have to go’)
and ‘You mustn’t go’ (in my opinion, the Finite ‘must’ validating the Residue ‘not go’).

2.    Modality

With propositions, the positive and negative poles in the Mood assert or deny what is stated in the Residue, e.g. ‘It is,’ or ‘It isn’t’. In between these certainties are degrees of probability and usuality signalled by modalization (ibid).
Modalization is expressed through the Finite showing epistemic modality (O’Halloran, 2006) e.g. ‘It might be’, or through a Modal Adjunct like ‘It probably/usually is’. Modal adjuncts are included in the Mood, and can be categorised into

(i) Mood adjuncts, e.g. ‘probably’, which occur close to the finite,

(ii) Comment adjuncts, e.g. ‘unfortunately’, which occur at any
boundary between information units.

With proposals, the positive and negative poles prescribe or proscribe e.g. ‘Do,’ or ‘Don’t’, and modulation (ibid) happens in between, showing degrees of obligation e.g. ‘You should’ for commands, and degrees of inclination e.g. ‘I should’ for offers. We can use Finites to show deontic modality (O’Halloran, 2006), or expansions of the Predicator by passive verbs like ‘I’m supposed to’, or adjectives ‘I’m anxious to’. As the assumed Subject in proposals is ‘you’, when modulated clauses implicate a third person, e.g. ‘He should know’, the proposal becomes a proposition (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004). The distinction between proposition and proposal becomes blurred and the distinction between modalization and modulation becomes context-dependent.

Bibliography : See SFG (Part 1)


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.

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