Systemic Functional Grammar (Part 3 – The Experiential Metafunction)

This is the third part of a series summarising the basic concepts of Systemic Functional Grammar. The first post was a overview of SFG, the second post looked at the Interpersonal Metafunction, this post will be looking at the Experiential Metafunction.

In my fourth and final post, I will be examining the Textual Metafunction and considering how SFG applies to our language classroom.

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

If the Interpersonal Metafunction showed the point of view of the speaker at the moment of speaking through the Mood element, one could say that the Residue carried the content of that message. And the content, in Hallidayan linguistics is categorised by different processes defined by the main verb of the clause. Here’s the 2nd Metafunction.

The Experiential Metafunction

Halliday (1976) originally purported that the experiential metafunction was one of the three main metafunctions. He later includes it within the ideational metafunction (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004), alongside the logical metafunction of relationships between clauses and clause-complexing. Thompson (2004), however, sees the latter as a fourth metafunction. As clause-complexing is beyond my scope, the focus will be on the experiential metafunction.

Also called Clause as Representation, the clause represents the ‘content’ of our experiences, answering the question ‘Who does what to whom’. This metafunction uses the grammatical system of transitivity. Although sharing the traditional view of transitivity that the focus is on the verb group (the Process), SFG refers to the system as describing the whole clause (Thompson, 2004) and does not use the labels ‘subject’, ‘verb’ and ‘object’, seeing that ‘verb’ is a word class, while ‘Subject’ is a functional term. Instead, different functional labels are given to Participants (realised by nominal groups), Processes (realised by verbal groups) and Circumstances (realised by prepositional phrases or adverbials signifying time, place or manner) of each process type.

Material process clauses refer to experiences of the external world and describe processes of doing and happening, answering the question ‘What did he/she do?’ or ‘What happened?’ (Butt et al, 2000). The distinction between participant types (Beneficiary, Goal, etc.) can alleviate students’ confusion as to which can be turned into a prepositional phrase and shifted to the end to be highlighted as newsworthy. Also, in the experiential metafunction, functional terms define the roles the Participants play in the Process, and Goals or Beneficiaries can take Subject position.

Material Process

Chia bought some curry yesterday.
Actor Process: material Goal circumstance
Nominal group Verbal group Nominal group Adverbial group

Material process with Beneficiary

Chia bought Paul some curry yesterday.
Actor Process: material Beneficiary Goal circumstance
Nominal group Verbal group Nominal Group Nominal group Adverbial group

Material process with Beneficiary shifted to the end

Chia bought some curry for Paul yesterday.
Actor Process: material Goal Beneficiary circumstance
Nominal group Verbal group Nominal group Nominal Group Adverbial group

Agentless passive structure with Beneficiary as Subject

Paul was        bought some curry.
Beneficiary Process: material Goal
Subject Finite Predicator Nominal group

Agentless passive structure with Goal as Subject

Some curry was         bought for Charles.
Goal Process: material Beneficiary
Subject Finite Predicator Nominal group

Relational process types serve to identify and characterize, and are further subdivided into processes of ‘being’ (intensive or circumstantial) and ‘having’ (possessive). (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004).  Attribution specifies the class the Carrier belongs to, while identification narrows the class down to one.

Relational Process of intensive attribution

Emma is pretty.
Carrier Process: Relational: intensive atrribution Attribute
Nominal group Verbal group Nominal group with adjective as Head.

Relational Process of intensive identification with Value as Subject

Emma is the prettiest.
Value Process: Relational: intensive identification Token

Relational Process of intensive identification with Token as Subject

Emma is the leader.
Token Process: Relational: intensive identification Value

In ‘Emma is the prettiest one’, ‘Emma’ is the Value identified by the Token ‘the prettiest one’, since Emma is represented by the prettiest one. However, in ‘Emma is the leader’, ‘Emma’ represents the leader and is now the ‘Token’, identified by ‘the leader’ as the Value. Because of this structural distinction, we cannot combine the two and say, ‘Emma is the prettiest one and the leader’. (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004)

Below, are more examples of attribution and identification within other types of relational processes.

Relational Process of possessive attribution

Emma has a Wii console .
Carrier Process: Relational: possessive attribution Attribute

Relational Process of possessive identification

That Wii console is Emma’s.
Token/Possessed Process: Relational: possessive identification Value/Possessor

Relational Process of circumstantial attribution

The deadline is on Tuesday.
Carrier Process: Relational: circumstantial attribution Attribute

Relational Process of circumstantial identification

Tuesday is the deadline for the blogpost.
Token Process: Relational: circumstantial identification Value

Serving to construe processes of sensing, happenings within our consciousness, mental processes are subdivided into processes of emotion, perception, cognition, and desideration (ibid).

Mental process of emotion with nominal group as Phenomenon

David liked the headphones.
Sensor Process: Mental: Emotion Phenomenon

Mental process of perception with embedded clause as Phenomenon

David saw what happened.
Sensor Process: Mental: Perception Phenomenon

Mental process of cognition with projected clause

David knew he was getting headphones for Christmas.
Sensor Process: Mental: Cognition Projected Clause

Mental process of cognition with projected clause

David hoped that he would get headphones for Christmas.
Sensor Process: Mental: Desideration Projected clause 

Notice that in mental processes of emotion and perception, what is loved or hated, seen or heard, is labelled Phenomenon, even when the fact is realised as an embedded clause. However, mental processes of cognition and desideration often bring wishes and ideas into existence by projecting a separate clause (Thompson, 2004).

Pairs such as ‘like/please’, which show a different direction in Sensor-Phenomenon relationships, are often unaccounted for in traditional grammar, but commonly occur in cognitive and emotive mental processes (ibid).

David liked the headphones.
Sensor Process: Mental: Emotive Phenomenon
The headphones pleased David
Phenomenon Process: Mental: Emotive Sensor 

In ‘David liked the headphones’, ‘David’ is the Sensor of this emotive mental process which is denoted by the verb ‘liked’. ‘The headphones’ is the Phenomenon which summarises what is thought, perceived, or liked/disliked. Contrast that with ‘The headphones pleased David’, where the Subject is now the Phenomenon, and the Sensor, which is the conscious being, fills the interpersonal slot of Complement.  The example below shows that ‘realise’ is a ‘like’ type verb, while ‘occur to’ is similar to ‘please’. (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004)

David realised the fact that he was wrong.
Sensor Process: Mental: Cognitive Phenomenon
The fact that he was wrong occurred to David.
Phenomenon Process: Mental: Cognitive Sensor

Other process types

Between material and mental are behavioural processes, while existential processes are between relational and material. Verbal processes share the ability of mental processes to project what is said or thought in a separate clause. Some indirect-speech verbs, e.g. ‘urge’, ‘force’, which take  to-infinitives when projecting,  and direct-speech verbs like ‘whispered’, ‘sneered’ can convey illocutionary force (Bloor and Bloor, 2004).

Behavioural process

Joe sang the song.
Behaver Process: Behavioural

Existential process

There was a boy.
Process: Existential Existent

Verbal process projecting direct speech as separate clause

Alan said, “You should read.”
Sayer Process: Verbal
Quoting Quoted
Actor Process: material

Verbal process projecting indirect speech as separate clause

Alan said you should read.
Sayer Process: Verbal
Reporting Reported
Actor Process: material 

Different process types have different tenses as their basic, unmarked, forms, e.g.  while the unmarked present tense for material processes is the present-in-present (the present progressive), that for relational and mental processes is the present simple. Halliday and Matthiessen (2004) criticise EFL syllabuses for over-simplifying the teaching of the present simple as habitual behaviour without considering that this largely depends on process types. Another oversimplification is the famous pedagogic rule that state verbs cannot take the progressive tense. However, many verbs like ‘have’ can be either states or actions, which can be confusing for students. SFG’s separation into different processes (‘have a shower’ is material, while ‘have a pen’ is possessive attributive), which are governed by different sets of rules, explains the phenomenon to students more clearly, e.g. the present-in-present for relational and mental processes implies a highly-marked narrowing of the present, which tends to signify temporality e.g. ‘I hate burgers but I’m loving this one!’ (ibid).

Furthermore, different genres have the tendency of using certain process types more than others. A written recipe contains material processes, while a chef on a cooking programme might use a combination of material and relational processes (Thompson, 2004). Existential processes are often used in narratives to introduce new characters or scenes. A good understanding of the corresponding grammatical features of processes can help students use them in expressing their experiences of the world in the appropriate register, and define the syllabuses for students learning English for Specific Purposes (ESP) or Academic Purposes (EAP).

(Bibliography in Part 1)

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Author: chiasuanchong

I am a freelance communications trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. With 13 years of experience training students from all over the world to communicate better in English (and in particular, Business English), I am also a professional blogger, materials writer and intercultural trainer.

9 thoughts on “Systemic Functional Grammar (Part 3 – The Experiential Metafunction)”

  1. “The distinction between participant types (Beneficiary, Goal, etc.) can alleviate students’ confusion as to which can be turned into a prepositional phrase and shifted to the end to be highlighted as newsworthy.” Would you care to elaborate on this, or, better yet, can you provide an example? Thank you.

    1. Hi Kiyoko,
      Thanks for taking time to comment. The examples of the distinction between Beneficiary and Goal, etc are highlighted in the tables at the beginning of the article, using the model sentences ‘Chia bought curry for Paul’ and ‘Chia bought Paul some curry’.

      Hope that clarifies it.

      Yours,
      Chia

  2. hi!! i’m a bit confused with “being” and mental cognitive process.

    E.g. “i was shocked and worried”

    Is this an example of Relational Process of intensive attribution??? Please help

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