Systemic Functional Grammar – Part 4 (The Textual Metafunction & Conclusion)

This post is the final part of a series on Systemic Functional Grammar. Read the first part for an overview of SFG. The second part examined the Interpersonal Metafunction and the third part considered the Experiential Metafunction.

In this final part of my exploration of SFG, I look at the Textual Metafunction, a part of SFG that is used in EFL teaching more than the other metafunctions, and often related to cohesion and coherence. Following that, I will briefly outline my views on the implications that SFG should be having on our teaching and conclude this four-part thread on SFG.

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

Aptly named ‘Clause as Message’ (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004), the textual metafunction helps organise the message within and between clauses, and is closely linked to theories of cohesion. I will only be looking at textual organisation within the clause.

Thematic Structure

The Theme is the departure point the speaker has chosen for his/her text. In English, the Theme, on which the clause depends for its orientation within the context (ibid), takes initial position in the clause. Theme^Rheme makes up the thematic structure of a clause.

Theme and Rheme

Chia bought some curry yesterday.
Theme Rheme…. 
Paul was bought some curry yesterday.
Theme Rheme…

Multiple Themes

Well, surely, Ken, grammar is your forte.
Textual Theme Interpersonal Theme Interpersonal Theme Topical Theme Rheme
Textual Adjunct Mood Adjunct Vocative Subject Finite Complement

Textual (discourse markers, conjunctives) or interpersonal (vocatives, Mood Adjuncts) Themes can combine to create multiple Themes, but it is the topical Theme, the first word carrying meaning in an experiential sense, realised by a Participant, Process or Circumstance, that is incorporated in every clause and anchors the starting point of the message (Bloor and Bloor, 2004). In an unmarked sentence, the topical Theme is the Subject of the interpersonal metafunction.

The most common marked Themes utilize adverbial groups or prepositional phrases serving as Circumstantial Adjuncts. More highly marked are Themes realized by nominal groups that are not Subjects, as seen in many informal spoken conversations e.g. ‘My reading, I’m done with it.’ Syntactical structures are highly neglected in EFL, as most grammar work focuses on tenses. Students use sentences like ‘Mario, yesterday, I gave the book to him,’ without intending to have a highly-marked Theme. It is perhaps useful to teach students basic unmarked structures, especially at lower levels.

Information structure

The Theme-and-Rheme theory was first conceived in The Prague School, where Themes were associated to the Given unit of information, and Rheme to the New (ibid). While ‘Given’ refers to the previously-mentioned, or the un-newsworthy, ‘New’ reveals new information or what is deemed newsworthy, and is often indicated by the placement of the tonic nucleus. Given+New makes up the information structure of the clause. I have chosen to use ‘+’ over ‘^’ because, for Halliday, Given units are not always thematized. In unmarked imperatives, the Theme is assumed to be ‘you’ (ibid). In marked declaratives, New could occur anywhere, especially in spoken English, where contrastive stress is shown through intonation change, e.g. ‘Derren has three brothers, not me.

Thematic and information structures occur across languages but may succumb to different rules. In Latin-based languages, the inflected nature of words allows positional flexibility, and results in interference errors such as ‘Today, happened something.’  In Japanese, Themes are signalled by the particle ‘wa’, while in Chinese, ‘ba’ is added to Complements when highlighting the Process as New (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004). However, because we cannot say ‘I the food disposed’ in English, separable phrasal verbs have evolved to allow the Process to be the New, as in ‘I threw the food away’ (ibid). Information organisation through thematic and information structure principles can enable students to construct full texts with appropriate attention to the desired details and overall message.

Implications in Teaching

SFG attempts a ‘view from above’ (ibid), and the description of how each metafunction is realised in their systems and structures is best applied to the observation of authentic language use. Authentic texts can be analysed for structures related to the three metafunctions, encouraging students to spot patterns within the needed genres, e.g. the thematic progression of discursive essays tends to follow certain patterns (Bloor and Bloor, 2004), and EAP students or those preparing for language exams like IELTS can use this framework to develop their essay-writing skills.

Besides a deeper knowledge of how language is used to create meaning, teachers can gain a better understanding of how language use has affected its evolution, how English differs in its functional lexico-grammatical structures, and how to better enable students to use these structures effectively. The slot-filling approach of SFG allows students to practise recognising the types of words/groups that fit into different parts of sentences, making the task of sentence construction more manageable. Assessment of student production also becomes less arbitrary, and instead of vague feedback like ‘be clearer,’ or ‘wrong register’, teachers can analyse students’ use of structures within the three metafunctions in comparison to well-produced texts, and precisely identify how they can improve their communicative skills (ibid).

However, the use of SFG in the classroom is not without problems. Being a descriptive grammar, its extensiveness could intimidate both teachers and students, who might prefer simpler rules that are easily applicable. Thompson (2004) admits that analysis of authentic texts could prove tiring and may not be as feasible as it is useful. The huge number of technical terms needed to describe language in SFG is another obstacle. Butt et al (2000) claims that we can narrow the selection of terms to teach students, yet argues that such metalanguage is necessary in making the finer distinctions in language, and does not suggest which metalanguage to teach. Currently, many ESP coursebooks have taken to teaching cohesion and textual organisation in the spirit of SFG, but it remains to be seen if the rest of SFG would make it into EFL syllabuses.


SFG offers a view where the purpose of language is to mean, and meaning could refer to our stance regarding a proposition or proposal (interpersonal), the representation of our experience or consciousness (experiential) or the relevance of its organisation in the surrounding context (textual).  Each of these different dimensions offers choices within a system, where meaning is realised in a variety of potential structures. As language continues to evolve to cater to new meanings that need representation in communication, the application of SFG to the language classroom can help teachers and students understand the overall picture and enable them to become better communicators through an understanding of how language works.


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 4 (The Textual Metafunction & Conclusion)”

  1. thanks for this. I’ve spent some time studying sfl and find it fascinating and am convinced it is the key for my law students (intermediate-upper intermeidate English) who need to access complex legal texts. But am having trouble working sfl into my classes. How do you use it in your business English classes?

    1. Hi Caroline, Thanks for your interest. I’m still a beginner at SFG myself and still exploring it’s applications and implications in English and Business English teaching. I will be holding an online workshop on the topic in early Feb 2012, so do check the BESIG website for more information. Hope to see you there!

  2. SFG is a nice idea, but too difficult. ends up being spaghetti – Pinker(1975),Chomsky(1965), Whorten (1974) and Gold’s Theorem – Calling two-word grammars “meta-” doesn’t change that.

    The terminology and classification are hideously complicated for a L2 student, it ends up being a barrier. The term “mood”, for example – can be a real pain to translate into other languages. Some don’t even have the term. So just to teach the system, you have to teach them all these extra “bits”.

    Textual Adjunct Mood Adjunct Vocative Subject Finite Complement … I cannot possibly expect a L2 student to understand this. I barely remember this stuff at postgrad level! If they are at a level to deal with it, they are either beyond needing syntax or they have such ingrained errors that they need behavioural training.

    SES is far easier, and it only has 4-5 rules.

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