Systemic Functional Grammar – Glossary

active (voice) Refers to a verb group where the subject of the clause is the actor (the ‘do-er’); for example, ‘The children washed the windows’ as opposed to ‘The windows were washed by the children’. This second sentence is in the passive voice. Refer also to ‘passive voice’.

In most cases, the first participant will be the subject (eg ‘I like chocolate’). But in some cases (e.g.: ‘Chocolate, I love it’) another participant is first and the subject follows: the subject is still ‘I’ in this latter example (mood tag is still ‘don’t I?’).

agreement Describes the relationship between two words or elements of the language where the form of one determines the form of another. One type of agreement is subject-finite (verb) agreement where a plural subject requires a plural finite form (eg ‘Chairs were …’, ‘A chair was …’). Note that this varies with languages and can be a problem for second language learners. Note also that in existential clauses, agreement occurs with the first element in the participant immediately following the process (eg ‘There is a table and two chairs in that room’, ‘There are two chairs and a table in that room’). In more contemporary and colloquial texts, agreement between the subject and its pronoun is more flexible (eg ‘a student and their schoolbag’) to avoid the ‘his/her’ or ‘her or his’ construction. This style is used in the materials for the Language and Literacy Course.

Antonym Word having an opposite or contrasting meaning to a given word (eg ‘alive’ is an antonym of ‘dead’).

attitudinal lexis A lexical item expressing value or emotional judgment (eg ‘The bloody officers evacuated the ship’, ‘It is a brilliant first novel’).

Circumstances The part of a clause (expressed by adverbial phrase/group or prepositional phrase) which gives the details of when, where, how, why, with what, with whom, for whom and according to whom/what. For example:

‘The man knocked the clock off the shelf.’             Location: place

‘The man knocked off early.’                                   Location: time

‘The man died of heart failure.’                    Cause

‘He left with his friend.’                               Accompaniment

‘He left by car.’                                              Manner: means

‘He opened it with a can-opener.’               Manner: means

‘He opened it carefully.’                                Manner: quality

‘He opened it like an expert.’                       Manner: comparison

Classifier Element of the nominal group which functions to classify the thing (a noun functioning as the head word). More than one classifier can be used (eg ‘North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’ and ‘ECOSAC Degradable Dog Tidy Bags’). Classifiers are spoken as one tone group and, therefore, do not have any punctuation separating them. Note that the classifying words can be realised using adjectives (degradable, tidy) or nouns (ECOSAC, dog) or verbs (eg distilling process).

Clause A unit of meaning grouped around a process (verb), the basic building block of language. In the following table, the bold clauses are examples of the kinds of clauses mentioned in the first column.

Independent (always finite) I finished my work.

Independent (two finite clauses) I had something to eat // and then I finished my work.

Dependent and finite I finished my work even though I was tired.

Dependent and finite I finished my work, which was great.

Dependent and non-finite I finished my work after having something to eat.

Dependent, finite and interrupting My boss, <<who’s moving to another department soon>>, is organising a farewell party.

Dependent, finite and interrupting I had something to eat and then, <<even though I was tired>>, finished my work.

Dependent, non-finite and interrupting I had something to eat and, <<being tired>>, went to

bed. See also ‘embedded clause’ and ‘interrupting clause’.

comment adjunct An element of the clause which functions to express some degree of modality about the whole clause (eg ‘Unfortunately, I fell at the last hurdle’, ‘Luckily, I didn’t have to sit for the test again’).

Congruent The usual grammatical choices the language has to express meaning.

With interpersonal meanings, it refers to a direct or one-to-one relationship between the mood of the clause and what is meant (eg a command expressed in the imperative mood: ‘Turn the TV down!’).

See ‘incongruent’ and ‘grammatical metaphor’.

In textual meanings, it refers to conjunctions being used rather than nominalised forms of conjunctions (eg ‘… because …’ rather than the nominalisation, ‘The reason …’).

In experiential meanings, it refers to, for example, processes being used rather than nominalizations of the processes (eg ‘erode’ rather than ‘erosion’.

Conjunction Words whose primary function is to join two parts of the language together and indicate the relationship between them. Conjunctions can be additive, comparative, temporal and consequential, and they can function between clauses within the sentence, between sentences and between paragraphs to organise the text.

declarative mood The organisation of the clause so that the subject comes before the finite and is the usual way of expressing a statement (eg where the subject is ‘The teacher’ and the finite ‘was’: The teacher was handing out the assignments).

Deictic See ‘pointer’.

describer (epithet) Element of the nominal group which functions to describe the thing in terms of qualities such as appearance, size, age and colour (eg ‘a quite beautiful, deep reddish colour’).

Generally, subjective describers come before objective ones. Describers are generally realised by adjectives. Other choices, however, are evident when using hyphenated groups or phrases:

  • ‘a jaw-breaking tackle’
  • ‘a never-to-be-forgotten experience’
  • ‘a limp, low-key sort of lazy-weary, sluggish (or at least lethargic) talker’.

embedded clause A rank-shifted clause so that it functions at the rank of group, either as a participant itself (a) or as a qualifier in a nominal group (b), or as a nominal group in a circumstance (b); for example:

(a) [[What I need]] is a massage.

(b) The woman [[who won last year]] is handing out the prizes this year.

(c) Because of [[what he did]], he was forced to resign.

Field The topic of the language in a particular context, realised through processes, participants and circumstances.

Finite The first element of the verbal group which expresses either tense or modality, for example:

  • tense (temporal finite): ‘I was going home’, ‘I am going home’, ‘I will be going home’
  • modality (modal finite): ‘I might go out’, ‘I must go home’.

In declaratives with positive polarity, it is possible for the finite to be ‘invisible’ (eg ‘I like you’). The fused finite, ‘do’, is used explicitly in interrogatives (a), when emphasising (b), expressing negative polarity (c), and using a mood tag (d); for example:

(a) ‘Do you like ice-cream?’

(b) ‘I do want to go’

(c) ‘I don’t want to go’

(d) ‘You want to go, don’t you?’.

Foreground Make the focus by placing at the beginning of a clause, sentence, paragraph or text (ie to make a theme).

Genre Any staged, purposeful social activity which is accomplished through language (eg making a purchase at the local shop, a letter to the editor, meeting procedures). Genres which are valued and common in formal schooling contexts include recounts, descriptions, reports, narratives, arguments and discussions. Texts can be macro-genres; that is, they consist of two or more genres in achieving their overall purpose. For example, in writing an argument for the logging of rainforests, the writer might include a report about the trees that grow in rainforests and the animals that need the rainforests to survive.

grammatical metaphor Grammatical metaphor is sometimes referred to as incongruent choice. Grammatical metaphor refers to a grammatical choice which is other than what the language has evolved to offer in an unmarked way, for example:

  • interpersonal metaphor (eg where the mood of the clause does not have a one-to-one relationship with its meaning): this entails the use of declaratives, interrogatives and modulated interrogatives to express commands (congruent is to use the imperative mood to express a command); for example: ‘Isn’t that TV rather loud?’ or ‘Are you deaf?’ when the speaker means ‘Turn the TV down!
  • experiential metaphor (eg the expression of events not through processes but through nominals): for example, ‘erosion’ rather than ‘erode
  • textual metaphor (eg the expression of logical relations not through conjunctions but through nominals or processes): for example, ‘Another reason …’ (nominal), ‘… resulting in …’ (process).

hyper-theme Refers to the theme of a paragraph (known also as the topic sentence).

Hyponymy The relationship between lexical items based on class and member of the class (eg whales: sperm whales/narwhals/humpback whales).

imperative mood The organisation of the clause so that the lexical part of the verb comes first-the finite and the subjectcan be omitted and usually are. The imperative mood is the usual way of expressing a command and is the usual choice in procedures (eg ‘Hand up your assignments’).

interrupting clause A clause which ‘interrupts’ another clause (a) or a clause complex (b), for example:

(a) ‘The Prime Minister, who usually resides in Canberra, is moving to Sydney.’

(b) ‘The PM traditionally lives in Canberra but, if he wants to, he can remain in his private residence.’

Interrupting clauses are separated by commas from the clauses they interrupt to show the intonation pattern. Interrupting clauses, which are still considered as functioning at the rank of clause, should not be confused with embedded clauses, which are rank-shifted.

Incongruent See ‘grammatical metaphor’.

Intensifier Element of the nominal group which functions to alter the degree of the describer—expressed with adverbs (eg ‘a somewhat unlikely person’, ‘a quite stunning view’, ‘an absolutely stunning view’).

interrogative mood The organisation of the clause so that the finite comes before the subject and is the usual way of expressing a question (eg where the subject is ‘the teacher’ and the finite ‘Was’:

Was the teacher handing out the assignments?’).

Intonation The distinctive patterns of the pitch or melody of a clause (eg the rising tune of a question as opposed to the falling tune of a statement).

macro-theme Refers to the theme of a whole text, usually expressed in the introductory paragraph, which foregrounds what the rest of the text will be about.

Marked Indicates that the grammatical choice is not the one usually chosen in most informal spoken language (eg marked theme), where theme is a circumstance (a), dependent clause (b), or complement (ie a participant that could be made the subject) (c); for example:

(a) ‘Later in the morning, they left for the airport.’

(b) ‘If they wanted it so badly, they should have said so.’

(c) ‘Chocolate, I love it!’.

Meronymy The relationship between lexical items based on a part-whole relationship (e.g.: computer: monitor/ keyboard/mouse/…).

metalanguage A language for talking about language, its patterns and conventions.

Modality Refers to the aspect of speaker/writer judgment or assessment of probability, usuality, obligation and inclination. These can be expressed using a range of grammatical resources such as modal finites (a), mood adjuncts (b), comment adjuncts (c), attributive relational clauses (d), nominalisations (e), mental processes (f), or a combination of these (g–j); for example:

(a) ‘He might be the one’

(b) ‘She always wins’

(c) ‘Perhaps you could sign here’

(d) ‘I am certain he’s the one’

(e) ‘The likelihood of your winning is nil, mate’

(f) ‘I think I’d better go’

(g) ‘I would probably help’

(h) ‘I can certainly help’

(i) ‘I always have to help’

(j) ‘I wonder if you could possibly see your way clear to signing this for me’.

modal adjunct Either a mood adjunct or comment adjunct—these are generally expressed through adverbs (eg ‘possibly’, ‘perhaps’, ‘unfortunately’). See also ‘mood adjunct’ and ‘comment adjunct’.

Mode One of the three register variables—concerned with the medium and channel of communication. Broadly speaking, mode occurs in spoken or written language, and is the role that language has in the meaning making.

mode continuum The spoken–written continuum, with most spoken (language accompanying action) at one end and most written (language as reflection) at the other end.

modulated interrogative mood The interrogative mood can be modulated in three ways: either through the modal finite preceding the subject (a), through the content part of the verbal group (b), or in a combination of these two (c). The modulated interrogative is the usual way of expressing an offer, for example:

(a) ‘May I hand out the assignments?’

(b) ‘Do you want some help?’

(c) ‘Would you like me to help you?’.

See also ‘interrogative mood’.

mood adjunct An element of the clause which functions in the mood block to express some degree of modality (eg. ‘I really want to see you’, ‘It’s probably him’, ‘I never do that’).

mood block The arguable or contestable part of the clause, consisting of the subject and the finite (eg ‘It is’, ‘It isn’t’).

nominal groups (noun groups) A group of words in which the head word is a noun and all the other words serve to define or further describe that noun, for example:

(a) ‘The man knocked the clock off the shelf.’

(b) ‘[[What the man knocked off the shelf]] was the clock.’

More specifically, the functional elements of a nominal (or noun) group are pointer (P), pre-numerative and numerative (pre-N, N), describer (D), classifier (C) and qualifier (Q); for example:

One of the four incredibly lucky X-lotto winners chosen this month

pre-N P N D C T Q  ‘Incredibly’ is an intensifier; that is, it intensifies the describer ‘lucky’.

Note that most participants are nominal groups (a), but not all nominal groups are participants. Some nominal groups come in the circumstances (eg ‘the shelf ’ in ‘off the shelf ’). So in (c) there are three nominal groups:

(c) ‘The man knocked the clock off the shelf.’

Nominalisation The process of changing non-noun clause elements (eg verbs, adjectives, conjunctions, prepositions and modal finites) into nouns. Nominalisation construes the world as more static, allowing the speaker/writer to reflect on the world; for example:

Logical form Typical form Nominalised form

Action—Verb evaluate evaluation

Quality—Adjective broad breadth

Assessment—Modality may possibility

Relation—Conjunction because result/consequence

Numerative Element of the nominal group which functions to quantify the thing (eg ‘Those four people’). The prenumerative also functions to quantify but comes before the pointer (eg ‘Three of those four people’).

Participant The element of the clause that identifies who or what is participating in the process of the clause—expressed with a nominal group or embedded clause (eg ‘The man knocked the clock off the shelf’, ‘[[What the man knocked off the shelf]] was the clock’).

passive (voice) Refers to a verb group where the subject of the clause is the goal or the receiver of the action (the ‘done to’). For example, ‘The car was washed by the children, wasn’t it?’ is passive, as opposed to ‘The children washed the car, didn’t they?’ which is active.

The passive voice is used when the speaker/writer wishes to foreground the goal of the action, as in the examples below:

  • The dried ingredients are added to the mixture.’
  • The car gets serviced at the garage.’
  • Taxes were raised after the election.’

It is also used when the actor (‘do-er’ of the action) is unimportant (who adds to the mixture), or unknown (who services the car), or wishes to remain unknown (who raises the taxes).

pointer (deictic) Element of the nominal group which functions to point to the thing (eg ‘the’, ‘those’, ‘my’, ‘John’s’).

process The element of the clause that is the core of the clause and construes experience as actions, sensings and sayings, or beings and havings.


material ‘He knocked the clock off the shelf.’

behavioural ‘She sighed a huge sigh of relief.’


mental: cognition ‘He knew the clock fell off the shelf.’

mental: affection ‘I like that clock.’

mental: perception ‘I smell the blood of an Englishman.’


verbal ‘He said the clock fell off the shelf.’

Beings and havings

relational: identifying ‘Ms Frankfurter is the one who knocked the clock off the shelf.’

relational: attributive ‘She is so happy.’

relational: possessive ‘The clock that fell off the shelf has a broken glass.’

existential ‘There is a clock in the room next door.’

Qualifier An element of the noun group which functions to qualify the thing. Qualifiers can be expressed using either embedded clauses (a) or embedded prepositional phrases (b); for example:

(a) ‘The boy [[getting a lift on the bike]] fell in front of the car.’

(b) ‘The boy [on the bike] fell in front of the car.’

Qualifiers express meanings which are similar to epithets or classifiers. The difference between a prepositional phrase acting as qualifier and one acting as circumstance is that the former functions inside the noun group (c), whereas the latter functions as an element of the rank of clause (d); for example:

(c) ‘The boy [on the bike] fell in front of the car.’

(d) ‘The boy on the bike fell in front of the car.’

Reference A cohesive device where, for example, a pronoun is used as a substitute for a noun group. Other reference items are the definite article and comparative forms.

  • Homophoric reference: membership of a cultural group makes sense of the definite article (eg ‘The election is being held this weekend’—which ‘election’ (state, federal, club, association) is understood by the group members).
  • Exophoric reference: the context makes sense of the pronoun (eg ‘Stop doing that!’—’that’ is understood in the context in which it was used; typical of spoken language).
  • Anaphoric reference: the meaning of the reference item is understood by going back in the wordings of the text (eg ‘Joan said that she’d do the shopping’). Anaphoric and homophoric reference are the most common types of reference in written texts.
  • Cataphoric reference: the meaning of the reference item is understood by going forwards in the text (eg ‘She was such a good baby, was Joan’).

Rheme The part of the clause in which the theme is elaborated—in written language it is usually the new information in the clause.

schematic structure The distinctive way that a text of a particular genre is structured, having identifiable stages or parts which enable it to achieve its purpose. For example, a recount has an orientation (sets the time, place and people involved), a series of events (ordered by time and perhaps evaluated) and an evaluation or re-orientation to conclude (eg ‘It was a great day.’ or ‘Finally, at four o’clock, we all went home.’).

Staging The structural organisation of a text according to the genre. See ‘schematic structure’.

Subject The content of the mood block of a clause. It is repeated in pronoun form in the mood tag (eg ‘The concert was great, wasn’t it?’).

subject–verb agreement This type of agreement could be better seen as subject-finite (verb) agreement—refers to, for example, where a plural subject requires a plural finite form (eg ‘Chairs were …’), or a singular subject requires a singular finite form (eg ‘A chair was …’). See also ‘agreement’.

Synonym A word with a similar meaning to another (eg ‘youthful’ is a synonym of ‘young’).

Tenor One of the three register variables—concerned with the interpersonal meanings between the participants in a text. The variables playing a part in tenor are roles, relationships, status, affect and contact.

Tense The setting in time of a clause (eg the primary tenses are past—’I went’, present—’I am going’, and future—’I will go’).

Theme Refers to what is foregrounded in a clause, which focuses the listener/reader on how the text is unfolding. The theme of a clause includes all textual and interpersonal elements up to and including the first experiential element (ie participant, process, circumstance), for example:

  • Luckily, for your sake, there wasn’t any further strife.’
  • Luckily, there wasn’t any further strife.’
  • Luckily, further strife was avoided.’
  • Luckily, we avoided further strife.’
  • We avoided further strife, luckily.’

Choice of theme is important in the coherence of a text. Theme in written language is usually the given information. Choice of theme will vary depending on the genre. See also ‘hyper-theme’ and ‘macro-theme’.

topic sentence See ‘hyper-theme’.

Unmarked Indicates that the grammatical choice is the one usually chosen in most informal spoken language; for example, (a) is an unmarked theme, where the subject conflates with theme in a declarative clause, and (b) is an example where the theme conflates with process in an imperative clause:

(a) ‘The girl sat on the bench.’

(b) ‘Sit on the bench.’

Vocative Form of address. The way people are addressed by others is dependent on the tenor variables of relationships, status, affect and contact. They can be plotted on a continuum from familiar to formal, (eg ‘Darling’, ‘Oi, you’, ‘Hey babe’, ‘Kaz’, ‘Karin’, ‘Karin Blixen’, ‘Ms Blixen’, ‘Madam’, ‘Your Honour’ …).

Conventions in linguistics

Linguistics uses symbols to help with indications of special language use and analysis. For example, in the Language and Literacy Course materials, the following conventions have been used:

  • To indicate ‘followed by’ use ^ as in ‘finite^subject’ to indicate a finite is followed by a subject.
  • To delineate clauses:

– use two slashes // to indicate the boundaries of clauses

– use << >> for interrupting clauses

– use [[ ]] for embedded clauses

– use [ ] for embedded phrases (ie prepositional phrases used as qualifiers).

* To indicate incorrect language usage, use * before the word or clause as in ‘*He breaked the vase’.


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