Putting transitivity to the test: a review of the Sydney and Cardiff models
© The Author(s). 2018
Received: 28 October 2017
Accepted: 7 March 2018
Published: 20 March 2018
In Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), the system of Transitivity is a common means by which to analyse both isolated clauses as well as clauses in context. To date, two Transitivity models have emerged. The first and more established of the two is the Sydney model, which was proposed by Halliday (Journal of Linguistics 3(1):37–81, 1967; An introduction to functional grammar, 1985; An introduction to functional grammar, 1994) and more latterly developed by himself and Christian Matthiessen (Halliday and Matthiessen, An introduction to functional grammar, 2004; Halliday’s introduction to functional grammar, 2014). The second is the Cardiff Grammar (CG) model put forward by Fawcett (Cognitive linguistics and social interaction: Towards an integrated model of a systemic functional grammar and the other components of a communicating mind, 1980; The semantics of clause and verb for relational processes in English, 1987) as an alternative to the former and, which has subsequently been elaborated by Neale (More delicate Transitivity: Extending the process type system networks for English to include full semantic classifications, 2002; Matching corpus data and system networks, 2006). Although both models have various strengths, neither model is void of limitations. Thus, the aim of this paper is to describe, compare and draw on the inadequacies associated with either one or both of the aforementioned systems, which have come to light following substantial research on Transitivity. All in all, several issues are raised here in order to highlight particular areas that need to be addressed if we are to ensure a systematic and delicate analysis of Transitivity patterns across texts.
To date, within functional grammar, Transitivity has been considered from two different perspectives, with each offering alternative explanations as to how we use language to represent our inner and outer experiences. The first and more widely used model by discourse analysts was proposed by Michael Halliday (1985, 1994) who later collaborated with Christian Matthiessen (Halliday and Matthiessen 2004, 2014) and, together, they made amendments to the original system of Transitivity. The alternative model was initially put forward by Robin Fawcett (1980, 1987), better known as the Cardiff Grammar (CG henceforth) model, which was later elaborated through collaborative work with Amy Neale to ensure a more fine-grained system of Transitivity (Neale 2002, 2006). Although the CG model offers a number of valid ideas and, arguably, provides potential solutions for some of the problems associated with the Sydney model (SM henceforth) (Halliday and Matthiessen 2014), it has nonetheless received significantly less attention. Moreover, very little discussion has actually been dedicated to comparing the two transitivity networks in terms of their individual strengths and/or weaknesses (cf. He et al. 2017); the current paper is an attempt to contribute to this discussion and to outline a series of dilemmas associated with either one or both and how these issues may be addressed.
Transitivity: The Sydney model vs. the Cardiff grammar model
According to Halliday (1973: 134), Transitivity is the set of options whereby the speaker encodes his [sic] experience of the processes of the external world, and of the internal world of his [sic] own consciousness, together with the participants in these processes and their attendant circumstances.
There is a common consensus that each individual has their own linguistic style, which implies that not only does one express him/herself in his/her own way, but also that s/he will focus on determined aspects when using language to describe his/her own reality. Thus, the semantic and syntactic choices one makes in order to communicate serve to manifest their positioning and are based on the belief that one organises their discourse in line with how they perceive a situation and the meanings they wish to convey (Halliday and Matthiessen 2014: 217).
To add to this, they also vary, occasionally, as to which verb corresponds to the process of a clause in instances where more than one verb appears.
With these issues in mind, we now proceed with a comparison of both systems, specifically in terms of their process, participant and circumstance configurations.
Process and participant configuration in both Transitivity systems
Semantic roles in the Sydney transitivity model (Halliday and Matthiessen 2014)
(Agent or Affected Carrier)
(Agent or Affected) Cognizant
(Agent or Affected) Perceiver
She shaved her legs and underarms […] (BNCWeb 2008, GUM 2399 W:fict:prose)
She shaved her legs and underarms […] (BNCWeb 2008, GUM 2399 W:fict:prose)
He wrote a poem about his friend […] (BNCWeb 2008, B1F 298 W:religion)
They marched them to the top of the hill […] (BNCWeb 2008, H9N 1339 W:fict:prose)
The mental process category in both models relates to our internal experiences (i.e. how we understand, perceive, feel about or desire something or someone) (Halliday and Matthiessen 2014: 248). To account for these types of experiences, the SM proposes four separate subcategories, namely mental cognitive, mental perceptive, mental emotive and mental desiderative processes; the CG, however, makes no such distinction between our emotions and desires and, as such, classifies them under the same category (i.e. mental emotive). Furthermore, the CG model asserts that the mental cognition category not only includes the prototypical cognitive verbs (e.g. think, believe), but also verbs that refer to the notion of communication. Thus, what Halliday and Matthiessen (2014) have classed as verbal processes, which are a discrete category (see below), are instead placed within the mental cognition category in the CG model on the basis that the semantic roles associated with a mental cognitive clause are thought to correspond to those that appear in a clause conveying communication.
He fell in love with an English girl […]. (BNCWeb 2008, A7A 1995 W:fict:prose)
I saw the cherry and […]. (BNCWeb 2008, A0D 1224 W:fict:prose)
Steffi is happy […] (BNCWeb 2008, CKL 389 W:pop_lore)
It makes me furious […] (BNCWeb 2008, CH6 8837 W:newsp:tabloid)
We made her the supervisor […] (BNCWeb 2008, JN7 441 S:meeting)
The CG Transitivity model consists of four relational process subcategories that tend to overlap with those from the SM comprising: (i) relational attributive; (ii) relational possessive; (iii) relational locational; and (iv) relational matching. The first category corresponds to both the relational attributive and relational identifying categories of the SM (Halliday and Matthiessen 2014); here, however, no distinction is made between clauses denoting the attribution of a quality and those that assign an identity to an entity. Rather, the concern lies with whether the attribute denotes a thing, a quality or, otherwise, a situation (Neale 2002: 144). The second category indicates a relationship of possession of lack thereof, although clauses of this type can also imply possession occurs as a result of a happening, as illustrated in (11) above. Therefore, verbs such as give are classified as relational possessive processes (Butler 2003: 395) in the CG system, whilst the SM classifies the same verb as a material process.
[…] as he drove home that evening. (BNCWeb 2008, AC2 477 W:fict:prose)
Once again, the SM would consider examples such as (28) a material process, given that the verb drive embodies the notion of an action.
Do you think this jumper really goes with this skirt? (BNCWeb 2008, CB8 3462 W:pop_lore)
The semantic roles that may emerge in a relational clause in the CG system and which differ to those listed in the SM are provided below, along with an example of each for clarification.
[…] when she became an alcoholic (BNCWeb 2008, A7N 701 W:pop_lore)
[…] the stronger and more dominant partner became weak (BNCWeb 2008, CGD 1461 W:non_ac:soc_science)
Location (the equivalent of the circumstance location: place in the SM)
[…] as he drove home that evening. (BNCWeb 2008, AC2 477 W:fict:prose)
I went to the hospital with him (BNCWeb 2008, HD7 1905 W:misc)
When the marchers passed the city’s overhead railway (BNCWeb 2008, A3U 317 W:newsp:brdsht_nat:report)
[…] before we left the reception. (BNCWeb 2008, HGM 3005 W:fict:prose)
[…] he had a moustache. (BNCWeb 2008, ECK 1068 W:fict:prose)
It matches the bowl downstairs. (BNCWeb 2008, ECK 1068 W:fict:prose)
We now turn to the three minor process types that are specific to one model and show how, once again, the two transitivity models are different.
The Sydney model: minor process types
[…] the Queen criticised her son […] (BNCWeb 2008, CEN 980 W:newsp:other:report)
[…] there is a brief biographical note about the sculptor […] (BNCWeb 2008, A04 1461 W:ac:humanities_arts)
The Cardiff grammar model: minor process types
Afterwards, he made her go and rest again [….] (BNCWeb 2008, CKE 2730 477 W:fict:prose)
Cameron let him finish. (BNCWeb 2008, A0N 1433 W:fict:prose)
Their noise had stopped me sleeping [….] (BNCWeb 2008, A0U 1401 W:fict:prose)
A dim light enabled him to find room seventeen. (BNCWeb 2008, HTG 79 W:fict:prose)
[….] when I started working on the script. (BNCWeb 2008, AB3 1076 W:non_ac:humanities_arts)
The Fulmars continued searching for it [….] (BNCWeb 2008, CA8 818 W:non_ac:humanities_arts)
[….] she put off fulfilling her ambition (BNCWeb 2008, BMD 683 W:pop_lore)
She stopped singing [….] (BNCWeb 2008, ACW 1780 W:fict:prose)
Her mother tried to persuade the woman [….] (BNCWeb 2008, A03 839 W:pop_lore)
He managed to complete the last lap [….] (BNCWeb 2008, A1N 199 W:newsp:brdsht_nat:sports)
He failed to release in time [….] (BNCWeb 2008, A0H 1312 W:misc)
An influential process permits any one of four participant roles, to include an Agent (inherent in a clause of this type, even if not mentioned explicitly), an Affected, a Created and a Range. This new category of processes is arguably a useful addition to the Transitivity system, given that it includes what are otherwise better known as aspectual verbs, which are not considered by Halliday and Matthiessen (2014) in the SM, despite the fact that they contribute meaning to the clause.
When the realisation is verbal, as in (56), there is no semantic role in the clause; rather, the subject it is referentially empty (Neale 2002: 171). Something similar occurs in (57), although this time there is a role, i.e. the Attribute sunny. The environmental process category shares similarities with the SM existential category in this sense, given that both embody an interpersonal subject, which is necessary to ensure that the clause is coherent.
The third and final minor process in the CG model is the event-relating category. This type is again absent in the SM or, at least, it is not contemplated in the same way; that is, Halliday & Matthiessen (2014: 707) refer to grammatical metaphors, which they transform to produce verbal equivalents of a nominalisation in an attempt to maintain the original meaning. Meanwhile, the CG model treats grammatical metaphors as a process in their own right. In view of the fact that this process type relates two events, there is always a Carrier role along with one other participant (i.e. a Created, an Affected or a Range) (Fawcett and Schultz 2010).
Finally we turn to an outline of the final component that is equally pertinent to both systems, i.e. circumstances.
Circumstances in both transitivity systems
Circumstances in the Hallidayan transitivity system (Halliday and Matthiessen 2014)
Types of circumstances
over 12,000 miles
for several hours
How many times?
How? By means of?
In what way?
His hair was cut differently
I like him very much
for the purpose of
on behalf of
In which case?
in the event of
in spite of
in addition to
as a 13-year-old
Madonna softened into a more human figure
about his daughter
According to who/what?
according to your report
In whose opinion?
in my opinion
Circumstances in the CG transitivity system
for several hours
again and again
once a month
Regularly repeated time position
Regularly repeated duration
about an hour each night
the first time
Inferential time position
Circumstances for specific processes
(He shoved his finger) into my vagina
(made) out of metal
from internal haemorrhaging
for a mile
Usually appear with an Agent
as a scientist
She read her a story
We did the shopping for him
instead of her husband
at the scene
He was meeting with him
Feeling uneasy, we turned
She hung up, feeling much happier
Besides the friends
instead of bringing one from the 31st
What is orthodox today may change with time
Over time, these have both adapted
as for […]
The classification of circumstances in the CG model is by no means straightforward on the grounds that it is often difficult to distinguish between some of the different subtypes (e.g. Proportion and Dimension). Moreover, as with the SM, it remains challenging to understand what constitutes a circumstance and what denotes a semantic role. With this in mind, we now proceed to outline a number of issues associated with each of the two models and which consequently lead to problems for the discourse analyst when s/he is deciding on which process, participant role and/or circumstance best reflects a given clause.
Ambiguities and issues with the CG and the Sydney models of transitivity
As Halliday & Matthiessen (1999: 542) and Fawcett (2009: 212–222) rightly acknowledge, the system of Transitivity can prove somewhat confusing, especially when it comes to determining which process categories a given verb belongs to. This difficulty occurs, above all, for those who do discourse analysis and need to neatly categorise their data, despite the fact that a number of verbs have ambiguous and/or complex meanings. What follows below is a discussion of several issues that have initially been identified in relation to the two transitivity models discussed, before continuing to suggest potential means by which to deal with such issues and, furthermore, assist the discourse analyst in carrying out a more detailed and systematic analysis of written or spoken texts.
By substituting start in (59a) with the verb fail in (59b), we witness how the meaning of the clause alters entirely, from affirmative to negated. In other words, if someone fails to recognise something, s/he does not recognise it, which is the idea transmitted in (59b). The latter leads us to question, then, whether the researcher really can ignore certain elements in the clause and still maintain the meaning of the clause. The CG system also presents a similar problem with regard to the analysis of the main verb of the clause. As stated, the CG model considers the aspectual verb (e.g. start, try) as the main verb of the clause and as pertaining to the influential process category. As such, the CG model would proffer an entirely different analysis of the same clause, classifying (59a) as an influential: starting process and (59b) as an influential: failing process. Whilst this alternative interpretation is by no means any less valid than that proposed in the SM, it is equally inadequate. That is, by disregarding the verb that follows the finite verb, only part of the meaning is captured. That said, there is a way to solve this issue and that is by simply acknowledging that both verbs bring meaning to the clause and, as a result, need to be annotated as separate processes of the Transitivity system when doing discourse analysis.
Circumstances or participants in both transitivity systems
relational (locational) process
Participant role: Location
Ivy went quietly.
Ivy went with her brother.
Processes denoting communication (both models)
Behavioural processes (Sydney model)
Influential processes (CG model)
Action process (CG model)
Process and participant configurations
The analysis of grammatical metaphors
Processes denoting communication
In Swindon, a council report suggests the problem has risen twelvefold in recent years. (BNCWeb 2008, K1D 3103 W:news_script)
One may well argue that the aforementioned example is considered relational on the grounds that the verb suggest in this particular case is employed metaphorically. However, if we accept that the verb suggest in the previous example is relational, we face yet another contradiction in terms with the Sydney Transitivity system. Halliday & Matthiessen (2014: 226) insist that, unlike mental and verbal process types, relational processes cannot project a separate clause. However, examples such as (61) do indeed project, which would seem to imply that not only is it necessary to reconsider the definition of the verbal process category, but also perhaps review the criteria of relational processes and acknowledge that they can sometimes project. One potential solution to deal with this may be to classify any verb denoting communication, even metaphorically, as a verbal process and, in doing so, not only is the definition of this category adhered to, but the contradiction regarding the inability of relational processes to project is also simultaneously resolved.2
Behavioural processes (the Sydney model)
[…] he sweats under the studio lights […] (BNCWeb 2008, CD6 1037 W:pop_lore)
Given that the processes that denote action in either of the two aforementioned Transitivity systems include actions that imply intention as well as a lack thereof (i.e. bodily reactions), there seems to be no reason why a separate category is actually needed to represent many of the physiological and psychological behaviours. To add to this, the idea of differentiating between an agentive and a non-agentive Senser for the mental perception process set is also a useful way of accounting for a number of verbs that denote deliberate as opposed to non-deliberate perception (i.e. look at vs. see, for instance). With the latter in mind, then, the behavioural process category appears to be superfluous and, therefore, could, in fact, be eliminated altogether from the Transitivity network. That said, in order to ensure that each of the verbs are adequately accounted for by the other categories, it is vital that a set of clear-cut criteria are proposed for each process type (See Bartley 2017 for more on this).
We gossiped for half an hour […] (BNCWeb 2008, EFN 867 W:non_ac:polit_law_edu)
Ms Nelson has praised her […] (BNCWeb 2008, K35 1409 W:newsp:other:report)
The latter ultimately leads to yet another contradiction in the theory; that is, if verbal processes that cannot project are considered behavioural (or as discussed above, sometimes relational), yet other verbal processes that also cannot project are instead considered verbal, the question arises of just what constitutes a verbal and/or behavioural process. In line with the proposal to remove the behavioural category from the Transitivity system, one way to address the fact that a Target may emerge in a clause comprising a verbal process is to allow for the verbal process set to cater for a distinction between verbs with and those without the potential to project (see Bartley 2017 for more details on a proposal of verbal process subtypes).
Influential processes (the CG model)
Although the participant in the two previous examples denotes, without question, an Affected role, I would urge the analyst to take the annotation a step further. That is, an individual who is (or is not) successful is not only affected by the outcome of the action, but equally responsible for the action or event taking place. Thus, it seems appropriate to suggest that in the above examples, smokers and McMahon would be better defined as participant combinations (i.e. Agent-Affected).
Action processes (the CG model)
They threatened me once more […] (BNCWeb 2008, BP7 867 W:fict:prose)
I [Agent] told [mental cognitive process] him [Affected-Cognizant] to surrender [Phenomenon] […] (BNCWeb 2008, BP7 867 W:fict:prose)
He [Agent] was always on at [mental cognitive process] me [Affected-Cognizant] to become a driver [Phenomenon] […] (BNCWeb 2008, A6E 1611 W:biography)
Whereas threaten in example (69) above has been classified as a verb of social action on the grounds that it consists of two semantic roles, be on at in example (71) also appears as a social action verb despite including three semantic roles, as evidenced. In other words, it is not clear if example (71) should be grouped in the mental cognitive category on the grounds that the number of semantic roles takes priority in the clause, or whether most weighting should be given to the semantics of the process itself (i.e. to consider be on at as a form of social verbal abuse). A potential solution may be to propose the notion of complex process types, in the same way that the CG model has put forward the concept of participant combinations (Butler 2003: 394). In doing so, both the process and participants would receive an equal weighting within the Transitivity system. Examples such as (69) clearly share features of verbal and action processes and, in my view, neither one need be overlooked. Thus, if a participant can reflect more than one semantic role simultaneously, it seems logical to assign a dual code to a verb that denotes more than one simple meaning when used in a particular context 3.
Process and participant combinations
He showed her his wallet […] (BNCWeb 2008, BMX 146 W:fict:prose)
In this instance, the verb show may be considered to represent an action on the part of the person who shows something, but simultaneously one of mental perception on the basis that the person who is shown something is subject to perceiving it.4
The analysis of grammatical metaphors
My belief is that sports journalism is there to inform […] (BNCWeb 2008, CHV 194 W:pop_lore)
I believe that sports journalism is there to inform […].
My belief [Carrier] is [event-relating process] that sports journalism is there to inform [Range] […] (BNCWeb 2008, CHV 194 W:pop_lore)
The introduction of this category in the Transitivity system is arguably a legitimate alternative to the way grammatical metaphors are treated by Halliday and Matthiessen (2014), given that the CG model, unlike the SM, considers them as Transitivity patterns that need not undergo any modifications. Nonetheless, as evident in (74) above, the annotation of the clause is still severely lacking in detail. To elaborate, the fact that My belief is classified as Carrier implies that the mental cognitive meaning inherent in the nominalisation is completely disregarded. As such, the annotation may be deemed inadequate. Moreover, if the expression sports journalism is there to inform is tagged exclusively as a Range participant, the analyst will also fail to capture the full meaning of the projected clause. Given that systemic functional grammarians strive to obtain both the meaning of the clause as well as take account of how the clause is expressed in terms of its syntactic structure, both systems at present are, to some extent, deficient. To deal with this, it is important that the Transitivity network incorporate the potential for nominalisations and, moreover, that each process category accounts for this type of realisation; only in this way will it be possible to capture both what is said and how it is said.
This article began by outlining the main tenets of two Transitivity systems, namely the Sydney model (Halliday and Matthiessen 2014) and the CG model (Fawcett 2000; Neale 2002). Whilst both serve as tools for discourse analysis, we have witnessed that both have shortcomings (cf. He et al. 2017: 23). Among the issues raised here, first and foremost is the fact that both Transitivity models consider there to be only one predicator per clause when analysing texts for Transitivity patterns. However, if we wish to capture the meaning of a clause in its entirety, it may be necessary to accept the notion that all the verbs in a clause constitute a process type with each verb contributing to the intended meaning of the structure.
A second issue raised in this paper is the common difficulty in deciding whether a given item corresponds to a participant role or a circumstance type. In order to deal with this, it is necessary to offer further clarification regarding just what constitutes each of these components. To add to this, the CG model above all would also benefit from specifying a set of criteria that can be used to distinguish between specific circumstance types.
A third concern with the Transitivity models under discussion relates to a series of incoherencies and ambiguities that emerge as a result of the criteria specified by each model for the different process types. A prime example of this is the behavioural set of processes described in the SM, which comprises a miscellaneous assortment of verbs that, essentially, could be assigned to other existing categories if amendments were made to the criteria of each type. A second example is the inconsistent classification of a number of verbs that denote communicative action. That is, there is a clear crossover of semantic criteria in the SM, with communicative verbs assigned to any one of three categories (i.e. verbal, relational and behavioural categories), resulting in a lack of consistency; meanwhile, the CG model fails to capture a sufficient level of detail through placing communication verbs within the mental cognition category.
A fourth question that arose as a result of an innovative idea proposed in the CG Transitivity system was the potential for process combinations. As with the option of participant combinations put forward by the CG model, process combinations may be one way in which, on a practical level, verbs with more complex meanings could be dealt with. That is, the notion of a verb comprising more than one process type need not be viewed as detrimental nor involving a less delicate annotation; rather, it would arguably serve the opposite purpose.
A final point discussed in this article concerns how each model at present fails to adequately annotate grammatical metaphors in discourse. Given that the SM rewords the clause means that how the utterance has been expressed is immediately disregarded; meanwhile, the CG approach examines this type of structure by clearly giving precedence to syntax and, consequently, completely overlooks the actual meaning of the clause itself. As such, there is no denying that neither model currently offers a satisfactory means by which to analyse this type of grammatical structure. With all of the above in mind, then, there are a range of issues that need addressing and especially, if, as discourse analysts, we are striving for an accurate and systematic analysis of Transitivity patterns in any given piece of discourse (cf. He et al. 2017: 160).
I acknowledge that for this type of dual analysis to be deemed reliable, an inter-rater reliability measure would need to be applied, preferably involving collaborative analyses by various SFL transitivity experts of a set of problematic clauses.
I would like to thank my father, John Bartley and my PhD Supervisor Encarnación Hidalgo Tenorio for assisting me with various aspects of the content discussed in this article. Their insights and advice, as always, are much appreciated and, without a doubt, invaluable. I must also acknowledge that this article was carried under the auspices of the project “The Construction of Otherness in the Public Domain: A Critical Study of the Case of Ireland” (reference number FFI2011-25453), led by Dr Encarnación Hidalgo Tenorio.
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The article has been written by the sole author. The author read and approved the final manuscript.
The author declares that they have no competing interests.
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