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What is a systemic functional grammar and how does it work?

Robin Fawcett
Cardiff University
This talk is intended to interest two possible groups of people. One group is made up of
linguists who currently work with a theory of language that is not Systemic Functional
Grammar (SFG) and who would like to know what a SFG is like. The other audience consists
of the many people whose knowledge of SFG has been acquired from a textbook such as
Hallidays Introduction to Functional Grammar (1985, 1994, Halliday & Matthiessen 2004),
or one of the introductions to Hallidays linguistics, such as Bloor & Bloor (1995 & 2004) or
Thompson (1996 and 2004). Chinese students of language have had the benefit of the
introduction by Hu et al (1989). The main purpose of books such as these is to try to
demonstrate to the reader how SFG can be used to analyze the structure of texts - primarily
that of the clause - in functional terms. In doing this, however, such books inevitably play
down the importance of other parts of a Systemic Functional Grammar (or Lexicogrammar) most notably the system networks that actually give their name to the short form of the name
of this theory of language, i.e. Systemics (though most systemicists prefer the term
Systemic Functional Linguistics).
Yet, as many systemicists have shown, a SFG is just as much a generative grammar as any
Chomskyan grammar is - even though the procedures by which it operates are very different
from the rewrite rules( such as S -> NP + VP, etc.) of a Chomskyan phrase structure
grammar (e.g. see. Halliday 1969/72//81 & 1993, Matthiesen & Bateman 1991, Fawcett
1973/81 & 1980, Fawcett, Tucker & Lin 1993).
This talk will try to redress the balance in the main SFL literature by answering, at a
simple level, the question in the title above. In doing so, we shall discover the central
importance of (i) the system networks of choices between meanings, and (ii) the realization
rules by which choices in the system networks are realized by items, structures and
intonation or punctuation. In other words, we shall look at a SFG as a generative grammar.
Towards the end of the talk I shall point out that a grammar of this type has important
lessons for how we view language in the 21st century - e.g. it shows that we need to rethink
the long-established concept of the modifier-head relationship - among many others, as
indicated in Fawcett 2000.
A brief biography
Robin Fawcett is Research Professor in Linguistics and Director of the Computational
Linguistics Unit in the Centre for Language and Communication, Cardiff University. His
research interests embrace linguistic theory, systemic functional linguistics in a cognitiveinteractive framework, the computer modelling of language in both generation and
understanding, and the description of English and other languages for these two purposes and
for the analysis of texts. He has published seven books, over fifty papers in journals or as
book chapters, and and similar number of research reports. Recent book publications include

Meaning and Form: Systemic Functional Interpretations (co-edited with M Berry, C Butler
and G Huang), Ablex 1996, and A Theory of Syntax for Systemic Functional Linguistics,
Benjamins 2000. He is currently working on two major volumes: The Functional Syntax
Handbook: Analyzing English at the Level of Form and The Functional Semantics Handbook:
Analyzing English at the Level of Meaning, to be published by Equinox. He is on the Editorial
Board of Functions of Language and is series editor for Functional Linguistics, published by
Bloor, T., and Bloor, M., 1995. The Functional Analysis of English: a Hallidayan Approach.
London: Arnold.
Bloor, T., and Bloor, M., 2004. The Functional Analysis of English: a Hallidayan Approach
(Second Edition). London: Arnold.
Fawcett, R.P., 1973/81. 'Generating a sentence in systemic functional grammar'. University
College London (mimeo). Reprinted in Halliday, M.A.K., and Martin, J.R., 1981 (eds.),
Readings in Systemic Linguistics. Batsford, 146-83.
Fawcett, R.P., 1980. Cognitive Linguistics and Social Interaction: Towards an Integrated
Model of a Systemic Functional Grammar and the Other Components of an Interacting Mind.
Heidelberg: Julius Groos and Exeter University.
Fawcett, R., 2000. A Theory of Syntax for Systemic Functional Linguistics. Current Issues in
Linguistic Theory 206. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Fawcett, R.P., Tucker, G.H., and Lin, Y.Q., 1993. 'How a systemic functional grammar
works: the role of realization in realization'. In Horacek, H., and Zock, M., (eds.), 1993, New
Concepts in Natural Language Generation, London: Pinter, 114-86.
Halliday, M.A.K., 1969/72//81. 'Options and functions in the English clause'. In Brno
Papers in Linguistics 8, 81-8. Reprinted in Householder, F.W., (ed.) 1972, Syntactic theory
1: Structuralist, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 248-57, and in Halliday, M.A.K., and Martin,
J.R., 1981 (eds.), Readings in Systemic Linguistics, London: Batsford, 138-45.
Halliday, M.A.K., 1985. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Arnold.
Halliday, M.A.K. 1993. 'Systemic Theory'. In Asher, R.E. (ed.-in-chief) 1993 Encyclopaedia
of Languages and Linguistics. Oxford: Pergamon Press, 4905-8.
Halliday, M.A.K., 1994. An Introduction to Functional Grammar (Second Edition). London:
Halliday, M.A.K., and Matthiessen, C.M.I.M., 2004, An Introduction to Functional
Grammar (Third Edition). London: Arnold.

Hu, Z.L., Zhu, Y.S., & Zhang, D.L., 1989. A Survey of Systemic Functional Grammar.
Changsha: Hunan Education Press (in Chinese).
Matthiessen, C.M.I.M., and Bateman, J.A., 1991. Text Generation and Systemic Functional
Linguistics. London: Pinter.
Thompson, G., 1996. Introducing Functional Grammar. London: Arnold.
Thompson, G., 2004. Introducing Functional Grammar (Second Edition). London: Arnold.