6.1 Advanced Theoretical Studies in Grammar: What is functional grammar?

Chapter  6


6.1 Examine the concept of functional grammar in the context of language.


So far, what we presented is formal grammar (traditional grammar, Structuralism and Transformational Generative Grammar). That is, grammar whose central interest is in the structure or form of a language. We now turn to a different kind of grammar which focuses on language use rather than structure. This is Functional Grammar. The proponents of this grammar claim that people use language to communicate certain meanings in specific situations. These situations influence the form of the language that is used. For example, how we greet people depends on the time of day, where we are and whom we are with. Again, the way we would handle a given topic in public speaking is not the way we would in a casual conversation.

We will look at two versions of Functional Grammar, one being a ‘descendant’ of the other. The first is by the Prague School and the other by Michael Halliday


In 1926, some Czech and Russian linguists based in Prague in Austria formed the Linguistic Circle of Prague and published a series of papers mainly in phonology. The key members were Trubetskoy (1890-1938), Jakobson (1884-1955) and Mathesius

(1882-1945). The first two were Russian and the third one a Czech. Their approach to the study of language, which was synchronic in nature, became known as the Prague School Linguistics. Although they were influenced by Saussurian principles (for example in the view that language has a syntagmatic and a paradigmatic dimension), they were not  merely content to describe the structure of language. They went further and explained the functions that grammatical structures have. A clause was said to consist of two parts: the theme and the rheme. The theme is what comes first in a sentence so that it can attract the most attention. It is regarded as shared information (between the speaker and the listener) and is therefore the point of departure for the message. The rheme follows the theme and contains new information. For example, in the sentence: “Mkebe is a noisemaker”, the theme is ‘Mkebe’ and the rest of the sentence is rheme.

Here are further insights from these linguists:

  • Language is ‘a system of means of expression which serves to promote mutual understanding’. Thus, to unearth the actual functions that language plays, one should consider: what is being communicated, how it is being communicated, to whom it is being communicated, and the occasion of the
  • Language is a reality or physical phenomenon (not abstract).
  • Written and spoken varieties of language have their unique
  • The basic functions of language are: expression, appeal and reference. The first two serve an emotive purpose while the third gives factual The three determine how something will be expressed . That is, they account for stylistic variations.
  • The correctness of a sentence is determined by its functional In other words, is it doing what it is meant to be doing?



Systemic Functional Grammar is associated with Michael Halliday who was influenced by the Prague School functionalism. According to Halliday, language is a ‘system of meanings’. This means that people use language to express meaning. Studying the grammar of a language therefore entails looking at the use of words and aspects such as tone and emphasis to express meaning. This implies that the Hallidayan grammar is semantic (concerned with meaning) and functional at the same time.

A functional approach to language focuses on how language is used. It is possible, for example, to use different expressions to put across the same meaning. Consider:


Where do you come from?                                                           -Interrogative

Tell me where you come from.                                                   -Imperative

I would like to know where you come from.                         -Statement How I would like to know where you come from!                                                      -Exclamative


All the above are choices available to the language user and the one picked depends on factors such as the communication situation and the participants involved. The principle used in making the choices is that what one says must make sense in the context in which it is being said. However, most of the linguistic choices we make are unconscious.

Systemic Functional Grammar seeks to answer the following questions:

  • What purposes does language serve?
  • How are we able to achieve these purposes in our communication?
  • Is the form of the language determined by the functions it serves?

In order to answer the first question, Halliday classifies the ways in which we use language into three broad categories, which he calls the metafunctions of language:

  • Firstly, language is used to help people understand themselves and their environment. This is referred to as the ideational function of
  • Secondly, language use involves participants in the form of speakers and listeners (or writers and readers). This entails an interpersonal relationship- person to person in which one gets someone to do This is referred to as the interpersonal function of language.
  • Thirdly, language serves a connecting That is, it relates one linguistic event or utterance with another and therefore deals with the organization of information. This is called the textual function of language.

His answer to the second question is that the three metafunctions operate simultaneously in expressing meaning. This means that the three are found together in a communicative event. It is this idea that gives the theory the term ‘systemic’ which means ‘affecting the whole system’- holistic in nature.

In the next section, we will look at each of these functions in a little more detail and then illustrate how they reinforce one another.

In answer to the third question, he argues that these three functions have shaped language and determined the way it has changed over the years. This claim forms the core of functional grammar.

Let us consider another aspect of Hallidayian grammar. It claims that a grammar that only analyses individual sentences is incomplete. What is needed is a grammar that handles a text. A text is a chunk of language that is actually spoken or written by real people in a communication situation. However, Halliday appreciates the fact that the meaning of a text is constructed out of smaller units namely: sentences, clauses, groups (phrases) and words and morphemes. He employs the notion of rank to explain that a sentence consists of one or more clauses; a clause consists of one or more groups; a group consists of one or more words; and a word consists of one or more morphemes. Each of these ranks constitutes a unit of meaning. The following illustrations show that it is possible to have all these ranks in one sentence:


1a) The lady has adopted the orphans because she has been touched by their plight. (Sentence)

1b) [The lady has adopted the orphans] because [she has been touched by their plight.] (Two clauses joined by the conjunction ‘because’)

1c) [The lady] [has adopted] [the orphans] because [she] [has been touched] [by their plight] (Groups)

1d) [The] [lady] [has] [adopted] [the] [orphans] [because] [she] [has] [been] [touched] [by] [their] [plight]. (Words)

1e) The lady has adopt-ed the orphan-s because she has been touch-ed by their plight. (Words consisting of more than one morpheme)


The clause is said to be the basic unit of grammar since it has a special place in expressing meaning. It is through it that we are able to talk about the things that exist, how things happen and how we feel. Thus, we are able to express our perceptions of the world. Remember that this the ideational function of language. It is also at this clause level that we are able to interact with others (Interpersonal function).



Earlier, we saw that functional grammar is both functional and semantic in approach. For this reason, the analysis of a clause is based on the function it plays in language. In turn, the function determines the interpretation/meaning the clause is given. There are three meanings associated with the clause in Functional Grammar. These are:

  • clause as message
  • clause as exchange
  • clause as

We will look at each of these in turn.



The clause is said to be a message if it is organised as a communicative event. In English for example, the clause is organised as message by giving one of its parts special attention. This part is called the theme and it is the element that serves as the point of departure for the message. It expresses what the clause is concerned with and is placed first in the sentence. For instance, in the sentence: “Her children are studying abroad”, the theme is ‘her children’ because it is what the speaker wants to say something about. After the theme comes the rheme. This is the remainder of the message in which the theme is developed. In the sentence above, ‘are studying abroad’ is the rheme because it gives us information about the theme.

In most cases, the theme is a nominal group (noun phrase). However, there are instances in which it is a prepositional phrase or an adverbial group. Consider the following examples in which the theme is in boldface.


Theme Rheme Type of theme
1)         The dog chased the boy. Nominal group
2)         The boy was chased by the dog. Nominal group
3)         In the dark, the dog chased the boy. Prepositional phrase
4)         Suddenly, the dog chased the boy. Adverbial group


Sometimes, special expressions such as ‘as for’ ‘with regard to’ and ‘about’ are used to introduce a nominal theme. Here are examples:


Theme Rheme
5)         As for the boy, he was chased by the dog.
6)         With regard to the dog, it chased the boy.
7)         About the dog, it chased the boy.


It is possible for the theme to consist of two or more elements forming a single complex element. In such cases, the theme is represented by two or more phrases. In (8) below, two nominal groups are used in apposition (side by side and referring to the same person) and jointly function as theme.


Theme                                              Rheme
8)         The party leader, a true democrat,     is respected by many.
9)          Odhiambo, a father of twins,             won the award.


In all the examples above, the sentences are declaratives. How then is the theme rheme structure represented in interrogative and imperative sentences? Examples follow:


Theme Rheme
10)       Who took my keys?
11)       How many sodas did you take?
12)       With whom have you arrived?


As is evident in the examples above, the theme is either the wh- word or the group in which the wh- word occurs (note: ‘how’ falls in this group because it is used in much the way as the wh- words). With yes-no interrogatives, the theme includes the finite verb but it extends over to the subject as in the examples below. The finite verbs are ‘did’ and ‘must’.

Theme Rheme
13)       Did they make it on time?
14)       Must she leave now?


There are two ways of analysing an imperative sentence. One, it can be assumed that since there is no subject, there is no theme. Two, since the theme is associated with the first position, the verb can be considered the theme. We illustrate the alternative analyses:

Theme Rheme
15)       Ø recite the poem.
16)       Recite the poem.


(Note: the symbol in (15) means null/nothing).

To wind up this section on clause as message, let us consider examples in which the theme is a whole clause.


Theme Rheme
17)       What you bought is a valuable asset.
18)       Whoever comes will be received warmly.

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