The dialectic of theory and practice:
SFL as an appliable linguistics
Chang Chenguang
School of Foreign Languages
Sun Yat-sen University
24 September 2010
Systemic Functional Linguistics has always stressed the
dialectic interaction between theory and practice.
Halliday’s vision is to construct an appliable theory that
can be helpful to people who are engaging with language
in their work.
an appliable theory: the emphasis of SFL on social accountability
Martin: neo-Marxist theory that is ideologically committed to
social action
It can continue growing as the dialectic of theory and practice.
Huang (2000): spread and development of SFL in
 There
are many reasons why SLF has been developing
rapidly in China, and one of the most important factors
is its practicality and appliability.
 …because SFL emphasizes studying language in use…
and it is a theory particularly suitable for discourse
Appliability: one of the attractions of the theory
26 March 2006, the official launch of the
Halliday Centre for Intelligent Applications of
Language Studies
Halliday’s inaugural lecture: Working with
meaning: towards an Appliable Linguistics:
Webster: Professor Halliday's theoretical approach, with its
focus on modeling meaning and emphasis on social
accountability, provides the basis for the Halliday Centre's
research in appliable linguistics.
Halliday examined how the scientific study of language helps
solve communication problems in many aspects of modern life,
including education, culture, health and safety. … He has
investigated many activities in which an effective outcome
depends on applying a theoretical understanding of language to
solving problems…
December, 2006, Sun Yat-sen University
Symposium on Functional Linguistics and
Discourse Analysis
 Theme: Systemic Functional Linguistics as
Appliable Linguistics
 Christian M.I.M. Matthiessen (2006):
Systemic Functional Linguistics —
appliability: areas of research”
Systemic Functional
Linguistics — appliability:
areas of research
Christian M.I.M. Matthiessen
Linguistics, Macquarie University; Systemic
Meaning Modelling Group; Halliday Centre
October, 2007, Jiangxi Normal
University, Nanchang, 10th National
Functional Linguistics Conference
Hu Zhuanglin: Halliday’s Appliable
 Other interpretations:
Some misunderstanding: “Halliday’s new shift”
Halliday (2008: 189)
Complementarities in Language(《语言系统
 I am committed to working towards a coherent
account of language which is “appliable”, in
the sense that it can be helpful to at least some
of the large numbers of people who are in some
way or other engaging with language in the
course of their work.
Complementarities in language include those
lexis and grammar
 language as system and language as text
 two modes of speaking and writing
Halliday (2008: ii):The complementarities in
language are highlighted here with the aim of
achieving a coherent account of language
which is “appliable”.
Lexis and grammar
In SFL, language is seen as a complex
semiotic system, having various levels or
strata: semantics, lexicogrammar and
phonology/phonetics. (Halliday 2004a: 24)
Folk names
phonology /
Levels or strata of language
(Eggins 1994: 21)
Halliday (2004: 25)
Lexicogrammar as a continuum or cline.
Halliday (2004: 43):
 Because
the two ends of the continuum are organized
differently, when it came to describing them different
techniques evolved: dictionary and thesaurus for
lexis…, the ‘grammar book’ …for grammar. Either of
these techniques may be extended all the way along the
cline – but with diminishing returns…
Halliday (2008: 31):
 the
grammarian’s dream was to take over the whole of
the territory, reducing everything treated as ‘vocabulary’
to a part of the grammar
 “lexis as most delicate grammar”
Halliday (2004: 44)
Halliday (2004a: 44): verbs of saying – imperating
implore, beg
Differentiated by the delicate verbal process type systems
neutral (1)
neutral (1)
neutral (1)
toned down (3)
neutral (1)
neutral (1)
toned up (2)
personal (2)
institutional (3)
negative (3)
implore, beg
toned down (3)
personal (2)
neutral (1)
toned up (2)
institutional (3)
positive (2)
Halliday (2004a: 44)
The lexicologist’s dream: building the grammar
out of the lexis
lexicological method to the “grammar” end
 Francis (1993): words have their own grammar
 Extending
Verbs like adore, dislike, enjoy, hate, like, love, need, want
often occur in the pattern “what or all + pronoun + verb + be +
& Francis (2000): pattern grammar: “words
that share meaning share patterns”
 Hunston
take + pride/pleasure/delight + in + …ing
waste/squander/spend + time/energy/money + on/in + …ing
How do we describe patterns of this kind?
 Halliday
(2004a: 45): In systemic theory they
appear as moderately delicate choices in the
grammar, typically in transitivity and its related
systems, having complex realizations involving
both grammatical and lexical selections.
a metafunctional perspective (Halliday 2008: 4565)
 Ideationally,
the lexicogrammar sorts out the complex
world of our surroundings… there are particular
things… sorted out into classes,… classes of classes, or
taxonomies….As well as things there are happenings…
both things and happenings display certain very general
 The lexicogrammar adopts two contrasting perspectives
for construing all this complexity. The one is specific
and open-ended….the other is general and systemic…
The two perspectives are complementary; any
phenomenon can be looked at in terms of either…
Halliday (1998, 2008: 3-4):the grammar of pain
 In
English, there is a lexical inventory of different kinds
of pain… based on the items hurt, pain, ache, sore,
tender etc, … and terms in simile or as metaphors:
burning, throbbing, stabbing etc. Also lexicalized are
the parts of the body where pain is found to be located.
 The relation between the pain and the sufferer is
grammaticalized: transitivity, voice, etc
 A combination of the lexical and the grammatical
resources: it hurts, it’s hurting, I hurt, it hurt me, I hurt
myself, my leg hurts, I have a headache, my head aches
Interpersonally, the same two perspectives
come into play.
Some interpersonal meanings are highly generalized,
like the enactment of dialogic roles (speech function).
(Martin & White 2005: INTERpersonal)
With options in the way something is evaluated or contended,
the borderline is shaded over; systems of APPRAISAL
represent more delicate options within the general region of
evaluation. (Martin & White 2005: 130-135; Martin & Rose
2007: 48-51; Halliday 2008: 49)
(Halliday 2008: 49): In the interpersonal
domain, the organization of meaning is
less polarized, there is not such a clear
demarcation between the general and the
particular in the management of human
Language as system and language as text
Halliday (2008: 84):
The complementarity of grammar and lexis is one of focus,
based on the scale or vector of delicacy. System and text,
on the other hand, form a complementarity of angle, based
on the vector of instantiation.
Halliday (1994: xxii):
the grammar is at once both a grammar of the system and a
grammar of the text.
Discourse analysis has to be founded on a study of the
system of the language. At the same time, the main reason
for studying the system is to throw light on discourse…
Both system and text have to be in focus of attention.
Weather and climate analogy
 Halliday (2002)
 System:
language seen from a distance, as
semiotic potential
 Text: language seen from close up, as
instances derived from that potential
Martin & White (2005: 23-4)
weather being the capricious flux we experience day
to day, and climate the relatively comforting inertia we
try to use to plan. Critically, weather and climate are the
same thing, looked at in different ways; climate is a
generalisation of weather patterns, and weather is an
instance of climatic trends. In SFL the concept of
instantiation is used to explore the metastablity of
systems – how they change globally in ways that matter
(e.g. global warming) and how they vary locally in
ways that apparently don't (e.g. daily temperature
variations). Theoretically speaking local variation is
always nudging the system as a whole in one direction
or another…
For Halliday, the potential of language is a meaning
potential. This meaning potential is the linguistic
realization of the behaviour potential; “can mean” is “can
do” when translated into language… realized in the
language system as lexicogrammatical potential, which is
what the speaker “can say”. (CWH 10: 46)
Halliday (2008: 192)
Discourse analysis itself is sometimes counted among the
“applications” of linguistics; I would consider it, rather, as a proper
part of linguistics, the part that consists in the description of
particular instances of language.
Matthiessen & Halliday (2009: 80)
 …the
task of grammatics is not just to describe the
system, it is also to relate the system to the instance – or
rather (since there is no distinct steps) to describe the
system as it relates to actual instances of language
(referred to as text)
 …our concept of system is valid only because it is
instantiated in text: each instance keeps alive the
potential, on one hand reinforcing it and on the other
hand challenging and changing it. This dialectic of text
and system is what we understand by a living language.
Halliday (2008: 15):
 The
system depends on memory: on what each speaker
has inscripted in the brain; and specifically on shared
memory, such that enough is in common to viable
number of different speaker-brains to ensure that there
is no break in continuity. What is shared includes not
only the networks of grammatical and phonological
systems but also quantitative patterns – the probability
profiles which are …an inherent property of the
systems themselves…It takes time, and also a good deal
of input – of textual experience, to accumulate a
memory of this kind…
Halliday (2008: 16):
 The
complementarity between system and text
is not just an artefact of our description; it is a
complementarity that is built up in every
individual’s “language brain” as it constantly
shifts its focus between the instantial activity of
the moment and the long-term patterns that are
being drawn on in processing this activity – that
is in the production and understanding of
SFL and corpus linguistcs
has always emphasized the analysis of naturally
occurring language data, so is in this sense always
Halliday (2006): in principle, a corpus may be of
any size – the origin of the term … was the
philologists’ corpus inscriptionum, which was
sometimes very small…
 Malinowski
(1935): record of conversations with the
Trobriand Islanders on the cultivation of their
gardening plots: Corpus Inscriptionum Agriculturae
Halliday (2006): corpus as object, and corpus as
as object: a single text studied as object –
valued as a discourse in its own right (relating it to the
 corpus as instrument: text as a window on to the
system, then scale matters (the larger the corpus, the
more effectively it will reveal the system)
 corpus
The large-scale corpus constitutes a comparable
thickening of the data; …not simply an
accumulation of more of the same. (Halliday 2006)
…it encompasses more variation, dialectal, diatypic and
… it also extends the scope, and hence the power of
quantitative methods of analysis.
 Hoey
(2006): the pursuit of corpus linguistics in no way
excludes or conflicts with the intensive study of
individual texts. Text analysis adds to the conceptual
depth of the categories studied, and … to the riches of
the description as a whole.
Halliday (2004b) :
can so no place for an opposition between
theory and data, in the sense of a clear
boundary between “data-gathering” and theory
 [linguistics] will be greatly hindered if we think
of data and theory as realms apart, or divide the
world scholarship into those who dig and those
who spin.
Halliday (2004a: 29): as grammarians we have to be able
to shift our perspective, observing now from the system
end and now from that of the text; and we have to be aware
at which point we are standing at any time. This issue has
been strongly foregrounded by the appearance of the
computerized corpus…But the corpus does not write the
grammar for you, any more than the data from experiments
in the behaviour of light wrote Newton’s Opticks for him;
it has to be theorized.
We would argue for a dialectical complementarity between theory
and data: complementarity because some phenomena show up best
if illuminated by a general theory (i.e. from the “system” end),
others if treated as patterns within the data (i.e. from the “instance
Halliday (2004a: 35) cautions against “anti-theoretical
… new data from the corpus pose problems for any theory,
systemic theory included – as Jones said, “a science without
difficulties is not a science at all.” (Jones, 1999: 152). But such
data will not contribute towards raising our understanding unless
cultured by stock from within the pool of theoretical knowledge.
A corpus-driven grammar is not one that is theory-free.
Tognini-Bonelli: “If the paradigm is not excluded from this [corpusdriven] view of language, it is seen as secondary with respect to the
syntagm. Corpus linguistics is thus above all a linguistics of parole”.
Halliday: “I don’t think corpus-driven linguistics is a linguistics of
parole … Once you are ‘doing linguistics’, you have already moved
above the instantial realm.”
A corpus-driven grammar needs a grammar-driven corpus.
Speaking and writing
Halliday: emphasis on speech
 1950-60s
Quirk: Survey of English
 Francis and Kučera: Brown corpus
 Halliday: recording and analysing natural speech
Halliday (2004a: 34) … it is in the most
unself-monitored spontaneous speech that
people explore and expand their meaning
potential. It is here that we reach the
semantic frontiers of language and get a
sense of the directions in which its grammar
is moving.
Halliday (2008: 141): when we are
observing and investigating language, our
vision is essentially trinocular
 from
above (in terms of its function in various
 from below (in terms of the various modes of
 from round about (from its own level)
from above (in terms of its function in various
 In
origin, speech and writing display a functional
complementarity: writing, though parasitic on speech,
evolved in the service of distinct functions in society,
concerned with the development of agriculture and the
growth of permanent settlement.
writing is at one and the same time both more
constraining and more enabling than speaking.
from below (in terms of the various modes
of expression)
speech happens, as ongoing transitory
disturbances in the air, that we recognize as
sound waves; writing exists, as simultaneous
and relatively permanent visible marks, on
stone or metal or vegetable matter processed
into paper
(Halliday 2008: 140)
from round about (at the lexicogrammatical
 Halliday (2008:
158-164): a complementarity in the
kinds of complexity they entail
Grammatical intricacy: The complexity of the spoken
language is…choreographic: it can build up structured
clauses, and string these out in equally elaborate clause
complexes, giving a commonsense picture of the world that
is intricate but not dense…not very densely packed
Lexical density: The complexity of the written language
could be described as crystalline: its clauses tend to be rather
simple in structure, but they can be extremely dense
These are two ways of managing complexity: different
strategies for transforming complex phenomena into edifices
of meaning.
Interpersonally, the most significant variable in this
context is that of personality, the different personae
being taken on by the writer and the speaker
 Writing
departs further from the dialogic foundations of
language …
 If you are writing, your addressee is typically virtual,
The writer’s personal intrusion into the discourse may be less
apparent, but present in lexicalized systems of appraisal…
 whereas
if you are speaking your addressee is typically
actual, and this imposes constraints on the meaningmaking process… more a matter for negotiation…
The complementarity of grammar and lexis is one
of focus, based on the scale or vector of delicacy.
System and text, on the other hand, form a
complementarity of angle, based on the vector of
Speaking and writing form a complementarity of
state, opposed in the manner of realization
 Spoken
language is liquid and transitory; written
language is solid and permanent.
 Speech unfolds in time… writing extends in space…
The dialectic of theory and practice
A further complementarity: that of theory
and practice, or theory and application.
The dialectic of theory and practice
Halliday’s “appliable linguistics” is consistent
with his thinking all along.
 Firth’s
influence: “Meaning viewed as the function of
linguistic item in its context of use”
 Butler (1985: 3): Halliday’s primary interest is in
language as a central attribute of “social man” and his
main aim is to account for the ways in which speakers
and writers interact with their hearers and readers in
social situations.
The dialectic of theory and practice
Thompson & Collins (2001): Interview with
M.A.K. Halliday. DELTA 17: 1
 Now
as regard the social practice, again I would
feel that what I have explored has been a
development of these interests. Again, it goes
back to Firth, whose view was … that the
important direction for the future lay in
sociology of language.
Halliday sees language essentially as “a system of meaning
... this semantic system is itself the realization of something beyond,
which is what the speaker can do – I have referred to that as the
“behavior potential”.
In an interview with Parret, Halliday (1978: 36) points out:
the instrumentality of linguistics and its autonomy are not
contradictory…the two perspectives are complementary…
Probably most people who have looked at language in functional
terms have had a predominantly instrumental approach…for
understanding something else – the social system, for example.
 Butler
(1985: 3): Halliday has also inherited
Firth’s concern with the practical applications
of linguistic theory: indeed his main interest
now appears to be the ways in which linguistics
can contribute to such applied fields as stylistics,
language in education, and artificial intelligence.
 Halliday (2008: 203)
complementarity of theory and practice, or theory
and application.
Matthiessen 2006
literacy, language and
content, second/
foreign learning
language evolution:
phases of evolution
speech pathology,
therapy; consultation
half-way houses
case studies of
learning how to mean
theory and metatheory; modelling
multilingual studies:
typology, translation
electronic scams
text generation,
text classification,
language description
corpus studies
discourse analysis:
positive, critical,
multimodal ...
Halliday: appliable theory that can be helpful to
people who are engaging with language in their
Thompson & Collins (2001): Interview with
M.A.K. Halliday. DELTA 17: 1
never saw myself as theorist; I only became interested
in theory, in the first place, because, in the theoretical
approaches that I had access to, I didn’t find certain areas
developed enough to enable me to explore the questions
that I was interested in.
Martin (2000)
 SFL…as
an ideologically committed form of
social action
 some kind of neo-Marxist linguistics, designed
by Halliday to materilaize language as base and
context as social semiotic superstructure – a
model that can be used to intervene in language
development around the world.
 SFL as politicised theory, … as materialist
theory, designed to engage.
Thompson & Collins (2001): Interview with
M.A.K. Halliday. DELTA 17: 1
 …one
example of where I’ve changed… I had at that
time what you might call a classical Marxist view, which
was very much technology driven and therefore seeing
language as a kind of second-order phenomenon, where
essentially it was reflecting rather than construing. But
there has been a shift, generally towards what has been
characterised as neo-Marxist… instead of seeing
language as essentially technology-driven, I would want
to see it as a product of the dialectic between material
processes and semiotic processes, so the semiotic
become constructive-constitutive…
Thompson & Collins (2001) :
 The
fact that language does not simply “reflect”
social structures but “construes” them is a
fundamental tenet of SFL.
Thompson & Collins (2001): Interview with
M.A.K. Halliday. DELTA 17: 1
 …in
the sixtieth I worked with teachers of all
levels, so I became involved with the context of
developing a grammar for educational purposes.
Now I still saw that as part of what I sometimes
call that social accountability of the linguist –
although it was directly political, it was as I saw
it, trying to make a contribution to society… of
course we learn a lot about language from being
involved in practical applications like this…
Halliday (2008):
 “socially
accountable linguistics”?
it puts language in its social context (解释语言的特
 at the same time it puts linguistics in its social
context, as mode of intervention in critical social
practices (把语言学当作一种干预方式, 即注重社
Halliday has always emphasized
accountability of the linguist
 “The
Context of Linguistics” (1975/2003)
In matters such as these, theoretical linguists refused to admit
the social accountability of their subject, and withdraw their
expertise from activities that could have been beneficial to
large numbers of people.
In short: linguistics has not yet faced up to the question of its
social accountability. …many of the arguments lead back to
this same point: that there are strong boundaries between
academic disciplines, which hamper intellectual development
and induce both overspecialization and underapplication.
(CWH 3)
 “Systemic
Background” (1985/2003)
What is perhaps a unifying factor among these who
work within this framework is a strong sense of the
social accountability of linguistics and of linguists.
Systemic theory is designed not so much to prove
things as to do things. It is a form of praxis….
language …clearly reveals a dual function: it is at
once, and inseparably, a means of action and a
means of reflection. Linguistics, as metalanguage,
has to serve the same twofold purpose. Systemic
theory is explicitly constructed both for thinking
with and for acting with.
(CWH 3)
 “Language
in a changing world” (1993/2003)
There is no question that learners must have access
to the dominant discourses of society; that is what
education means. It would be a strange interpretation
of social accountability to say that because you do
not like these discourses you do not teach them to
children and to migrants. This does not prevent you
engaging in political action to change them. But
there is another side to this: …our accountability to
those peoples who are not, and never have been, part
of the culture to which these dominant discourses
(CWH 3)
 “Is
the grammar neutral? Is the grammarian
neutral?” (2001/2003)
Linguistic doings… different aspects of being a
linguist,…not just “a matter of their degree of social
commitment,… linguistic theory itself is dependent
for its continued progress on such ongoing
engagements with language. If language is social
semiotic, we shall understand it better if we not only
observe the text but also intrude in it.”
 “doing linguistics” was a highly political activity ….
 …linguistics was (like language itself) a mode of
action, a way of intervening in social and political
processes, and this has remained as a significant
motif of work in systemic functional linguistics.
 “Language
in a changing world” (Halliday
Linguistics Group of the British communist
Party…in the 1950s, … we had to develop our own
Marxist linguistics… but we were also aware that it
had to be a socially accountable linguistics, ….
 Our party group was…trying to formulate linguistics
which would …give value to the language of the
“other”… The motif has remained constant, as the
main ideological input to what evolved into systemic
theory. The theory has never been neutral.
(CWH 3)
 “Language
in a changing world” (Halliday
Of course, much of what may seem at first sight to
be “pure” research is highly political activity – and
may be conceived of by the researcher as such; the
difference often lies in the time depth, whether the
political goal is concrete and immediate or more
abstract and still some distance off. In any case,
engaging with language on these different levels
puts increased pressure on theoretical resources,
pressure to which a socially accountable theory has
to respond.
(CWH 3)
 “Language
in a changing world” (Halliday 1993/2003)
It might be argued that, while these practices undoubtedly
involve one in engaging with language, to do so does not
require any abstract linguistic theory; such work can be done
with an approach that is “theory-free”. This always has a very
seductive appeal: it gives the impression that one is being
objective. Unfortunately, however, this impression is false.
There is no such thing as theory-free engagement with
language, whether one is actively intervening in the linguistic
practice of a community or systematically describing the
grammar of a particular language.
(CWH 3)
 …in
our post-modern world I don’t think we
need to be afraid of social accountability any
more. We know how to make theories that
thrive on application and there’s no reason why
we can’t keep designing better and better ones.
We don’t have to wait to discover the whole
truth before intervening…
Halliday has all along stressed the importance of
revising the theory in the course application
 Halliday, McIntosh
& Strevens (1964: 139): the
applications themselves are an important source of
feedback: a theory is constantly re-examined in the light
of ideas suggested in the course of its application
 Thompson & Collins (2001): “Interview with M.A.K.
Halliday”, DELTA 17: 1
…so all the time we’ve moved out into new directions, new
kinds of application, but there’s always been a significant
feeding back into the theory.
Matthiessen, forthcoming
Martin (2008) :Not many linguistics put their
theory on the line and purposefully re/design it for
the applications it needs to serve.
 In
different phases of SFL: the dialectic of theory and
 Contextual theory
 Metafunctions
 Children language development
 Semantic variation
“Is the grammar neutral? Is the grammarian neutral?”
What matters here is the results of all these efforts are ongoingly
fed back in to the theory, which has always evolved in the context
of activities of this and other equally “practical” kinds.
… to evolve a grammatics which will enable us to theorize
language – and to describe languages – as resource: as a potential
wherewith we construct experience and intervene in social
processes. These two aspects are closely interconnected, in that on
both counts language is understood to be an active participant,
constructing and intervening rather than reflecting and conveying.
This is language interpreted as social semiotic.
(CWH 3)
Starting from early 80s, Sydney School genre theory
Complementarity of theory and practice in action research
re-examination of ideas in the course of application
Appraisal theory
Martin and colleagues’ recent explorations into
instantiation, individuation, affiliation and identity (Martin
Interdisciplinary dialogue with Bernsteinian sociology
The dialectic of theory and practice is what has
been pushing SFL forward
 Halliday(2008: 203)
A final complementarity might be that of theory and practice,
or theory and application. In order to remain appliable, a theory
needs to go on evolving, with ongoing conversation between
these two positions. But these are not two different groups of
people: it is a quality of a functional theory that many of its
cast of actors act out the dialectic of theory and practice in the
course of their own work. (Halliday 2008: 203)
The dialectic of theory and practice
Thank you.
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