T R A N S I T I V I T Y

Our experience of reality is captured in terms of processes (or "goings-on") -- happening, doing, sensing, meaning, being, and becoming. These processes constitute the transitivity system of language, which belongs to the experiential metafunction. In transitivity analysis, then, we explore how language construes our experience of the world around us.

Basic stuff

Our focus here is on the clause as representation (of our experience of the world). Transitivity is the resource for construing our experience, and this is done, as noted, in terms of processes. Revolving around these processes are participants and circumstances, and we'll need to take these into account as well. Students in the past have often found it difficult to remember the different types of processes. And the participants that go with them. As well as the circumstances. And the cow jumping over the moon ...

Let's simplify things. There are six processes. Each process takes a unique set of participants. (There is one participant, though -- Attribute -- that can appear with two process types. See table below.) That is to say, given a participant, you should be able to (more or less) identify the process. And vice versa. Where circumstances are concerned, all such elements are generalisable across processes; they are not tied down to one or the other process.

This all looks quite confusing at the moment, doesn't it? Let's simplify things even further:

  • The process is always realised by a VG.
  • The participant is typically realised by an NG.
  • The circumstance is typically realised by an AdvG or PP.

Well ... how do we remember the processes? I suggest you use an acronym. The one that works best for me is MMVERB, which stands for Material, Mental, Verbal, Existential, Relational, Behavioural. If you adore chocolates (M&M) and like to talk (VERB), this'll be right up your alley. If not, work out your own acronym. Since each process takes a unique set of participants, everything else after the MMVERB stage should fall quite neatly into place, as follows:

  Processes Participants
  Material Actor, Goal, Scope, Attribute, Client, Recipient
  Mental Senser, Phenomenon
  Verbal Sayer, Receiver, Verbiage
  Existential Existent
  Relational Carrier/Attribute, Token/Value
  Behavioural Behaver, Behaviour

Beam me up, Scottie!

Circumstances 

Circumstantial elements add information about time (when), place (where), manner (how), and reason/cause (why, for what/who). They can be probed with where, why, how, and when. For obvious reasons, elements which answer a who, which, or what probe are not circumstantial elements, but participants.

There are, of course, other types of circumstances that are not probe-able by the above wh-diagnostic, and these have to to do with ACREAM, another acronym to help you remember better:

  • Accompaniment (together with whom/what?)
  • Contingency (under what circumstances?)
  • Role (as/into what?)
  • Extent (at what interval?)
  • Angle (whose/which perspective?)
  • Matter (about what? as for what?)

OK, I know what you're thinking. Doesn't Matter, for instance, answer about what? Shouldn't it therefore be a participant? Please note, however, the important difference: a participant answers a who, which, or what probe; a circumstance of Matter, Accompniment, or Role answers, instead, about what and with whom/what. The two probes are not identical. In summary, then,

"Core" circumstantial elements (where?, why?, how?, when?)

  • Location (Ask: Where?)
    Mr Bean tore his shorts in the park.
  • Reason/cause (Ask: Why?)
    Mr Bean tore his shorts for fun.
  • Manner (Ask: How?)
    Mr Bean tore his shorts carelessly.
  • Time (Ask: When?)
    Mr Bean tore his shorts yesterday.

"Non-core" circumstantial elements (try the acronym ACREAM)

  • Accompaniment (Ask: With whom/what?)
    Mr Bean was having lunch with his girl friend.
  • Contingency (Ask: Under what circumstances?)
    Mr Bean tore his shorts despite his girl friend's protest.
  • Role (Ask: As/into what?)
    Mr Bean tore his shorts into shreds.
    As a garment inspector, Mr Bean tore his shorts.
  • Extent (Ask: At what interval?)
    Mr Bean tears his shorts from Mondays to Wednesdays.
  • Angle (Ask: Whose/which perspective?)
    Mr Bean tore his shorts, according to his girl friend.
  • Matter (Ask: About what?)
    Mr Bean kept quiet about his torn shorts.

Beam me up, Scottie!

Meaty stuff

In the examples below, Pt stands for participant, Pr for process, and Circ for circumstance.

Material process

The participants are:

  • Actor -- the one performing the action
  • Goal -- that which is affected by the action
  • Scope -- that which remains unaffected by the action
  • Attribute -- a quality ascribed or attributed to an entity
  • Client -- for whom/which the action occurs
  • Recipient -- the receiver of goods or services

A material process is a process of doing or happening, and the Actor is the key participant. You can probe a material process with "what did the Actor do?" or "what happened?"

  Alvin played ping pong yesterday
  Pt:
Actor
Pr:
Material
Pt:
Scope
Circ:
Time
  Alvin swallowed the ping pong ball by mistake
  Pt:
Actor
Pr:
Material
Pt:
Goal
Circ:
Manner
  The doctor gave Alvin some laxative
  Pt:
Actor
Pr:
Material
Pt:
Recipient
Pt:
Goal
  He also made Alvin a tablet
  Pt:
Actor
  Pr:
Material
Pt:
Client
Pt:
Goal
  and painted it green
    Pr:
Material
Pt:
Goal
Pt:
Attribute

Because the material process involves dynamic verbs, the progressive is permitted -- "Alvin was playing ping pong yesterday". This is a useful test to tell apart a material process from another that is inherently stative.

Please note that Goal is that which is affected by something being done to it (that is, it either changes its position or its status). If it remains unaffected (or unimpacted), it is not Goal, but Scope.

Another useful point to note is that whereas Recipient takes the preposition "to", Client takes "for". Compare:

  • The doctor gave some laxative to Alvin. (Recipient)
  • He also made a bitter-tasting tablet for Alvin. (Client)

Mental process

The participants are:

  • Senser -- the one who feels (emotionally), thinks, and perceives
  • Phenomenon -- that which is felt (emotionally), thought about, or perceived

The mental process has to do with affection, cognition, perception, or desideration (a fancy term for "desiring"):

  I hate curly underarm hair  
  Pt:
Senser
Pr:
Mental
Pt:
Phenomenon
[Affection]
  His curly underarm hair amazed me  
  Pt:
Phenomenon
Pr:
Mental
Pt:
Senser
[Cognition]
  I saw her curly underarm hair  
  Pt:
Senser
Pr:
Mental
Pt:
Phenomenon
[Perception]

The mental process is usually in simple present/past tense, but not usually in the progressive aspect.

Please note that the Senser need not always come first. In "His curly underarm hair amazed me", the underlined portion is not Senser but Phenomenon.

Verbal process

The participants are:

  • Sayer -- the addresser
  • Receiver -- the addressee, or the entity targetted by the saying
  • Verbiage -- the content of what is said or indicated

Verbal processes include all modes of expressing and indicating, even if they need not be verbal, such as "showing". The content of what is said or indicated can be realised as a full projected clause, a participant (verbiage), or a circumstance (matter). See examples below.

  The x-ray shows a small lump in Alvin's throat
  Pt:
Sayer
Pr:
Verbal
Pt:
Verbiage
Circ:
Location
  The doctor expressed some concern
  Pt:
Sayer
Pr:
Verbal
Pt:
Verbiage
  Alvin complained about the discomfort
  Pt:
Sayer
Pr:
Verbal
Circ:
Matter
  He mumbled that the ball ruined his appearance
  Pt:
Sayer
Pr:
Verbal
[Separate ranking clause]

Existential process

This is the easiest of the lot. It involves existential constructions which are introduced by an empty there in subject position (this is sometimes called an expletive there, but don't ask me why). The typical verb that is used is the "be" verb. So everytime you see an existential construction, you have an existential process. Simple, right?

Another simple diagnostic is that the progressive is forbidden in the existential process. Whereas the mental and, as we shall see in a while, relational processes resist the progressive, the existential process absolutely forbids it.

There is also only one participant in an existential process -- the Existent. The Existent is simply that which is construed existentially.

Note, however, that in cases such as "On the wall is a handprint", we also have an existential process, although there is no empty there anywhere. But you know that this construction can be expanded to "On the wall there is a handprint", no?

  Once upon a time there was a weird grammarian
  Circ:
Time
  Pr:
Existential
Pt:
Existent

Relational process

Relational processes obligatorily require two participants. In a finite clause, you cannot and do not have a relational process with only one participant. Relational processes are concerned with being, possessing, or becoming.

The progressive is resisted in the relational process.

The relational process is either identifying or attributive. The difference is this:

Identifying: "a" is the identity of "X"
Attributive: "a" is an attribute of "X"

An identifying process permits the participants to be reversed, together with a corresponding change in grammatical function. The participants can be reversed in one of two ways -- by the mere swapping of positions, or through passivisation:

That man is my father ~ My father is that man
[Notice the change in grammatical function of the participants -- in the first clause, "that man" is the subject, but in the second clause, it is the complement. Similarly, "my father" is the complement in the first clause, but the subject in the second.]

The exam takes up the whole day ~ The whole day is taken up by the exam
[Again, note the change in grammatical function. In the first clause, "the exam" is the subject, but in the second clause, it is the prepositional complement. Similarly, "the whole day" is the complement in the first clause, but the subject in the second.]

An attributive process generally does not allow the participants to be reversed. Unfortunately, it sometimes does. The crucial difference, however, is this -- the grammatical functions of the participants will always remain unchanged, whether or not they can be reversed. Also, it might be helpful for you to note that an attributive process can never undergo passivisation:

He is blessed ~ Blessed is he
[Notice that there is no change in the grammatical function of the participants -- "he" remains the subject in both clauses, and "blessed" remains the complement in both as well.]

If the process is identifying, the participants are Token and Value. But which is which? You need to note two things here. First, if the identifying process is able to undergo passivisation, then in the active form, the subject is always the Token (the Value, of course, is the complement). Second, if the process cannot undergo passivisation, you will then need the "represent" test to find out which label to use. What you need to do is to first replace the verb with "represent" to form an acceptable alternative construction. By this test, you will get "Token represents Value".

Here are some examples:

  Today is World Belching Day
  Pt:
Token
Pr:
Rel-Ident
Pt:
Value
  ["World Belching Day" serves to identify what today is. Also, we can have "Today represents World Belching Day", but not *"World Belching Day represents today".]
  The champion belcher is Alvin
  Pt:
Value
Pr:
Rel-Ident
Pt:
Token
  [Alvin is identified by his status as a champion belcher. Also, we can have "Alvin represents the champion belcher", but not *"The champion belcher represents Alvin".]

If the process is attributive, the participants are Carrier and Attribute. Umm ... which is which? Well, "a" is the attribute, and "X" is the Carrier. Clauses with attributive processes are non-passivisable. That means that the grammatical subject is always the Carrier. Here are some examples:

  Alvin was fantastic during World Belching Day
  Pt:
Carrier
Pr:
Rel-Attr
Pt:
Attribute
Circ:
Time
  Alvin has a shapely rib cage
  Pt:
Carrier
Pr:
Rel-Attr
Pt:
Attribute

It is important to run through the various diagnostics listed here to separate identifying from attributive processes. For instance, by the reversibility test, a clause such as "The exam lasts the whole day" is attributive, but "The exam takes up the whole day" is identifying. (This is either really cool or utterly confusing, depending on your current state of mind.)

Relational processes usually involve the be verb, and are manifested in three ways (use the reversibility test to find out whether each is attributive or identifying):

  • "X is Y" (intensive)
  • "X is at/in/under ... Y" (circumstantial)
  • "X has Y" (possessive)

Especially for the "X is at/in/under ... Y" type, please take care to label the circumstantial element as participant, rather than as circumstance. Why? That's because relational processes must have two participants, remember? So, the PP "in the drain" is functionally ambiguous, depending on the process type. In "The best hiding place is in the drain", it is a participant (Attribute); in "Alvin dropped his wallet in the drain", it is circumstance (Location).

Behavioural process

The main participant is Behaver, but may sometimes involve a Behaviour. Behavioural processes are typically intransitive, involving only the Behaver as participant. If there are two participants, the second participant is Behaviour.

The behavioural process is a hybrid process -- a material+mental process. Because it is part mental, the behavioural process involves verbs that are clearly psychological. And because it is part material, the behavioural process permits the progressive, and the clause can be probed with "What did the Behaver do?" (which a true mental process forbids).

  The sore losers glared at the champion belcher
  Pt:
Behaver
Pr:
Behavioural
Pt:
Behaviour
  [What did the sore losers do?]

Beam me up, Scottie!

In summary

At the risk of sounding long-winded, the important characteristics to note are the following (which serve as useful probes):

  • Two processes -- existential and behavioural -- typically have only one participant.
  • Mental processes are usually in the simple present/past tense.
  • The relational process must always have two participants. You can't do without one or the other -- it wouldn't be called relational in that case.
  • The participants in a relational-attributive clause are generally not reversible. The participants in a relational-identifying clause are. Even if the participants are reversible in a relational-attributive process, their grammatical functions do not change. This is unlike the case in a relational-identifying process where the participants change their grammatical functions as they are reversed. Reversibility involves not just the mere swapping of positions, but also passivisation.
  • Whenever be is used as the main verb, the process can only be either relational or existential.
  • Please note that non-literal language use is very common. So, in a clause like "The road runs along the river", we do not have a material process, but a relational process (cf. "The road is along the river").
  • When in doubt, do the following:
  • Replace the problematic verb with another more congruent one, without radically altering the clausal meaning. This is helpful since the relational process, for instance, can be expressed by verbs other than be.
  • How many participants are crucially involved? (Some processes need obligatorily two, others take only one, etc.)
  • How is the VG expressed? In simple present/past, progressive aspect, etc?
  • If all things fail, pray hard, and make your best guess.

Beam me up, Scottie!

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