Literary Stylistics:
Workshop Notes no. 9

What's on this page

Transitivity: Definitions
The Six Processes
        Further Observations on the Processes
        Passivisation and Participants
        Behavioural Processes: Notes
        Mental Processes: Notes
        Material Processes: Notes


The Traditional Definition

The traditional definition of transitivity has been discussed in previous workshops (for example: [1], [2], [3], [4]). You may also want to take a look at the entry Transitive versus Intransitive Verbs in Jack Lynch's electronic book Grammar and Style Notes or What Is Transitivity from the Summer Institute of Linguistics' Glossary of Linguistic Terms.

Transitivity is normally understood as the grammatical feature which indicates if a verb takes a direct object. By now, you should know very well that if the verb

This traditional notion of transitivity is used in Halliday's article on William Golding's The Inheritors, which is mentioned in the last workshop.

Halliday's Approach

The concept of transitivity which is found in Halliday's Introduction however, represents a further development of the concept. In Halliday's conception in his Introduction to Functional Grammar, whether a verb takes or does not take a direct object is not a prime consideration. Halliday's conception is also useful for stylistic analysis, and will be explained further in this and the next workshops. However, the traditional conception of transitivity does continue to be useful in stylistic analysis, and it may thus be worthwhile to indicate the connection between the two approaches to transitivity, which I have done in today's workshop.

In the concept of transitivity found in Halliday's Introduction, there are three components of what Halliday calls a transitivity process:

(i) the process itself
(ii) participants in the process
(iii) circumstances associated with the process
Table 8.1:
Typical function of group and phrase classes
type of element: typically realized by:
(i) process
(ii) participant
(iii) circumstance
verbal group
nominal group
adverbial group or prepositional phrase

In relation to the above, it may also be useful to view the elements of the clause not only in terms of groups and phrases, but also in terms of the S-P-C-A structure, as illustrated below:

Table 8.2
the student reads the book carefully in the library
participant process participant circumstance circumstance (transitivity)
Subject Predicator Complement Adjunct Adjunct (clause structure)

As you may know from my previous workshops, the subject and predicator are the most likely elements to appear in a clause. We may also note that the existence of the complement depends on the usage of either a transitive verb or an intensive verb which requires a nominal group or adjective / adjective phrase following it.

The presence or absence of the complement may in turn determine whether there are one or two participants in the clause, in the sense that (in most cases)

The presence of the circumstantial adjunct, as I mentioned in the previous workshop workshop notes, depends on the level of description needed by the speaker/writer of the clause. We may note here that the circumstantial adjuncts are also of concern in Hallidayan transitivity analysis.

The possibilities in the conventional distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs, in relation to Halliday's analysis of transitivity are illustrated in the examples below. (N.B.: '(i)' indicates an intransitive verb, whereas '(t)' indicates a transitive verb. If a number is added to a participant, '[1]' refers to the first participant, whereas '[2]' refers to the second participant).

Table 8.3
the boy runs(i)
Participant Process
Subject Predicator

Table 8.4
the boy kicks(t) the ball
Participant [1] Process Participant [2]
Subject Predicator Complement

Table 8.5
the boy runs(i) on the road
Participant Process Circumstance
Subject Predicator Adjunct

Table 8.6
the boy kicks(t) the ball on the field
Participant [1] Process Participant [2] Circumstance
Subject Predicator Complement Adjunct

Page Index

The Six Processes in Halliday's Approach to Transitivity

The six processes involved in Halliday's approach to transitivity are best illustrated in Table 5(27) from the third edition, which is reproduced with a slight modification below: the round brackets indicate that the second participant which they enclose is optional.1

Table 8.7
Process type Category meaning Participants,
directly involved
obliquely involved
Actor, (Goal) Recipient, Client;
Scope; Initiator;
behavioural 'behaving' Behaver Behaviour
Senser, Phenomenon  
verbal 'saying' Sayer, Target/Recipient Receiver, Verbiage
Token, Value
Carrier, Attribute
Identified, Identifier
existential 'existing' Existent  

Page Index

Note on learning the above table For the sake of simplicity, you may want to concentrate on the first column initially, followed by the second (which in a way explains the first), then the third. You should go to the fourth column only when you are clear about the two earlier columns.

Some Notes and Further Observations on the Above Table

One of the things one can notice when one looks at the above table, is the number of (direct) participants involved for each of the processes:

We can note two further points:
Page Index

Passivisation and Participant Positions

As you know, most clauses with transitive verbs may be passivised. For our purpose here, passivization changes the roles of the participants:

This indicates an important difference between Halliday's conception of the subject in the analysis of mood and modality, and his conception of the actor in transitivity analysis: As we can see below, the actor or First Participant is realised The passive voice, as you know, may also give rise to the stylistically interesting phenomenon of agent deletion, where the actor or First Participant is not indicated, as in the clause 'the ghost has been seen', which does not indicate who has or have seen the ghost.

Table 8.8
a) Active Voice
b) Passive Voice
the boy saw the ghost
the ghost was seen by the boy
Participant[1] Process Participant[2]
Participant[2] Process Participant[1]
Subject Predicator Complement
Subject Predicator Adjunct

Page Index

Some Notes on the Behavioural Process

It should be mentioned here that behavioural processes stand between material and mental processes. Partly as a result of this, some of you may find it difficult to distinguish

As a rule of thumb, a behavioural process verb is
Page Index

Some Notes on the Mental Process

We should also note that a mental process is either

Thus if a verb that describes sensing, feeling or thought is transitive, there is a very good likelihood that it is a mental, and not a behavioural process verb.
Page Index

Some Notes on the Material Process

Material process verbs, like mental process verbs, can either be transitive or intransitive. If a verb which describes physical action is transitive, it is virtually definite that it is a material, and not a behavioural process verb. For intransitive verbs, one way to determine whether an action is a material or behavioural process is to look at the actor:

Page Index


1. The final column in the corresponding Tables 5(7) and 5(6) from the earlier editions of Halliday's Introduction is not found, and is added from the third edition to the above table . Although there are some difficulties in the first edition on whether the attribute in attributive relational processes is a participant, Halliday does appear to regard it as such in the second and third editions. Back to earlier position..

2. With regard to material processes, cf. the examples 'the lions sprang' and `the lion caught the tourist' found in Halliday's book. Both of them are material process clauses; but the former has one participant, whilst the latter has two. Back to earlier position..

Texts to Analyse

Passage from Katherine Mansfield's 'Feuille d'Album'
Carl Sandburg's 'A.E.F'
Emily Dickinson's 'The Soul Selects Her Own Society'
Hart Crane's 'North Labrador'

Click here for the notes for the next workshop.

Click here for the notes for the previous workshop.

Back to Homepage: EL3221.

Last revised: 18 May 2017
Ismail S. Talib 1995-2017.