I'm sorry if my questions may sound rudimentary, so please bear with me. :-)

I'm thinking of delving deeper into functional grammar/linguistics (most probably systemic in particular), perhaps with an eye for (and prospects - albeit slim at best - for research some time in the future). I've got hold of quite a few books and tons of papers on SFL/SFG, but I'm finding it difficult to get even a semblance of a grip on three things:

  1. What is the state of affairs in (systemic) functional grammar/linguistics in 2015 (rather than the state of affairs in the 1970s to 1990s, when most of the books and papers I have were published)?

  2. Are there any underinvestigated areas in SFL/SFG as we speak? I specifically mean areas that may merit a special attention even from a relative beginner and at the same time that don't necessarily rely on massive corpora (I never had any classes on corpus linguistics)? Or alternatively any areas that are underexplored in terms of contrasting Chomskyan grammar and SFL/SFG?

  3. What's the best way to combine SFL/SFG and historical linguistics?

Thank you.

  • 1
    I would guess, given the response to the three questions, that "moribund" is the state of affairs of (systemic) functional grammar/linguistics. You provide no references except a brand name; whose versions of "systemic", "functional", and "grammar' are you talking about? There are so many varieties of things like that it's hard to keep the names straight, let alone understand all of them.
    – jlawler
    Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 16:35
  • @jlawler Fair enough, John. Sorry if I could/should have been more specific. I had Halliday's SFG/SFL in mind. My understanding is that - most probably - it remains by far the most recognised variety of SFL. Hope that helps so you can illuminate me now. :-)
    – nnad
    Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 18:54
  • It's been a long time since I read anything by Halliday. I don't recall much of it, so I'm not in a position to enlighten you, sorry. You might search Google Scholar for references to his major papers to find out who cites him now and how.
    – jlawler
    Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 15:35

1 Answer 1


This is a very broad question, particularly since you put systemic in Systemic Functional Linguistics/Grammar in parentheses.

If you think about the broader functionalist program, you can hardly move within linguistics without encountering some aspect of it. You could say that most introduction to linguistics are written from the functionalist perspective. Most of the 'applied' disciplines of linguistics (with the notable exception of Natural Language Processing, Machine Translation and related fields) are broadly functionalist. From lexicography to language acquisition and language teaching. So are sociolinguistics and historical linguistics.

Things are a bit more murky when it comes to the Systemic Functional Linguistics. Again, you can see its direct impact in a number of fields. Most of the study of text-level and discourse-level phenomena is done (more or less explicitly) within the scope of the SFL approach. For example, Critical Discourse Analysis (as formulated, for instance, by Fairclough) explicitly relies on SFG. But you could also say that much of the work done in corpus linguistics is done under the umbrella of SFL. It would also be difficult to open a modern textbook of English as a second language and not see the impact of Haliday's work. Much of grammar writing is also done in that vein.

What makes things a bit more difficult is, that Systemic Functional Grammar is different from many of the other "Something Grammars" in that it does not come with a very constraining descriptive framework expressed through rules but rather a set of principles and axioms. This makes it a much more useful foundation for useful linguistic work and also slightly impervious to the sort of questions you might ask about generative-type grammars. It does not require constant tweaking of 'rules' and formal tools. As a linguist, you can just get on with things. It also does not require formal allegiance for it to be useful. I often refer to Halliday's three metafunctions of language in my own work.

As is so often the case, SFL is also subject to regional divisions. Most of the work on it is done in New Zealand and Australia (where Halliday relocated) with some remnants in the UK and around the world. It is therefore not as well known by many linguists who are actually feeling its impact in much of their daily work. Often in contrast to Chomsky whose work has almost no realistic impact on the work of a student of language but is widely known and cited. SFL has a similar problem in MAK Halliday whose stature perhaps makes people reluctant to declare their paradigmatic belonging to SFL for fear of being too constrained.

As to some exciting new ideas within SFL, I'm very intrigued by Michael Hoey's theory of lexical priming and John Sinclair's theory of local grammars.

As to further areas of research, here you're looking at all of language. Unlike the Chomskean paradigm, SFL does not constrain language to just what can be described through formal means. This makes it much more difficult to point to places with small gaps to fill. In my own work, I try to bring construction grammar and SFL closer together in the study of discourse level construction of arguments. But you can pick any area of language that interests you and keep SFG/SFL in mind as you work on it. You're certain to encounter some unexplored areas as you continue your research.

  • Thank you, Dominik! Wow, this reply is as dense and comprehensive as it gets! With so much food for thought in it, I'd better digest it in chunks. :-)
    – nnad
    Commented Aug 30, 2015 at 17:54
  • Mind you, in response to your thoughts on further areas of research, I've realised - much to my dismay - that lots of things are done using computers and multi-million word corpora these days. Since I'm totally lost in that area, etc. do you think there's still a great scope for manual analysis when even, say, explicit discourse relations have become 'easy pickings' for computers at pretty much all (linguistic) levels? Thanks!
    – nnad
    Commented Aug 30, 2015 at 18:01

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