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Monday, October 3, 2022

What’s the hidden meaning behind the texts? An Intro to Transitivity Analysis

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During this pandemic, most of us spend our time surfing the internet and checking our social media. Sometimes, we criticize what we read especially if the topic is about pressing issues in our society and actions being done by the government to combat Covid-19. In this situation, we must know how to decode the hidden meaning embedded in the texts we read.  According to Machin and Mayr (2012), our linguistic choices are significant because they play in meaning-making in what we write and say. To help us analyze the texts that we read especially in social media, we can use Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). 

Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) was developed by Michael Alexander Kirkwood Halliday, an English-born linguist, and his associates. SFL has various ways to analyze a text to understand the structure of language and one of which is transitivity. According to Halliday and Matthiessen (2004), the transitivity system can reveal the meaning by analyzing the process types of a verb, participants, and circumstances in a text. Furthermore, they posited that there are six process types of verbs in the transitivity system. For the sake of the readers, who are not in the linguistic field, I will briefly discuss each process type and give you sample analysis, so you would know how this framework works and how you can use it when you are analyzing texts. Below are the six process types of verbs in the transitivity system:

Material process – known as the process of doing. Examples of this are verbs that show action – e.g., eat, punch, attack, hit, and give.

Mental process – known as the sense verbs. These are the verbs related to human senses such as like, think, understand, believe, and know. 

Relational process – usually in the form of the verbs to be and other verbs that show meaning, attributes, and possession – e.g., is, are, am, seem, has, and have

Behavioral process – verbs that show a character’s behavior and physiological and psychological activities – e.g., breathe, cough, smile, and stare

Verbal process – known as the verb of saying – e.g., declare, announce, say, and mention

Existential process – words that express the existence of something – e.g., there and here

To illustrate how transitivity works, I give some sample analysis below. In the given samples, I only focus on the material process, so it would be easier for you to understand how the transitivity system works.

“Mayor Vico (actor) distributes (material process) relief goods to his people.”

“Mayor Vico (actor) visits (material process) his constituents during the lockdown.”

“Some rallyists (actor) attacked (material process) the group of policemen standing in front of Sandigang Bayan.”

“The rallyists, peacefully walking along Commonwealth Avenue, were attacked (material process).”

In the first two samples, Mayor Vico is the main actor of the material processes distributes and visits. These examples show that Mayor Vico, being the main actor of the material processes, is a man of action.  He gives his best to perform his job as a mayor by distributing relief goods and visiting his constituents during the lockdown. Since Mayor Vico is the main actor of the material process in the given samples, his direct involvement with his people, which manifested by distributes and visits, is highlighted. 

Moreover, in the third sentence, the involvement of the rallyists to the violence committed is emphasized. Being the main actor of the material process attackedrallyists are depicted to be the responsible people of the violence against the policemen. It manifests an aggressive and negative image of the rallyists because attacking law enforcement people like policemen is a crime. 

Furthermore, in the fourth example, only the receiver of the action (rallyists) and material process (attacked) are present. Therefore, the doer of the action is not given much attention; only the action committed to the receiver is highlighted.  In this sample, it shows a weak and powerless image of the rallyists.Contrary to the third sample, where rallyists, being the main actor, are depicted as aggressive and unlawful people. 

It is interesting to note that in the fourth example the actor of the material process is not mentioned. This may be ideologically motivated.  According to Machin and Mayr(2012), in some instances, if powerful and influential people committed crimes, their actions are not highlighted. Conversely, when marginalized people committed crimes, their actions are emphasized by making them the main actor of the material process. This scenario is evident in the third and fourth samples. 

My discussion on decoding the hidden meaning in texts using transitivity analysis in this article is limited. I intend to discuss the system and sample analysis briefly, so you won’t be overwhelmed by linguistic jargon. Nevertheless, I want you to have an idea of how to use the transitivity system in analyzing texts that you read in social media. Hence, you will be more critical in decoding the message of the posts or texts you are reading.


Halliday, M.A.K., & Matthiessen, C.M.I.M. (2004). An introduction to functional grammar.

New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Machin, D., & Mayr, A. (2012). How to do critical discourse analysis: A multimodal

introduction. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Persieus Balog is an instructor at the Far Eastern University. He finished his MA in Language Studies (cum laude) at the University of Santo Tomas. He is currently doing his PHD in Language Studies: English at the University of the Philippines in Diliman.

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