LINGUIST List 28.3587

Thu Aug 31 2017

Review: Applied Ling; General Ling; Ling Theories; Text/Corpus Ling: Gardner, Alsop (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 22-Mar-2017
From: Sara Vilar-Lluch <>
Subject: Systemic Functional Linguistics in the Digital Age
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Sheena Gardner
EDITOR: Sian Alsop
TITLE: Systemic Functional Linguistics in the Digital Age
SERIES TITLE: Functional Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Equinox Publishing Ltd
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Sara Vilar-Lluch, University of East Anglia



“Systemic Functional Linguistics in the Digital Age” edited by Sheena Gardner and Siân Alsop, explores how the new technological affordances (i.e. digital communication and computational software) are changing the way we use language in our everyday life and how we understand language in doing linguistics research. The book is structured in three parts. Part I considers genres that have appeared as a result of the new digital era, it explores their capability to generate new meaning and social stances, and highlights the importance of adopting a multimodal approach in linguistic analysis. Part II is concerned with the digital recontextualization of texts (institutional discourses in particular) and the implications such recontextualization entails for both language understanding and the generation of texts adapted to the new digital demands. Part III highlights the potentials of computational analysis and state the fruitfulness of studies that integrate corpus to the traditional SFL qualitative method.

Part I: Texts that are born digital: new digital genres

In Chapter 1, “«There is power in stories»: A Multimodal Corpus-Based and Functional Analysis on Fandom Blogs”, Maria Grazia Sindoni studies the genre variation of fandom blogs. The chapter addresses two relatively unexplored subjects in the literature: the genre variation that blogs have given rise to and the frequently dismissed fandom blog type. The study is primarily based on a corpus analysis, complemented by a functional interpretation of the data, and an analysis of other semiotic elements characteristic of the blog type that are difficult to be studied only with computational methods, i.e. images with integrated text, good examples of the alteration of semiotic resources or “resource switching”, especially common in the social networks.

The corpus comprises fandom related content of the social network platform Live Journal, and it was studied by keywords and key-keywords (i.e. co-keys or key-words that share keyness) (p. 14). Fandom blogs are described as composed with a high density of positive lexis and expressions which refer to the virtual world of the Internet, characterized by a high use of pronouns (male pronouns predominate), by a preference for quotations to projections, and an inclination to questions and polarization. The fandom genre is thus presented as accessible and amateurish and is attributed a male-oriented perspective.

Chapter 2, “Digitality and Persuasives Technologies: Towards an SFL Model of New Social Actions and Practices in Digital Settings, also advocates for multimodality in the study of meaning generation in the digital context. Concerned with the meaning making affordances of the new digital technologies (i.e. emojis), Sandra Petroni articulates her research around two major axis: the persuasion involved in digital technologies (i.e. the prioritization of some resources over others to construct meaning and change people’s behaviours or attitudes) and the possibility of classifying the non-linguistic resources of the “persuasive technologies” following Martin and White’s appraisal system (cf. Martin & White, 2005).

The study combines Fogg’s behavioural model with the Appraisal Theory and presents the non-verbal semiotic resources of the digital technologies as important contributors to the generation of a system of communal values. Digital technologies are confirmed as persuasive, mainly employed to build positive stances; the depiction of participants and processes referred to is transformed by the addition of the new semiotic resources (i.e. emojis) and thus decoded as positive.

Chapter 3, “Digital Citizenship: Social Actors in Blog Posts to Chilean Online News Portals”, takes up again the integration of corpus analysis with SFL framework, complemented with van Leeuwen’s sociosemantic approach to social actors (cf. van Leeuwen, 2008) and Martin and Rose’s genre theory (cf. Martin & Rose, 2007). Lésmer Montecino and María Cristina Arancibia analyse the construction of social actors’ identity (i.e. Harold Beyer, the Chilean Education Minister) in the debates that took place in the news portals EMOL and El Mostrador after the Congress approved the charges against his misuse of funds.

The analysis of 160 blog comments depicts political actors’ identities as being communally constructed, pictures a divided Chilean social reality, and establishes the government and the citizens in a vertical relation of opposition.

In Chapter 4, “Imagined Community and Affective Alignment in Memorial Tributes to Steve Jobs on YouTube”, Anu Harju examines the construction of alignment in online celebrity memorials (i.e. Steve Jobs). Grief, traditionally enclosed in the private sphere, is depicted in the digital environment as an anonymous public expression. The research studies a YouTube video and its users’ comments posted from 2012 to 2014 by performing a transitivity analysis complemented by a second analysis based on the appraisal theory. Public mourning constructs imaginary communities that divide the users in in/out-groups according to the users’ evaluations of the deceased. Mainly constituted by emotional discourse, the mourning focuses on the achievements in life and adopts a positive tone despite reporting a loss.

In Chapter 5, “Commenting, Interacting, Reposting: A Systemic-Functional Analysis of Online Newspaper Comments”, Mariavita Cambria argues that the change from printed to online newspapers has resulted in a hybridization of genres that has changed both the representation of news and the way news are experienced by the readers. The study aims to describe how users are represented in the comments they write about news articles, and it stresses the dialogic nature of such comments. To do so, Cambria builds a corpus composed by the users’ comments of a total of 303 articles about immigration. The corpus analysis is complemented with a qualitative analysis of the pictures and videos referred to in the comments.

Part II: Texts that achieve digitality: professional genres recontextualized

In Chapter 6, “«We’re hearing from Reuters that...»: The Role of Around-the-Clock News Media in the Increased Use of the Present Progressive with Mental Process Type Verbs”, Ben Clarke gives evidence of one of the major assumptions of SFL: the contextual dependence of grammar variation and the interrelation of grammatical and semantic changes. Clarke exposes the existing explanations of the use of the progressive form in cognitive verbs (i.e. as construction of incompleteness and temporariness, as index of a particular meaning beyond the primary semantic value, and as a mitigation of potential face threatening acts) (p. 108), and he offers a new and complementary account.

The study is based on a diachronic corpus analysis of the cognitive verbs “hope” and “hear”, traditionally associated with the present simple but with an increasing use of the progressive form. CoHAE (Corpus of Historical American English), the corpus employed, comprises data from the 1810s to the first decade of 2000s. The analysis shows a marked jump in the usage of the progressive form of cognitive verbs in the 1970s, which corresponds to the apparition of the first 24h news media. The around-the-clock news establish “recency” as a fundamental value of newsworthiness. Thus, the progressive form of cognitive verbs is associated with the depiction of temporal and spatial presence to stress the here and now of the events being reported.

In Chapter 7, “The Construal of Terminal Illness in Online Medical Texts: Social Distance and Semantic Space”, Mariel Bloor analyses the lexicogrammar of death in online medical information on the prognosis of illnesses addressed to the broad community of non-experts. The data is reported to be empty of the personal touch expected in face-to-face communication and is saturated with technical collocations worded as long nominal groups that increase the indeterminacy of the clauses, thus opening the door to misunderstanding. The texts avoid any reference to the sufferers, and all allusions to the death entailed in the symptoms reported are bypassed, i.e. the illnesses are fatal but the patients “do not” die (p. 123). Descriptions of fatal illnesses tend to focus “on the living” and make a constant use of grammatical and lexical metaphors. Thus, Bloor concludes that the current English medical discourse displays an “euphemistic representation of death” (p. 131).

In Chapter 8, “Moving Online to Teach Academic Writing in Science and Engineering: Theory and Practice”, Helen Drury provides an evaluation of a 10 year period redesign of teaching materials to meet the needs of online learning. The study is ultimately based on the social semiotic framework of the SFL tradition and focuses on the case of three samples of pedagogic resources for the academic writing of laboratory reports. The analysis shows how the online design has shifted from a mimesis of the linear written mode to the adoption of multimodality, where the arrangement of visual resources is what brings coherence and cohesion to the text and determines the pathways of learning that students will adopt.

The recontextualization of semiotic resources in the digital environment is further explored by Lees Fryer in Chapter 9, “Cut and Paste: Recontextualizing Meaning-Material in a Digital Environment”. A figure originally published in a medical article is taken as case study to analyse how, in the transmission of information to new contexts, the original semiotic elements are modified by a selective process of appropriation and rearranged to generate a new meaning. The author also seeks to understand the social relations enacted through the new texts and the reader’s role in making sense of them.

In Chapter 10, “Analysis of an Online University Lecture: Multimodal Perspectives”, Marsini Karagevrekis is concerned with the integration of verbal and non-verbal semiotic resources in meaning generation and takes an online economics video-lecture as case study. Karagevrekis argues that the new electronic form of data allows a more comprehensive analysis by providing evidence of how paralinguistic features (i.e. pitch, tone) and body language (i.e. gestures, gaze) can modify the purely linguistic meaning and generate affiliation (i.e. with laughter). The study of the video-lecture is complemented with an analysis of a diagram as an illustration of transduction, i.e. the change of information in changing the mode of communication (p. 178). The diagram is attributed the potential to trace a specific reading path, perceived as the bearer of an undisputed objectivity, thus excluding all possible refutation of the audience.

Continuing with the examination of objectivity generation in text, in Chapter 11, “Transitivity in Language Event Reports in an Online Corpus of Science Journalism”, Blanca García Riaza studies how science popularization articles of digital newspapers (i.e. The Guardian) employ reporting verbs as a vehicle to construct a legitimizing authority. Assuming that reporting verbs are essential to interpret the author’s intention in the report (p. 186), García Riaza considers how the reporting verbs employed enable the identification of the author, and how they depict the production of the linguistic event reproduced. A corpus of 567 articles is examined following a three-staged analysis: first paying attention to the opening paragraphs, then to the rest of the text, and finally a comparison is realized. Because digital texts do not present the linear reading of the printed versions, first paragraphs are assumed to be comparatively more informative than the text that follows them. The analysis is developed around four research questions: (i) presence and frequency of reporting verbs in the corpus, (ii) position of the reporting verbs in relation to the participant, with an especial focus on the adjunct “according to”, (iii) most common reporting verbs and degree of evaluation, and (iv) degree of informativity. The analysis shows that whereas “according to” is more frequent in the opening sections, a higher frequency of reporting verbs is presented in the subsequent paragraphs. Their most frequent structure is “participant + verb”, which is read as echoing the reader’s preference to know the informative source.

The rupture of the reading linearity in digital texts, usually associated with the attribution of freedom to the readers, is further explored in Chapter 12, “Is this the End of Hypertext? Hotel Websites’ Return to Linearity”. Martin Kaltenbacher argues that the non-linear reading path frequently entails interlinks outside the website which, in business websites, may jeopardize the commercial goals of the company announced. An analysis of three hotel websites (i.e. Hotel Sacher, Hotel Salt Lake and reveals a return to the linear reading of the written brochures in the hotel industry; these texts present a clear beginning and end to ensure prospective customers are guided according to the requirements of the company.

Part III: Texts that have digitality thrust upon them: super powers in text analysis

Chapter 13, “On Negotiating the Hurdles of Corpus-Assisted Appraisal Analysis in Verbal Act”, opens Part III by examining the complex relation between SFL and corpus linguistics, often depicted as a trade-off between richness of analysis and quantity of data analysed. Donna R. Miller presents a corpus assisted study on evaluation to illustrate how corpus linguistics can work together with the traditional qualitative approach. Evaluation is often regarded as the linguistic aspect, which presents more difficulties to be automatized for the high possibility of attributing different categorizations to the same piece of writing in function of the context. The analysis examines the different meaning attributions to the word “noble” in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and assesses how these meanings are reflected in the appraisal system, thus coupling ideational and interpersonal dimensions of language. The study is divided into a first automatic stage, which is complemented by a qualitative analysis based on Martin and White’s appraisal framework (especially focused on judgement and appreciation). Miller concludes affirming the fruitfulness of corpus analysis when employed as a complementary tool for the qualitative linguistic analysis (p. 225).

In Chapter 14, “Diachronic Change from Washington to Obama: The Challenges and Constraints of Corpus-Assisted Meaning Analysis”, Paul Bayley and Cinzia Bevitori examine further the pairing of SFL with corpus analysis by offering a diachronic study of the State of the Union speech (SoUs) delivered by US Presidents in the period between 1790 and 2014, composing a corpus of 228 texts. SoUs is understood as the canonical representation of the Presidential power (p. 230) and is analysed in terms of its increasing employment of persuasive and negotiating devices achieved through changes in clause structures, lexis, construction of both speaker’s and audience identities, and engagement evoked through modality. The authors start by identifying the constraints and affordances of corpus linguistics and affirm the necessity of a constant back and forth between the automatic and the manual analysis (p. 229). While stating the usefulness of keyword searches as a first approach to texts and stressing the suitability of corpus to provide quantitative data and semantic information about lexical terms (i.e. negative connotation of “cause” vs. the positive of “provide”), the authors stress that corpus should be regarded as a complement, not substitute, of a reading of the texts. Discourse change (i.e. SoUs shift to informal style) is mentioned as example of a linguistic characteristic whose identification cannot be completely achieved with the single use of automatic resources. Still, the analysis constitute a good illustration of how corpus is a valuable complement to diachronic studies on meaning.

Chapter 15, “The Role of Corpus Annotation in the SFL-CL Marriage: A Test Case on the EU Debt Crises”, considers the difficulties of SFL annotation in performing studies which integrate SFL and corpus linguistics. Sabrina Fusari argues that despite the traditional theoretical dispute between SFL and corpus (i.e. corpus linguists tend to regard SFL as too subjective; SFL claims the atheoretical stance of corpus linguistics constitutes itself the adoption of a theory), both approaches have an important point of contact, the attention to lexis and grammar as object of analysis, and thus, they should be considered as complementary. The author proceeds to examine the difficulties in generating an annotation software for SFL, i.e. a complex categorization system that sometimes can carry certain overlap, and a lack of reliance on automatic annotation. UAM Corpus Tool and Halliday Centre Tagger, two software tools used in SFL analysis are examined. Fusari concludes that, in order to be properly automatized, SFL needs simplifications; therefore, we need to consider up to which point SFL complexity can be sacrificed (p. 250).

In Chapter 16, “Grammatical Metaphor through the Lens of Software? Examining «Crisis» in a Corpus of Articles from The Financial Times”, Antonella Luporini examines the SFL distinction between lexical and grammatical metaphors and the role of the later in meaning generation. Despite the alleged traditional reluctance to use corpus linguistics to perform a study on metaphors, Luporini adopts an integrative approach to analyse the grammatical metaphors employed in The Financial Times to represent the financial crises. The corpus is constituted of articles collected from all the issues of the newspaper and published along 2008. The analysis displays the predominance of ideational metaphors, partly attributed to their capacity to encode the logical relations attributed to the events (p. 267), and the modest employment of grammatical metaphors of modality to distance the authorial voice from the opinion expressed (p. 271).

In Chapter 17, “A Corpus Approach to Method of Development: Discourse Markers and Presuming Reference in 32 ICE-GB Text Types”, Michael Cummings analyses the distribution of continuity and variation markers in different text types in a corpus composed by the British Component of the International Corpus of English. Ultimately, the analysis examines the method of development hypothesis of Fries, i.e. the themes of the different sentences of a text constitute textual structural patterns. A continuity is assumed between theme and rheme, and such a continuity is to be displayed through the identification of chains of references. The analysis establishes broadcast interviews as the genre with the highest density of thematic discourse markers and the administrative and regulatory prose as the lowest. Legal cross-examinations present the highest density of thematic presuming reference, and academic writing in natural sciences the lowest. The results confirm the importance of grammatical items in theme position to mark topic continuity and variation.

In Chapter 18, “Journey of Three Digitized Texts: Entextualization and Recontextualization in a Corpus Study”, Tom Morton and Anne McCabe study the processes of recontextualization that take place when spoken and written linguistic texts are transcribed and arranged to be analysed in corpus software. The data analysed was produced in bilingual schools of English and Spanish in Spain and were aimed to be examined to gauge students’ mastery of English appraisal resources. The process of entextualization entailed in linguistic research, i.e. the removal of a piece of text from its original context so it can be treated as object of study in itself, involves the decontextualization of the data and empties the texts of all linguistic features except the lexicogrammatical elements. The application of the theoretical categories of the linguistic framework adopted for the analysis (i.e. the appraisal theory) entails a new meaning attribution to the text. Still, the authors state the necessity of integrating corpus analysis with a broader theory of language (i.e. SFL) to obtain fruitful results.

In Chapter 19, “Annotating Cohesive Ellipses in an English-German Corpus”, Katrin Menzel studies the cohesion in English and German by analysing the ellipsis production in both languages in oral and written texts through an integrative approach of SFL and corpus linguistics. The computational tools were used for an initial annotation of the ellipsis that after was checked manually. The analysis describes ellipsis as a cohesion resource, displays its oral and written manifestations, states its frequency distribution in the languages studied and shows how different languages exploit ellipsis resources differently. Although Menzel recognizes the importance of pragmatic elements in ellipsis generation, the analysis is focused on the lexicogrammatical aspects and the categorization employed is based on Halliday and Hasan’s distinction between nominal, verbal and clausal ellipsis. Spoken registers of both languages are these with a higher presence of ellipsis, and translations are the ones which present less. While SFL is said to be able to provide a useful set of analytical categories, the author claims the necessity of corpus analysis for a comprehensive approach which accounts for the natural distribution of ellipsis in a language.

The importance of cohesion in speech organization is recovered in Chapter 20, “Linguistic Characteristics of Schizophrenia and Mania Computationally Revealed”, the last one of the collection. With the aim to determine the linguistic features that enable the identification of a linguistic production as belonging to a patient with schizophrenia or mania, Ekaterina Shagalov and Jonathan Fine perform a corpus based analysis of 10 interviews: 6 correspond to individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, 4 to mania diagnosis. The interviews were realised as open questions to allow the spontaneous use of language. To perform the analysis, the authors identified a total of 46 linguistic variables that were grouped in 4 broader sets: (i) disfluency and cohesion, (ii) lexical and richness of description, (iii) amount of talk, and (iv) syntactic complexity. The chapter offers a comprehensive account of each one of the four major features for both schizophrenia and mania diagnosis. The results establish the variables in text formation as the most relevant for the prediction of the disorder. Because text formation features are essentially relational, the authors conclude the main difference between the linguistic productions of subjects with schizophrenia and mania is the way relations to verbal and nonverbal contexts are constructed.


The studies comprised in this collection depict Systemic Functional Linguistics as a powerful theory of language for current linguistics research. SFL has been established as an invaluable framework to give account of linguistic phenomena (i.e. projection, cohesion, ellipsis) (cf. Chapters 11, 17, 19), with a high applicability in other disciplines (i.e. as a support to mental disorders differentiation) (cf. Chapter 20). Also, the validity of SFL linguistic assumptions (i.e. the correlation between the different linguistic strata --grammar, semantics and context) has been evidenced (cf. Chapter 6).

The collection shows the fruitful integration of SFL with corpus linguistics. Computational support has proved to be particularly valuable for diachronic analysis (cf. Chapters 6, 14) and an invaluable tool for possible practical applications of linguistic features identification, as assistance to medical settings (cf. Chapter 20). Still, the integration of SFL with corpus linguistics is described as a complementary or integrative approach, where corpus is understood as an essential component to make possible more ambitious projects but in no case regarded as a substitute of the qualitative linguistics analysis (cf. Chapters 1, 3, 5, 13, 14).
The articles display SFL as a theory in constant development, with the possibility to encompass the new sources of meaning generation of the digital sphere (i.e. the adaptation of the appraisal framework to give account of the non-verbal meaning generated with the emojis) (cf. Chapter 2). The interpersonal metafunction of language is frequently established as a central axis for the study of language in the digital environment (cf. Chapters 2, 4), of crucial importance to account for the enactment of a stance of shared values among the users of the social networks.

SFL is also depicted as an appropriate theory of language for multimodal analysis. Multimodal approaches are regarded as necessary to achieve a comprehensive study of the new processes of meaning generation in the digital environment, i.e. employment of different semiotic modes of data (e.g. images, sound, texts embedded in images) and recontextualization of texts (cf. Chapters 1, 2, 9, 10, 18). The digital sphere makes necessary to consider non-verbal resources and digital communication on their own, not as ancillary to the verbal resources and face-to-face communication (cf. Chapter 2).

Still, a general evaluation of the complete collection does not make complete justice to the studies comprised. It needs to be said that not all the articles are equally relevant for the objectives of the collection; also, the articles present different levels of analytical development and rigour, and originality of research. Whereas some chapters offer a research guided by clear research questions or seek to develop the SFL framework so it can be applied to the digital texts, other chapters mainly present linguistic observations concerning the new digital environment.

Overall, “Systemic Functional Linguistics in the Digital Age” offers a selection of state-of-the-art SFL studies. Complementary approaches, which integrate qualitative analysis with corpus linguistics, are presented as the driving force for change in SFL research. In general, the chapters are well organized, with a clear introduction to provide a contextual and theoretical backgrounds, a description of the method and data to be analysed, an account of the analysis and detailed discussion of the results.

The studies show how digital resources are mainly employed to construct shared stances among the users and foster positive attitudes towards the subject under discussion. While this positive attitude could have been anticipated of fandom blogs (cf. chapter 1), it needs to be regarded as a significant social phenomenon in relation to mourning practices (cf. Chapter 4) and terminal illnesses representation (cf. Chapter 7). The correspondence of the evaluations constructed in the digital sphere on the non-virtual world and the study of the genuineness of such evaluations are left for further research.


Martin, J. R. & Rose, D. (2007). Working with Discourse. Meaning beyond the clause. London/New
York: Continuum

Martin, J. R. & White, P. R. R. (2005). The Language of Evaluation. Appraisal in English. New York:

van Leeuwen, T. (2008). Discourse and Practice. New Tools for Critical Discourse Analysis. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.


Sara Vilar-Lluch is a PhD student at the University of East Anglia, UK. Her main research areas are Systemic Functional Linguistics and Discourse Analysis; she is also interested in metaphor and face theory. In her PhD project she studies the representations of ADHD and the diagnosed individuals in the psychiatric, educational, political and family institutional discourses.

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