Ideational Grammatical Metaphors. Applications in Selected Registers

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

19 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Systemic Functional Linguistics
2.1 Grammatical Metaphor
2.1.1 Types of Grammatical Metaphors Ideational Grammatical Metaphors Interpersonal Grammatical Metaphors
2.2 Halliday’s Transitivity System
2.3 Nominalization

3 Uses of Ideational Grammatical Metaphor in Certain Registers
3.1 Ideational Grammatical Metaphor in Scientific Texts
3.1.1 Objectivity
3.1.2 Condensation
3.1.3 Higher information density/lexical density
3.1.4 Technicality and Rationality
3.1.5 Examples
3.2 Ideational Grammatical Metaphor in Political Speech
3.2.1 The speeches of George W. Bush
3.2.2 The speeches of Barrack Obama
3.2.3 Functions of IGM in Political Texts

4 Summary and Conclusion

5 Sources

1 Introduction

This term paper deals with the topic of grammatical metaphors, with a special focus on grammatical metaphors of the ideational kind and their use in certain registers.

To define grammatical metaphor, as well as explain and analyze their use, I will take a closer look at the works of several researchers and linguists, with M.A.K. Halliday being the most important one of these. Given it was Halliday who first coined the term “grammatical metaphor” and tried to give a detailed explanation of the concept, his works will be the most vital to this paper and stand at its center. Further, it is impossible to take a detailed look on grammatical metaphor without having at least a basic understanding on Halliday’s concept of Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL). Therefore, one chapter of this paper will take a closer look at SFL and basically explain this concept.

The questions this paper is supposed to answer are the following: what are ideational grammatical metaphors, in which registers are they used most frequently, and what is the purpose or function of such metaphors in these registers?

2 Systemic Functional Linguistics

The concept of systemic functional linguistics was developed by M.A.K Halliday in the 1960s. Halliday’s approach to language differs from most other approaches in that it does not analyze language as a mental process, but rather in alignment with sociological approaches. It is more concerned with what language is used for rather than how language structured (see O’Donnell, 2011/12, p.2). Halliday himself said about his concept of a functional grammar:

“The aim has been to construct a grammar for purposes of text analysis: one that would make it possible to say sensible and useful things about any text, spoken or written, in modern English.” (Halliday 1994, p. xv)

To reach that aim, Halliday has constructed a system of describing language that is concerned with the functions of language. In this framework of SFL, language is simultaneously “a part of reality, a shaper of reality, and a metaphor for reality” (Halliday, 1993a, p. 8). Rather than as an alignment of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, in SFL a sentence is described in terms of participators, processes and circumstances. Halliday presents the following simple figure to show the relationship between semantics and lexicogrammar:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Typical realization of processes, participants and circumstances (taken from Halliday 1999, p. 55)

This realization can be shown with any sentence, for example the following:

“Because technology is getting better people can write business programs faster.” (taken from Halliday 1994, p. 349)

Here the adverbial group “because technology in getting faster” functions as circumstance, “people” as participant, “can write” as process, “programs” as another participant, and “faster” as a second circumstance.

This framework is important to understand at least basically when it comes to talking about grammatical metaphors, because those can only be explained within it. An important aspect of ideational grammatical metaphors it the so-called transitivity system, which is concerned with different types of processes. This system will be elaborated on in a later chapter of this paper.

2.1 Grammatical Metaphor

The term “grammatical metaphor” was first introduced by M.A.K. Halliday in 1985, in his work “An Introduction to Functional Grammar”. Generally, grammatical metaphor can be defined as an expression in which one grammatical class or structure was replaced with another. The meaning remains mostly unchanged, but in many cases the resulting sentence if shorter. An example would be the following:

1. “All organisms reproduce and sometimes when they reproduce, the children vary.”
2. “Reproduction with variation is a major characteristic of life.”

The two sentences generally have the same meaning, the second, however, is grammatically less complex and thereby shorter. The second sentence contains two instances of nominalization, a concept which I will explain in more detail later on.

In the second edition of his work “An Introduction to Functional Grammar”, published in 1994, Halliday explains the differences between “normal” metaphors and grammatical metaphors. The most important aspect of a “normal” metaphor is that to be metaphorical, it must refer to something else. This is somewhat different when it comes to grammatical metaphors:

“[…] This is usually presented as a one-way relationship such that to some metaphorical meaning of a word there corresponds another, non-metaphorical that is said to be „literal‟. Here, however, we are looking at metaphor not “from below‟, as variation in the meaning of a given expression, but rather “from above‟, as variation in the expression of a given meaning; the concept of 'literal' is therefore not very appropriate, and we shall refer to the less metaphorical variant as „congruent‟. In other words, for any given semantic configuration there will be some realization in the lexicogrammar—some wording—that can be considered CONGRUENT; there may also be various others that are in some respect „transferred‟, or METAPHORICAL.” (Halliday 1994: 342)

An important aspect here is the differentiation between “from below” and “from above”. A figure illustrating this differentiation is offered by Taverniers with reference to Halliday:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

As shown in the figure, the term “from below” refers to the case that the starting point of a metaphor is a single lexeme, which has both a literal meaning and a metaphorical one. As part of a metaphor the word flood might, for example, be used in the expression “a flood of people”, meaning a large group of people on the move. Opposed to the viewpoint “from below”, grammatical metaphors have to be seen “from above”. Their starting point is a meaning rather than a single lexeme. The given example “many people protested” could be expressed differently without changing its meaning, either in a congruent or a metaphorical form.

As Taverniers points out, this “view from above” is a central aspect of grammatical metaphors and “the very recognition of a ‘grammatical’ type of metaphor is a consequence of the ‘view from above’ [… ]”. She further points out that “the main feature of the view “from above” is that it defines metaphor as variation in the expression of a given meaning, rather than variation in the meaning of a given expression (Taverniers 2003, p. 4). As shown in the example sentences given at the beginning of this chapter, the meaning stays mostly the same, the changes being mainly of grammatical nature.

It should be noted that grammatical metaphors – like metaphors in general – are quite frequent in adult discourse, but completely absent from the speech of young children (Halliday 1985, p. 342).

2.1.1 Types of Grammatical Metaphors

According to Halliday, who first introduced the concept of grammatical metaphors in general, there are mainly two types of grammatical metaphors, namely ideational, and interpersonal. A third type, that of textual grammatical metaphors is sometimes mentioned, but not important for this paper. Ideational Grammatical Metaphors

Ideational grammatical metaphors, which are the main topic of this paper, are also called metaphors of transitivity. Halliday and Matthiessen give the following definition:

“The ideational metafunction is concerned with ‘ideation’ that is grammatical resources for construing our experience of the world around us and inside us. One of its major grammatical systems is TRANSITIVITY, the resource for construing our experience the flux of ‘goings-on’, as structural configurations; each consisting of a process, the participants involved in the process, and circumstances attendant on it.” (Halliday and Matthiessen 1997)

Generally speaking, ideational grammatical metaphors are a way to express a certain meaning in a different way, by substituting one grammatical class in a sentence with another one. More often than not this substitution includes a change of the process type within the given sentence. As process types are the basis of Halliday’s transitivity system, those will be explained in more detail in the next chapter. The most common form of ideational grammatical metaphors is nominalization, which will also be elaborated on later. Interpersonal Grammatical Metaphors

Interpersonal metaphors are meanwhile concerned with mood and modality. Here, modality is expressed in a metaphorical way. Interpersonal metaphors usually express belief, thoughts, certainty or the likelihood something is about to happen (or not to happen). Halliday (1994, p. 354) gives the following sentence as an example of such a metaphor of modality:

“I don’t believe that pudding will ever will be cooked.”

In this case, the words “I don’t believe” express modality. In the congruent expression of the same sentence “Probably that pudding never will be cooked”, modality would instead be expressed by the words “probably…never”.


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Ideational Grammatical Metaphors. Applications in Selected Registers
RWTH Aachen University  (Institut für Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Romanistik)
Hauptseminar "Metaphor in cognitive and systemic-functional frameworks"
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ideational, grammatical, metaphors, applications, selected, registers
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Gabriele Grenkowski (Author), 2015, Ideational Grammatical Metaphors. Applications in Selected Registers, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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