genre and register

Jim Martin jmartin at MAIL.USYD.EDU.AU
Mon Jul 2 22:56:31 UTC 2007

Hi all

Tuen's engaging remarks certainly call for some repartee... which I hope 
I can manage in good time. Meanwhile here's a new genre book, which 
people may find helpful. Feedback welcome.



Teun A. van Dijk wrote:

> Thanks! Federico, for your detailed explanation of the use(s) of 
> 'genre' and 'register' in Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) and 
> the differences between the classical approach (Halliday, et al.) and 
> that of the "Sydney School" (Martin, et al.).
> It is good to have this debate on this list, because many people 
> working in CDA have been inspired by SFL, so it is important to assess 
> what SFL has to offer CDA and discourse studies in general.
> I am sure Jim Martin himself may in some stage have something to say 
> about this.
> Not being an expert in SFL, I am of course unable to make a detailed 
> judgment about the various SFL approaches to 'genre' and 'register', 
> but my concern, not only as this list convenor but also as an editor 
> of several journals in discourse studies and of introductory books, 
> are the contributions of various schools of discourse studies (of 
> which SFL is no doubt one of the most prominent) to the whole field. 
> One of my many roles, in this case, is also to stress the importance 
> of clarity, transparency, and accessibility for students and scholars 
> from neighboring disciplines.
> Whatever the immense contributions of SFL to linguistics and discourse 
> studies, I continuously have problems with the relative lack of 
> clarity and accessibility of much SF jargon, which is quite different 
> from other linguistic schools. Now, each school, sect and approach has 
> its own technical terms, and each school has lot of various 
> definitions of terms, but this is especially the case for SFL.
> I have shown in great detail, in a separate chapter of my new book on 
> context, that and how this is the case for the notion of context. For 
> those interested, here is an advance version of that chapter, showing 
> why and how this notion in SFL is extremely vague, and in my view 
> theoretically totally misguided. Some other critical remarks on SFL 
> are also made in that chapter, such as the prevalent anti-cognitivism 
> of (most of) SFL. Those who want some more substance and arguments to 
> what I say below, are referred to that (very) critical chapter - 
> critical, because for a variety of reasons, such as internal 
> solidarity, etc. such critique is difficult withing SFL itself, also 
> because it is about fundamental SF notions, and someone had to say it 
> one day, and although I seldom engage in systematic critique of 
> special schools in linguistics and discourse analysis, this one was I 
> think necessary given the role of SFL in CDA.
> The anti-cognitivism of SFL is one of the explanations why in a theory 
> of genre, classical SFL has no place for goals, purposes or intentions 
> - which Federico points out are accepted by Jim Martin, and which in 
> my view are crucial in any kind of action, interaction or social 
> practice definition of genres: as already traditional philosophy of 
> action has shown, and contemporary cognitive science makes explicit: 
> actions are bodily events that are more or less consciously intended 
> (and as such understood), and executed to reach specific goals (which 
> agents represent in episodic memory, namely as mental models). In my 
> view this is standard cognitive theory, and any multidisciplinary 
> approach to discourse and hence to genre should include such a 
> dimension. But, this is only /one/ of the dimensions of the context - 
> because we also need the dimension of the participants and their 
> social roles (again, as represented by the participants themselves, 
> obvioiusly, and not by the analyst, because it is the /subjective 
> definition of the situation by the participants/ that defines the 
> context). A genre definition of (say) parliamentary debates without 
> mentioning MPs is obviously incomplete.
> Also, famous SF notions such as /field, mode /and /tenor/ (also 
> mentioned by Federico) have no precise meaning at all, and it is 
> really surprising, to put it mildly, how they have survived decades of 
> linguistic research in SFL.
> I am afraid that what I have written on context also applies to some 
> of the other notions dealt with in SFL, and Federico's rendering of 
> different SF positions on genre and egister again seems to confirm my 
> point: the notions are so vague, and each person has another, equally 
> vague definition -- say of register (and I cite Federico's citations, 
> assuming they are correct):
> - “A configuration of meanings that are typically associated with a 
> particular situational configuration of field, mode and tenor” 
> (Halliday & Hasan, 1985:38-9),
> Apart from the problematic nature of the notions /field/, /mode/ and 
> /tenor/ (see my attached article), the expression "a configuration of 
> meaning" is much too general and vague for comfort. Does this mean 
> that register is defined (only) in /semantic /terms? What is the 
> nature of such a configuration? Are there no grammatical (syntactic, 
> lexical) dimensions involved in register?
> “the configuration of semantic resources that the member of the 
> culture associates with a situation type. It is the meaning potential 
> that is accessible in a given social context” (Halliday 1978:111)
> So, registers are semantic!? But "configuration of semantic resources" 
> - as well as the well-known but equally vague notion of "meaning 
> potential" used in SFL, do not tell me much about what registers are. 
> What kind of 'semantic resources'? Propositional structures? 
> Entailments? Presuppositions?
> But THAT is strange, because what seems to define different practices, 
> contexts, styles, etc. (like formal and informal, etc.), is precisely 
> NOT the meaning of discourse, but its forms, formats, etc. That is, we 
> may communicate (display, express, etc.) more or less the 'same' 
> meaning (propositions, etc.) in different contexts, but need to do 
> this in different forms or formats, and it is /that/ what we usually 
> understand by register (see also Biber & Finegan). Thus, telling the 
> "same" story (say about a robbery) in a news article, in the police 
> station and to friends in conversation may have more or less the same 
> meaning (propositions, event model, etc) but the registers - as 
> required by the context - are different -- and so are the genres 
> (which need much more than just a definition of register). In other 
> words, a "semantic" definition of register is very strange.
> But let is not despair... As usual in SF there are many ways to define 
> the 'same' (?) notion:
> , “the patterns of instantiation of the overall system associated with 
> a given type of context” and “ways of using language in different 
> contexts” (Halliday & Matthiessen 2004:27)
> But now, there is no reference to semantics or meaning but to an even 
> vaguer notion "patterns of instantiation of the overall system". Does 
> this include phonology, syntax, lexicon, semantics, etc. (not to speak 
> of pragmatics, etc. because most of classical SFL never discovered 
> that part of linguistics). Is this way of formulating not more or less 
> the same as saying that register is the way language is used in each 
> context -- as indeed the second quote confirms? Fine, that is slightly 
> more accessible, but still much too vague and too general. And, this 
> is not even the beginning of a theory of register, because one needs 
> to be clear about how language can vary with context in the first 
> place (and what does not - like most of syntax, which is invariant in 
> any context, and hence by definition not contextually sensitive and 
> hence not part of register).
> I may continue for nearly all quotations given by Federico. Generally, 
> I think they are intolerably vague, confused, ambiguous, contradictory 
> or theoretically incorrect. If they are accessible at all. Take the 
> last paragraph:
> (...) the main difference between both perspectives is that the school 
> of Sydney –Martin in particular– claims that the Systemic-Functional 
> model must include a set of specifications that go beyond situational 
> context. In short, this model will be able to distinguish between a 
> level of typical meaning potential associated to local context (i.e., 
> register) and a level of typical meaning potential associated to a 
> wider –global– context (i.e., genre). Both levels or strata are 
> systematically related: genre options are realized in register 
> options, which are also realized in lower strata. Halliday would argue 
> that the genre level is just unnecessary, while Martin claims that 
> this distinction has proved useful for a number of reasons (cf. Martin 
> 1992:505-7).
> I guess this is comprehensible for SF linguists, but I bet most of my 
> students (and I myself) not schooled in this jargon have difficulty 
> understanding what all this is about. Do we know, after this, what 
> "genre" and and "register" mean exactly in the different schools of 
> SFL? I am afraid I don't, and I honestly tried, because I celebrate 
> diversity of approaches in discourse studies. But I also celebrate 
> clarity of terminology and accessibility.
> The questions remain: What do we teach our students? How do we 
> describe genres? Is the notion of 'register' useful at all? If so, how 
> should it be used to describe genres? How is it different from 'style' 
> (which also varies with context)? And how is it related to the (much 
> more explicit) usage in other approaches, e.g. in quantitative and 
> sociolinguistics (Biber & Finegan, etc.).
> Teun
> ________________________________________
> Teun A. van Dijk
> Universitat Pompeu Fabra
> Dept. de Traducció i Filologia
> Rambla 30
> 08002 Barcelona
> E-mail: teun at
> Internet:
> resemble Martin’s definitions of genre (“a staged, goal-oriented 
> social process realised through register” (Martin, 1984), “social 
> purposes achieved by language use” (Ventola 1995:7) or “interactional 
> processes that unfold in recognizable stages” (Ventola 1995:8). Both 
> positions relate to a social and functional conception of language use 
> in context and typical configurations of language options associated 
> with typical contexts, although they both lack, for instance, 
> anthropological and cognitive parameters. In fact, both positions 
> provide similar examples of what a register or genre is and both 
> remind of Bakhtin’s work, although Bakhtin is more clearly adopted as 
> a reference figure in Martin’s papers. The difference lies somewhere else.
-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: GenreRelationsCh1-3.pdf
Type: application/pdf
Size: 1701760 bytes
Desc: not available
URL: <>
-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: GenreRelationsCh4-6.pdf
Type: application/pdf
Size: 1757048 bytes
Desc: not available
URL: <>

More information about the Critics-l mailing list