What is happening? Looking at clauses.

From the way my mother can edit writing and compose texts you would never be able to guess that English isn’t her first language. In fact, she only heard English when she stepped into school as a 7 year old. She didn’t receive specialist English lessons or tuition, instead she had to struggle through not understanding a single word spoken. When she finally could understand some words, she still struggled to comprehend what was being talked about. “Teachers never explained anything!” my mother emphasises when you ask her about her schooling.


Of the stories my mother has told me about her younger years her memorable moments are not the days when she learned a new word, but the times when language misunderstandings made for awkward situations. Language is embedded in a context of situation and a context of culture. It was the context of culture that made language learning so difficult for my mum.

One of my favourite stories of Mum’s is when she was invited to a party, on the invitation is stated; “bring a plate”. These three words in Australian English are asking invited guests to bring food to share. But for my mother (the cute little girl with glasses) and for her mother (a very fashionable and articulate German woman) this meaning was lost. The day of the party arrived and she turned up with a plate. Empty. Nothing on it. So embarrassing! My poor mother! I can just picture her standing at the doorway and the host opening the door. As they both survey the empty plate one question hangs in their minds,”What is happening?”


If there is one question that encapsulates the essence of Functional Grammar I would say it is this one; “What is happening?” Despite where you might sit on the sliding scale of grammar knowledge if you can ask this question you can teach Functional Grammar. You can inquire into language, uncover hidden meanings and improve students language knowledge, understanding and use.

At the heart of language is a thing called the clause.  Clauses are fundamental meaning structures. Clauses are made up of word groups/ phrases. There are 3 word groups that can be found in a clause. They are:


See that one in green? The process. Well you know how I said that a clause was at the heart of language. The process is the heart of the heart. It is the aorta. Without a process their is no clause. Each clause can only have one process. And what is it? It is what is happening. And how do we locate it in a clause? By asking, “what is happening”. Bam! There it is! The beating pulse of a clause is a happening.

Okay…for the traditional grammarians still checking out my blog (probably to comment on my bad grammar) the process/happening of a clause is usually a verbal group. But sometimes it isn’t. This is why Functional Grammar is great. It allows for context and meaning to take priority. Rather than ask, “What is the verb?” my question reflects context. I want to know about the meaning of a text. I want to know “What is happening?”

Locating the process of a clause leads me to the best part of Functional Grammar. If you are a newbie to it get ready for your socks to be blown off! Locating the other parts of a clause means you get to colour in!


Functional linguists use colour coding to analyse the meaning in texts. It makes the parts of a clause clear for further learning . But this colouring in isn’t reserved for linguists. I have seen 5 years-olds do this. Only we call in colouring in words or colouring in clauses. The colours used for each group of words are significant. These are the colours that functional linguists use all over the world to classify and analyse clauses.


Because the process is the key to the clause it is the first thing to identify. And you find it by asking what is happening. The second thing to identify is the participant(s). To do this you must use the process in the question you ask, “Who or what is that happening to/by?” This is how you locate the participant. Finally, to locate the circumstance you again use the process in your question, this time asking,  “When/where/how is this happening?” Following these steps will ensure that the clause is clearly defined and that students can comprehend the different parts.

Here is an example of a text I have analysed in this way to give you an idea of how colouring in a clause can make the parts of text clear.

clancysClancy and Milly and the Very Fine House by Libby Gleeson

Right, so you read this blog. You walked into class the next day with your brand new markers. You found a high quality text to analyse which you have now coloured in. You are now standing there staring at the beautiful text that your have expertly coloured on the board and you are wondering…

What next?

Why am I doing this?

What actually IS happening?

Well that will be discussed in the next post on this series on grammar…



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