How does the Text Act? An Investigation of a Call for Letters to Obama

Sagun Shrestha


Any discourse is the composite form of primarily four functional layers: lexical, ideational, interpersonal and textual. The lexical layer being a very basic component at the intra-sentential level, and the ideational, interpersonal and textual layers having a wider role in intra- and/or inter-sentential level in a text, have a specific message to convey. It is interesting to see how the author crafts a text to convey specific meaning. This paper will attempt to analyse these four functions in a written text in brief.  For a lexical analysis, only a word in a text has been chosen to show how a word in this text behaves as regards collocation and colligation, and further to display which specific meaning is prioritized in a text, whereas for ideational, interpersonal and textual analysis, it is attempted to analyse the prime portion of the text. This paper will also explicate the broader social function of the text.

 Keywords: Lexical Analysis, Metafunction, Appraisal System



 Any text is “language-in-action directed towards furthering the activity” (Halliday, 2002, p. 200). A text has certain functions to perform in any kind of discourse and they are achieved through the use of various linguistic devices. In general, an author uses some particular linguistic devices keeping specific readers in mind so that they will be able to establish communication with their readers.

In line with the views raised above, Hoey (2001) defines text as “the visible evidence of a reasonably self-contained purposeful interaction between one or more writers and one or more readers, in which the writer(s) control the interaction and produce most of (characteristically all) the language” (p. 13). Hoey has comprehensively defined the written text here through some concepts such as visible evidence, purposeful interaction between readers and writers, and controlled by writer(s). By the term visible evidence, he means the reader can easily get the nature of interaction of the text through the way it is presented. He gives the example of a till receipt and academic text. An academic text has citations which is a unique form of representation, and it interacts with the readers accordingly by informing them about some issues with some sources, whereas a till receipt comprises of figures, VAT details and so on. Next is the feature of purposeful interaction. As mentioned above, every text has a certain purpose or purposes. For instance, the academic text mentioned in the example above has a purpose to inform its prospective readers about some issues raised in the text. Most probably to fulfil this purpose, the author is likely to cite some sources and show his own evidences that he has collected. Finally, Hoey (2001) mentions that the interaction is controlled by the writer(s). This is with the help of various linguistic devices that authors deploy in a text such as those we will observe in the text which is going to be analysed below.



The text chosen here for lexical, ideational, interpersonal and textual analysis is the text that makes a call for letters from ‘The Guardian’ newspaper (See: Appendix 1).  For lexical analysis, using British National Corpus (BNC), a particular word from the text will be analyzed focusing on collocation and colligation. Collocation is a tendency for words to occur in pairs or groups which are not necessarily adjacent (Sinclair, 1992) and colligation is a “grammatical relationship that words and phrases form” (Anderson and Corbett, 2009, p. 93).

Similarly, in ideational analysis, ‘transitivity’ which involves “determining the processes, participants and circumstances realized in a clause” Eggins (2004, p. 249) will be examined. This will be primarily to observe who the actors are and how they perform. It will also help us see what processes have been highlighted by the author.  For interpersonal analysis, Martin and White’s (2005) Appraisal system that incorporates Attitude, Engagement and Graduation will be looked into. It will show how the author tactfully uses linguistic devices to show his or her authorial stance. Finally, the thematic structure, both intra-sentential texture (texture here means internal organization of the language) and inter-sentential texture (Halliday & Webster, 2014), of the chosen text will be a focus in textual analysis. In the second part, this paper examines how the chosen text functions in its social context, primarily in relation to Halliday’s metafunctions and Martin and White’s (2005) Appraisal system.


Lexical Analysis

The word chosen from the text as a matter of particular interest to see its grammatical and semantic behaviour is nostalgic. For this analysis, the tool Sketch Engine is used and the British National Corpus (BNC) has been chosen. Sketch Engine is a tool to examine the way language works. It is particularly intended “to analyze authentic texts of billions of words (text corpora) to identify instantly what is typical in language and what is rare, unusual or emerging usage” (Sketch Engine, n.d.). It contains more than 400 ready-to-use corpora and the BNC is one of them. The BNC is a corpus containing approximately 100 million words, consisting of samples collected from spoken and written British English. The BNC was selected as it comprises 90 per cent from newspapers, academic books, essays and letters (BNC, 2010), and the selected text is the newspaper call for letters.

The concordance check in the BNC shows 275 instances of nostalgic which is 2.42 per million in the corpus (see Appendix: 2). The concordance check is a search for the key word in context ‘KWIC’, or each occurrence of the word in a text. Mutual Information (MI) score can be used to show the strength of association between words. When the MI score of nostalgic is set within a range of -5 to 5 (i.e., examining 5 words to either side of the node word), lament was listed in first place, followed by memories in sixth place, and feel in fifteenth place. These collocations occurred 3 times, 7 times, and 10 times respectively. (See Appendix: 3). It reveals that the strongest ‘collocability’ (Sinclair, 1991) nostalgic possesses is with the word feel in to feel nostalgic. When the immediate prepositions after the node word in the range of 0 to 1 is examined, for, about and to are found to have followed the word nostalgic 18, 8 and 3 times respectively. While examining colligation of nostalgic through concordance, it is found that nostalgic modifies nouns such as reminder, memories, and so on (see Appendix: 2A). It is followed by the preposition for, about, in and to as in nostalgic for the days, nostalgic about the good old days and so on (see Appendix: 2B). It also participates as a modifier of the subject of a clause as in But the biggest nostalgic success was ‘The Darling Buds of May’, as modifier of the object in She gave a nostalgic sigh and complement as in I would have liked more intensity in nostalgic songs. As far as the superlative form is concerned, it is preceded by ‘most’ as in the most nostalgic person. Oftentimes, it is found that nostalgic is also preceded by other modifiers such as warm and strong as in in a warm nostalgic glow and strong nostalgic connotations for many people (See in Appendix: 2C). This is the “grammatical behaviour” (Anderson and Corbett, 2009, p. 93) of the word.

Collins Online Dictionary (COD, 2017) shows this occurs with the preposition for as in nostalgic for the good old days and presents the derivation such as nostalgia as its nominal form and nostalgically as its adverbial form. The COD (2017) has defined through example as ‘something that causes you to think affectionately about the past.’ And in the original text too, the word has been used for the same meaning followed by the preposition for as in nostalgic for Obama.


Ideational Analysis

The ideational or content function of language can be sub-categorized into experiential and logical components. The experiential component refers to “the ability to talk about our experience” whereas the logical component refers to “the expression of certain logical relations” (Halliday and Webster, 2014, p. 221). This section will examine the experiential component only, whereas the logical component will be dealt briefly in the discussion of broader social functions. The experiential component or transitivity examines what is happening (the process), who is being involved (participants) and where and how things are happening (circumstances).

Appendix 5 shows the detailed analysis of transitivity with colour coding. In this call for letters to address the outgoing President of the United States, Barack Obama, the author of The Guardian article has used 10 material processes, followed by 4 relational and 2 verbal processes out of ten sentences.

Sentence one comprises two processes in two different clauses: verbal followed by material processes. Processes of doing, tangible actions, are material processes, whereas processes of verbal actions are verbal processes (Eggins, 2004). In both clauses, circumstance such as on the campaign trail and in the White House precede the participants: sayer and actor (the President in both cases). Circumstance deals with matters such as temporal and physical settings, the manner and the people or entities who accompany without directly engaging (Bloor & Bloor, 2004). There are verbiage, the nominalized statement of the verbal process (Eggins 2004, p. 235) promises and hopes, and the goal – the limits of that message. In this sentence, the verbal process shows that Obama talked about promises and hopes and the material process tells the readers that he found the limits later and as both clauses are preceded by circumstances, the author leads the reader to understand different contexts too.

In sentence 2, the first clause is a material process to show how the President achieved success and the second clause is a relational process in which being is expressed (Eggins, 2004) and it is followed by the attribute, the quality: the most high-profile example. Sentence 3 is a material process to reveal what the current President-elect is doing. Sentence 4 is a verbal process and it has a direct quote. Up to sentence 4, Obama is the participant as actor in different processes. The author wants to show how he acted and what he achieved. (See Appendix: 5 to find more related to other sentences)

Sentence 6 and the first clause of the following sentence are relational processes and they begin with WH-interrogatives which are ‘identified’ (Bloor & Bloor, 2004) or ‘value’ (that which defines) (Eggins, 2004) in sentence 6.  The author is persuading the readers to find the positive things about Obama. And in sentence 9 and 10 through the material processes, that is, ‘to write a letter’ and ‘responses will be included’, the author brings in readers as participants and asks them to write addressing Obama.


Interpersonal Analysis

The interpersonal analysis is based on the Appraisal system which is concerned with evaluation (Martin and Rose, 2003). Attitude, Engagement and Graduation are the categories under the Appraisal system which will be employed for the analysis of the text.

Martin and White (2005) say “Attitude maps feelings as they are construed in the texts” (p. 51). They have been subcategorized into Affect, Judgement and Appreciation. Affect basically deals with registering positive or negative feeling. In the text, the author has employed the resources of Affect in paragraph 5. Sentence 1 (see Appendix: 9) shows the use of the word proud talks about a positive happiness of the readers. The author has tactfully used this resource to make readers accept the success of Obama. There may be some readers who may not agree with the author’s proposition; however, the author is leading them to visualize Obama’s success.

Judgement is the “region of meaning construing our attitudes to people and the way they behave – their character” (Martin & White, 2005, p. 41). Therefore, it is all about how we perceive people and their behaviour. In Appendix 6, sentence 2 marks both negative and positive Judgement. To make readers feel positive towards Obama, the author has employed the Judgement resource which is positive under Social Esteem and that admires, that is, ice-cold calm.  In the meantime, the author has brought the negative characteristics of Trump which falls under Criticize, that is, fire. In this way author has been able to judge the actors and create a similar idea in readers.

Appreciation shows “feelings as propositions about the value of things” (Martin and White, 2005, p.45). For instance, in sentence 3, in eponymous healthcare victory, this phrase has been used as invoked positive Appreciation, that is, in this case, the author has hinted something good that Obama succeeded on. The other Appreciation instances will be dealt with in the second part while analysing the social function of the text.

Another category, Engagement shows the dialogistic positioning and it includes Monogloss for bare assertion or Heterogloss for contracting or expanding the positioning. For instance, in sentence 2 under Heterogloss, perhaps is Expand-Entertain. Perhaps is the “modal attribute” (Martin & White, 2005, p. 105) which shows the issue that writer has raised is contentious, and it entertains diverse opinions from readers. In other words, the writer makes the space in the text’s Heteroglossic backdrop for those who may argue with the author. It will be dealt with further in the broader social function.

Martin and White (2005) maintain that “graduation operates across two axes of scalability-that of grading according to intensity or amount, and that of grading according to prototypicality and the preciseness by which the category boundaries are drawn” (p. 137). They give the term Force to the former one whereas they use Focus for prototypicality. The gradability can be either upscaling or downscaling. The examples in appendix 9 have both Force and Focus. For instance, in this case, his eponymous healthcare victory is perhaps the most high-profile example, the word most shows the extent of high-profile; therefore, most is Force whereas since high-profile still shows the gradability of example, high-profile falls under prototypicality and it is Focus. Martin and White (2005) further classify Focus into Sharpen or Soften. Sharpen strongly flags a “positive attitudinal assessment” (p. 139) so high-profile  is Focus – Sharpen. Similarly, Soften shows negative assessment. In another instance, in this sentence, His successor, Donald Trump, is the fire to Obama’s ice-cold calm… the Force-Intensification is shown through lexicalization, ice-cold which attributes calmness. Similarly, the other example of Graduation in this sentence is …and the best pieces will be featured on the Guardian site. The word best shows the upscaling of the quality, in other words ‘Intensification’ of the quality realized by the superlative, so in this case, the superlative best has intensified the quality expected in a letter which will be sent by the readers to the news team. As the word best shows the upscaling realized via superlative, it is Force-Intensification.


Textual Analysis

Halliday and Webster (2014) state “One of the requirements every language has to meet is texture” (p. 9) and one of the textures, that is, intra-sentential or thematic structure will be the focus in this section. The analysis of thematic structure is based on identifying Theme, Rheme and thematic progression.

Halliday (2014) mentions Theme as “the element that serves as the point of departure of the message; it is that which locates and orients the clause within the context” (p. 9).  For instance, in Appendix 10, in <c 1a> on the campaign trail and <c 1b> in the White House are the Themes, which belong to marked topical Theme, as they are adjuncts falling in the first position in a clause. Lock (1996) says any constituent other than the subject appearing in the first position is marked Theme. Similarly, in <c 2c> his eponymous healthcare victory, is the unmarked Theme, a noun phrase acting as normal subject in the subject position. Interestingly, WH-words, in <c 6a> and <c 6b> represent interpersonal Themes. Thomson (2004) states, “With WH-interrogatives, the WH-word or group itself represents the missing information that the other person is being asked to provide” (p. 146). Next, in <c 2a> and <c 2b> though and that are textual Themes as they are the points of departure that relate internal structural elements (for more see Appendix: 10). Halliday and Webster (2014) argue, “The choice of a Theme is the basic decision about the structure of the message, as the speaker conceives it” (p. 185). It is true as the Theme and Rheme (the remaining part of the sentence other than Theme) have given and new information patterns. In other words, Theme starts with the given (background) information to which Rheme adds new information in a clause or sentence. Rheme provides the content or information that the writer or speaker wants readers or listeners to know.

As regards thematic progression, in the first paragraph (see Appendix 11) in this example … he promised hope and change; in the White House, he discovered the limits of that message. Through the trials and disappointments, though, Barack Obama succeeded on…, there is a linear pattern as the Rheme of the previous sentence discovered the limits of that message becomes the Theme in the latter sentence such as Through the trials and disappointments…. Similarly, there are also examples of constant thematic pattern. For instance, in paragraph 4, the unmarked topical themes are constant. In the first sentence, there is an unmarked topical theme We and in the second sentence, there is another unmarked topical theme a selection of your responses. Likewise, in paragraph 5, the unmarked topical theme you has been repeated even in the following sentence. It shows the use of a variety of sentence structures by the author.

In the following section, the broader social function of the text will be analyzed.


Broader Social Function

For this analysis to indicate the social function of the text, broadly, Halliday’s metafunction and the revised interpersonal meaning, that is, the Appraisal system proposed by Martin and White (2005) will be used. At the same time, Fairclough’s (2003) analytical perspective will also be deployed.

The text, the call for the letters on The Guardian news website is found to have highlighted much about Barack Obama and the success he achieved. He has been portrayed as a successful president in the first part of the text. It has been done through the material processes to highlight his successes such as discovered the limits of the message and succeeded on issue. Similarly, Obama in this text appears as sayer and actor which are the strong roles which implies he has given words and done something or does something. Fairclough (2003) states that we can look at a text from a representational point of view by analyzing which elements of events are included in the representation, which are excluded and which included are given prominence. This is a critical perspective embedded in the ideational metafunction. In the second sentence, the author has introduced Trump and compared his attributes with Obama, which comes under judgement of interpersonal analysis. This is to convince readers of the author’s proposition that Obama’s work should be celebrated and therefore readers need to write a letter on his departure. The author has carefully chosen not to refer to any bad decisions or failures of Obama. This is an exclusion. One may argue that a question such as what are the moments you wish he [Obama] handled differently? may prompt prospective respondents to write some of his negative elements too. However, the readers will be convinced to positively acknowledge Obama through the use of various expressions used before this statement appeared. It is likely that most of the readers who decide to write letters addressing Obama may not write about his negative points as they will realize what is expected in this call for letters.

Of particular interest is the fact that Goatly’s (2000, p. 121) idea of “presupposition, an assumption which is not explicitly stated” is found to be in the very first sentence. The author presupposes that all the readers know Obama failed in some respects or he could not fulfil all the promises he made and the author wants to prove that it is not due to him but due to the limits in the White House. It seems interesting how there is a good build-up of authorial stance in every sentence.

In the second half, largely the readers are the participants in material processes, and they have been requested to write a letter addressing Obama but again by taking account of his positive attributes. For instance, the use of interpersonal theme as a point of departure in WH-interrogative, which is also the Appreciation-Composition-Balance under attitude (Martin & White, 2005), possibly provokes readers to think of his qualities – in retrospect – it might be possible to think of a better way, as in the question What are the moments you wish he [Obama] handled differently? And the Appreciation-Reaction targeting quality on the final line the best pieces will be featured on the guardian site is another persuasive remark. To be the best letter, at first, the readers need to highlight the positive side of Obama and secondly, they need to consider the fact that their letters are going to be published on the widely-acknowledged site.

As regards Engagement, in Heteroglossic remarks, as in, Through the trials and disappointments, though, Barack Obama … (see Appendix: 8), the author comes up with clarification introduced via Through… and use of the term though to mention that the actions for Obama were not easy as such; however, he succeeded in achieving them. The term though is powerful lexical device that aligns the author’s stance with readers. Likewise, the interrogatives What was the speech that sold you on voting for him? What are …? are Expand-Entertain under Heteroglossic Engagement. Under further values of Entertain, Martin and White (2005) state ‘rhetorical questions’ (or ‘expository questions’ by Goatly (2000)) which are often termed as ‘pseudo questions’ that fall under Entertain in which the addressees are positioned to supply particular answer. These are open-ended questions. With these questions in the text, the addresses, here the readers are asked to think of the powerful speech made by Obama, the difficult moments he could have had handled differently and the accomplishments he has achieved. In a way, the author is subtly asking readers to judge his behavior.

Next, under Heterglossic, is the Contract-Proclaim-Endorse statement As novelist Tobias Wolff wrote: “Me, I’m already nostalgic for Obama.” Even if this statement construes a dialogistic backdrop, it leads to “excluding certain dialogic alternatives from any subsequent interaction” (Martin & White, 2005, p. 117) as we have seen that the author is attributing a proposition to the novelist to judge how Obama performed.  In other words, it limits the dialogic interpersonal communication. It comprises authorial interventions or interpolations. By using an Endorse statement, the propositions are sourced to external sources for authorial voice as valid or maximally warrantable. This is done by employing a verbal process.

In regard to logical meaning in the text, there is hypotactic (the relationship between unequal/asymmetrical clauses) enhancement in <Through the trials and disappointments, though,>xb <Barack Obama succeeded on issues that eluded presidents past.>a  In this case, the latter clause beginning from Barack Obama succeeded… enhances the former clause through embellishment (for details of logical meaning, see Halliday & Webster, 2014; as well as the not at the end of this article). Even if there are two clauses in the latter clause, it has been treated as a single unit in this case. If we break the latter clause down further, we can observe hypotactic elaboration (the latter clause beginning from ‘that’ elaborates the former clause) in this unit too. Another interesting aspect is the fact that some components of the clause is missing in the first clause. Probably the clause could be ‘Though Obama had several trials and disappointments’. Likewise, there is also a paratactic (the relationship between equal clauses or a symmetrical relationship) extending in the example <His successor, Donald Trump, is the fire to Obama’s ice-cold calm,>1 < tweeting 140 characters in the time it takes the current Oval Office occupant to compose a reply in his measured delivery>+2. Here, the latter clause beginning from tweeting 140 characters… extends the meaning of the former clause by adding about the way Trump behaves in the second clause. In the second clause, the actor is hidden. Another hypotactic enhancement is in <We want to hear from you>a <as Obama’s time in office comes to a close.> xb  Halliday and Webster (2014) assert that “hypotactic enhancement occurs in clauses introduced by a hypotactic conjunction”, (p. 229) such as ‘as’ in this case. In this asymmetrical relationship between two clauses, the latter clause enhances the former clause through qualification. The meaning that the writer of this text wants readers to receive is that the publication team would like prospective readers to write ‘because Obama’s time in the White House is going to be over’. The meaning expressed in these single inverted commas is the qualification of the former clause. Next is the example of paratactic projection <As novelist Tobias Wolff wrote:>1 <“Me, I’m already nostalgic for Obama.” >”2. Halliday and Webster (2014) say that direct speech falls under paratactic projection. The idea is projected in such a relationship. In the above example, we can observe that the idea that novelist is already nostalgic is projected in the clause (for more see Appendix: 12). It shows that the author has adeptly designed this call for letters maintaining many types of paratactic and hypotactic relationships. And these relationships also help convey meaning a great deal as they help to add, clarify, enhance and project the idea.



In conclusion, the author is found to have used plenty of linguistic devices tactfully that have helped maintain all three kinds of metafunctions in the text. They have ultimately helped create a positive picture of Obama as a successful President for readers. The author might not have thought of these metafunctions technically while writing this call for letters; however, the analysis shows the text has deployed all of the different features of metafunction to convey the meaning. Equally, it seems that this text might be successful enough to get the letters from potential readers since any reader can be intrigued by the way the author has put forward propositions and built an authorial stance.



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Bloor, T. & Bloor, M. (2004). The Functional Analyisis of English (2nd ed.). London: Arnold.

Collins Online Dictionary (2017). Retrieved from english/nostalgic on 7th Jan, 2017.

Eggins, S. (2004). An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics (2nd ed.). London: Continuum

Fairclough, N. (2003). Analyzing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research. London: Routledge.

Goatly, A. (2000). Critical Reading and Writing: An Introductory Course book. London: Routledge.

Halliday, M.A.K. (2002). On Grammar. (Vol. 1). London: Continuum.

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Halliday, M.A.K., & Matthiessen, C.M.I.M. (2014). An Introduction to Functional Grammar (4th ed.). Abingdon: Routledge.

Hoey, M. (2001). Textual interaction: an introduction to written discourse analysis. Milton Park, Abingdon: Routledge.

Lock, G. (1996). Functional English grammar: An Introduction for second language teachers. Cambridge: CUP.

Martin, J. R. & Rose, D. (2003). Working with discourse: Meaning beyond the clause. London: Continuum.

Martin, J.R. & White, P.R.R. (2005) The language of evaluation: Appraisal in English. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Sketch Engine (n.d). Retrieved from

Sinclair, J. (1991). Corpus, Concordance, Collocation. Oxford: OUP.

The Guardian (2017). Retrieved from on 4th Jan, 2017.

Thomson, G. (2004). Introducing functional grammar (2nd ed.). London: Arnold.


I would like to sincerely acknowledge my teachers, Tilly Harrison & Dr. Sue Wharton, who helped me get enough insights on these issues and provided feedback on my writing which helped me revise my draft and come up to this organized form.

Note: For the analysis of logical aspect of ideational meaning under the heading broader social function, the notations as suggested by Halliday and Webster (2014) have been used. As per Halliday and Webster, Paratactic relation between clauses is indicated through <clause X>1 <clause y>2 whereas Hypotactic relation is indicated through <main clause>a <dependent clause>xb. Similarly, elaboration, extension, enhancement and projection are indicated through =, +, x, and ” respectively. (For more, see Halliday and Webster (2014))

Click here for the appendices.

Sagun Shrestha is a 2016 Hornby scholar currently pursuing MA in ELT (specialism in ICT) at the University of Warwick, Coventry, UK. He has served as a Coordinator of English Access Microscholarship Program, Nepal and as a teacher trainer in Nepal English Language Teachers’ Association (NELTA). Equally, he has worked as an English teacher for more than seven years at different levels ranging from primary to undergraduate in Nepal. He is also an editor-in-chief of NELTA ELT Forum, the official e-zine of NELTA. His areas of interest include affordances of technology in ESL/EFL setting, discourse analysis, language planning, and teachers’ and learners’ motivation.


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