Transitivity and Transformation: Characterisation in The Double Hook (research digest)


Reading time: 7 minutes

The Double Hook (1959) is a novel by the Canadian writer Sheila Watson that centres on the lives of a group of characters in a small community in British Columbia. One of the characters, James leaves the town after killing his mother and becomes an isolated, peripheral figure. He later begins a journey home that ends in his reintegration back into the town. Literary critics generally view this return as a kind of personal redemption and as a celebration of the spiritual rebirth of both James and his community.

Yinglin Ji and Dan Shen analyse the shifting characterisation of James throughout the novel by drawing on Michael Halliday’s system of transitivity. Halliday’s model (from his systemic functional grammar) accounts for how different processes (verbs), participants in those processes (usually nouns) and circumstances of those processes (usually adverbs or prepositional phrases) are used by writers and speakers to represent their version of the world. The model is fairly complex and only a quick sketch is provided below.

Process types

Material = doing, happening

e.g. He kicked the ball

Behavioural = physiological or psychological behaviour

e.g. He breathes; she smiles

Relational = having or being

e.g. John has a piano; The car is red

Existential = existing

e.g. There is a dog

Mental = sensing, feeling and thinking

e.g. I saw the car; I like football; I believe in ghosts

Verbal = saying, telling

e.g. I shouted; I told her a story

Within a clause, participants may be attached to material processes either as agents (doing things to other participants), or as goals (having things done to them), and to other processes as entities in the various acts, states and events that the verbs depict. Circumstances function to give more information about a process, such as its manner, location and reason. So a description of a whole clause would be as follows:

The police                        caught                 the suspects             last week

participant (agent), material process, participant (goal), circumstance

Transitivity in literature is often explored in terms of patterns. Ji and Shen use this model to map out how Watson presents James’s character across the novel. They begin by summarising existing literary criticism that suggests that James’s return to his community symbolises rebirth and regeneration, and then argue that this can be shown by looking at the changes in transitivity patterns across various points in the novel. They emphasise that their analysis isn’t just about presenting the mind style of a character (see our previous digest on deixis for examples of this) but rather shows how psychological changes are foregrounded. They argue that these changes are important in our overall understanding of the novel.

To do this, Ji and Shen look at the representation of James and his actions in three chapters that show stages of his journey back to his community. They start by focusing on Chapter 8. In this chapter, they show that James is largely represented as passive with very few material processes used in which he is the agent. Indeed, Ji and Shen show that, unusually, James’s horse is given the agent’s role in many of the clauses. In contrast, James is represented through mental processes, which highlight his internal rather than his external behaviours. Interestingly, Ji and Shen also point out that, at this stage in the novel, even the mental processes tend to be ones related to perceptions and feelings (such as hearing and feeling) rather than those which are more active (such as states of knowing and believing). They argue that much of James’s psychological activity is focused on simply responding to his immediate environment, which demonstrates his inability to transcend his physical situation.

This pattern changes in Chapter 13 where James is now shown to be able to think beyond his immediate environment and engage in self-reflection. Here, Ji and Shen demonstrate that James now acts as an agentive participant at the head of material processes much more frequently. This highlights his ability to exert a physical influence over other entities in the fictional world. Furthermore, there is a pattern of more active mental processes, with James now represented as a thinker rather than a merely a feeler of sensations. Ji and Shen argue that the pattern of processes in this chapter demonstrates the mental transformation that James has undergone at this point in the novel; he is now self-reflective and self-conscious. To this end, James emerges as physically and mentally ready to return to his community.

Finally, Ji and Shen focus on Chapter 18, where James returns to his community, begins to rebuild his past and reclaims his position as an integral member of the town. In this chapter, James is now almost exclusively represented by Watson through the use of material processes that show strong action and volition. The range of process types also increases with Watson representing James and his state of being through existential processes which highlight his re-established position in the community, and through verbal processes which convey his authority and ability to express his point of view to others. Furthermore, Ji and Shen show how the representation of James and his horse in the clauses in this chapter highlight James’s transformation from a passive to an active character. In this chapter, his horse is now usually the goal in a material process, with James restored to the agent in the clauses.

Overall then, Ji and Shen seek to show that a transitivity analysis can account for Watson’s characterisation in transforming James from passivity and isolation to activity and integration back into the community. The authors argue that such an analysis can show the ‘geography of James’s mind’ and help both to support existing literary-critical responses to the novel and to provide some fresh analytical insights.

This is a digest of the following article: Ji, Yinglin and Shen, D. (2004) ‘Transitivity and mental transformation: Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook’, Language and Literature 3(4), 335-348.

Using this in teaching and learning

 You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s AS and A-level English Language and Literature specifications in the following ways.

1.Analysing characterisation in terms of transitivity patterns would be a good way of exploring individual characters in prose fiction (Imagined worlds, A level; Views and voices, AS level). Students could look at selected extracts focusing on key characters in their set novel and highlight the main processes that are used to represent them.

  • To what extent do these patterns map onto ways in which the characters generally function in the novel and the ways in which they are viewed by others?
  • Students could also follow Ji and Shen in tracing an individual character across various points in the novel. Are there different representations during key scenes? Can the mental or physical transformation of a character be explained using a similar approach to Ji and Shen?

These kinds of exercises could also be undertaken with texts being studied for the NEA (Making Connections, A level) and could inform an interesting investigation on characterisation either as a concept or as part of a wider thematic study.

2.Looking at transitivity patterns could also support a more extensive study of characterisation in students’ chosen set texts. For example, students could explore how representation at the level of the clause combines with other ways of presenting characters (speech and thought, physical description, body language and so on). They could think about how characters are developed in the novel and in the poems they are studying (Poetic voices, A level; Views and voices, AS level; Imagined worlds, A level), and find and comment on the connections between transitivity patterns and other ways that writers presents fictional entities.

3.The distribution of material processes (actions) and relational/existential processes (states of being/description) can also be explored through the lens of genre. When working with material for their NEA (Making Connections, A level), students could think about how certain texts (or parts of them) focus on providing either actions or description and how they might account for these by relating these to generic conventions. For example, how are events in crime thrillers told? Is there an equal distribution of processes at key moments (e.g. murders, discovery of bodies)? Do different writers have a noticeable style in terms of how they typically choose to present such events?

4.Equally, students could explore transitivity patterns in non-literary material/genres, drawing on the Paris Anthology (Imagined worlds, A level; People and places, AS level) and more widely, again to support their selection and analysis of non-literary material for NEA (Making Connections, A level). Some genres (e.g. recipes) might typically make use of one kind of process more often than another but can students find more complex examples? And, do other factors such as audience, purpose and mode influence the ways in which writers and speakers might want to represent actions, people, states and events? This provides a useful way into exploring the concept of representation more broadly and will support students across the entire specification.

How one Head of English is using The Definite Article


Reading time: 1 minute

Lauren Cooke is Head of English at Rushcliffe School in Nottingham, and is teaching AQA’s new AS/A-level English Language and Literature specification. Here she shares her thoughts on how she and her colleagues have used The Definite Article.

We have found the The Definite Article blog to be a really valuable resource to complement the AQA AS/A Level Language and Literature course. For teachers new to teaching this course, the blog has provided inspiration and guidance to secure subject knowledge, develop expertise and teach focused lessons.

We’ve found that the research digests are useful in clearly summarising the key aspects of articles, with the introductions serving as an interesting starting point to ground the article and stimulate thinking. Each of the ‘Taking it further’ sections has provided some valuable suggestions on ways to apply the ideas in the article to particular elements of the specification, and made us think about our lesson planning and resources.

We’ve also started to use parts of the digests with students to enrich their knowledge and deliver a bridge between the demands of GCSE and A Level. We’ve found that these are useful in encouraging independent learning and challenging students. For instance, our students have accessed some of the recommended websites to consolidate and extend their learning.

Corpus Stylistics Workshop for A-level teachers


Reading time: 1 minute

On Monday 16th November 2015, over twenty teachers attended this AQA-organised event designed to support teachers in applying corpus methods in the classroom. Led by Professor Michaela Mahlberg (University of Birmingham) and Professor Peter Stockwell (University of Nottingham), teachers learnt about the free online tool CLiC and discussed and explored how this might be used in their classrooms to support learning and teaching. Although the primary focus was on nineteenth-century fiction, delegates were also shown how to use corpus tools to analyse a range of discourse types.

Teachers were incredibly enthusiastic about the day, stating that they liked the practical nature of the activities and the opportunity both to talk to other teachers and to get a higher education perspective on research that was truly cutting edge.

Some further comments below from teachers give a flavour of the positive feedback and show how successful the session was!

  • ‘This session has showed me new exciting ways of teaching language patterns to students’
  • ‘It provided a really new way to look at texts – Michaela and Peter introduced corpus terminology and concepts in a practical way’
  • ‘When teaching the NEA, I will definitely make use of it’
  • ‘Very relevant to actual classroom practice, I am a huge Dickens fan so that focus was a great bonus’

Overall, the day was a massive success; in reply to the question ‘What could we do to improve such sessions in the future’ one teacher simply answered ‘More of them’!

Find out more about the CLiC project.


Positioning readers (reading suggestions)


Reading time: 2 minutes

This reading list is designed to guide teachers towards further reading related to the digest on Peter Stockwell’s article ‘The positioned reader’.

  1. Michael Toolan (2001)

Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction, 2nd edn., London: Routledge.

This is an excellent introduction to narrative and so would be of interest to teachers generally. Chapter 3 offers an introduction to the relationship between author, reader, narrator and narratee, which would be useful for the study of Imagined worlds (A level), Views and voices (AS level).

  1. Peter Stockwell (2002)

Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, London: Routledge.

This is the best introduction to the field of cognitive poetics, offering detailed explanations of a range of topics with suggestions for further reading. The opening chapter also explores the concept of literary reading from a stylistic perspective and offers some interesting insights on context and meaning that teachers might find useful to explore with their classes.

  1. Peter Stockwell (2009)

Texture: A Cognitive Aesthetics of Reading, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

This is a more advanced discussion of some of the topics in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, including an analysis using the concept of deictic braiding (chapter 4) and mind-modelling (chapter 5).

  1. Joanna Gavins (2007)

Text World Theory: An Introduction, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

 Gavins’ book is the best and most accessible introduction to Text World Theory, a model that aims to account for the ways in which readers are positioned to navigate various mental stances in the act of reading. The early chapters give a good overview of cognitive poetics and are also useful for their discussion of the role of contextual factors in various acts of communication.

  1. Marcello Giovanelli (2013)

Text World Theory and Keats’ Poetry: The Cognitive Poetics of Desire, Dreams and Nightmares, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

 This book is a detailed Text World Theory study of four of Keats’ poems. Chapters 5 and 9 in particular explore the ways that a detailed analysis of the text can demonstrate the kind of reader positioning that Stockwell argues for in his article.

Just where do I stand? How do texts position their readers? (Research digest)


Reading time: 5 minutes

Who decides what a text means? The writer? The reader? The text itself? This depends on how you view the act of reading!

Some schools of thought regard the writer of literary fiction as the ‘authority’ over its meaning and give prominence to readings that attach a biographical significance to texts, place them firmly within a historical, social and cultural content of production and foreground authorial intention. On the other hand, reader-response theories highlight the importance of a reader’s belief systems, experiences and competencies in bringing the text to life through interaction – sometimes downplaying the role of the author completely. Then there are those theories and frameworks of reading that focus on the text itself, viewing it as a self-contained entity that simply requires close analysis to unlock its meaning.

Peter Stockwell addresses the question of meaning within the parameters of recent work in stylistics, arguing that a reader is positioned to adopt a particular vantage point towards events and characters in a fictional world. Stockwell begins his paper by distinguishing between two types of reading: everyday reading that is focused on the text itself (‘direct consciousness’); and a more scholarly and inward-looking analytical reading that is focused on trying to explain how a reader engages with a literary work (‘self-consciousness’). This latter ‘thinking about reading’ is, Stockwell suggests, the focus of stylistics as a discipline. In the context of his discussion, he draws largely on a branch of stylistics called ‘cognitive poetics’ that has been influenced by advances in cognitive science, linguistics and psychology.

Stockwell is interested in a way of re-establishing what he terms the ‘ethical dimension’ of literary reading. That is, he argues for viewing literature as a ‘rhetorical act of communication’ between writer and reader. He sees reading as a combination of text-driven constraints and a reader’s own disposition, a stance that draws together aspects of both author-centred and reader-centred theories. Stockwell also suggests that readers will often attempt to assign some kind of authority/agency to their imagined version of the author (he calls this process ‘mind modelling’), arguing that the claims that “an author thought this…” is often a kind of readerly short-cut where the notions of a real life person and implied author are conflated. In other words, readers will naturally try very hard to see a reading experience as an interaction between two people.

To explain the importance of a text-driven approach, Stockwell uses the terms ‘preferred’ and ‘dispreferred responses’ (borrowed from interactional sociolinguistics) as a way of differentiating between types of reading. He argues that most literary works have a ‘text-driven preferred response’ – for example, it would be very hard (but not impossible) to read Nineteen Eighty-Four and feel attracted to the political system and government of Airstrip One. Whilst a preferred response can be very defined (e.g. the message in Nineteen Eighty-Four) or clear but undefined (e.g. when a reader feels a sense of chaos in absurdist fiction), Stockwell suggests that all literature will contain textual patterns that motivate certain kinds of interpretations and impose constraints that make others dispreferred.

In the final part of his paper, Stockwell shows how readers navigate various ethical positions, adopting mental stances that are textually realised by shifts in time, place, modalised expressions that make suggestions about how things should be or might be, metaphors, reported speech and thought, negation, and hypotheticals. Using a combination of two cognitive poetic models, Text World Theory and Deictic Shift Theory, he argues that several versions of the reading-self (or what are termed ‘enactors’) can be tracked as part of the reading process. This in turn can account for the idea that reading has a ‘transformative effect’ and readers feel moved by the narrative, shifting their attitudes towards characters, events and concepts.

Stockwell ends his discussion with a detailed analysis of three extracts from Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte), Emma (Jane Austen) and Cat’s Cradle (Kurt Vonnegurt). In each of these, he uses the concept of ‘deictic braiding’, a kind of complex patterning around the various types of deixis 1 (person, time, space, social relations and textuality) to explain how these texts position their readers.

Overall, Stockwell is careful to point out that although it is readers, rather than texts, who create meanings, we should be mindful of the ways that textual imposition and readerly disposition work together in the complex act of meaning-making. This acknowledges the potential of texts to evoke meaningsthe relationship between author and reader and provides a motivation for rigorous stylistic analysis. Stockwell is clear to point out that that it is simply not enough to say that a reader is positioned by a text but that it is also ‘essential to observe and analyse how that positioning has occurred’.

This is a digest of the following article: Stockwell, P. (2013) ‘The positioned reader’, Language and Literature 22(3), 263–277.

Using this in teaching and learning

You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s specification in the following ways

  1. The term ‘preferred response’ can also be understood as the kind of reading that is most commonly held about a particular text. Ask students to explore literary criticism and the responses of other readers (using online reviews) on their chosen novel (Imagined worlds, A level; Views and voices, AS level). What do they notice? How can they account for any radical readings (‘dispreferred responses’)?
  2. John Donne, Robert Browning, Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy (Poetic Voices, A level; Views and Voices, AS level) have all been described as poets who offer strong moral messages. How might students use the terms positioned reader, preferred response and dispreferred response to discuss their work? One interesting exercise would be to take one poem that appears to have a very clear message and try to read it in alternative terms. How difficult is this? Does the language mean that some interpretations simply are less possible (or even impossible)?
  3. Stockwell’s paper concentrates solely on literature but students could also explore these ideas with non-literary material and apply this to non-literary material from the AQA Anthology as well (Remembered Places, A and AS level)
  4. The activities above could motivate a personal investigation on a literary text and some non-literary data (Making Connections, A level). Students could explore material that has a very strong moral message and undertake a fine-tuned analysis of the ways in which the texts impose certain points of view. This would work particularly well, for example, with science-fiction and political discourse. Can they explain how that positioning has occurred?

Introductory reading on stylistics (reading suggestions)


Reading time: 2 minutes

Here, we give details of a recently-published research report that explores the nature of integrated lang-lit work in schools/colleges and higher education and of three books that we feel teachers would find useful and interesting as they begin to teach AQA’s specification. All of these books cover topics in stylistics generally and so would be of use to teachers working on any of the AS and A-level units.

1. Billy Clark, Marcello Giovanelli, and Andrea Macrae (2015)

‘Language and Literature: From A Level to BA: 
Student Backgrounds and First Year Content’, available here.

This report is a recently published and very useful overview that explores and compares the nature of integrated lang-lit work at Post-16 and in higher education. We completed this initially as part of research carried out for the Higher Education Academy in 2013 and before the current specification was developed and launched.

2. Paul Simpson (2014)

Stylistics: A Resource Book for Students, 2nd edn., London: Routledge.

Simpson’s book (now in its second edition) is part of the excellent Routledge English Language Introductions (series editor Peter Stockwell). It provides a thorough overview of the subject together with activities, commentaries and extracts from some key readings. This is highly recommended reading for all Post-16 teachers.

3. Geoffrey Leech and Mick Short (2007)

Style in Fiction: A Linguistic Introduction to English Fictional Prose, 2nd edn, London: Longman.

This is a classic text (again now in its second edition). There are plenty of practical examples of stylistics at work through detailed analyses of a range of prose texts. Chapter 10 offers a seminal introduction to the categorisation of speech and thought presentation, which would be really useful to teachers working on Imagined worlds (A level) and/or Views and voices (AS level).

4. Christiana Gregoriou (2012)

English Literary Stylistics, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

This is a relatively more accessible book that covers stylistics in all three literary genres, including two very good final chapters on drama. There are also dedicated ‘practice’ chapters full of tasks and commentaries, many of which could be used with AS and A level groups.

“Well, quite!” Gendered language in the novels of Jane Austen (research digest)


Reading time: 4 minutes

In this digest, we look at how one researcher has explored the use of a particular lexical item in the speech of male and female characters in Jane Austen’s novels.

The question of whether men and women speak differently is one that’s been hotly debated for many years. Current thinking in linguistics suggests that male and female speech styles are not driven by biological differences. Instead it is argued that speakers construct and perform gendered identities for themselves, which may either draw on or challenge perceived stereotypes. The idea is that gender is something that speakers and writers ‘do’ as part of a more or less deliberate projecting of identity. But how might these ideas be explored in literary representations of gendered language? In a recent study on the use of the adverb ‘quite’ in three Jane Austen novels, Victorina González-Díaz of the University of Liverpool demonstrates how Austen plays on eighteenth and nineteenth century stereotypes of female speech in the construction of her characters.

González-Díaz starts by tracing how research in linguistics has demonstrated that there are five main functions of ‘quite’:

  • as a manner adverb, indicating how something happened (this use of ‘quite’ disappeared in the Middle English period)
  • as a maximiser, synonymous with ‘entirely’, ‘completely’ eg ‘That is quite true’
  • as a scalar degree modifier, suggesting a point on a scale eg ‘He is quite old’
  • as an emphasiser indicating a writer or speaker’s opinion on an expression, synonymous with ‘honestly’, ‘truthfully’ eg ‘That is quite what happened’
  • as a response particle commenting on something that has already been said eg ‘Teachers should be paid more’ said the Secretary of State ‘Quite!’ replied the union leader.

González-Díaz explores late eighteenth and early nineteenth century uses of ‘quite’ and finds that the maximiser function of ‘quite’ tends to occur most frequently, while use of ‘quite’ as a scalar-degree modifier, emphasiser or particle response are less frequent. Reviewing the prevailing eighteenth century attitudes towards standards, notions of correctness and prescriptivism, she concludes that ‘quite’ used as a maximiser would have been considered the default and therefore ‘correct’ function, whilst the others would have been viewed as linguistic novelties and therefore corruptions.

Gender - well quiteGonzález-Díaz then analyses frequencies of each of the functions of ‘quite’ across narration and characters’ speech in Pride and Prejudice (early career), Mansfield Park (mid career), and Emma (later career). Her analyses show that across all of the novels there is frequent use of maximiser, scalar degree and emphasiser forms of ‘quite’ with relatively few if any examples of response particle use. However, and more interestingly, González-Díaz highlights the difference between use of ‘quite’ between male and female characters. While male characters used ‘quite’ on fewer occasions and where they did, used the conventional maximiser function, female characters not only used ‘quite’ generally more frequently, but often used the more novel scalar degree and emphasiser functions. They therefore could be said to use more linguistic novelties but crucially, also display a greater versatility in using ‘quite’ in functionally different ways depending on the contexts they spoke in.

González-Díaz contextualises these findings by explaining that the novels work as literary representations of gendered identity since in the eighteenth century, standard and correct forms of language were often associated with male speech; in contrast, linguistic novelties would have been associated with female language. So, we have the beginning of the kind of gendered stereotyping that persisted well into the late twentieth century – and some might argue still persists in the twenty-first!

To conclude, González-Díaz argues that Austen was probably very conscious of this kind of stereotyping and exploited this for her own literary effects. Rather than drawing on her experience of natural speech, Austen was able to integrate contemporary stereotypes about male and female language into her novels in order both to draw attention to them and, given the versatility of female characters, to provide some ironic comment on these crude distinctions about male and female speech!

This is a digest of the following article: González-Díaz, V. (2014) ‘’I quite detest the man’: Degree adverbs, female language and Jane Austen’, Language and Literature 23(4), 310-330.

Taking it further

You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s AS and A-level English Language and Literature specifications in the following ways.

  1. Ask students to explore the distribution of a particular lexical item or discourse marker across male and female characters in the novel they are studying (Imagined worlds, A-level; Views and voices, AS). What patterns emerge? Do authors play on stereotypes of male and female speech? What interpretative effects might these have?
  2. When studying dialogue, either represented (Imagined worlds, A-level; Writing about society, A-level; Dramatic encounters, A-level) or natural speech (Remembered places, AS and A-level), students could look at male-female interaction. You could introduce them to some of the main ideas from sociolinguistics around gendered language and ask them to explore any connections between real and literary representations of discourse.
  3. Remembering that explorations of language and gender can also focus on male language, explore the construction of male identities in the poetry of John Donne or Robert Browning (Poetic Voices, A-level; Views and Voices, AS), in material from the AQA Anthology (Remembered Places, AS and A-level) or in any of the dramatic texts on the specification (Dramatic encounters, A-level).
  4. The activities above could form a personal investigation on a literary text and some non-literary data (Making Connections, A-level) that explores representations of gender, speech styles, idiolects, the construction of identity and so on.