Transitivity, agency, mind style: What’s the lowest common denominator?

Louise Nuttall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Analyses of the worldviews presented by texts have identified grammatical patterns in terms of the transitivity system outlined in systemic-functional grammar (Halliday, 1994; Halliday and Matthiessen, 2014). While contributing to different interpretations of mind style and ideology in different contexts, these patterns and interpretative effects often bear fundamental similarities. In this article, I investigate this underlying similarity in transitivity analyses, or ‘interpretative “lowest common denominator”’ (Simpson, 1993: 105), from a cognitive stylistic perspective. This article attempts to characterise this low-level effect and test it empirically. It takes as its starting point a body of analyses in stylistics and critical discourse analysis, which repeatedly link comparable sets of grammatical features (e.g. goal-less intransitive clauses and metonymic agency) to a diminished sense of intentionality, awareness and control in the human agent responsible (e.g. Halliday, 1971; Kennedy, 1991; Simpson and Canning, 2014; Trew, 1979). I argue that the shared interpretative effects of these stylistic choices can be understood in terms of Cognitive Grammar’s model of construal (Langacker, 2008). Specifically, I propose that the effects of transitivity choices are fundamentally effects for our attribution of mental states, or ‘mind-modelling’ (Stockwell, 2009) of participants, as part of a construal. Finally, I describe an online reader response experiment which tests this proposal among a wider sample of readers. Combining methods from experimental studies of mind attribution in psychology with a controlled alteration of texts by Conrad and Hemingway, this research reveals predictable cognitive effects of transitivity choices across contexts.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)159-179
Number of pages21
JournalLanguage and Literature
Issue number2
Early online date19 Apr 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2019


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