BY 4.0 license Open Access Published online by De Gruyter Mouton October 22, 2021

A corpus-based study of grammatical post-metaphorical expressions

Jiangping Zhou and Yanmei Gao


In Systemic Functional Linguistics, meanings in semantic stratum could be realized by congruent/premetaphorical, metaphorical, or demetaphorical/post-metaphorical expressions in lexico-grammatical stratum. This paper, evidenced from the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), explores the specific pathway from metaphorical expressions to post-metaphorical ones guided by principles of Context-first and AS IF and double functionality. The findings show that grammatical postmetaphorization is mainly realized by post-metaphor of ideation and that of modality. The former finds its expressions from common nouns to proper nouns (e.g. from security to Security), or from uncountable nouns to countable nouns (e.g. from security to securities), and the latter is evidenced by expressions shifting from explicit objective orientation to its explicit subjective counterpart (e.g. from it is possible that to it might be possible that), or by modal probability of I think type shifting from clausal initial position to clausal medial or final position (e.g. I think in the medial or final position of the clause).

1 Introduction

Grammatical post-metaphor (hereafter GPM) denotes that the metaphorical expression has been developed into a new phase that its original characteristics of being a metaphor have been blurred or cannot be captured explicitly. It could be identified by addition of new grammatical features to the metaphorical expression. Specifically, if a metaphorical expression (e.g. consideration) is added with the grammatical feature of plurality (e.g. considerations), then GPM occurs. This “nomenclature” is semantically similar to such terms as “dead metaphor” or “demetaphorical expression” employed by other scholars (cf. Lakoff and Jonhson 1980; Liu 2013; Mo 2013; Mo and Liu 2014; Meng 2009; etc.). The term “dead metaphor” is mostly favored by scholars who investigate the traditional metaphor (cf. Goldstein et al. 2012; Reimer 1996) or metaphor in the sense of Cognitive Linguistics (Meng 2009; Mo 2013; Mo and Liu 2014). There are also scholars in Systemic Functional Linguistics (hereafter SFL) (Halliday 1985, 1994; Liu 2013), employing the term “demetaphorization” to denote the phenomenon that characteristics of a metaphorical expression fade away gradually.[1] However, being “dead” seems to reject any new grammatical features (although itself might be a grammatical feature), and the “reanimation” from “dead”, to some extent, does not comply with the natural law, either; being “demetaphorization” also fails to associate itself with the previous metaphorical phase explicitly, or the implication of the association by the prefix “de-” is not as direct as that by the prefix “post-”. Accordingly, GPM is used in this paper to directly presuppose its previous metaphorical or non-congruent phase and the premetaphorical or congruent phase with the implication of the prefix “post-”.

GPM in this paper follows the identifying principles of Grammatical Metaphor (hereafter GM). That is to say, principles of Context and AS IF proposed by Yang (2019) and double functionality by Fan (2007) and He and Wen (2017) are employed to facilitate telling whether the expressions in question, are still characteristic of GM features. One possibility is that GM features are backgrounded while new grammatical features are foregrounded. These new grammatical features are regarded as features of GPM. Therefore, GPM, throughout this paper, refers to expressions whose new grammatical features are foregrounded with their original GM features backgrounded. This working definition is different from Halliday’s sense of GPM (demetaphorization in his term) (Halliday 1994: 348), which is expounded as the phenomenon that a metaphorical expression gradually loses its metaphorical character, in that it is more plausible to explain the phenomenon that new GM features are identified. The GPM features are delineated by examples (1a)–(1c).

a.Last fall, for example, when Senator Kennedy, then his party’s presidential nominee, failed to win Senate approval for his medical care plan tied to Social Security, he won only a single GOP vote, that of Senator Case. (COHA)
b.All these securities, however, would be found very insufficient without the restraint of frequent elections. (COHA)
c.Abdel Abdel Mahadi He could not, I think, have escaped in this way. (COHA)

Security in (1a) is a proper noun, which marks little metaphorical feature of class shift from the adjective secure to the common noun security. Being different from Security in (1a), securities in (1b) still keeps the grammatical feature of a de-adjectival noun, and acquires, at the same time, the plural feature. The projecting clause I think in (1c) functions as a modal element and is employed as a GM. Besides, this modal element is interpolated in the clause and captures a feature of discourse marker. Both clauses in (1a) and (1b) are incorporated into the scope of ideational metaphor, while (1c) pertains to what Halliday terms as interpersonal metaphor, specifically, the metaphor of modality. In other words, examples (1a)–(1b) are GPM in the ideational domain, and (1c) is an instance of GPM articulating interpersonal metafunction. This paper, therefore, attempts to delineate the pathway of GPM drawing on instances retrieved from COHA.

The following sections are outlined as follows: Section 2 briefly reviews GM and the newly proposed principles of identifying GM; Section 3 sketches the corpus adopted and what research materials will be employed to retrieve GPM instances; Sections 4 and 5 analyze and discuss the major two pathways of GPM; before making a putative conclusion in Section 7, Section 6 tries to visualize the pathway of metaphorization.

2 GM and its identifying principles

GM is an important construct in the semiotic system in Halliday’s SFL enterprise. It was first outlined in Halliday (1984) and then theorized in his monograph An Introduction to Functional Grammar (Halliday 1985). GM, according to him, is defined as in some respect transferred variants of the congruent realizations in the lexicogrammar for a certain semantic configuration (Halliday 1985: 321). Hence a GM expression cannot be articulated without relating it to its congruent mode. Halliday (1985, 1994, Halliday and Matthiessen (1999), and Halliday and Matthiessen (2004, 2014 have incorporated ideational metaphor and interpersonal metaphor into the GM system,[2] which is sympathized by authors of this research to explore the categorization of GPM. The two concepts in GM can find their expressions in the following examples:

a.Because these tasks were difficult they needed to allocate One extra packer.
b.These difficulties necessitated the allocation of one extra packer.
(Halliday 1994: 349)
a.Mary saw something wonderful.
b.Mary came upon a wonderful sight.
(Halliday 1994: 344)
a.Pass me the salt.
b.Could you pass me the salt?
(Yang 2019: 207)
a.It probably is so.
b.I think it is so.
(Halliday 1994: 354)

Examples (2) and (3) pertain to the domain of ideational metaphor, among which (2a) and (3a) are congruently expressed while their corresponding (2b) and (3b) are realized in more metaphorical mode. As in (2), the sequence[3] realized by a clause complex in (2a) is down rank-shifted into an independent clause in (2b), more specifically, the cause and effect relation in the clause complex is transferred into a simple clause with a material process realized by necessitate. Whereas in (3), the metaphorical feature is demonstrated by the transcategorization among various elements. The process of perception, which is realized by the verb see in (3a) is turned into a nominalized participant sight in (3b), in which the clause is composed of a material process came upon. Different from (2) and (3), which are instances of ideational metaphor, instances in (4) and (5) fall into the scope of interpersonal metaphor. Specifically, the clause in (4b) exemplifies interpersonal metaphor of mood, and that in (5b) is an instance of interpersonal metaphor of modality. The speech function of a command in (4a) is carried out by means of a question in (4b), hence interpersonal metaphor of mood occurs; similarly, modality of probability denoted by the modal adverb probably in (5a) is upgraded to a mental projecting clause I think in (5b), and thus metaphor of modality appears.

After the theory of GM has been proposed, some systemicists are delving into the means of identification, among which are Yang’s principles of Context first and AS IF, and the principle of double functionality by Fan (2007), He et al. (2015) and He and Wen (2017). Therefore, the next section will detail these principles.

2.1 Principles of Context first and AS IF

Principles of Context first and AS IF are proposed by Yang (2019) chiefly for the purpose of identifying interpersonal metaphor of mood and modality, although principle of Context first could be applied to the other kinds of GM. According to Yang (2019), the specific context, in which the speech event occurs, shall play an important role in determining the occurrence of interpersonal metaphor. Although the Context first principle has not been elicited as a means of identifying GM, this principle de facto has been indicated by Halliday (1994) and some other systemicists (Lassen 2003a, 2003b; White 2008).[4]Yang (2019: 193) quoted the two clauses in (6), which were employed by Halliday (1994: 366) to exemplify the necessity of considering context while getting a full understanding of them, and expounded that either clause can be regarded as the metaphorical expression of the other. In other words, the imperative (6a), in the context of demanding goods-&-services, fulfills the speech function of command in a natural way, and hence (6b) is an instance of metaphor of mood. However, the declarative clause in (6b), while in the context of giving information, is realized congruently, and (6a), therefore, is metaphorical.

a.[C]onsider the way they cheated before.
b.[T]he evidence is (the fact) that they cheated before.
(Halliday 1994: 366)

The principle of Context first can also be employed to identify cases of interpersonal metaphor of modality. Considering the two instances in (7), I think in (7a) is an instance of metaphor of probability,[5] but it, in the situational context of a doctor giving advice to an advice-seeker, can be understood as an interpersonal metaphor of obligation, because, in so doing, it is easier for the advice-seeker to accept the doctor’s advice. Similarly, this explanation also applies to (7b). From the vantage point of linguistic context, the parenthetical construction I think and I hope in (7a) and (7b) respectively attenuate the obligatory force of the corresponding proposition of it is a great time to try the pill in (7a) and you consider posting a follow up in (7b).[6] Specifically, the modal expressions of probability I think in (7a) and I hope in (7b), together with the linguistic context, realize the modality of obligation denoted by it is obligatory for you to take the pill and it is obligatory for you to consider posting a follow up respectively, and thus metaphor of modality occurs.

a.I think now would be a great time to try the pill.
b.I hope that when your time permits that you will consider posting a follow up.
(Yang 2019: 194)

Besides the principle of Context first, the principle of AS IF can also be employed to identify interpersonal metaphor. According to Yang, the principle of AS IF can be defined as the determination of interpersonal metaphor “by an AS IF relation between the default congruent utterance and the metaphorical counterpart” (Yang 2019: 194). With respect to speech functions, giving or demanding goods-&-services are congruently realized by an offer in the form of a declarative or a command in the form of an imperative respectively, while giving or demanding information are congruently fulfilled with the forms of a declarative functioning as a statement or an interrogative functioning as a question respectively. The speech functions can find their congruent expressions exemplified in (8), which is a conversation between a detective and a little girl who are talking about the bad guy Max.

– Is something the matter here? I’m [the detective] in charge of security.
– Are you a policeman?
– No, honey. Well, sort of, I guess. I’m the police officer of the store, I suppose you could say.
– He’s [Max] a bad man, make him go away.

The interrogatives Is something the matter here and Are you a policeman perform the function of questions in demanding information, while the declaratives I’m the police officer of the store and Hes a bad man function as statements in (8). The imperative make him go away is an instance of congruently realizing the function of a command.

In social communications, these congruent expressions can be expressed alternatively. To be more specific, a command in the form of an imperative can be employed to function AS IF it was used as a question, a statement AS IF it was a question, or a question AS IF it was a command. For instance, the statement in (9a) can be understood AS IF it was a question do you have any trouble or do you need any help. Similarly, the question can you take him away in (9b) is expressed AS IF it served as a command denoting take him away. Thus, interpersonal metaphors of mood occur.

a.I’m [the detective] in charge of security. (COHA)
b.He’s [Max] a bad man, can you take him away? (COHA)

The principle of AS IF is also applicable to interpersonal metaphors of modality (Yang 2019). Metaphor of probability is defined as the phenomenon that the clause in (10b), which is used in a context of explicit subjective projection, is employed AS IF it was an implicit subjective clause in (10a), and an explicit objective projection clause in (10d) is adopted AS IF it was an implicit objective clause as in (10c). Metaphor of usuality refers to an explicit objective projection clause as in (11b) is used AS IF it was a usuality realized in the form of an implicit objective clause as in (11a). Obligatory metaphor is articulated in a context that an explicit subjective clause as in (12b) is used AS IF it was an obligatory clause which is realized by an implicit subjective clause as in (12a), and that an explicit objective projection exemplified in (12d) is used AS IF it was an implicit objective clause in (12c). Metaphor of inclination[7] can find its expression in (13b). An explicit objective clause is used AS IF it was an inclination realized by an implicit objective clause as in (13a).

a.He will have read for hours.[8]
b.I think he reads for hours.
c.He probably read for hours.
d.It is likely he reads for hours.
a.He usually reads for hours.
b.It is usual for him to read for hours.
a.You should read for hours.
b.I allow you to read for hours.
c.You are supposed to read for hours.
d.It is expected that you read for hours/of you to read for hours.
a.Their [the revengeful warriors] youthful queen might be determined to take the captive for her husband, in the place of her kinsman who was slain. (COHA)
b.Another council was immediately held, at which it was determined that their [the revengeful warriors] youthful queen, might according to the usages of the nation take the captive for her husband, in the place of her kinsman who was slain. (COHA)

It is evident from these instances that the principles of Context first and AS IF are applicable to the analysis of interpersonal metaphor, but there is little evidence showing its applicability to the analysis of ideational metaphor. The principle of double functionality, therefore, is employed to identify instances of ideational metaphor.

2.2 Principle of double functionality

GM is one of the items de facto on the lexical-grammatical stratum realizing double functions (He and Wen 2017; He et al. 2015), and hence double functionality can be employed as a principle to identify GM (Fan 2007). In other words, GM occurs on the condition that the acquisition of an extra meaning happens in the ideational domain. Examples (14) and (15) will be adopted to expound this type of phenomenon.

a.A lot of leaves have collected on the roof.
b.The roof has collected a lot of leaves.
c.He has collected a lot of leaves.
(Fan 2007: 15)
a.The patrons were Exasperated before you gambled all their lives. (COHA)
b.The exasperation of the patrons preceded the gambling of all their lives. (COHA)

(14b) is the metaphorical expression of (14a) while (14c) is not, for the reason that roof in (14b) functions not only as a participant, but also as a circumstantial element, and thus a double functionality; whereas there is no element in (14c) realizing the double functionality, and hence it is not a metaphorical expression. Comparing with (14), which is an instance of double functionality occurring in different elements in the clause rank, (15) can be exemplified as an ideational metaphor rank-shifting from a clause complex to a simple clause. That is to say, the sequence realized by clause complex in (15a) is remapped by a clause in (15b). In other words, the nominal groups, functioning as elements, the exasperation of the patrons and the gambling of all their lives also function as two figures. The lexical verb preceded functions as a material process and a relator as well. Accordingly, all three elements in (15b) are of double functionality.

2.3 GM cline

The concept of being a GM is relative. Compared with a more congruent expression, it is regarded as a metaphorical one, while compared with a more metaphorical one, the same expression may be treated as a congruent one. Therefore, the development, from congruent expression to metaphorical one and then to a new congruent one, constructs a cline (He 2019; Yang 2018, 2019). See example (16).

a.Because osmolarity increases, putrescine is rapidly excreted.
b.Increases of osmolarity cause rapid excretions of putrescine.
c.Rapid excretions of putrescine through increases of osmolarity.

(16b) is more metaphorical than (16a) in that the two clauses in (16a) is down rank-shifted into two nominal groups in (16b) and the relator because is class-shifted into a verb realizing the material process; whereas (16c) is more metaphorical if compared with (16b) underlying the fact that the clause in (16b) is further realized by a nominal group. Hence the sequence from the most congruent end to the most metaphorical end forms a cline.

It seems that the GM cline, to some extent, can be employed to account for the pathway that the GPM undergoes. Actually, only part of the whole pathway has been enunciated. That is to say, the rank-shifting from clause complex to clause or from clause to group is made clear. However, GM cline precludes the analysis of componential elements in ideational metaphor and interpersonal metaphor. This research therefore aims at investigating GPM by the analysis of componential elements in GM.

3 Methodology

3.1 Corpus

In order to explore the pathway from metaphorical expressions to post-metaphorical ones, we need consider the evolvement of GM to GPM along the time. It is the Corpus of Historical American English or COHA that serves this purpose very well in that COHA contains all together 400 million words, spanning almost two hundred years from 1910 to 2009. Furthermore, it incorporates a wide range of genres such as Fiction, Magazines, Newspaper, and Non-Fiction Books. Genres and sub-genres are balanced in each decade. For instance, in each decade, non-fiction (e.g. history, religion and technology) accounts for approximately 15% of the total number of all genres, and fiction, including its sub-genres like prose, poetry and drama, takes amount of 48–55% of the total (Davies 2012). These balanced genres and sub-genres will enable the findings of the investigation to be closer to the changes of actual reality or ‘real world’.

3.2 Data collection

In this sub-section, materials employed for investigation are identified, and procedures that are conducted to elicit the research data are explained. As for materials of identifying GPM features, those of examining the post-ideational metaphor are firstly collected, and those for post-interpersonal metaphor ensued.

3.2.1 Materials for investigation of post-ideational metaphor

Examples, which are employed by Halliday and Matthiessen (1999: 246–248) to represent the shifting processes from congruent to metaphorical expressions, are taken as materials to testify what post-metaphorical features they possess.[9] For example, with respect to the congruent form unstable, secure and quick(ly), their corresponding metaphorical forms instability, security and speed are examined on COHA with the search query(SQ) shown below respectively.

SQ1: [instability].[nn*]

SQ1 can be described as any form of instability or security or speed used as a noun. In a similar vein, materials, which are employed to testify the GPM features, are collected in terms of examples provided by Halliday and Matthiessen (1999) while illustrating the 13 types of GM, which is presented in Table 1.

Table 1:

Materials adapted from examples of the 13 types of GM by Halliday and Matthiessen (1999: 246–247).

TypeSemantic elementExamples



will/going to→prospect;

can/could→possibility, potential;

try to→attempt;

want to→desire


[dust is] on the surface→surface dust
4relatorso→cause, proof; if→condition
5processquality[poverty] increases→increasing [poverty];

was/used to→previous;


begin (to)→initial

[marks are] on the surface→superfacial [marks]

8circumstanceprocess(be) about→concern;

(be) instead of→replace;

(go) across→traverse;

(put) in the box/house→box/house


10relatorcircumstancewhen→in times of;

because→because of;

so→as a result, in consequence;

if [it snows]→under/in [snow(y)] conditions
11(none)thing[x]→the fact/phenomenon of [x]
12(none)/(agency &c)/(phase &c)process[x]→[x] occurs/exists;

[x]→have, do [x] (e.g. impact→have an impact);

make [x:y]→impose [y on x];

think [x=y]→credit [x with y];

started/wanted [to survey]→started/wanted [a survey]
13thing/circumstanceexpansion of thingthe government [decided]→[decision] of/by the government, the government’s [decision], government(al) [decision];

[decided] hastly→hasty [decision];

[argued] for a long time→lengthy [argument];

[announced] yesterday→yesterday’s announcement;

[departed] for the airport→[department] for the airport

All examples of metaphorical mode listed in Table 1 will be retrieved one by one in COHA by search queries written in the same way as SQ1. For instance, while retrieving the exemplar items in the fifth and eighth types of GM, search queries are constructed as SQ2 and SQ3 respectively.

SQ2: [increasing].[j*]
SQ3: [concern].[v*]

Among all the concordances retrieved by each SQ, the top 200 ones are further scrutinized for the purpose of examining whether other grammatical features could be identified besides the GM feature. This point is expounded with the following example clauses (17a)–(17b). priority in (17a) is an instance of ideational GM, because its congruent form is prior and it can be transformed into The idea of a Defensive war does not consist in a prior attack, but a prior injury. Besides the feature of GM in this clause, no other grammatical feature could be identified. However, priorities in (17b), different from that in (17a), characterizes not only a backgrounded feature of GM in the clause, but also a feature of foregrounded plurality.

a.The idea of a Defensive war does not consist in priority of attack, but in priority of injury. (COHA)
b.Commerce survey reported that they had felt the pinch of priorities. (COHA)

After an automatic retrieving and a subsequent manual analysis of these clauses (200 clauses for each example), we noticed that the metaphorical forms denoting semantic ‘quality’, ‘process’, ‘circumstance’ and ‘expansion of thing’ are characteristic of GM feature solely, while the semantic shift from ‘quality’ and ‘process’ to ‘thing’, together with a GM feature, characterizes additional grammatical features such as plurality (countability, in the following, is employed for the purpose of incorporating singularity) and/or nominal properness. In order to make this research as exhaustive as possible, some other retrieving triggers, such as nominalizations suffixed by ‘-ion, -ment, -ity, and -ness’ (Biber 1988; He and Yang 2018), are supplemented to the present set, because suffixes ‘-ion’ and ‘-ment’ are mainly derived from verbs, and ‘-ity’ and ‘-ness’ mainly from adjectives. However, it is impossible to exhaustively analyze these clauses that are produced by the four suffixes, and hence the choice of the top five words among all the concordances retrieved by the four queries from SQ4 to SQ7 are further scrutinized. The GM feature and additional grammatical features of these triggers are shown in Table 2.

Table 2:

GM feature and GPM features of countability and nominal properness attested in the COHA.

GM featureCountabilityNominal properness

  1. “+” stands for attested features while “–” for unattested.

SQ4: [*ity].[nn*]
SQ5: [*ness].[nn*]
SQ6: [*ion].[nn*]
SQ7: [*ment].[nn*]

3.2.2 Materials for investigation of post-interpersonal metaphor

According to Halliday (1985, 1994, interpersonal metaphor incorporates metaphor of mood and metaphor of modality. The typical type of the former, such as an imperative is realized by an interrogative while demanding goods & services, is employed to examine whether there are occurrences of additional grammatical features besides the GM one. Based on this type of interpersonal metaphor of mood, the relevant search query is constructed as in SQ8, which is expressed as any form in the sequence of be or do or have or modal auxiliaries followed by any form of a noun or pronoun. Among the tens of thousands of concordances, we further scrutinized the first top 200 ones and found no additional grammatical features except the GM one (see example 18). Therefore, this type[10] of interpersonal metaphor is not further considered in this study.

SQ8: [vb*]|[vd*]|[vh*]|[vm*] [nn*]|[p*]
Mr. Snow: Can you tell me whether it was closed or open?
Linda: It was open.

With respect of the metaphor of modality, orientations of explicit subjective (e.g. mental process projection) and explicit objective (e.g. It+be+modal adj.+to/that) are employed to examine whether additional grammatical features can be identified. The typical representatives of mental process verbs include think, assume, believe, guess, or suppose (Fetzer 2008; Halliday and Matthiessen 2014) (hereafter I think Type), while the typical modal adjectives in the construction of It+(modal)be+modal adj.+to/that (hereafter It Construction) mainly subsume the ones identified by Van Linden (2010, 2012), and Halliday and Matthiessen (2014), such as possible, probable, usual, necessary, obligatory. Underlying the two types of metaphorical patterns, relevant search queries, therefore, are constructed as follows:

SQ9:it [vb*] possible|probable|usual|necessary|obligatory to|that
it [vm*] be possible|probable|usual|necessary|obligatory to|that
SQ10:[y*] [p*] think|assume|believe|guess|suppose that
[y*] [p*] think|assume|believe|guess|suppose [pp*] [v*]
[y*] [p*] think|assume|believe|guess|suppose [nn*] [v*]
SQ11: , [p*] think|assume|believe|guess|suppose,
SQ12: , [p*] think|assume|believe|guess|suppose.

SQ9 reads as a pronoun it and any form of be-verb or modalized be-verb, followed by either possible or probable or usual or necessary or obligatory and then by an infinitive clause or a that-clause; SQ10 is expressed as a pronoun followed by any one of think, assume, believe, guess or suppose with or without that, and then followed by a pronoun or noun and a verb. Generally, this search query is to retrieve the cases that the pattern locates in the initial position of the clause, and SQ11 for medial position and SQ12 for the final position. With these search queries, most occurrences of the typical representatives in the It construction of It+(modal)be+modal adj.+to/that and I think Type of mental process projection in clause initial, medial or final positions could be retrieved. With respect to search queries from SQ9 to SQ 12, the raw number of occurrences of It construction and I think Type retrieved from COHA are shown in Table 3, and examples are provided in (19a)–(19b) and (20a)–(20c).

Table 3:

Occurrences of It construction and I think Type retrieved from COHA.

Metaphor of modalityOccurrences
It Constructionto clause9,967 (2,051)
that clause5,002 (100)
I think Typeinitial20,494

  1. Figures in brackets refer to modalized occurrences included in the total.

a.If it is necessary to wage the war individually, it can be done, but everything which will call or attract them must be cleaned up or eliminated. (COHA)
b.It was obligatory that the civil rulers should be learned, even at the expense of those who carried on the business and the home. (COHA)
a.Grace demurred: “I don’t think I’m so strong. I think it’s just pure belief and love in this person.” (COHA)
b.I love him, I think, but I hate to be here. (COHA)
c.I only really remember her smell, I think. (COHA)

4 Post-metaphorization of nominalization

The theoretical base for identifying GM of nominalization is the principle of double functionality. Specifically, double functionality is of special significance in the stage of GPM in that, besides the grammatical features such as countability and properness, it is capable of examining the existence of grammatical metaphorical features. We employed Halliday and Matthiessen’s (1999: 246–247) examples for elucidating the 13 types of GM to investigate their pathways from GM to GPM, i.e. which type/types has/have experienced the stage of post-metaphorization, and in what way these post-metaphorical features are couched explicitly. A thorough examination of data from the COHA with relevant search queries demonstrates that only metaphorical types of ‘quality to thing’ and ‘process to thing’ out of the 13 types of GM are found to possess post-metaphorical features. In order to get a full understanding of the scope of this phenomenon, the two types of GM are enriched by an extension of another four suffixes (i.e. ‘-ity’, ‘-ness’, ‘-ion’ and ‘-ment’) which are typically characteristic of nominalization, and thus further detailed.

4.1 From quality to thing

GM of quality to thing refers to the phenomenon that the grammatical category of adjectives (mostly but not always) functioning as quality are transcategorized into nouns functioning as thing. In this study, together with the attested examples by Halliday and Matthiessen (1999: 246–247), the top five occurrences of words suffixed by ‘-ity’ and the other top five suffixed by ‘-ness’ are considered diachronically. The findings demonstrate that, except the GM feature, the grammatical features of countability and properness are also captured with evolvement of the language, which is shown in the first half of Table 2. According to the table, all attested items, transcategorized from quality to thing, are endowed with the grammatical feature of countability, while only speed, security and capability among these items capture the feature of nominal properness. That is to say, the ensuing dominant grammatical feature after the GM one is countability, and the nominal properness might be a tendency following countability. These phenomena are exemplified by examples (21) (21b is reproduced from example 17b) and further explicated by the principle of double functionality for the purpose of examining whether GM feature still retains after features of countability and properness are obtained.

a.Always the haunting sense of a happiness which I was capable of feeling, faint glimpses of a paradise of which I was a born denizen, – and always, too, the stern knowledge of the restraints which held me prisoner, the idle longings of an exile. (COHA)
b.Commerce survey reported that they had felt the pinch of priorities. (COHA)
c.Last fall, for example, when Senator Kennedy, then his party’s presidential nominee, failed to win Senate approval for his medical care plan tied to Social Security, he won only a single GOP vote, that of Senator Case. (COHA)

According to the principle of double functionality, happiness in (21a) should realize both quality and thing but it in this clause in question has only obtained the grammatical feature of countability (here singularity) while its property of being ‘quality’ is blurred and denies any further effortless unpacking. Pertaining to the case of priorities in (21b), its grammatical feature of countability in dominance is foregrounded, and at the same time, the feature of being ‘quality’, although backgrounded, could also be regained, hence the nominal group the pinch of priorities can be unpacked to the prior pinch. With regard to Securities in (21c), the possible grammatical feature ascribed to it is nominal properness, and there seems to be a distant contiguity to the feature of ‘quality’. From the above statements, the idea that grammatical features of countability and properness are GPM features is further confirmed. However, as to when GM of nominalization begins to capture features of countability and nominal properness and when these features are significantly foregrounded, it is necessary, pertaining to these later occurring features, to resort to a further quantitative scrutinization to the data of COHA, which will be delineated in the following paragraphs.

In order to get a clear outlook on the occurrence of GPM features, further examination of the frequency of occurrence is conducted. We firstly carried out an automatic search and then manually dealt with these raw frequencies. Taking security as an example, the specific process of obtaining frequency of GM and GPM features during 1810s are progressed as follows:

  • Step 1: with search queries ‘[security].[nn*]’ and ‘[security].[np*]’, occurrences of singularity (N = 153), plurality (N = 9) and nominal properness (N = 0) are obtained. However, total occurrences of singularity are not solely cases of GM, but also include those of countability denoting GPM features, and hence a further step is adopted to elicit the actual occurrences of GM.

  • Step 2: retrieve with the query ‘a security.[nn]’ for the occurrences that belong to the cases of countability (N = 4).

  • Step 3: occurrences of GM equal to occurrences of singularity minus occurrences obtained in Step 2, i.e. 153 – 4 = 149; occurrences of countability are occurrences of plurality added by the figure in Step 2, i.e. 9 + 4 = 13.

  • Step 4: when comparison is needed, the raw frequency is normalized to per million words.

In the same vain, the same method is implemented to all items that denote thing from quality and to all segments of different time periods. Raw frequencies are shown in Table 4.

Table 4:

Raw frequencies of GM and GPM features in terms of items from quality to thing.


  1. GM stands for grammatical metaphor, C for countability and NP for nominal properness.

With respect to nominal properness, although items such as speed, security and capability have captured this grammatical feature in each of the 20 decadal phases, yet these occurrences are simply sporadic and generally obtained their status in the twentieth century, specifically, the second half of the century (see Figure 1). Pertaining to the GPM feature of countability, attested items such as security, capability, similarity, happiness and willingness possess this feature with a large number of occurrences throughout the two centuries, and surprisingly with a gradual increase (see Figure 2). As far as the rest of these items are concerned, their occurrences are either sporadic or at the very inceptive phase. Therefore, it is still inceptive or even should be taken as tentative to claim that GPM is characteristic of nominal properness; nevertheless, countability can be regarded as a typical feature of GPM if compared with their corresponding GM counterpart.

Figure 1: GPM feature of nominal properness of speed, security, and capability in COHA (normalized).

Figure 1:

GPM feature of nominal properness of speed, security, and capability in COHA (normalized).

Figure 2: GPM feature of countability of security, capability, similarity, happiness, and willingness in COHA (normalized).

Figure 2:

GPM feature of countability of security, capability, similarity, happiness, and willingness in COHA (normalized).

4.2 From process to thing

The other source of nominalization considered in this study is the items of thing which are realized by derived nominals from verbs. This phenomenon is evidenced by the two most typical suffixes ‘-ment’ and ‘-tion’ together with items attested by Halliday and Matthiessen (1999: 246–247). Similar to the conduction of the previous two suffixes ‘-ity’ and ‘-ness’, retrieving procedures are employed and five items that topped the list of each suffix are further scrutinized. The general features of countability and nominal properness are listed in the second half of Table 2 from transformation to improvement, which demonstrates that all the attested items characterize grammatical feature of countability, and items such as prospect, attempt, desire, education possession, government and management are characteristic of nominal properness while the others are not. Witness this phenomenon in examples (22), which are expounded in the light of the principle of double functionality.

a.Perhaps the most important of the architectural constructions of this time was the beginning of the new palace to replace the old Louvre which had been a Gothic fortified palace. (COHA)
b.The constructions by Medunetskii and the Stenbergs were first shown in January 1921 at “The Constructivists” exhibition. (COHA)
c.Nearby, the 1855 Southern Market/Old City Hall, just off Government Street, opens its doors to the Museum of Mobile. (COHA)

According to the principle of double functionality, the grammatical feature of nominalization, pertaining to constructions in (22a), can be captured, while its original feature of process realized by the grammatical category of a verb is blurred. That is to say, the clause with construct realizing process could not be recovered from the nominal group headed by constructions. The case in (22b) is to some extent different. constructions in this clause not only characterizes the function of being a nominal group with the grammatical feature of countability, but also has the potential of being used as a process recoverable. Hence this clause could be unpacked to its congruent form as what medunetskii and the Stenbergs constructed were first shown in January 1921 at “The Constructivists” exhibition. What should be made clear is that the function of being a thing is foregrounded while that of being a process is backgrounded. In (22c), the nominalized Government possesses the grammatical feature of nominal properness solely, and its feature of GM countability could be by no means recoverable. In the light of the data listed in Table 2, it is still not clear with respect to the specific time period and popularity of the two grammatical features that occurred in COHA. The following paragraphs, therefore, is devoted to this respect.

Raw frequency of occurrences concerned with items mentioned above is outlined in Table 5. With respect to the grammatical feature of nominal properness, it can be shown from Table 5, quite surprisingly, that only prospect among all the items is gradually obtaining this GPM feature (101 occurrences) while the others attested are sporadic and inceptive (20 occurrences or even less). Therefore, it could be said that items from process to thing have been undergoing the inceptive phase. However, GPM feature of countability is considerably full-fledged. Except for the three items education, management and potential, which lag substantially behind their counterparts of GM (see Figure 3), the others are developing in a considerable number of occurrences. Although the three items are falling behind during the past two centuries, yet the general trend is gradually catching up with their counterparts, especially the beginning of the twentieth century has witnessed the rapid growth of this trend (see Figure 4). A subsequent Pearson’s correlation test in RStudio shows that the GM feature and GPM feature of countability in education are not significantly correlated (p = 0.6991 > 0.05), while the two features in both management and potential are significantly positively correlated (p = 0.000 < 0.01; p = 0.000 < 0.01) respectively (see Table 6). This significant correlation indicates that the rapid growth of GPM feature of countability by and large is gradually foregrounded during the past two centuries.

Table 5:

Raw frequency of GM and GPM features in terms of items from process to thing.


  1. GM stands for grammatical metaphor, C for countability and NP for nominal properness.

Figure 3: GM feature for education, management, and potential (normalized).

Figure 3:

GM feature for education, management, and potential (normalized).

Figure 4: GPM feature of countability for education, management, and potential (normalized).

Figure 4:

GPM feature of countability for education, management, and potential (normalized).

Table 6:

Correlation between GM feature and GPM feature of countability.

rp value

  1. **indicates the significance at the level of 0.01.

In summary, concerning grammatical features for postmetaphorization of nominalization, the GPM feature of nominal properness is not developed fully or even in its inceptive phase; on the contrary, that of countability has been obviously increasingly captured during the last two hundred years and gradually preferred by language users.

5 Postmetaphorization of modality

With respect to postmetaphorization of modality, It Construction and I think type are further investigated in the following two subsections, and the theoretical foundation of telling whether GPM features could be captured relies on Yang’s (2019) AS IF principle.[11]

5.1 It Construction

Based on occurrences of It Construction attested in Table 3, we further subcategorized the construction into modalized and non-modalized ones (see Table 7). The latter pattern is what Halliday (1985, 1994 defined as explicit objective GM of modality, and the former refers to the predicate verb in It Construction being qualified by modal auxiliaries. Once It Construction is qualified by modal auxiliaries, it is no longer characteristic of objectivity[12] (at least is gradually distant from objectivity if subjective-objective cline is considered). The underlying reason is that modal auxiliaries have experienced the process of grammaticalization whose typical mechanism is subjectification (Hopper and Traugott 1993, 2003; Krug 2000); furthermore, the modalized construction is speaker-related and the speaker’s attitude towards the proposition is foregrounded, while the explicit objective of modality in Halliday’s sense is backgrounded and could not be captured easily. This perspective is facilitated by employing the AS IF principle exemplified in (23).

Table 7:

Occurrences of attested modal adjectives in modalized and non-modalized It Construction.

PossibleModalizedto clause2611569284337486787648869273415231796
that clause11432438452815211459
Non-modalizedto clause431354153779111714119121225822524223522522221831262,531
that clause5473539418781411512915167152128961231278571631,538
NecessaryModalizedto clause9266595717773551672929794655657192915993
that clause44175112423121341
Non-modalizedto clause11912217423319424124421727434324364262211291681213663,184
that clause11266172756455784581435924292516221353807
ObligatoryModalizedto clause11
Non-modalizedto clause111126
that clause1135
ProbableNon-modalizedthat clause541859993131271711751771511981367852343114981,697
UsualNon-modalizedto clause3172471611116181129421211146
that clause11
a.It is possible that the entire unissued authorization may not be devoted to stock dividend purposes at this time, although there is. (COHA)
b.It would be possible to satisfy their claims equally, as fairness requires, by denying the good to all of them. (COHA)

According to AS IF principle, the explicit objective It construction It is possible in (23a) is employed AS IF it was an implicit objective clause possibly the entire unissued authorization may not be devoted to stock dividend purposes at this time, although there is. Therefore, it is a GM of modality in Halliday’s sense. Different from (23a), It construction it would be possible in (23b) does not necessarily display AS IF it was an implicit objective clause. Specifically, it is not a clause denoting explicit objective orientation, but a clause of explicit subjective de facto. That is to say, It construction denotes the GM of modality in the orientation of explicit objective during its non-modal phase, while the construction is being modalized by modal auxiliaries or in the modal phase, it is in explicit subjective orientation, which is also denoted by what will be elucidated in Section 5.2.

With respect to the items attested concerning It Construction, Table 7 profiles their non-modalized and modalized phases and occurrences of each decadal phase. Table 7 tells us that the five modal adjectives in It Construction are all undergoing the phase of GM of modality with the explicit objective orientation while not modalized. What they differ is that scant occurrences for obligatory (N = 11) and usual (N = 147) seem to be still in their inceptive stage. On the contrary, the other three modal adjectives possible (N = 4,069), necessary (N = 3,991) and probable (N = 1,697)[13] are considerably developed and seem to be full-fledged, especially preferred by language users during 1920s and 1930s, as Figure 5 demonstrates visually. Surprisingly, among the five items, only the most frequent ones, comparatively, possible and necessary have identified It Construction which is qualified by modal auxiliaries, while this GPM feature is unanimously absent from the other less frequent modal adjectives. Figure 6 diagrams normalized occurrences of modalized It Construction and shows that the growth is a gradual and to some extent levelled process, which is consonant with Hopper and Traugott’s (1993, 2003 view of language change. Compared Figure 5 with Figure 6, we found that the two modal adjectives possible and necessary quickly acquired their GM feature at the very beginning of nineteenth century, while the obtaining of their GPM feature keeps plateauing except for the rapid decrease of necessary during the first two decades in the twentieth century. Another interesting phenomenon is that the GPM feature of obligatory also attested once during the 1890s (see example 24), although its GM feature is still in the inceptive phase. This case is not considered because of its accidental occurrence.

Figure 5: Occurrences of attested modal adjectives in It Construction in COHA (normalized).

Figure 5:

Occurrences of attested modal adjectives in It Construction in COHA (normalized).

Figure 6: Occurrences of modal adjectives possible and necessary in COHA (normalized).

Figure 6:

Occurrences of modal adjectives possible and necessary in COHA (normalized).

It would sometimes defeat the end it aimed at, because in some cases the jury might be right, the accused person being actually a homicidal lunatic, and remaining such at the close of the maximum period of sentence; at which time, nevertheless, it would be obligatory to release him. (COHA)

In order to demonstrate the trend between GM feature of explicit objective orientation or non-modalized modal adjectives (i.e. it is possible) and GPM feature of explicit subjective orientation or modalized modal adjectives (i.e. it would be possible) in possible and necessary, the Pearson’s correlation test in RStudio is employed. The results are shown in Table 8, indicating that the two features in both modal adjectives are significantly correlated (p = 0.010 for possible, p = 0.009 for necessary). This correlation articulates that both features of GM and GPM are developing in a similar trend.

Table 8:

Correlation between features of GM and GPM in modal adjectives possible and necessary.

rp value

  1. **indicates the significance at the level of 0.01.

Although occurrences for possible and necessary are comparatively scant (see Table 7), it could be concluded from above discussion that the GM feature (non-modalized) of modal adjectives in It Construction precedes the GPM feature (modalized It Construction) and the two are developing towards the same direction. It Construction, however, is just one type of GM of modality, and what the other type, i.e. I think type, demonstrates is the motif being articulated in the following section.

5.2 I think type

The five mental verbs (i.e. think, assume, believe, guess and suppose) have undergone a process from a simple clause to a modal element. They, in clausal rank, realize mental processes together with personal subjects, but the subjects are generally the first singular personal pronoun I if the projecting mental clauses are regarded as modal elements (Fetzer 2008), which is employed mainly to refer to the GM of modality in explicit subjective orientation in Halliday’s sense. By using SQs10–12, occurrences of initial, medial and final positions of the five mental verbs with the first singular personal pronoun are detected. Table 9 concludes the raw frequency of these items of I think type attested.

Table 9:

Occurrences of items of I think Type attested in COHA.

InitialI think714679269301,5171,9292,2672,2812,3052,1352,3922,3992,6482,4222,5232,9693,4872,9693,4293,12943,195
I suppose242043544397959841,3101,2181,0281,0371,3711,3911,06395495894087767759652016,740
I believe434817087077778141,0319998849539981,02479370965365769954051661514,601
I guess281623134056177931,0069167359171,3071,3551,0491,0589611,0521,01381385879216,150
I assume11355385116211618374857475349394
MedialI think71142652373343614824304603884524404393133253325092872972226,694
I suppose9691291572832323702512132382573111961581781811571161151093,729
I believe122112842702452643092692272052342581911191381261159277733,719
I guess3935343950393738601628598128126104113891451191,513
I assume21223447835546
FinalI think4112835641321371231341441841461911681791582632572602072,825
I suppose1222847751611921531171461992251371401501741611391131002,480
I believe1232240666491776782887762543236514530351,043
I guess2617233873525543992241982552832792672512432942472,949
I assume111113102222
Table 10:

Correlations of I think type in initial-medial and initial-final positions in COHA.

rp value
I thinkinitial-medial0.2490.208
I supposeinitial-medial0.7870.000**
I believeinitial-medial0.9470.000**
I guessinitial-medial0.3810.098
I assumeinitial-medial0.9030.000**

  1. *indicates the significance at the level of 0.05 and **at the level of 0.01.

As Table 9 shows, occurrences of initial position of I think type items dominate its counterparts of medial and final positions, which is consonant with Fetzer (2008) who identified that occurrences of initial position of I think outnumber those of other positions. With respect to grammatical features, if those items in the initial position are complemented by a clause with the complementizer that, they still denote ideational meanings of being mental processes; if not, they are regarded, by Halliday (1985, 1994, as explicit subjective GM of probability subsumed into GM of modality. When positioned medially and finally, I think type items are gradually losing their identities of being a modal element in the interpersonal domain, experiencing a process of grammatical change as discourse markers. As a discourse marker, it rarely collocates with TAM (tense, aspect and modality) (Fetzer 2008). Consistently, these TAM features are hardly attested in the medial and final uses of I think type. Such cases positioned medially and finally are illustrated in example (25), in which I think in both clauses serves as discourse markers expressing pragmatic function of attenuating the propositions, instead of fully (it might be partially) denoting explicit subjective GM of probability. According to the principle of AS IF, I think in medial and final positions cannot be expounded AS IF they were denoting implicit subjective, because they themselves hardly denote explicit subjective expressing GM of probability.

a.That was my first encounter with the man who, I think, is loved by none but me. (COHA)
b.[Jemima] I’m going to walk on down the path, I think. (COHA)

Pertaining to I think Type, the grammatical feature of being a discourse marker is regarded as a GPM feature after being used as GM in this study. In order to compare their distribution and paths of development of this GPM feature (being positioned medially and finally in question), a further analysis among those items are progressed. We will illustrate this viewpoint by employing the most typical item I think, and its distribution of occurrences of initial, medial and final position is presented in Figure 7. It shows that the GM use of I think in initial position is preferred by language users gradually and highly excels the other two positions. With respect to its GPM uses, medial position is more preferable than the final position, but both are to some extent increasing gradually. A further correlation test is employed to examine how the paths of development about GM and GPM features are associated. The results show that initial and final positions, although there is no significant correlation between initial and medial positions (r = 0.249 p = 0.208 > 0.05), are extremely positively correlated (r = 0.902 p = 0.000 < 0.01), indicating that the gradually preferred use of GM/initial position is concomitant with the gradual increase of final GPM during the past two centuries in COHA (cf. Table 10).

Figure 7: Normalized distribution of occurrences of initial, medial, and final I think in COHA (equal totality).

Figure 7:

Normalized distribution of occurrences of initial, medial, and final I think in COHA (equal totality).

A thorough examination of the other four items of I think type generally corroborates with the trend which is identified from the survey of I think except for that of I guess. Besides, initial and medial positions are also significantly correlated. Consequently, it is safe to conclude that the GM use of I think type in the initial position leads the path of development and the GPM use follows suit.

6 Pathway of metaphorization

With respect to these concepts profiled in the present study, they are visualized in Figure 8. The figure explicates that squares in the left column indicate the two subtypes of ideational metaphor (nominalization) and interpersonal metaphor of modality (It construction and I think type); ovals indicate either GM features in the middle column or GPM features in the right column; oval in gradient line means that the grammatical feature is not obviously detected or in its inceptive phase during the past two centuries in COHA; lines associate different concepts in one way or another and unidirectional arrows indicate the path or development of change from GM feature to GPM ones.

Figure 8: Pathway of metaphorization.

Figure 8:

Pathway of metaphorization.

Figure 8 profiles that ideational GM of nominalization and interpersonal GM of modality are characteristic of GPM features. Pertaining to the former, transcategorizing from quality to thing (e.g. from happy to happiness) or process to thing (e.g. from transform to transformation) characterizes GM features, while in the GPM phase, new grammatical feature of countability (e.g. from happiness to a happiness) is acquired fully and that of nominal properness is still in its inceptive phase (e.g. from government to Government). Pertaining to the latter, two subtypes of interpersonal metaphor of modality are considered. Specifically, metaphorical explicit objective clauses are realized by it construction without being modalized (e.g. it is possible), while after being modalized (it would be possible), explicit subjective metaphor which characterizes GPM feature occurs. As to I think type, when it is located initially, it is characteristic of GM feature; when it functions as a discourse marker positioning medially or finally, it captures the GPM feature.

7 Conclusions

Halliday’s GM demonstrates that congruent expressions are employed by language users primarily and then these expressions are gradually substituted by grammatically metaphorical ones in adult language. Actually, this trend continues, and thus GPM occurs. As investigated in this study, both ideational metaphor of nominalization and interpersonal metaphor of probability bifurcating it construction and I think type are undergoing the pathway of change in terms of GPM features. With respect to nominalization, the GPM phase identifies grammatical features such as the typical countability and/or nominal properness; with respect to it construction, the path from GM to GPM is characteristic of the change of grammatical features from explicit objective to explicit subjective; and finally concerning I think type, items which are positioned initially are treated as metaphorical expressions while those that are positioned medially and finally mark the GPM phase.

The present study is significant theoretically in that it is enriching and enlarging the scope of what Halliday regarded as demetaphorization. Specifically, GPM features pertaining to ideational metaphor of nominalization and interpersonal metaphor of modality are identified. However, it should be cautious to overgeneralize the findings identified in this study, because the data we use are solely from COHA which is typical of American English. It is unknown that whether the findings are consonant with other regional Englishes such as British English or different indigenized Englishes in outer and expanding circles (Kackru 1982, 1992). In future researches concerning GPM, it is suggested that other diachronic and synchronic corpora be employed and different regional Englishes be considered.

Corresponding author: Jiangping Zhou, School of Foreign Languages, Peking University, Beijing, China; and School of Foreign Languages, China West Normal University, Nanchong, China, E-mail:


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Received: 2020-11-04
Accepted: 2021-05-10
Published Online: 2021-10-22

© 2021 Jiangping Zhou and Yanmei Gao, published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.