Soh, Constance
Nanyang Technological University

Constance Soh
B1-B-59, Division of Human Resource and Quality Management
Nanyang Business School
Nanyang Technological University
Nanyang Avenue


Strand: Education / Discourse English

Title: Learning how to mean in a business context: the role of Systemic Functional Linguistics in handling shifts in register in business proposals

Writing in a business context obviously constitutes a separate genre. The preponderance of textbooks in Business Communication attests to that notion. Nowhere is there a need to write "reader-centred" as opposed to "writer-centred" texts more than in business contexts. Nevertheless, while there are many text books on Business Communication that address the problems/demands of communicating at the workplace, much of the advice could be better implemented if there was an explicit coherent framework for what students and teachers/instructors can discuss about the language that occurs within a business context. This paper applies the systemic linguistic framework initially suggested by Martin (1986) in analysing the letters/proposals submitted by Business students. Here, it addresses the one glaring challenge that continues to threaten the effectiveness of most written letters, i.e., handling shifts in register. The paper focusses on the peculiar problems encountered when students write "upwards in the role of subordinate to superior". In the sample of texts that are analysed, students seem to show surprising adeptness in producing convincing texts written in the role of "superior to subordinate". However, when written in the position of writing "upwards", problems of register shift occur with many of the texts sounding unwittingly condescending and "writer-centred". The paper discusses a possible reason for this incongruity of text roles in terms of the context of culture in which the texts are produced. Finally, the paper argues that handling shifts of register upwards may pose a problem as long as teachers and students continue to view them, as is often current practice, as a problem of inappropriate "tone". But what constitutes appropriate tone and why is the tone in a given text appropriate/inappropriate? This is where Systemic Functional Linguistics effectively addresses the issue as it attempts to make explicit in grammatical terms the different kinds of writing undertaken at university level and how they differ from the writing expected in the business context.


1) Flower, Linda and Ackerman, John (1994) Writers at Work: Strategies for Communicating in Business and Professional Settings. Fortworth: Harcourt Brace

2) Martin, J.R. (1986) Intervening in the process of writing development. In Applied Linguistics Association of Australia, Occasional Papers 9: 11-43

3) Martin, J.R. (1992) English Text: System and Structure. Amsterdam: John Benjamins