Evaluative Meanings as Appraisal

Appraisal. noun. The act or result of judging the worth or value of something or someone.

(Retrieved from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/appraisal )



What is the usual grammatical class we generally use for judging the value of things or people? Many of us would answer “adjectives”: beautiful, expensive, interesting, honest, and the list goes on. Although we can consider “evaluation” as canonically adjectival, there are potentially (and not limited to) four limitations relating with this perspective:

(1) Evaluation goes beyond adjectives and across grammatical categories.

E.g. John Mayer is a legendary guitar player. He is a guitar legend. (noun)

E.g. War is traumatising. War traumatises soldiers and civilians. (verb)

(2) Language sometimes does subtle work in evaluation, like grading the experience or the matter to make the proposition more sound. Such kind of gradation traverses parts of speech, too.

E.g. A large-scale study shows excessive consumption of sugar leads to obesity. (pre-modifiers)

E.g. He really is a legend. (adverb)

(3) Adjectives seldom do the work of positioning users to support, reject or distance from arguments and claims. For example, how much you are committed to the truthfulness of the proposition is generally reflected through “modality”, i.e. “I agree with you” versus “I might agree with you.” Of course, we also have “possibly, absolutely” (adverbs), “very likely, unlikely” (adjectives), “assert, claim, surmise” (verbs), and so on.

(4) Even we assume all evaluations are adjectival, it would be really difficult for us to recite all the adjectives, and to effective deploy them for evaluation without knowing how they function. It would also be exhausting to teach these evaluative adjectives word for word.


To address these issues, we need a systemic categorisation to distinguish language features by meaning alongside grammatical categories. By ‘systemic’ I mean how meaning is classified as ‘systems’ of choices; and these choices functions differently as we express them through language. In this sense you are NOT told how to use language; instead you could have said something else but you have made the choice to say something to someone by some means under a certain situation. A very simple example is how you ask somebody to open the door for you — this could be done in a form of (1) command, (2) statement or (3) question:

(1) Open the door. (2) You can open the door. (3) Can you open the door?

It’s your choice to say any of the three to get someone opening the door for you under whatever situation — it is not against the law commanding your boss or professor around — but bear your own consequences! Eventually you’ll learn that you have to say the right thing to the right person by the right means. It is ‘impolite’ to order your boss; it’s equally weird to be overly polite or to write a letter to (in front of) your boss asking him to open the door, and so on.


Going back to evaluation, the system that categorises evaluative meaning in English language is called Appraisal from the perspective of systemic functional linguistics (SFL). Appraisal deals with the interpersonal meaning that writers/speakers deploy to ( a ) valuate emotions, people and things; ( b ) attribute arguments and claims to external sources, and ( c ) upscale or downscale both resources of evaluation and attribution. As a system providing the meaning potential for evaluation, the language resources expressing it range across grammatical categories.

For example, when we talk about emotions, we can feel sad as something saddens us, but sadness cannot describe our feelings, sadly.


In the upcoming posts I’ll elaborate ( a ) – ( c ) further with examples from academic written texts. Through this, I hope to illustrate the points of introducing Appraisal that:

(i) Evaluation is central to academic writing — ‘objective’ or ‘impersonal’ texts are actually imbued with the authors’ values and attitude towards their studies

(ii) We need to understand what options of evaluative resources are favoured or foregrounded in academic writing;

(iii) Even if we’re not talking about academic writing, when we learn or teach how to describe emotions, behaviour, morality and aesthetic qualities, we have to be able to categorise these descriptions and go beyond adjectives to enrich our vocabulary base.

Next time I’ll start from (a), the meaning resources that express our ways of feeling termed “Attitude” in Appraisal.


Martin, J.R., & White, P.R.R. (2005). The Language of Evaluation: Appraisal in English. Hampshire, United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

White, P.R.R., & Don, A. (2012). The Language of Attitude, Arguability and Interpersonal Positioning: The Appraisal Website: Homepage. http://www.grammatics.com/appraisal/index.htmlpen-idea-bulb-paper

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