Topic 2: Rankshift

Outline of Lesson

  • Recap: Rank Scale
  • Objectives
  • Required Reading
  • The Concept of Rankshift
  • Ranking Clauses
  • Rankshifted Clauses
  • Summary
  • Self-Study Questions


  • At the end of the lesson, the student will be able to:

a)explain the concept of rankshift. NTS 3i

b)explain  the  differences  between  a  ranking  clause  and  a  rankshifted clause. NTS 3e

c)identify ranking and rankshifted clauses in texts. NTS 3j

Required reading

  • Thompson, G. (2014). Introducing functional grammar (3rd  edn.). New York & London: Routledge. Chapter 2

Note: You can please find the reading material in the e-library on Google Drive

New Key Terms

  • Rankshift
  • Downranking
  • Embedding
  • Ranking clause
  • Rankshifted clause
  • Constituent

Recap: Rank Scale

  • The grammar of English is organized around four building blocks called grammatical units: morpheme, word, group/phrase, and clause.
  • These units are related in a hierarchical order – i.e. on the one hand, a higher unit (e.g. a clause) consists of (or can be analysed into) units below it (viz. group, word, morpheme);  on the other hand, a lower unit (e.g. a word) constitutes (or  makes up) the unit immediately above it (e.g. group).
  • The hierarchical arrangement of the grammatical units is called rank scale.
    • For example, the clause The kids played football can be analysed into lower units, using bracketing:

    [The kids] [played] [football] – groups  [The] [kids] / [Played] / [football] – words

    [The] [kid] [-s] [play] [-ed] [foot] [ball] – morphemes

    • There is one clause, three groups, four words and seven morphemes.


  • When we analyse language in use, it is often the case that a grammatical

unit of a higher rank such as clause is a constituent of a lower rank such  as group/phrase or even a constituent of a unit of the same rank (e.g. a

clause functioning as a constituent of another clause). This phenomenon  is referred to as rankshift.

  • Thompson (2014) describes rankshift as a “general principle that allows a unit to be expanded by the inclusion of another unit from a higher or, in some cases, the same rank” (Thompson, 2014).

Rankshift: example (1)

A rankshifted phrase


rank The policeman [with the big riffle]
group/phrase Premodifier Head Postmodifier
word determiner noun Prepositional Phrase

The prepositional phrase with the big riffle functions as a postmodifier within a noun  group.


Rankshift: example (2)

A rankshifted clause

rank The policewoman [[who came here]]
group/phrase Premodifier Head Postmodifier
word determiner noun relative clause

The relative clause who came here functions as postmodifier within a noun group. It  modifiers the noun head policeman.

Rankshift: example (3)

A rankshifted clause


rank What Jesus did at Bethany was a miracle
group/phrase Subject Predicator Complement
word nominal clause verb noun group

The clause What Jesus did at Bethany functions as the Subject of another clause.


  • Rankshift is also referred to as downranking or embedding. Each of these alternative terms captures tell us something about rankshift:
  • The term downranking reflects the fact that it is higher grammatical units that shifts down to perform the functions of lower ranks. i.e. only clauses and groups/phrases rankshift.
  • The term embedding shows the recursive nature of rankshifted items. Units can be

expanded by the inclusion of another unit from a higher or the same rank.

  • We use the  three  terms  –  rankshift,  downranking  and,  embedding  –  interchangeably in this course.
  • Conventionally, we indicate rankshifted (or embedded)  phrases/groups with single square brackets (1) and rankshifted (or  embedded) clauses with double square brackets (2):

1.The table [with carved legs] is mine.

2.The tutor [[who supervised me at teaching practice]] was very supportive.

  • Embedding tends to be recursive, meaning that we can repeatedly embed items of the same rank within each other in a construction:

1.I live in Koase [of Asuogya [of the Wenchi Municipality [of the Bono Region  [of Ghana [of West Africa]]]]].

2.I saw the man [[who beat the boy [[who ran after the puppy [[which bit the  girl [[whose …]]]]]]].

  • In principle there is no limit to the number of items that can occur in such recursive situations. The limit is determined by practical constrainsts.
  • It is natural that rankshift or embedding is associated with the higher grammatical units, namely the clause and group/phrase. They are larger in meaning and structurally are more expansive than the lower  units.


Ranking Clauses

  • A ranking clause is a clause that performs the function or plays the role of a clause. It is a clause that has not rankshifted; it remains at its rank.
  • Examples of ranking clauses are:

a)independent clauses

b)non-restrictive relative clauses

c)adverbial clauses


  • Examples of ranking clauses:

1.||| [1.1] Ms. Newman, <<[1.2] who lives next door>>, claims to  be a millionaire.|||

2.||| [1.1] I present to you captain Appiah, <<[1.2] who was the  Black Star’s captain during the world cup. |||

Each sentence consists of two ranking clauses, an independent clause and a non-restrictive relative clause.  The relative clause adds other information to the main clause. Note that the relative clause is presented as  a separate information unit, as the commas show – it is not a constituent of the main clause.

3.|||  [1.1]  After  thfruit  is  harvested,  ||  [1.2]  it  is  sold  at  the

market. |||

4.||| [1.1] She smiled sweetly at me, || [1.2] wherever I met her. |||

Each of the sentences here consists of two ranking clauses, one independent and  one (dependent) adverbial clause. Note that each clause in the two sentences is a  separate information unit, indicated in writing by commas. Each ranking clause  adds new meaning to the information flow in the sentence.

  • A ranking clause has the following characteristics:
  • It is typically uttered as separate intonation unit. In writing, it is often marked off with punctuation marks such as full stop, comma, or semi- colon. A rank clause thus tends to be a separate information unit
  • It is not a constituent within another construction. They contribute directly to the flow of discourse in text.
  • A ranking clause may be independent or dependent.


Rankshifted Clauses

  • Rankshifted clauses are also called downranked or embedded clauses.
  • They are clauses that assume functions within lower grammatical ranks, normally the group/phrase) or within other clauses. These lower level functions are typical of  groups/phrases or words.
  • Examples of downranked clauses are:

a)Restrictive relative clauses

b)Nominal clauses

The dog [[that has  a white  spot on its  head]] is the one [[that bit  me]].
Subject Predicator Complement
Noun group Verbal  group Noun group
determiner noun relative  clause verb determiner noun relative  clause

There  are  two  rankshifted  clauses  here  indicated  by  square  brackets.  These  are  restrictive relative clauses. They each serve as postmodifier in a noun groups.


rank The students [[who have bad marks]] won’t succeed


clause Subject Predicator
group noun group verbal group
word determiner noun relative clause Aux.  verb main  verb

The relative clause marked in square brackets is rankshifted because it serves as  postmodifier in a noun group. It is a constituent of a lower unit.

The relative clause marked in square brackets is rankshifted because it serves as  postmodifier in a noun group. It is a constituent of a lower unit.


rank I wonder [[what is making Tracy so unhappy]].
clause Subject Predicator Object
group noun group verbal group noun group
word pronoun verb nominal clause

The clause in square brackets is rankshifted. It functions as the Object in another  clause, a function associated with noun (or nominal) groups.


  • This lesson has examined the concept of rankshift, ranking clauses and downranked clauses.
  • It can be deduced from the discussion that:
  1. a) When a grammatical item (e.g. clause) is a constituent of a rank lower than itself (e.g. group) or of the same rank as the item, it is said that such as  grammatical item has

b)When a clause maintains its functional status as a clause, it is known as a  ranking clause.

c)When a clause performs a function lower than its rank (e.g. when it serves as  a constituent of a group/phrase or another clause), then it is a downranked,  or embedded, or rankshifted clause.


Self-study questions

1.a) Define rankshift.

  1. b) Give two (2) examples of your own to illustrate rankshift and explain these examples with the help of the box

2.Write down two differences between ranking clauses and  rankshifted clauses and illustrate these with your own examples.

Identify the underlined clauses in the following sentences as a ranking clause or

downranked (embedded) clause.

Explain your answers:

1.The man who refused to wash his hand with alcohol-based sanitizer caught  covid-19.

2.What the students need to know is the objective of this course.

3.Although he hasn’t eaten for days as a result of the lockdown, he looks fit.

4.Jesus wept.

5.Donald Trump, who is the president of USA, is a twitter fan.


Stay safe


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