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Halliday’s use of the term ‘choice’ has become a key aspect of social semiotic theory and practice. Language, (and by extension other modes) is seen, not as a set of rules, but paradigmatically, as a set of choices or options, “an open-ended range of semantic choices that relate closely to the social contexts in which language is used” (Halliday 1978: 109). Thus any utterance requires us, for instance, to choose between offering something to our interlocutors or demanding something from them, and this, in turn, requires a choice between demanding information (question) or goods and services (command), or between offering information (statement) or offering goods and services (offer).  Kress and Van Leeuwen (2006) similarly recognize offer and demand as basic interpersonal choices in the visual portrayal of people.

There is, however, in Halliday’s writing a certain ambivalence between, on the one hand, terms like ‘choice’, ‘range of alternatives’, ‘opportunities’, etc., and, on the other hand, terms like ‘obligatory’, ‘determination’ and ‘system’, placing us halfway between the world of bureaucratic rules and the world of consumer choice. This is not a flippant remark. It is important to be aware of the way our theories may be modelled on dominant forms of social organization or dominant technologies. However, Halliday (1978: 41) also says that choice and rule intermesh: “In a given environment, choice is obligatory. In the environment X there is a choice between A, B and C. So if you are in the environment X, then you must go on to choose A, B, and C.” This is not so different from Adorno’s remark about consumer choice: “Something is provided for all so that none may escape” (Adorno and Horkheimer 1972: 123).

More recently parametric systems have come into the foreground. Parametric systems map the qualities of expressive resources such as colour, timbre and graphic shape. There is no need to choose between these qualities: all must be simultaneously present, albeit to different degrees (cf. e.g. Van Leeuwen 2014). The way meaning is made with such resources is often more creative, utilizing the affordances of the qualities to create metaphors appropriate to the given context.

The two kinds of semiotic resources exist side by side, with functional choices made from structured systems, as realized, for instance, by various kinds of templates, and identities and values expressed with the more open-ended affordances of parametric systems, in the endless diversity which contemporary branding requires.

Citing this entry

van Leeuwen, Theo. 2016.  “Choice.” In Key Terms in Multimodality: Definitions, Issues, Discussions, edited by Nina Nørgaard. Retrieved


Adorno,T. and Horkheimer, M. 1972. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Continuum.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1978. Language as Social Semiotic. London: Arnold.

Kress, G. and Van Leeuwen, T. 2006. Reading Images – The Grammar of Visual Design. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Van Leeuwen, T. 2014. “Parametric systems: the case of voice quality”. In C, Jewitt, ed. The Routledge Handbook of Multimodal Analysis. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, pp 76-86.