Prescriptivism


or, On the Grammar Wars1

Over the weekend, and extending into the week thus far, a debate has been steadily growing in the blogosphere, both here and in the US, about a controversial set of guidelines for teaching English published last year by the English Teacher’s Association of Queensland (ETAQ).

Before I go on, I might say that the breadth of this debate is such that I barely know where to begin, so logically, I might try beginning at the start.

The model upon which ETAQ’s guidelines were based is called Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), a framework of textual analysis devised by M.A.K. Halliday back in the 60s, that focuses on the interpersonal and ideational functions of language; language as its used in a larger social context. The name indicates that it is concerned with ‘systems’, i.e., texts of indefinite size, and entire communicative practices, and with ‘functions’ as opposed to ‘forms’. This is important and I’ll come back to it.

The terminology of SFL is quite specialised, and for a good reason. Since it concerns functions and not forms, overall meanings rather than constituency, SFL had to create a whole new set of terms that differed from formal categories, so as to not have the same terms meaning something different to someone who uses a different framework. SFL is, in my opinion, commendable for this, otherwise things would certainly be confusing.

The author of the guidelines, Dr Lenore Ferguson, took a rather confused version of SFL’s already specialised terminology, and went on to write it up as the definitive model for English structure teaching. This has resulted in serious formal errors that have led critics, such as Geoffrey K. Pullum and Rodney Huddleston, to describe the guidelines and other related publications as Not just a little bit ropey, but absolutely incompetent, full of utter howlers2. Here is The Australian‘s description:

A TEACHERS’ guide to grammar circulated by the English Teachers Association of Queensland is riddled with basic errors, leading an internationally respected linguistics professor [Rodney Huddleston] to describe it as “the worst published material on English grammar” he has seen.

What sort of ‘utter howlers’ are they talking about?

Here are a couple of the now well-publicised errors that Huddleston took as exemplary and vocally objected to:

  • Won’t in The boy won’t eat his lunch is labelled an adverb; it is actually a modal auxiliary verb,
  • Capable of in The boy is capable of eating his lunch is also described as an adverb; it is really an adjective followed by a prepositional phrase headed by of, and
  • A set in A set of bowls is called an adjective; it isn’t even a grammatical unit at all. It’s half a noun phrase – the rest of it is a prepositional phrase of bowls. A set on its own is just a noun phrase, or a determiner followed by a noun.

These are pretty indefensible errors, one might assume, and it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone even rudimentarily trained in linguistics making them. But I’ll show later that, although they’re still indefensible, they’re completely explicable based on what Dr Ferguson was trying to do. I’ll also hopefully conclude that SFL has been copping too much flak in the whole debate.

Okay, just a little on the rest of the debate. Language Log caught onto the issue early on when Geoffrey K. Pullum posted this summary of the controversy, and he and other LanguageLoggers have since posted several follow-ups, the last of which is brilliant. Closer to home, Larvatus Prodeo, one of Australia’s most widely read political/social/cultural blogs, had this post, which has solicited a massive reader response; 163 comments and counting.

As you might expect, most of these comments, as well as the various letters to The Australian in response to this issue, and much of the other online coverage this issue has received, comprise people crying fowl of prepositions at the end of sentences, conjunctions at the beginning, blah blah blah. Apart from that, there have been some slightly more informed people arguing the differences between prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar, which is totally irrelevant to the ETAQ’s teaching guidelines, Huddleston’s response or anything3.

Despite my continued efforts, I have been unable to force the debate back on track, and before I give up, the rest of this post is how I might characterise the main issue and add my perspective, for whatever it’s worth.

As I mentioned earlier, SFL deals with language as it’s used in society and larger contexts, and it deals with its function in those contexts; not, crucially, its forms. So instead of dwelling too much on nouns, noun phrases, prepositions, clitics, perfect participles, structural categories and so on, SFL talks about participants, processes and circumstances as the basic sentential units.

That is, sentences are analysed in SFL as to who is being talked about, the participants; what is happening, the process(es); and optionally, any other adjunctive information such as location, the circumstances. SFL still has formal units at the heart of this; sentences and the constituent words are all labelled (mostly correctly) as to their parts of speech, but the main priorities are the  discourse functions of language that operate at level different from the parts of speech. It assumes that a structural analysis of the individual sentences using ‘traditional’, or generative grammar in this context, has already taken place.

To emphasis one important point already made, central to SFL, and many models of language, is the independence of form and function; the difference between phonological shape and meaning. This is one thing that Ferguson’s English teaching guidelines, based heavily on SFL, omitted, and it would thereby be regarded by probably every practicing linguist today as an inadequate theory of the structure of language.

Since form and function were collapsed, and since SFL prioritises the function of language, the result is a framework that, when applied as a structural analytical tool for parsing sentences, mislabels parts of speech. To take an example from those cited above, the sentence The boy is capable of eating his lunch would have a well-defined structure that many linguists would easily be able to draw for you. Here’s the bracket notation (simplified) that you can insert into the Syntax Tree Generator to see it4:

[S [NP [DET The] [N boy]] [VP [V is] [AP [A capable] [PP [P of [VP [V eating] [NP [DP his] [N lunch]]]]]]]]

SFL would then go on to analyse the sentence as to its functional aspects. Taking for instance the complex adjective phrase capable of eating his lunch, SFL would see the actual process as ‘eating’, while the beginning of the adjective phrase in which it is embedded, would be seen to contribute an adverbial element, since it arguably modifies the way in which the boy’s eating habits are seen.

Thus, SFL would defensibly analyse the words capable of as having an adverbial function. Dr Ferguson, in collapsing forms and functions, has therefore attributed capable of to the formal category ‘adverb’. In essence, when form and function are collapsed and functions take priority, then functional categories erroneously become formal categories.

That is how I would explain the ‘utter howlers’ that Huddleston identified; the logical result of using a functional analysis to identify forms, and I believe it also may explain all the other aspects of these guidelines – or at least those that I’ve come across, I haven’t been able to see a copy yet.

I should add that these differences are not mere differences of terminology; the approach suggested by ETAQ gives ‘grammatical unit’ status to strings of words that cross boundaries between phrases, such as, again, capable of, which is not a single unit at all, but a fragment of an adjective phrase.

The issue then, instead of how these guidelines managed to come up with these monstrosities of formal analysis, should be what purpose SFL, or even this corrupted version of it, can serve as a structural analytical tool. My response to that question would be something along the lines of ‘not much’, though I do think it has a reasonable place in education as a textual criticism tool. That is, the focus on interpersonal interpretations, ideational content and context would help students to critically evaluate actual and intended meaning in prose, performances, plays, speeches and the like. However, before such contextual criticism takes place, students must be able to analyse a sentence into its constituent phrases, their interactions with each other, and the individual grammatical and lexical units, words, that form the syntactic basis of a language like English – all using terminology that is at least internally consistent, but consistent with the standard set of terms used by just about everyone else.

I don’t intend any of this to be a defence of, or an apoogy for Systemic Functional Linguistics, that’s another debate altogether, but I do think that as a framework for literary criticism, it is being grossly misused in this educational context, and the students who will not learn to correctly identify parts of speech and structurally analyse sentences because of it, will potentially be at a disadvantage later in their schooling.

SFL cops enough flak already; it shouldn’t have to defend itself here, when the real culprit is Ferguson’s awful corruption of it.


  1. Thanks to Jane Simpson and Mark Harvey for the translation.
  2. Pullum at Language Log, Queensland grammar brouhaha
  3. As an aside, it appears that as linguists, we haven’t yet achieved our tacit aim of convincing the masses that our profession is not about telling them how to write. I fear we have many more years of putting up with misplaced Grammar Nazi over-sensitivity.
  4. I’ve heavily simplified this. Especially when it comes to the analysis of ‘his’, which I’ve just left unanalysed as a determiner phrase (DP). Merely calling it a determiner would be too simplistic.

Seen in this morning’s Herald, in the letters section:

The dreaded use of “absolutely” seems to have abated. Can we now get rid of the lazy linguists’ use of “in terms of”?

Garrett Naumann, Cammeray

But what on earth is he talking about? Do linguists overuse the expression in terms of? Even if we do, is its use considered ‘lazy’? I’ve never heard any such sentiment. Can anyone shed some light on this? I’d be absolutely interested.