Monday, May 14, 2007

"Functional English Grammar: an introduction for second language teachers" Graham Lock

Reading this book has induced in me a kind of giddy nausea. Here’s why:

“Note also that the speech act exclamation is also often realized by a clause with no Subject, Finite, or Predicator (technically a minor clause) as in the following.
(28) What a mess!
(29) How stupid!
Such clauses cannot be analyzed for mood at all.”

This little extract chosen at random reveals the underlying assumptions behind this book: a) grammar is a discrete, unified conceptual system onto which all languages can be mapped; b) it is useful and correct to analyse bits of language in terms of their single word units Subject, Predicate etc; c) analyzing grammar consists mainly of sticking labels on bits of language: exclamation; d) the close analysis of grammar in the way put forward by this book is useful for language learners.

Hence the nausea.

For a book which purports to "be intended for teachers rather than linguists or text analysts", Lock does a truly dreadful job of clarifying grammar for those involved in the pedagogical process. His book covers much of the same old ground in the same old way as other descriptive grammarians, and it is hard to see why his understanding and presentation of grammar merits the title 'functional', or why we needed this book at all. However, dear reader, all is not lost, for the book has brought into articulation my own thoughts on the answers to three questions: What is grammar? What is it for? Who needs to study it? (Normally I despise rhetorical questions in writing as being the mark of a lazy intellect, but as Lock has allowed himself so many errors of analysis in his exposition of English grammar, and so many errors of judgement in the pitching of his tone and content to his audience, that I have decided to allow myself a little leeway in my review of his book). It might be useful to start by answering in the negative.

What is grammar?
Grammar is not a discrete, unified conceptual system –like a Platonic form- onto which all languages can be mapped. It is rather the underlying structure of each language and each language has its own grammatical concepts. The only grammatical concept which I suspect has any real transferability across all human languages is the noun/verb distinction (I name the object I see, I name the action I do). Other concepts such as adjective, predicate, clause, tense and aspect etc may not exist for all other languages. Chinese, for example, has no linking verbs, no tenses and no articles. Any attempt to impose these so-called universal grammatical constructs onto all languages, or to map divers languages onto one grammatical system ultimately derived from the Latin language is an act of grammatical imperialism. Ahem.

What is grammar for?
Grammar is not for deciding what is correct or not correct. It is not for passing tests and getting good grades. It is not a system of rules, but a system of laws, as in the laws of physics, or the law of gravity, or the second law of thermodynamics.
Grammar is for clarifying meaning. Grammar is meaning. ‘I go swimming in the afternoon: I went swimming in the afternoon’. The selection of tense allows both sender and receiver of the message to understand whether the action was carried out on a particular afternoon, or on every afternoon as a matter of routine. Of course, on a deeper level the grammatical categories that underlie each language give fascinating glimpses into the profoundly foreign ways that other cultures see the world. (c.f. Lakoff & Johnson).

Who needs to study grammar?
Native speakers do not need to study grammar. They already know it. It already informs and creates the structure of their mind, the way they communicate with themselves. Writers do not need to study it. Most writers can manipulate language on an instinctual basis for certain effects. Shakespeare went to grammar school certainly, but he did not study English grammar. Dickens did not go to school for very long or very often. He also did not study English grammar. If the two greatest verbal artists in the language did not study grammar, why should other writers bother with it? Children do not need to study it beyond the mere fixing on of labels: verb noun adjective adverb sentence clause, and perhaps other labels of other parts of speech. Why? Because it will help them to learn other languages. In fact, the only people who need to study grammar, are grammarians, and language learners, and grammarians only need to study it so that they can produce grammars for language learners!

So if the only people who need to study grammar are those people learning and teaching languages, then why is it that all grammars fail so dreadfully in their aim of clarifying how a language works for a person learning or teaching it? (Another rhetorical question, note how I indulge myself.)

The answer is the absence of understanding of the pedagogical process. There is lacking a pedagogical grammar; in other words, a way of describing the laws of creating meaning in a foreign language which can lead the learner to accurate and fluent production of that language. Grammar should be a simplification. Not a dumbing down, but a stripping down to the bare essentials. Grammar is a tool for learning language. Any tool must be simple enough to effectively perform the task it was designed for. The problem with most grammars is that the tool is so complex, that all attention is focussed on learning how to use the tool, rather than what to use it for. Lock’s functional grammar is no exception.

Bearing in mind that (probably) 95% of English teachers in the world are non-native speakers, and that the 2% of native speakers who decide to become EFL teachers are only doing it until something better comes along, Lock is hopelessly, madly, burningly naïve if he thinks teachers are going to be able to understand much less be able to use in the classroom descriptions of the language such as he puts forward:

"…clauses like 63 through 65 do not simply assign an Attribute to a Carrier. They identify one participant by equating it with another participant. This is why they are called identifying process clauses. And if participant A equals participant B, then of course participant B also equals participant A. "
(Got that, class?)

While the applied linguist in me (perversely perhaps) enjoys this kind of stuff, the pedagogue in me is literally sickened by it.


Daniel said...


At a recent high-school reunion, a group of alumni was asked to retell their greatest memories of teachers from their high school days. More than one alum told the story of the English teacher who began the year saying, "I will teach you English grammar so well that by the end of the year it will literally hurt you to hear it misused." They spoke so fondly of this old pedant, and praised her so highly for her prescriptivist tortures, that I wanted to stand up and scream, and tell them what grammar is and is not ...

but that wasn't the time or place, really.

Murr said...

Mm. Another lost opportunity. Life is full of them. Murr is delighted to find another subversive grammarian!

Nick said...

Hi Murr,
I have to disagree with most of what you have written in your 'review' of Lock's book, largely because it portrays a significant degree of ignorance on your part.
The extract that you open with challenges the reader with three technical terms, already explained in the text, in order to explain a feature of English that you as a native speaker might use on a regular basis, but which a language learner is likely to find confusing. The task for language teachers is to find a way to explain this usage (e.g. How absurd! What a mess!) without creating brand new rules for everything that looks a little different. If you had read Lock's book carefully you would have understood that he is attempting to explain grammar by starting at the point of meaning. In this case he is able to connect the different form (the grammar) to a different meaning. Typically this is not the job grammar is expected to achieve - as you point out.
I would not disagree that Lock could have done a better job at making these ideas clearer to the reader, particularly English language teachers, but I disagree with your description of the grammar Lock is presenting. He is far less interested in 'universals' than you appear to be. He has no interest in equating what you call grammatical categories on a deeper level - a process which is pure conjecture. I also think you make a number of mistakes. Lock is interested in seeing grammar as a resource for making meaning, which you claim he is not. Both Shakespeare and Dickens studied grammar - in all likelihood some form of Latin and probably Greek grammar which in their time would have been (ill-advisedly) transferred to English. Whether this helped them produce highly-valued verbal art is a different question which neither of us is in a position to answer.
I agree that good pedagogical grammars should provide learners with shortcuts to predictable, consistent meaningful patterns, and it is the teacher's (and some authors') responsibility to make those patterns salient. I can accept that you think Lock did not do a very good job in making those patterns transparent, but I do not think you should use his book as an excuse to raise objections to grammar teaching that are unsuitable for his book.
I would refer the readers of your blog to The Modern Language Journal, Vol. 81, No. 3, where the book is reviewed by someone with a background in formal grammar, to understand just how differently Lock approaches identifying the patterns of language and to find a review that better understands what the book is aiming to achieve.
Nice illustration, btw.