LINGUIST List 18.1000

Tue Apr 03 2007

Review: Applied Linguistics: Hancock (2005)

Editor for this issue: Laura Buszard-Welcher <>

Directory         1.    Edward McDonald, Meaning-Centered Grammar

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Message 1: Meaning-Centered Grammar
Date: 03-Apr-2007
From: Edward McDonald <>
Subject: Meaning-Centered Grammar

Announced at AUTHOR: Hancock, CraigTITLE: Meaning-Centered GrammarSUBTITLE: An Introductory TextSERIES: Equinox Textbooks and Surveys in LinguisticsPUBLISHER: EquinoxYEAR: 2005

Edward McDonald, School of Asian Studies, University of Auckland


Craig Hancock's ''Meaning-Centered Grammar'' is a course in English grammarfrom the viewpoint of teaching writing, developed over the course of fiveyears at the college level in classes, and ''aimed largely at Englishteaching majors'' (p.1). Hancock explains his overall goal as follows (p.1):

''Against the grain of my discipline, which has continued to think ofgrammar as a banal subject tied to archaic and banal teaching practices, Iwent in search of an approach to grammar compatible with meaning makingapproaches to reading and writing. The working premise has been that formand meaning are organically interconnected, that word choice and wordarrangement are not neutral carriers of a pre-existent meaning, but adeeply important part of the meaning making enterprise.''

Hancock links his approach to many of the traditional concerns of''composition'' and ''aesthetics'', and makes a useful comment on naive versusprofessional understandings of the writing process where notions of grammarare usually invoked (p.1):''Traditionally, grammar choices have been choices of 'correctness' or'style'; for more experienced writers, revision is essentially a movementtowards meaning.'' In this context, Hancock identifies as his basicquestion ''whether this functional notion of form could be extended togrammar'' and describes the current textbook as ''a decade long positiveanswer to that question'' (p.1).

Chapter 1, ''Rethinking grammar,'' clearly shows the results of that decadelong active pondering on the role of grammar in teaching writing, andprovides a well-judged and highly approachable discussion of such issues as''grammar is not error'' and ''a sentence is not a complete thought.'' Chapter2, ''Basic principles of grammar,'' is again a clear and consistent overviewof the basic kinds of evidence -- word order, inflection, function words --that we draw on in recognising grammatical distinctions. Chapter 3,''Elements of the simple clause,'' then introduces the basic word classes,using a framework very close to that of Quirk et al. (1985), i.e. whatwould most probably normally be categorised -- with a certain lack ofrecognition of Quirk et al.'s original contribution -- as ''traditionalgrammar.''

Chapter 4 introduces the basic insight of systemic functional grammar, asrepresented in Halliday (1994), that clause structure may be divided upamong three different meaningful structures, from the point of view of, asthe chapter title has it, ''Context based meaning in a sentence.'' Conceptsfrom this text-based approach of systemic functional grammar are also drawnon in Chapter 6, ''Transitivity: clause as representation.'' The moretraditional form-based approach to grammar is utilised in Chapter 5, ''Acloser look at verb phrases;'' Chapter 7, ''Verbs as adjectives, nouns, andas heads of non-finite subordinate clauses;'' Chapter 8, ''Coordination andcompounding: appositional phrases;'' and Chapter 9, ''Finite subordinateclauses.''

Chapter 10, ''Grammar and writing: punctuation,'' moves into more typicalwriting territory in explaining the use of punctuation to clarifystructure. Chapter 11, ''Grammar and meaning in longer texts,'' uses thegrammatical framework introduced in previous chapters on two short (despitethe chapter heading) texts: a poem by Robert Hayden, and an extract from anautobiography by Richard Rodriguez. In addition to the main discussion anddemonstration of grammatical analyses, each chapter also contains ''sectionexercises'' giving the student practice on short single sentence analyses,as well as a ''chapter practice,'' usually on a text extract.


A good textbook is the hardest thing to write. Despite a strong traditionof academic snobbery that would see textbook writing as the ''easy''alternative to producing, say, an academic monograph, exactly the oppositeis in fact the case. The writer of a monograph can usually depend on moreor less fixed conventions of genre, and a clearly defined readership withwhom s/he shares an enormous amount of background knowledge andpresuppositions, as well as clear criteria for what counts as success,criteria which draw on and are constantly reinforced by the whole academicprocess of reviewing and critiquing across a range of forums.

The textbook writer operates with almost none of these comfortablecertainties. S/he can assume little or no common background with thepotential readership, and thus a much stronger pressure for the textbook tostand or fall on its own merits, not only as a whole but at every step ofthe exposition. In most cases, s/he will be working across at least twodifferent registers, that of the disciplinary field or fields, and that ofthe pedagogic process. In many cases, s/he will also be negotiating betweendifferent theoretical perspectives on a subject, not able to deal withdisagreements directly, as in a monograph, but only indirectly in choosingexplanations and attempting to derive some sort of working consensus out ofwhat is often a Babel of competing claims.

In this book, Hancock has attempted the difficult task of blending insightsfrom rhetoric and the teaching of writing with terms and descriptions fromthe two linguistic traditions of traditional grammar and systemicfunctional grammar, the latter in the form set out in Halliday (1994).There are some areas in which he has succeeded brilliantly. The openingchapter, ''Rethinking grammar,'' deals with the whole thorny issue ofknowledge about grammar and its relationship to writing in a morethoughtful and comprehensive way than any other similar publication I amaware of, and does so in an eminently sensible and approachable tone thatseems ideally suited for its readership.

It is when the textbook moves into introducing an explicit framework forgrammatical analysis that it loses me to some extent. One of the reasonsfor this is what reads to me like an exegesis that seems not to be able tosee the descriptive wood for the analytical trees: though I mustacknowledge that I am not, of course, the sort of reader for whom the bookwas designed, and for whom such a close concentration on detail may behelpful and supportive. On this point, I must also defer to Hancock'sdecades-long teaching experience and his five-year trial of this particulartextbook with students.

But another more serious reservation comes from Hancock's attempt tocombine terms and analyses from traditional grammar and systemic functionalgrammar. The grammatical commentaries on two texts given in Chapter 11 arevery typical of the sorts of analyses systemic functional grammar wasdesigned to carry out, and are obviously inspired by its example; but these''meaning-based'' analyses themselves, to quote from the book's title, aredone largely in terms of the categories of traditional grammar, whoselargely ''form-based'' nature proves resistant to such an application. As aresult, what the reader is left with, it seems to me, is a descriptiveapparatus centred not in meaning, but in form, and a naive reader might beforgiven for concluding that the whole battery of terms from systemicfunctional grammar is an ''extra'': a confusing and redundant add-on to the''real'' nitty-gritty which is traditional grammar.

A comparison with a textbook that attempts a similar sort of blend for thesame sort of readership should illuminate this criticism. Graham Lock's''Functional English Grammar'' (1996), is as the subtitle makes clear ''Anintroduction for second language teachers,'' and like Hancock's work drawson both traditional grammar, in the form put forward in what Lock terms''the indispensable'' reference of Quirk et al. (1985), and systemicfunctional grammar. In relation to the latter, Lock explains that ''becausethis book is intended for teachers rather than for linguists or textanalysts, I have felt free to adapt, reinterpret, and use selectively''(Lock 1996: xiii) insights provided by scholars working within that theory.In my opinion, he succeeds brilliantly in this task, because he not onlyhas a deep understanding of the overall aims of systemic functional theoryand what a systemic functional type of analysis is designed to show, butbecause he has obviously thought hard about the needs of his targetreadership and has tailored his material to that audience.

While Hancock is equally clear on his target readership, his understandingof systemic functional theory is perhaps less deep, and in terms of itsoverall aims throws it into a surprising and rather uneasy cohabitationwith generative grammar, as he explains in the ''Preface'' (p.2):

''Generative grammar has generally shied away from pedagogical application,but has deeply established the truth that we are all innately wired forlanguage, that language is learned rather than taught, that a language richenvironment is the most important catalyst for language acquisition, thatall human dialects are equally rule-driven, equally capable of renderingthe world. The goal of this book is to bring that unconscious grammar toconscious light and to explore ways in which effective writing works inharmony with that natural language.''

I suspect many generative linguists would be surprised at Hancock'sattribution to them of the idea that a ''language rich environment is themost important catalyst for language acquisition'', since that is the verything they tend to dismiss as of little importance, with Chomsky on recordas claiming that ''language development really ought to be called languagegrowth because the language organ grows like any other body organ'' (Chomsky1983), developing naturally rather than being taught; while Krashen's wholeargument (e.g. Krashen 1987) against the need for explicit teaching aboutlanguage rests on a similar assumption.

The idea of language as ''rule-driven'' is obviously and admittedly takenfrom generative grammar, and also resonates strongly with the concerns oftraditional grammar -- a linkage that is of course the result of borrowingby generative grammar from traditional grammar not the other way around;but it seems to me to sit uneasily with the book's overall aim ofencouraging writers to develop their own voice, something that systemicfunctional theory's conceptualisation of ''language as resource'' supportsmuch more closely. Hancock's reliance on traditional grammar thus trapshim, it seems to me, in a world-view that the whole thrust of the book iscontinually trying to argue against. Furthermore, his own ''case against''traditional grammar seems to tempt him beyond what a textbook like this canpractically achieve (p.2):

''One principal role of the book is to equip someone to participate in apublic discussion of grammar, and for that reason I have tried to hold toas much of the traditional terminology of grammar as possible. Anyonewishing primarily to avoid error in the traditional sense of the term wouldstill be well served by the much deeper and wider understanding offeredhere. A good deal of prescriptive grammar is highly questionable, evendysfunctional, and wider understanding gives us the insight necessary tomake informed judgments.''

The ability to ''participate in a public discussion'' -- in an informed way,that is -- requires a very sophisticated cross-theoretical understanding ofthe aims and applications of traditional grammar, presumably in this caseas critiqued by systemic functional grammar; and not only is this somethingwhich seems to me of questionable value for the intended readership of thistextbook, it is something for which the book itself is not really able toprovide a good model, since it does not clearly delineate the scope ofthese two kinds of grammatical description. (A realistic and hard-headedapproach to the uses and benefits of traditional grammar as regulating acommon written standard can be found in Trask 2001). Here again, Lock'swork provides a much clearer and more useable framework, introducing thetraditional framework of Subject Predicator (''verb'') Object and so on, butreinterpreting it, a la Halliday, in semantic terms, and then addingfurther layers of analysis in terms of Transitivity, Theme and Rheme, andso on, which fill in aspects of English grammar highly relevant to teachingor learning writing but on which the traditional framework is largely silent.

Another textbook which, though for a readership of students rather thanteachers, in my opinion succeeds much better in mediating between grammarand writing is Carolyn Hartnett's ''Meaning First'' (2000). While it takes amuch more directly writing-focused approach than Hancock's book, as itssubtitle ''A Functional Handbook of Fifty Ways to Polish your Writing''indicates, like Hancock it is clearly informed by a systemic functionalapproach. Here, however, the systemic functional influence is completelyabsorbed into the rationale and organization of the book, with chapters,for example, on ''Packing Information in Sentences'' (basic clausestructure), ''Relating to the Reader, the Time and the Truth with Verbs''(tense and modality) and ''Making Your Writing Friendly to Readers''(information flow). Thus any linguistically naive reader can make use of --and evaluate the usefulness of -- Hartnett's textbook completely on its ownterms, and without needing to take anything on trust.

Hancock is obviously enthusiastic about the benefits of using functionalgrammar to inform traditional grammar, but it seems to me his textbookneeds further clarification of its descriptive framework in order to makeit more directly useable by his readership. If I may be forgiven for citingmy own work, my account of developing a functional text-based grammar forChinese (McDonald 1999) documents how difficult the process of developmentcan be: I too had to come to grips with the problem of Chinese ''traditionalgrammar'' -- similarly adapted from the tradition of Latin grammar but inthis case only from the end of the 19th century; and for me too the initialversions spoke more directly to linguists than students, and an enormousamount of tweaking and tinkering and serious rethinking was necessary inorder to create an autonomous framework for pedagogical needs. So I mustnot been understood to be criticizing Hancock for ''dumbing down'' systemicfunctional grammar: as I mentioned earlier, ''dumbing down'' is exactly theopposite of what goes on in the case of textbooks such as this, at least ifwe are talking about the amount of hard thinking and writing required fromthe person developing the textbook. We all know that the best teachers arethose who handle their knowledge lightly and ''make it seem easy'', but wealso all know that this is truly a case of ''the art that conceals art.'' IfI say that Hancock has made a good start, I hope that doesn't come acrossas patronising, but simply as a recognition of the difficulty of the taskhe has set himself.


Chomsky, Noam. 1983. Things No Amount of Learning Can Teach. Noam Chomskyinterviewed by John Gliedman. Omni, 6:11, November 1983.[]

Halliday, M.A.K. 1994. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. 2nd edition.1st edition 1985. London: Arnold.

Hartnett, Carolyn G. 2000. Meaning First: A Functional Handbook of FiftyWays to Polish Your Writing. Superior WI: Parlay Press.

Krashen, Stephen D. 1987. Principles and Practice in Second LanguageAcquisition. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall International

Lock, Graham. 1996. Functional English Grammar: An Introduction for SecondLanguage Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McDonald, Edward. 1999. Teaching Grammar through Text: an integrated modelfor a pedagogical grammar of Chinese. Journal of the Chinese LanguageTeachers Association. 34.2, 91-120.

Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. 1985. AComprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman

Trask, R.L. 2001. Mind the Gaffe. The Penguin Guide to Common Errors inEnglish. London: Penguin


Edward McDonald has taught language, linguistics, and semiotics at theNational University of Singapore, Tsinghua University Beijing, andcurrently at the University of Auckland. His Ph.D. research was on thedevelopment of a functional text-based grammar of Chinese, and he haspublished on pedagogical grammar in Language Sciences and the Journal ofthe Chinese Language Teachers Association (JCLTA).