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Review of  Invitation to Systemic Functional Linguistics through the Cardiff Grammar

Reviewer: Edward McDonald
Book Title: Invitation to Systemic Functional Linguistics through the Cardiff Grammar
Book Author: Robin P Fawcett
Publisher: Equinox Publishing Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 22.4122

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AUTHOR: Fawcett, Robin P.
TITLE: Invitation to Systemic Functional Linguistics through the Cardiff Grammar
SUBTITLE: An extension and simplification of Halliday's Systemic Functional
Grammar (Third edition)
SERIES TITLE: Equinox Textbooks and Surveys in Linguistics
YEAR: 2008

Edward McDonald, School of Languages and Linguistics, University of New South Wales


Robin Fawcett's ''Invitation to Systemic Functional Linguistics through the
Cardiff Grammar,'' although specified as the 'Third Edition,' is in fact the
first version to be formally published in book form. The work started out as the
'Annual Open Lectures at Tezukayama College in Nara, Japan, in…1996', which were
'published in Japan in the journal 'Helicon'' in the following year (p. 3). A
'tidied-up version' of this 'was published within Cardiff University in 2005'
(p. 1) for internal use. Soon after this, the author received separate requests
for a Chinese edition and a Spanish edition, at which point he considered 'it
should also be published in English' (p. 1); hence, this 'Third Edition.' The
book divides itself into two parts: the main text that builds up an analysis of
the English clause; and the 'book within a book,' in the form of a series of
lengthy footnotes, that 'gives the reasons why the version of
S[ystemic]F[unctional]G[rammar] given here differs from…Halliday's Introduction
to Functional Grammar' (p. 2).

The analysis of the clause proper begins in Chapter 3, entitled 'Introducing the
syntax of transitivity and mood.' Fawcett distinguishes between the semantic
notion of 'situation,' whose 'pivotal element' of 'process' largely determines
the number and kind of 'participants,' and, to a lesser extent, 'circumstances,'
from the syntactic unit of clause, whose basic elements of M[ain Verb],
S[ubject] and C[omplement], and A[djunct], are the realisations of these
semantic elements. In this chapter, Fawcett also introduces the common SFL
notion of the clause being 'multifunctional'; in his preferred metaphor (p. 45),
'every clause expresses several ''strands of meaning,'' each serving a different
function.' The system of transitivity, as described above, realises the
experiential strand of meaning, the first introduced here (pp. 46-52), closely
followed by the system of mood, realising the interpersonal strand of meaning
(pp. 52-54), with its main syntactic functions of S[ubject] and O[perator] --
the S[ubject] element thus plays a role in two distinct 'strands of meaning,'
and this 'multifunctionality' is a characteristic of a number of the syntactic
elements of the clause.

In Chapter 4, 'Developing reliable analysis skills,' Fawcett introduces a
preliminary 'set' of 'Guidelines', with the aim being to set up 'a toolkit of
clear criteria for identifying the elements of clauses, each with its associated
test' (p. 60). Fawcett provides guidelines for recognising elements of the
clause and drawing tree diagrams, as well as criteria for identifying particular
elements which are a mix of the formal and the semantic. Chapter 5 provides a
theoretical underpinning for what Fawcett terms 'A minimal theory of syntax'
(adapted from Halliday 1961), which contains four basic 'categories' and four
basic 'relationships.' The four categories, which define the structural
relationships of the clause, are: 'unit,' or class of element, e.g. clause,
nominal group; 'element,' or the functional category that fills a particular
unit, e.g. Subject, deictic determiner; 'item,' the word or lexeme that
'expounds' (see below) a particular element; and finally, 'place,' or the part
of a structure, with each unit having a series of 'numbered places…at which its
elements are located' (p. 75). Moving onto 'relationships,' three of these
characterise the relationships between the categories already introduced, so a
unit like the clause 'is composed of,' among others, the element of Subject,
which in its turn 'is filled by' a unit such as a nominal group, which in its
turn 'is expounded by' a proper noun like ‘Ivy.’ The fourth kind of relationship
relates to the multifunctional nature of the analysis where, for example, one
element of structure 'is conflated with' another, as is the case in situations
where the two clause elements of the Main Verb and Operator are conflated in
English clauses where the main verb is simple present or simple past, such as
'were' or 'done.'

The rest of the book introduces further 'strands of meaning,' or different
functional principles and their relevant structural realisations: experiential
(Chapters 6, 10, 12, 13), affective (Chapter 6), thematic (Chapter 8),
informational (Chapter 8), polarity (Chapter 9), and interpersonal (Chapter 11).
Additionally, the book provides theoretical reflection on the concepts and
analytical techniques introduced, as well as explanations of the formalisms or
notational tools of the 'system network' and the 'selection expression' (Chapter
7). Finally, it provides a full set of guidelines for clause analysis (Chapter
15), and a discussion of 'two further dimensions' which fall outside the clause
analysis proper: 'representing units within the clause' and 'representing the
semantics' (Chapter 17). The book is then rounded off with two Appendices: 'A
summary of English syntax for the text analyst,' according to the framework
introduced but including further details, particularly of the structure of units
smaller than a clause not dealt with in the main text; and 'An overall
comparison of the Cardiff and Sydney grammars.'


Fawcett's 'Invitation' indeed contains much that is inviting. Its brevity makes
it well-suited for providing an overall view of the theory, whether for the
reader well-versed in systemic functional theory, or for one coming at it from
the viewpoint of other linguistic or syntactic frameworks. Pedagogically, the
book is designed to be worked through from start to finish, with the reader
strongly encouraged to do the regular analysis exercises before their solutions
are given (both in the main text). The book, in Fawcett's opinion, contains '70
to 80 percent' of 'most of the syntax of English,' as summarised in Appendix 1,
equating to 'much of what can be taught satisfactorily in a ten-week course' (p.
33). While the book is relatively short in length, its very clear progression in
introducing new concepts, and its regular summaries of concepts introduced at
each stage, make it well suited for such a use. It would, I think, have
benefited from additional higher level 'signposting'; for example, with regard
to the different 'strands of meaning,' or metafunctions, which do not appear in
the Table of Contents at all. The book also suffers from a rather
over-enthusiastic use of emphasis, with wide use of both bolding and
capitalisation, sometimes in the same sentence. This leaves the reader uncertain
as to which item of information is key, and also gives the text a somewhat
frenetic tone.

The regular use of long footnotes that make up the 'book within a book,'
comparing the 'Cardiff approach' with the 'Sydney approach,' provides a useful
contextualization of the particularities of the approach being put forward here.
For linguists working in the Sydney approach, for which we may take Halliday as
the representative figure, both systems (paradigmatic options) and structures
(syntagmatic combinations) can be recognised at every stratum of language. For
linguists working in the Cardiff approach, for which Fawcett himself may be
taken as the representative figure, the radical proposal is that systems of
paradigmatic options are tied to the semantic stratum, while the structures of
syntagmatic combinations which realize these systemic options are tied to the
lexicogrammatical stratum. Alongside this very different conceptualisation of
stratification, Fawcett's approach to that other pillar of SFL, metafunction
(generalised abstract function of language), is also very different. For
Halliday, the three metafunctions of ideational (subdivided into experiential
and logical), interpersonal, and textual are recognised at each stratum of the
linguistic system -- semantics, lexicogrammar and phonology. In Fawcett's
approach, not only are the metafunctions restricted to the stratum of semantics,
their number is increased to eight (pp. 171-172): experiential, logical
relations, interpersonal, negativity, validity, affective, thematic, and
informational. Fawcett prefers to use the metaphorical phrasing 'strand of
meaning' as equivalent to, or even preferable to, 'metafunction.' However, from
his analyses, it is clear that these 'strands of meaning' are very much
syntactically oriented, being indeed directly linked to different 'layers' of
clause analysis.

Fawcett sets his description of English syntax in direct contrast to Halliday's,
and is critical of inconsistencies in the latter, stemming from the fact that
(p. 26) 'in the crucial period between the revolutionary innovations of the
early 1970s and the publication of IFG in 1985 Halliday published very little
that was a contribution to the description of the lexicogrammar of English.' One
reason for this, as put forward by Halliday (1993: 4507, quoted p. 27), is that
'[s]ystemic work…has tended to expand by moving into new spheres of activity,
rather than by re-working earlier positions.' Fawcett points out some of the
problems that such an approach may cause (p. 27):

The difference between expanding a theory and changing it is an important one.
The term 'expand' typically implies additions rather than alterations, so that
the 'expansion' of a theory does not necessarily require one to 're-work' the
concepts of an earlier version. In contrast, any change to the existing set of
concepts in a theory needs to be followed by a thorough check to discover
whether or not these changes involve further changes in other parts of the
overall language system. In a theory of language, as in language itself, tout se
tient [everything is mutually reinforcing] (Meillet 1937).

In fact, Halliday's work on mother-child interaction (1972 / 2003) and child
language development (1973 / 2003) clearly shows him adapting the
system-structure model already worked out in some detail for the phonology (e.g.
1967) and the lexicogrammar (e.g. 1967-68) to the analysis of texts in context.
Since Halliday was already 'pushing' his characterisation of lexicogrammar quite
far in the direction of semantics, it therefore makes perfect sense, whether one
agrees with this approach or not, that semantics itself should be 'pushed' in
the direction of pragmatics. Such a readjustment is in fact necessary, as
Fawcett himself points out, under the 'tout se tient' principle. In theoretical
terms, what Halliday is doing here is also entirely consistent on its own terms;
moving on from describing systems whose point of origin is the syllable, or the
tone group, or the clause, to exploring systems whose point of origin is the
text as a semantic unit.

Fawcett's insistence on continually measuring his own version of SFL up against
what he calls the 'Sydney Grammar' not only does a disservice to the
originality of his own approach but leads him, on occasion, to make
'comparisons' that are not only 'odious' but misleading and unnecessary. Take
for example, the comment, quoted on p. 5 and also on the back cover, by
Christopher Butler, a well-known and longtime critic of SFL (e.g. Butler 1985,
2003a, b), saying that 'the Cardiff model represents a substantial improvement
on the Sydney account' (Butler 2003b: 471). The original context of this
judgment is in fact as follows (2003b: 470-471):

[T]he Cardiff grammar of Fawcett and his colleagues differs crucially from the
Sydney grammar in treating the networks of transitivity, mood, theme etc. as
semantic, and recognising a separate syntactic level…. Furthermore, the Cardiff
grammarians have begun to tackle certain syntactic phenomena, such as raising,
which have been important areas of debate in non-functional theories. This model
of the relationship between syntactic and semantic phenomena offers the
potential for a much clearer programme of explanation of how semantics motivates
syntax. Unfortunately, although in my view the Cardiff model represents a
substantial improvement on the Sydney account, this opportunity for functional
explanation still goes largely unexplored.

Butler's comparison of the two approaches is thus not the blanket statement
Fawcett implies it to be, but a very narrowly focused judgment of the difference
between the two approaches in relationship to their modeling of the relationship
between semantics and syntax. The work from which Fawcett quotes, Butler's
''Structure and Function: A Guide to Three Major Structural-Functional Theories,''
(2003a, b) carries out a detailed and systematic comparison of three broadly
comparable theories of language: Functional Grammar (e.g. Dik 1997a, b), Role
and Reference Grammar (e.g. Van Valin & La Polla 1997), and Systemic Functional
Grammar (e.g. Halliday 1985, 1994; Halliday & Matthiessen 1999). Butler's
comparison of necessity largely concentrates on the common ground in the three
different frameworks, which is their treatment of syntactic patterning. This is
problematic in assuming that a discrete area called 'syntax' can in fact be
recognised as comparable in each case. As noted above, the syntax, or what
Halliday prefers to call 'lexicogrammar,' in his version of SFL, is conceived of
as highly semanticised in contrast to many other approaches. The whole
conception of the linguistic system in Halliday's approach, then, is one that
cannot easily be fitted into the standard syntax-semantics-pragmatics model
without serious distortion and misrepresentation. For Butler to praise Fawcett
for recognising a separate level of syntax, clearly distinct from semantics, let
alone to pat him on the back for 'tackl[ing] certain syntactic phenomena…which
have been important areas of debate in non-functional theories,' is simply
drawing attention to the fact that Fawcett's version of SFL, in this aspect at
least, is much closer to the 'mainstream' of syntactic theorising. Why this
should be judged as necessarily an improvement is unclear to me.

Fawcett, in his 'Invitation,' has provided a clear and accessible introduction
to his version of SFL, set out at greater length elsewhere (e.g. Fawcett 2000),
as one whose premises are for the most part very clear and consistent, and
within which a large amount of useful descriptive work has been carried out. He
and his colleagues can justifiably take credit for having achieved, to refer to
the book's subtitle, an 'extension' of Halliday's description of English; but to
attempt to claim similar credit for, again referring to the subtitle, a
'simplification' of the same is, in my opinion, a meaningless exercise.
Fawcett's model is a much more parsimonious one in contrast with what Halliday
has often termed his own 'extravagant grammar,' but in both cases, the
parsimoniousness and the extravagance are not to be dismissed as mere whimsical
differences of personality -- they relate directly to the very different
purposes for which the theories have been devised. Let us have more comparison,
let us compare different descriptions, but at the same time let us acknowledge
diversity of both aims and means and not seek to identify some false gold
standard for theoretical worth. Vive la différence!


Butler, Christopher S. 1985. Systemic Linguistics: Theory and Applications,
London: Batsford

Butler, Christopher S. 2003a. Structure and Function: A Guide to Three Major
Structural-Functional Approaches: Part 1: Approaches to the simplex clause,
Amsterdam: Benjamins

Butler, Christopher S. 2003a. Structure and Function: A Guide to Three Major
Structural-Functional Approaches: Part 2: From clause to discourse and beyond,
Amsterdam: Benjamins

Dik, S.C. 1997a. The Theory of Functional Grammar, Part 1: The Structure of the
Clause, 2nd ed, K, Hengeveld (ed.), Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter

Dik, S.C. 1997b. The Theory of Functional Grammar, Part 2: Complex and Derived
Constructions, 2nd ed, K, Hengeveld (ed.), Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter

Fawcett. R.P. 2000. A Theory of Syntax for Systemic Functional Linguistics,
Amsterdam: Benjamins

Halliday, M.A.K. 1961. Categories of the Theory of Grammar, Word, 17.3, 241-92;
reprinted in Webster, Jonathan (ed.) The Collected Works of M.A.K. Halliday,
Volume 1, On Grammar, London: Continuum, 37-94

Halliday, M.A.K. 1967. Intonation and Grammar in British English, The Hague: Mouton

Halliday, M.A.K. 1967a, 1967b, 1968. Notes on transitivity and theme in English,
Parts 1-3, Journal of Linguistics 3.1, 37-81; 3.2, 199-244; 4.2: 179-215.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1972. Towards a sociological semantics, originally published by
Centro Internazionale de Semiotica e Linguistica,Universita di Urbino, reprinted
in Webster, Jonathan (ed.) The Collected Works of M.A.K. Halliday, Volume 3, On
Language and Linguistics, London: Continuum, 323-354

Halliday, M.A.K. 1973. The Functional Basis of Language, in Bernstein, Basil
(ed.) Applied Studies towards a Sociology of Language, Vol.2, Class, Codes and
Control, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 343-366; reprinted in Webster,
Jonathan (ed.) The Collected Works of M.A.K. Halliday, Volume 3, On Language and
Linguistics, London: Continuum, 298-322

Halliday, M.A.K. 1985. An Introduction to Functional Grammar, London: Edward
Arnold. Second edition 1994.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1993. Systemic Theory, in Asher, R.E. & J.M.Y. Simpson (eds)
The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Oxford: Pergamon, 4905-4908

Halliday, M.A.K. & C.M.I.M. Matthiessen. 1999. Construing Experience through
Meaning: A Language-Based Approach to Cognition, London: Cassell

Meillet, Antoine. 1937. Introduction à l'étude comparative des langues
indo-européennes, 8th edition, Paris : Hachette

Tucker, G.H. 1998. The Lexicogrammar of Adjectives: A Systemic Functional
Approach to Lexis, London: Cassell Academic

Van Valin, R.D. Jr. & R.J. La Polla. 1997. Syntax: Structure, Meaning and
Function, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Edward McDonald has taught linguistics and semiotics at the National University of Singapore and at Tsinghua University in Beijing and Chinese language and linguistics at the University of Auckland. He now holds a position in the Translation and Interpreting Program at the University of New South Wales. His research interests lie in the areas of the grammar and discourse of modern Chinese, ideologies about language, and the semiotics of language and music. He has previously reviewed a number of syntax textbooks for Linguist List, including Cullicover & Jackendoff's (2005) 'Simpler Syntax,' and Hancock's (2005) 'Meaning-Centered Grammar.'

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