Queensland grammar brouhaha

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A major grammar brouhaha exploded in Australia today, launched in the country's major newspaper The Australian under the headline Grammar guide for English teachers 'full of basic errors':

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

A series of articles on grammar published in the ETAQ's journal intended as a teaching resource is striking for its confusion of the parts of speech, incorrectly labelling nouns as adjectives, verbs as adverbs and phrases as verbs.

Here's the rest of the story.

Last year the English Teachers’ Association of Queensland (and I cannot resist noting that The Australian fails to include the apostrophe in their name!) published in its newsletter Words’Worth (another apostrophe!) a series of articles for teachers on basic English grammar, under the title 'Grammar at the Coalface'; and the articles were terrible. Not just a little bit ropey, but absolutely incompetent, full of utter howlers.

Rodney Huddleston, professor emeritus of the University of Queensland and a thirty-year veteran of trying to improve the level of understanding of grammar in Queensland and more widely, noticed the howlers, and began cautiously to work with ETAQ to try and negotiate a measured response pointing out the errors in as gentle a way as possible. For nearly a year he was repeatedly blocked. His suggestion that he should publish an article reviewing and correcting the errors was initially accepted, but the article and two subsequent shortened versions of it were rejected. He was finally permitted to publish a very watered-down statement under the title 'Aspects of Grammar'. The majority of his critique was to be consigned to the ETAQ website.

After another long delay, the web document was finally put up (at this page), but it was then described in Words’Worth in terms designed to keep members away from it: the author of the original article, who is also the editor, said (untruthfully) that Huddleston's critique is "quite complex, requiring readers to have extensive knowledge of traditional, structural and functional grammars." (You can see for yourself whether this is true: I have posted Huddleston's text here lest ETAQ should one day decide to remove their version.)

When Huddleston read this bit of editorializing, he realized that ETAQ was trying not just to keep him out of their print edition but also to bury the web publication. He lost it, and talked to The Australian's education writer Justine Ferrari.

Ferrari contacted ETAQ for rebuttal, and the writer of the Coalface articles (acting like John McCain and his campaign staff) tried to simply brazen it out. She called her gross errors "the result of the usual mishaps with work that undergoes several drafts and is proofed and edited by the original writer". She went on to say that Huddleston's corrections did not pertain to mistakes at all, but just "differences of opinion":

"They weren't all mistakes as he described but differences of opinion and that's the way of the world," she said. Dr Ferguson said Professor Huddleston did not follow traditional grammar but had invented his own type, called the Cambridge grammar, which was unique and had reclassified terms, such as calling prepositions conjunctions.

(For the record, none of this is true. Huddleston has never proposed calling prepositions conjunctions. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language the term 'conjunction' is not used at all as a part of speech label.)

As ever, this stonewalling and denial led to worse effects than would have resulted from an open admission of incompetence: it gave the editor of The Australian an excuse to write a scathing leader, under the header "Silencing grammar" and the subhead "The precision of our language must be preserved", talking about post-modernist teachers cloaking their incompetence in functional nonsense and jargon about discourse:

THE "arguability of a text", the English Teachers Association of Queensland told its members in its journal last year, "can vary according to the degree to which the speaker/writer closes down the dialogue to suppress or limit divergence, or opens it up to divergent positions."

Regardless of whatever discourses are foregrounded, marginalised or silenced, however, it cannot be argued, after a dominant or resistant reading of any text, that an adverb is a verb. And while not wanting to privilege traditional grammar rules over a sociocultural critical appraisal model, no amount of licence can turn a pair into an adjective instead of a noun.

For yes, the Coalface errors are that basic. The phrase a set of bowls was analyzed with set of described as an adjective. (And to stop you from being the first to say it, let me just comment on what a complete set of bowls that is.) Likewise, the phrase capable of eating his lunch was said to contain an adverb (capable of); and the modal auxiliary verb won't in won't eat his lunch was also said to be an adverb (it has been correctly recognized as an auxiliary verb for hundreds of years)… These are huge, crashing, indefensible errors, unjustified under any theory or framework of terminology. These are not matters of opinion — some things remain unclear in grammar, but we do know that set is a noun, and a set is a noun phrase, and capable is an adjective, and so on.

One bad sociological consequence of this blow-up is that now it will be another fifty years before English teachers in Queensland and linguists at the University are friends again.

And perhaps the worst thing is that the dispute has already been politicized. Grammar is taken to be conservative, you see; and Rodney Huddleston (a flaming liberal in the American sense, long-time hater of sexism and opponent of the thoroughly conservative government of the recently ousted John Howard) is supposed to be on the side of conservativism. On the other side are left-wing teachers, Marxist literary critics, deconstructionists, and post-modernists wittering on about diversity of Englishes and marginalized discourses of the oppressed, and the Coalface author is taken to be on that side — as if there was something leftist or subversive about being unable to tell an adjective from a modal auxiliary.

The leader ends by suggesting that "in Queensland, the state's Education Minister, Rod Welford, should instigate remedial classes — for teachers", and adds, "Suitable instructors, however, might prove thin on the ground", and "The ETAQ journal, Words'Worth, would be the last place he should advertise." Thus quite rapidly the incident has turned (as one might have anticipated) into a full-scale assault on the credentials and mental acumen of all Queensland's hard-working teachers. It might have been better for ETAQ to openly and honestly admit that it had unfortunately published a grammar article that was a complete crock. Memo to all: when you make a mistake, just admit it.

[Update: Letters are beginning to roll in at The Australian now, some of them fairly sensible and informed, and some (of course) just plain loopy (one commenter tries to list grammatical errors found in the articles discussing the story: prepositions at the end of a sentence and that sort of thing — one wonders how many hundreds of years it will be before this strange cultural affliction is cured). See this page for some of the discussion, which will doubtless continue for some time. The "functional grammar" that many of the discussants refer to (oh, all right: to which many of the discussants refer) is an ugly amalgam of Professor Michael Halliday's "systemic-functional" linguistics and a sort of post-modernist mish-mash of ideas about the "critical" analysis of discourse.

In practice, functional grammar has come to involve the favoring of gross confusions like that between a noun and a "participant", between an adverb and an aspect of the speaker's attitude toward the action expressed by the verb, and so on. Well-intentioned and utterly confused stuff that seems to be based on the idea that subjects and predicates are hard to understand but people doing things to other people is easy to understand, so you should collapse the former into the latter to engage the students' minds. It seems to have done a great deal of harm to language education in Australia. There is simply no profit in confusing yourself about the difference between clearly defined syntactic terms and the intuitive semantic notions to which they sometimes partially correspond. Some day (and that day may never come) I may post at proper length on this stuff. But here, I just thought I should give a very brief gloss on the term "functional" for Language Log readers who are not in Australia, and to whom the name Halliday means nothing.]

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