At scienceblogs.com's Evolving Thoughts, the philosopher of biology John S. Wilkins recently referenced a couple of Language Log posts ("Queensland grammar brouhaha", 6/13/2008; "How the Romans invented grammar", 6/14/2008), and added his own ruminations ("Grammar wars in Queensland", 10/14/2008):
Now grammar wars and grammar nazis go back a long time, and the fight seems to this outsider to be between those who follow Chomskyian transformational grammars and those who follow traditional grammars.
To this insider, John's comment seems to be yet another indictment of my profession, which has evidently failed to provide, to one of the more intellectually accomplished members of the general public, even the faintest hint of a clue. Closer to home, in this case, even reading two Language Log posts didn't make a dent. So let me try again.
As Geoff Pullum explained, the problem in Queensland (Australia) was that
Last year the English Teachers' Association of Queensland … published in its newsletter Words'Worth 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.
One small example: the boldface words in the examples below were identified as "adverbs":
The small boy won't eat his lunch.
The small boy is capable of eating his lunch.
Continuing with Geoff's history:
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', with the majority of his critique consigned to the ETAQ website.
I guess that you might call this dispute a "grammar war", though it's really more of a "competence war". But it has nothing to do with National Socialism, nor even with the extended sense of nazi in which "X nazi" has come to mean "someone who is serious about X in an unfriendly way", so that a "grammar nazi" is a person who insists on correcting (or incorrecting) other people's usage. None of the parties to the Queensland argument is a "grammar nazi" in that sense — everyone involved has the goal of providing teachers with the concepts and skills needed to analyze the ways that English words are put together into sentences.
Nor does this dispute have anything whatever to do with Noam Chomsky or transformational grammar. The article in The Australian (Justine Ferrari, "Grammar errors 'out of context'", 6/14/2008) didn't mention Chomsky or transformational grammar; Geoff Pullum's Language Log post didn't mention Chomsky or transformational grammar; Rodney Huddleston's article ("Problems with the Coalface Grammar") didn't mention Chomsky or transformational grammar.
The reason for this silence is simple — neither the Coalface Grammar's confusions, nor Huddleston's attempts to unravel them, have any connections with Chomsky's theories. Noam Chomsky has never asserted that won't and capable of are adverbs — nor has he ever denied this. Rather, he shares with all other linguists — until now — the property of never having considered the question. A good comparison would be John S. Wilkins' views on the question of whether or not grasshoppers and women on horseback are frogs. Even without having read his forthcoming Sourcebook on Species Definitions, I'm willing to bet that he has not felt the need to take a position on this issue.
The dispute over the "Coalface grammar" does deal in a limited way with "traditional grammar", because its author raised the issue in defending herself to The Australian:
"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.
Again, this is like defending the view that grasshoppers are frogs by invoking Linnaeus against the ICZN, while accusing modern biologists of calling rodents lizards — I'm quite confident that none of the many traditional grammars of English, from Lindley Murray to Otto Jespersen, has ever asserted that won't and capable of are adverbs. Nor can you find this idea in Michael Halliday's "functional grammar", which has also been mentioned in the discussion. As Geoff put it, "These are huge, crashing, indefensible errors, unjustified under any theory or framework of terminology."
So, once more with feeling: this controversy is not about prescriptivism vs. descriptivism, nor is it about traditional grammar vs. any flavor of modern grammar. It's about rationality vs. irrationality, systematic analysis vs. random whims, competence vs. incompetence.
I'll quote Geoff one last time:
As ever, this stonewalling and denial led to worse effects than would have resulted from an open admission of incompetence [...] [T]he 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.