The editor of a journal for teachers sets out to write and publish some helpful materials for those teaching grammar "at the coalface" (a worryingly dark metaphor for what it must be like in classrooms these days!). After publication she finds that she has made so many gross mistakes that the material is worse than useless. One can sympathize with someone in such a position. It is the position Dr Lenore Ferguson managed to put herself in about a year ago when she started publishing a series of articles on elementary English grammar, under the title "Grammar at the coalface", in Words’worth, the journal of the English Teachers' Association of Queensland (ETAQ) — see this Language Log post.
It is certainly sad to see good intentions going so far awry. Rodney Huddleston thought that too, which is why his initial efforts at suggesting that her errors needed correction were polite and tentative. I could even understand it if Dr Ferguson initially hoped that she might be able to just minimize her errors or cover them up. However, my sympathy for her and her association has diminished as the days have gone by. ETAQ has started to strike back, and its defensive manoeuvers have headed rapidly toward outright dishonesty. Various rhetorical strategies are being deployed, but frankness and attention to the evidence are not among them.
Dr Ferguson started by telling The Australian's reporter (Justine Ferrari) that her errors were just "the result of the usual mishaps with work that undergoes several drafts and is proofed and edited by the original writer", as if mere typos were involved, and revision of drafts always introduced more of them. (The next day Dr Ferguson told Justine Ferrari that "some examples were left in the wrong categories during editing", which makes it sound as if we were involved with nothing more than formatting slips — items placed in the wrong columns in a chart or something like that.)
For the rest, she said the points Huddleston had made "weren't all mistakes as he described but differences of opinion". She never gave an example of these opinion differences. Huddleston always has clear arguments and evidence for his claims, so the "opinion difference" claim is very hard to take seriously. One has to understand that the statements we are talking about say things like that imperatives don't have subjects. (They often do, of course: consider Just you try it; Nobody move; Don't you dare tell them; Everybody get out; etc.) That sort of thing simply cannot be portrayed as a difference of opinion. Nor as a typo.
In what appears to be an attempt to discredit Huddleston's authority and portray him as idiosyncratic, Dr Ferguson later stated that he had "reclassifed terms, such as calling prepositions conjunctions." This is just about the diametrical opposite of the truth; Dr Ferguson really cannot tell one category from another. But later she produced a version a bit closer to the truth. In a June 16 letter (this letter blog page) she described Huddleston's "attack" on her as "extraordinary", and claimed that Huddleston "reclassifies pronouns as nouns, conjunctions as coordinators and subordinators, etc." She added: "Apparently Huddleston believes that academics can reclassify grammatical elements for their own purposes, but teachers are not permitted to do so to improve student learning."
Notice the startling volte face: her errors, dismissed earlier as just trivial mistakes in formatting or differences of opinions, are now recast as theoretically motivated reclassifications designed to improve student learning! (By the way, Huddleston never said or implied that anything was "not permitted", of course; but never mind, she was writing in haste and anger.)
ETAQ has started making more out of this point. ETAQ president Gary Collins went on the ABC Radio National "Talkback" program on June 17 and asked why, since Huddleston doesn't use "conjunction" as a part of speech term, the story was not spun under the headline "Loopy Professor Abolishes the Conjunction". What he is suggesting is that for any claim that one side makes in an academic argument, the other side could make the opposite claim, and (in a discipline like grammar, anyway) there is no way to decide between them. This is a nifty rhetorical move: find anything (even a minor terminological point) on which Huddleston disagrees with traditional grammar, and then charge The Australian with anti-teacher bias for not making that the main story.
The point about the demise of the term "conjunction" is actually rather interesting. No one at ETAQ will pay any attention, so this will not in any way advance the debate, but Language Log readers might like to know what the actual facts are. Although our main thread is about an association of English in a battle for damage control, it is worth a digression. If you look in chapter 7 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) — a chapter of which I, not Huddleston, did the first draft and set out the main claims of the analysis — you will find it is very carefully argued to be a mistake to categorize words like after, before, and since as "subordinating conjunctions" when they are followed by subordinate clauses. They are uncontroversially prepositions when followed by noun phrases. CGEL says they should also be treated as prepositions when they introduce clauses.
Interestingly, Huddleston did not initially think this was the way to go. I talked him into it during July 1996, by showing him how strong the evidence was. The reanalysis is not mine, though; what I convinced him to accept was advocated by Otto Jespersen (unquestionably the greatest grammarian of his day) in 1924, and further argued for by Joseph Emonds and Ray Jackendoff in the 1970s. The full array of arguments make an overwhelmingly convincing case. Once the reanalysis is adopted, nearly all of the items traditionally called "subordinating conjunctions" can be seen to be prepositions. The residue (that, whether, non-conditional if, one use of for) are called "subordinators" in CGEL, and since coordinating conjunctions are called "coordinators" there is no further use for the term "conjunction", so it is dropped altogether from the part-of-speech labels used.
As I said, none of this has much relevance to the matter at hand. The issue on the table is whether the Coalface articles were riddled with serious errors, not whether there is anything possibly controversial in work published by Huddleston elsewhere. The imaginary "Loopy Professor Abolishes the Conjunction" headline is just a prop used in a rhetorical move.
Huddleston commented in a very measured and factual letter published in The Australian:
LENORE Ferguson finds it "extraordinary" that I should have criticised her works in The Australian given that the ETAQ had published articles of mine in their journal and on their website ("Teacher's grammar full of errors", 13/6).
In the journal article, I was not allowed to mention any specific errors in her work (two earlier short drafts focusing on a small sample of errors were rejected).
Moreover, in her commentary in the journal on my website critique, Dr Ferguson claims, wrongly, that it requires "readers to have extensive knowledge of traditional, structural and functional grammars" which is likely to discourage many teachers from consulting it.
After several months of trying vainly to persuade Dr Ferguson to ensure that readers were made properly aware of the numerous and serious errors in the material, I felt I had no alternative but to draw public attention to the matter.
Emeritus Professor Rodney Huddleston
Sunshine Beach, Qld
One more tired old rhetorical move that Dr Ferguson has pulled out is the "taken out of context" gambit, so familiar from political life. Every loose-mouthed politician with careless foot stuck firmly in oral cavity uses "taken out of context" like a magic incantation. I remarked in this post last March that I agreed (unusually) with Thomas Sowell that one cannot just dismiss some erroneous statement or outrageous remark by asserting that it has been taken out of context. Sowell demanded to know from the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, "In just what context does 'God damn America' mean something different?" Quite so. There is no context in which Dr Ferguson's plangent falsehoods about elementary grammar become true. If there were, she could show it by putting the context put back and restoring the intended sense. But Dr Ferguson didn't have any examples of that kind to offer.
As Dr Ferguson has vacillated between her word processing defense and her claims of pedagogical utility, she has convinced me that either she is being strikingly dishonest, or she still has no idea just how dreadful her grammar articles were, or perhaps both. We shall probably never know: her motivation to discredit Huddleston and defend her own position has long since overtaken her desire to straighten anything out. Yearning for truth has been usurped by desire for revenge.
As for Collins, he has started sending out nasty personal stuff in emails to people who write to him. He told one correspondent that Dr Ferguson is being "unjustly besmirched by the ill advised actions of a rather pathetic man (Huddleston)" who perhaps "has become a little bitter at contemplating the sad truth that the real influence of his life's work might not actually amount to terribly much…" and so forth.
Having no facts at his disposal, Collins takes refuge in painting a portrait: a sad and embittered loopy professor with nothing to do with his retirement but take up besmirchment of honest teachers as a hobby. Don't shed too many tears over Collins's pathetic picture. Huddleston's embittered loopiedom is rendered a lot less sad by a fellowships in the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the British Academy, Honorary Life Memberships in both the Australian Linguistic Society and the Linguistic Society of America, an Excellence in Teaching award from his university, a Centenary Medal from the Australian Federal Government for services to the humanities, an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from the University of London, a Leonard Bloomfield Book Award, and a beach house overlooking the Coral Sea near Noosa Heads. He has a great life. And he is now probably the most respected and influential grammarian alive. It's not clear to me that Collins knows any of this.
ETAQ's stance suggests to me that there may be some truth in the idea that many teachers in humanities disciplines today are afflicted with a kind of vulgar post-modernist attitude toward truth. Ferguson and Collins seem to have forgotten about justification. For every claim made in CGEL, there are detailed arguments in support, backed up by syntactic data, and a case against alternative analyses. All Ferguson or Collins would have to do would be to take even one of the goofs in the Coalface article and present evidence that it is in fact a true claim. They have not done that. It is because they can't.
Linguists in Australia who have written to me are rather gloomy about where the discussion has been going. The commentary in the blogs is degenerating into a cavalcade of red herrings that come up as people let the mention of the word "grammar" hit their buttons and trigger their free associations about apostrophes or conjunctions or whatever:
- some nitpick the grammar of the published newspaper reports, letters, and comments, declaring that The Australian is edited by illiterates because it allows sentences to begin with coordinators;
- some polemicize for or against the "functional grammar" that happened to be the supposed basis for the Coalface articles;
- one opined that the reason the young these days can't write is because they don't know their grammar terminology;
- two more wrote to respond that knowing how to analyze sentences in terms of parts of speech has not been shown to correlate with good prose writing;
- someone else (Richard Congram on this page) expressed bewilderment at this: "if a student doesn't know what a verb is, how can he or she possibly compose a proper sentence which, by definition, must contain a verb?" (a goofy point, this: every three-year-old says things containing verbs without knowing what verbs are).
Everyone is drifting away from the original topic, which was whether the guide to grammatical analysis that ETAQ had published was a reliable basis for teaching Queensland's schoolchildren.
It's a strange subject, grammar: everyone wants to talk about it, but the general level of actual knowledge of it is abysmal — close to zero. I was much struck by the honesty of the philosopher John Wilkins, who said in a comment below his post (Grammar wars in Queensland: "I got through 12 years of state funded schooling with the sum total of my grammatical knowledge being — Nouns are thing words, verbs are doing words, and adjectives are describing words. I suspect we never covered adverbs." That is where so many people are, such is the failure of linguistics to make any inroads into the content of what is taught to schoolchildren. It is as if people coming out of high school, and going on to higher education, were prepared to admit that their physics knowledge amounts to "earth is solid, water is liquid, and air is vaporous. I suspect we never covered fire."
Except for one thing. The physics claim could be acknowledged to be basically true, while the grammar claim is not. To use a Bloomfield example, take a word with a meaning like fire or combustion. Is fire a thing? Of course not. Combustion is a process, an action. Yet fire and combustion are nouns. The traditional definition of "noun" is bunk. But you knew that; you're a Language Log reader.