Those who have read about the great Queensland grammar scandal about the "Coalface" teachers' guide and the ensuing coverup and counterattack may have wondered just what the crucial errors of grammatical analysis were, because the press coverage mentioned only a scant half-dozen. I thought Language Log readers might like to see fuller details in browsable form (Huddleston's full presentation in PDF format is available here). Below I give a terse listing of twenty sample errors in Lenore Ferguson's first two articles in the "Grammar at the Coalface" series (the listing is not exhaustive).
How important these are depends on how seriously you take grammar as a subject. It's true that linguistics is not like earthquake engineering — if someone misclassifies a word or botches a definition, nobody dies; but on the other hand getting factual claims right is part of the job description for scholars and teachers. From the point of view of the public controversy, however, the relevant question is just how many of these blunders could conceivably be dismissed in the way Lenore Ferguson and Gary Collins have tried to dismiss them: as (1) minor errors of typing or formatting, or (2) mere "matters of opinion", or (3) simple terminological differences, or (4) substantive differences between one theory and another. There is not a single one. Which means the blustering ETAQ responses are entirely dishonest. Where anything to do with "functional grammar" is relevant at all, Ferguson has generally either contradicted its tenets or contradicted herself. Here is the select list of 20 particularly clear errors:
- Won't in The small boy won't eat his lunch called an adverb. (It's an auxiliary verb.)
- Capable of in The small boy is capable of eating his lunch called an adverb. (Not a grammatical unit; it's an adjective followed by a preposition.)
- A pair called an adjective. (Not a grammatical unit; it's a determiner followed by a noun.)
- Set of in a set of bowls called an adjective. (Not a grammatical unit; it's a noun followed by a preposition.)
- More and most (in more/most swollen) called adjectives. (They're adverbs.)
- Your in your folder called a determiner and a pronoun. (Those are presented as distinct categories; under Ferguson's assumptions no instance of a word can be both.)
- Sam's in Sam's folder called a possessive pronoun. (It's the genitive form of a proper noun.)
- What in They saw what lay before them and who in the explorer who saw the carnage called conjunctions. (They're pronouns.)
- Something called a pronoun but everything called a noun, though pronoun and noun have been presented as distinct categories.
- Have a peep and wants to help called verbs, though verb is a word class. (They are syntactic constructions, the first being a verb followed by an object noun phrase and the second being a verb followed by an infinitival clause.)
- "Subject" is glossed as "doer of the action". (Clauses like I don't know don't express actions, so not every subject is a doer; and Ferguson says elsewhere that in passive clauses like The race was won by the boy the doer is "relegated" to the by-phrase, so not every doer is a subject.)
- Non-finite clauses are claimed not to permit a subject. (Cannot be right, because of the subjects (underlined here) in clauses like the bracketed part of [For you to give up now] would be a great pity, or in We objected to [her children being given special privileges].)
- Complement function presented as contrasting with object, as in traditional grammar, but then defined in the glossary as including object, as in Functional Grammar.
- Glossary defines complement as an element with "the potential to be the subject of the verb" (the lunch in a clause like Sam gave the lunch to Jodi can be made subject by changing to passive voice yielding The lunch was given to Jodi by Sam). (Cannot be right because of complements like ill in Sam was ill: notice that *Ill is been by Sam is ungrammatical.)
- Participants are said to be realised by noun groups, but an example on the same page has a participant with the form of a preposition phrase, so not all participants are noun groups. Later participants are actually said to be the same thing as noun groups, but in fact noun groups often do not function as participants in the functional grammar sense (e.g. the underlined one in He watched TV all morning), so not all noun groups are participants.
- "Clause complex" is said to be the highest unit in the "rank scale", but five lines later the "clause" is claimed to be the highest unit. (These are incompatible claims.)
- The account of adverbs says they don't inflect. (Not true; note soon, sooner, soonest, and other such cases involving adverbs that don't end in -ly.)
- Initially "finite verbs" are contrasted with auxiliary verbs and lexical verbs as in functional grammar, but the glossary definition is based on traditional grammar, with finite verbs defined in terms of inflection for tense, etc. (On the glossary's account, went is a finite verb, but on the functional grammar account it is not, because it is a lexical verb.)
- Declarative clauses are said to be defined by the order subject + finite, but in many declarative clauses the subject does not precede the finite verb (e.g. Never had this been seen before).
- Imperative clauses are said to be defined by the absence of subject + finite. (Wrong because imperatives can have subjects: Nobody move!, You be quiet, Don't you speak to me like that, etc.).
None of these mistakes could plausibly be given a defense based on claiming that they are not errors, or that they reflect a theoretical difference, or that it is a matter of opinion. There simply aren't any grammarians who believe the false claims about grammatical analysis in the above list. Whether they favor functional grammar or traditional grammar or more recent theories of grammar makes not one whit of difference. In particular, despite what Ferguson and Collins appear to have been suggesting in some of their comments to the press or on the radio, not a single one of the errors above amounts to a disagreement about an analysis unique to the Cambridge Grammar: if that work had never been published, all of the above would still be transparently obvious errors. And it is quite clear that none of them could be plausibly portrayed as typos or formatting slips. It is hard to believe Ferguson and Collins could seriously suggest it. But that is what they have done.