ETAQ strikes baq: more from Queensland

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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.


  1. William Ockham said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 12:23 pm

    I'm neither a linguist nor a physicist, but your example is just as wrong as the one given by Wilkens (and I wrote that last phrase that way because I'm never sure how to use an apostrophe on a name ending in 's').

    Earth has a liquid core and a gaseous atmosphere. Water occurs naturally as a solid, liquid, and gas or vapor. That particular fact is essential to understanding much of the world around us. I'm not even sure how to interpret the claim that air is vaporous.

    Both of the statements are 'good enough' at a basic conversational level to indicate a passing familiarity with a topic. Neither are useful in an educational context beyond a first introduction to simple concepts.

    I studied English (which should have been called Literature, but that's another story) and History in college. I have a good idea how science illiteracy has a negative impact on the world. Even though I'm a regular reader of Language Log, I'm at a loss to understand how grammar illiteracy has a negative impact on the world.

  2. Lester Piggot said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 12:44 pm

    This is a scary story, but what I don't quite understand is who does Dr Ferguson work for: is it just the ETAC? Because it sounds like this story is not being taken very seriously, and that's because no entity that has reviewed it (the ETAC, the Australian newspapers) has been under any obligation either to take it that seriously and/or be seen to behave neutrally. If Dr Ferguson isn't under contract to a government body, isn't there an Australian version of The Nation, The Village Voice, or Private Eyethat has a large readership like The Australian and would like to publish an investigative story about the Queensland secondary education system? It's already laid out, there's lots of evidence, someone just has to write it.

  3. Lester Piggot said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 12:49 pm


    Come on, this is a serious story. And it's WILKINS.

  4. Chad Nilep said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 1:14 pm

    "Otto Jespersen (unquestionably the greatest grammarian of his day)"

    I would point out that Otto Jespersen's day (1860-1943) overlaps that of LSA founder Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949).

    Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914), Franz Boas (1858-1942), and others also have their followings.

    Jespersen is therefore arguably, but perhaps not unquestionably, the greatest grammarian of his day.

  5. Eli Morris-Heft said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 1:41 pm


    The example is actually extremely apt, more so given your protestations. Just as the claim that earth is solid, water is liquid, and air is vapor are true at a glance but completely break down when examined in any sort of detail, the assertion that nouns are things, verbs are actions, and and adjectives are descriptions is true at a (very brief) glance but does not hold up to any sort of scrutiny.

    Grammar illiteracy – or, more specifically, linguistic illiteracy – /is/ scientific illiteracy. (You may have noticed that linguistics is a science.) To know more about language is to be better-equipped to receive claims about grammar, social interaction, and human thought. A person so versed would be able to use that knowledge in many fields: diplomacy, politics, business, psychiatry, journalism, computer science, communications, art, law… the list is unending.

  6. Sili said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

    There's a stray < bracket up where is says "telling 's reporter" (should be "telling The Australian's reporter"). Remove it in the sourcecode and you can read it just fine after updating.

    This post demonstrates very neatly why it is that if I ever get a chance to meet professor Pullum, I'm gonna bring along three live lobsters for him to juggle.

    This whole case does have disturbing eccoes of "Teach the controversy!" – including the facts that there is no controversy, and they most certainly don't actually want it taught.

    Prof. Huddleston's patience has been admirable and even if he had huddled into plangent looniedom, he would still be right.

    Just what is Dr Ferguson a doctor of? Tractorology? And who and how did that title get conferred upon her? (Yes, that was a deliberate attempt at non-parallel coördination.)

  7. William Ockham said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

    Eli Morris-Heft,

    Just to be clear, my assertion is that other people's lack of knowledge about the natural sciences and statistics has a negative impact on me and the world as a whole. I'm not convinced that other people's lack of knowledge about grammar has that sort of effect.

  8. Mihai Pomarlan said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 7:41 pm

    IRT. William Ockham:

    Well, more knowledge of grammar might mean less gotcha-s by calling the other side idiots for using non-standard forms. Which can't be bad.

    But I think you miss the point here. The idea is that there is this discipline of studying how utterings are constructed, it's reasonably standardised, it has its rules and methods and arguments, and somebody has just bypassed all that because they felt like it. And acted jerkily afterwards to add insult to injury.

    If you believe scientific illiteracy is dangerous, then it's a safe bet you should not agree to having any such nonsense going on unabated.

    I wish I could find a link about alternative bridge building by homeopathy but I am lazy right now. You get the picture.

  9. Brett said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 7:56 pm

    Hey, a few funky newsletters is nothing. Cambridge recently published Ron Cowan's The Teacher's Grammar of English and at over 700 pages, it's probably about 300 times as bad as the Coalface stuff. Here's the entry for past participle from the glossary:

    "Verb + -ed (He has finished his novel.)" That's the whole thing, except finished is underlined (I can't do that in comments).

  10. Jangari said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 9:17 pm

    I may have to argue a different point of view here.

    As I wrote the other day, I think it's plausible, though still completely indefensible, that Ferguson made the errors as a logical and foreseeable result of using the Systemic Functional Linguistics framework, with one major deficiency; she collapsed the distinction between function and form.

    As SFL is concerned with interpersonal, social and ideational functions rather than merely the forms of language structure – something that renders it more suitable as a textual criticism framework rather than a linguistic analysis one – and since Ferguson's highly corrupter version of it didn't retain the form/function division, it was only ever likely that she'd conclude such nonsensical errors.

    Of course, in my rationalising, I'm in no way defending Ferguson; this is entirely her doing, and it's a completely indefensible way to attempt to teach the structure of English, or any language. But, her mistakes, at least those 'utter howlers' made most public, like 'capable of' being labelled an adverb, are explicable if you consider what the framework actually is theoretically.

    Having said that, this textual criticism model should in no way substitute for a basically correct generative grammatical approach, such as Huddleston suggested with his paper, A Short Overview of English Syntax. If it is taught at all, then a contextual, societal framework should be superimposed on a solid structural analytical basis, and only in later years.

    In short, Ferguson's 'differences of opinion' cannot be simply disregarded as completely erroneous, but are informed by a largely invalid theoretical framework, which, honestly, isn't much better.

  11. Dan T. said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 9:39 pm

    There's no such thing as a conjunction? A noun isn't a person, place, or thing? You mean Schoolhouse Rock taught me all wrong?

  12. john riemann soong said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 9:41 pm

    "I'm not convinced that other people's lack of knowledge about grammar has that sort of effect."

    Vulgar Prescriptivism and ignorance about language tends to promote language bigotry and bad language policy.

    For example, in my birth country, ignorance about what "grammatical" or "correct" means has led the government to pursue a vigourous campaign of linguistic extermination against Singlish creole and non-Mandarin Chinese dialects.

    The result is nothing short of cultural genocide.

  13. john riemann soong said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 9:53 pm

    *correction: I meant, "tend to promote," pardon.

    I should add that having noted the death of many Native American languages, not because of abandonment but because of conscious extermination, I can't see how one can contest the benefit of making the public aware about what "well-formed language" truly entails.

    Then of course to add to the list of crimes that linguistic ignorance has perpetuated, we have prejudice against AAVE-speakers; telling students who start out by writing perfectly natural prose that their writing violates some sort of prescriptivist rule; making people think that good use of language is an endeavour for the erudite … and so forth.

  14. Phil said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 11:25 pm

    Beautiful example of what Ben Goldacre was talking about in the post that Mark Liberman just cited. Blogs are where big chunks of debate happen today, and you get non-specialists slogging it out with specialists. Even though this Dr Ferguson may never change her views, any Queensland teacher who follows the debate online can't fail to come away with something.
    Thanks to Geoff Pullum for getting in among it and arguing his corner.
    I still haven't seen any links to the original Coalface articles, though? Are they online?

  15. Leon said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 3:32 am

    It is certainly sad to see good intentions going so far awry.

    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.

    You're being far too nice — Dr Ferguson has convinced me that, regardless of her honesty or ignorance. she was very much unqualified for what the task she attempted — which is inexcusable. I've just finished one quarter-semester's worth of syntax and understand quite well how and why she is wrong. Someone teaching high schoolers, though they may be excused for knowing less, have a far greater obligation to get what little they know right.

    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.

    Perhaps you agree with Thomas Sowell on more than one thing. :P

  16. Lester Pig said,

    June 21, 2008 @ 5:29 am

    Phil said: I still haven't seen any links to the original Coalface articles, though? Are they online?

    Pullum linked them in his first piece:'woth1.htm

  17. James Wimberley said,

    June 23, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

    William Ockham: "I'm at a loss to understand how grammar illiteracy has a negative impact on the world." Perhaps so. But as Mark Liberman points out in another post, forcing children to learn junk grammar certainly does have negative effects, whether the kids see the holes or not.

  18. richard mullins said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

    One puzzling aspect of the debate is that Professor de la Polla said that he was suprised that Huddleston knew anything about FG.

    I think that there is a good basis for saying that "don't" is an adverb – it modifies a verb. For example, "Charlie don't surf" parallels "Charlie never surf". (Here, I assume "Charlie" is a plural noun – meaning "THe Viet Cong". Or it could be a singular noun, and the phrase would be non-standard English).

    No one is saying that Huddleston's grammar is wrong, only that there may be alternative views of what English grammar is. Isn't grammar, after all, a way of viewing English? There is no reason to think there is only one way. There may be multiple ways, perhaps derivable automatically.

  19. richard mullins said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 9:38 pm

    marvellous paper by Camille DEBRAS,
    ENS‐LSH de Lyon,

    How is there a gradient between the two?"
    Cercles, occasional papers series, 2010.

    Traditional grammar defines prepositions as a closed class of relational words assigning case to the NPs they take as complements. However, not only is the class of prepositions an open‐class gradually including new members through a process of grammaticalization of some expressions, but it stands in a continuum with several other word classes, namely verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and above all, particles.

    I am not competent to assess this paper at present – I will need to look at it very carefully to form an opinion.

    However, there seems to be a war at present between sects of grammarians. Witness a debate in recent years between Huddleston and someone associated with "Education Queensland", Dr Lenore Ferguson. Hopefully this paper, probably or possibly by an "ESL" speaker, who probably has a doctorate in English linguistics, sheds new light on the subject.

    It seems very clear, from Debras' comments above, that "a kind of" is now analysable as an adjective, and that "on top of" is analysable as a preposition. This is not what I remember being taught at school 50 years ago. I studied linguistics at university 30 years ago, and learnt that nouns and verbs could be complex constructions, but I only noticed, after seeing Debras' paper, that the same approach can be used for adjectives and prepositions.

    I feel the people who are attacking Ferguson are failing to disclose that other writers, especially people writing about FG, have been have been saying similar things to Ferguson for the last 10 or 20 years.

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