G is for Grammar(s)

5 04 2015

Fries grammarThere is more than one way to skin a cat. And more than one way to describe a language. Hence, more than one type of grammar.

It all depends on your point of view. Take this sentence, for example:


Structuralist grammars foreground the way that the basic structure of this sentence (NP + verb to be + V-ed) provides the template for any number of similar sentences, such as This window is closed or Your days are numbered, but not Doorman will return shortly or Your number is up. Grammar, viewed thus, is a system of building blocks. In the words of a leading structuralist, ‘All the structural signals in English are strictly formal matters that can be described in physical terms’ (Fries, 1952: 56). Grammar is matter.

Grammar-as-matter is what a bog-standard computer program might be able to unpack, simply by skimming the surface of a text. The exclusive focus on the formal features of our model sentence (THIS DOOR IS ALARMED), however, might blind the computer to its inherent ambiguity, an ambiguity that has been playfully exploited by graffiti writers, e.g. THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. ‘What startled it?’ or THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. ‘But the window is not bothered’.

chomsky grammarExplaining how one sentence might have two quite different meanings impelled linguists like Chomsky to drill down beneath the surface level of sentences and expose their ‘deep structure’. Thus, the deep structure of the passive THIS DOOR IS ALARMED and its active equivalent SOMEONE ALARMED THIS DOOR is essentially the same.

But Chomsky’s project is more than simply the description of patterns, deep or otherwise. He wants to explain how the rules that generate these patterns are derived from innate and universal cognitive structures. His grammar, therefore, is less an account of linguistic behaviour than a theory of mind. As Chomsky himself put it (1972: 100), ‘When we study human language, we are approaching what some might call the ‘human essence,’ the distinctive qualities of mind that are, so far as we know, unique to man.’ Grammar is mind.

But, like the structuralist account, Chomsky’s reduction of grammar to a set of mathematical rules tells us nothing about the meaning of our sentence THIS DOOR IS ALARMED. Nor does it explain how it functions in context – how it has the force of a warning, for example (Don’t open this door!). Nor how its elements map on to some objective reality, e.g. how this in THIS DOOR ‘points’ to a specific door. A functionalist grammar, on the other hand, tries to relate the linguistic forms to specific communicative purposes and their contexts, and, more ambitiously, to explain how these purposes and contexts actually determine the way the grammar has evolved. Grammar is not simply a reflection of thought, but is ‘motivated’ by its social and cultural functions. Or, as a leading functionalist grammarian, Michael Halliday, puts it, ‘language is as it is because of what it has to do’ (1978: 19). Grammar is function.

Halliday grammarA not dissimilar, cognitive, view of grammar starts from the premise that, as one scholar puts it, ‘language is rooted in human experience of the physical world’ (Lee 2001: 48). That is to say, grammar is the linguistic realization of the way we physically experience and perceive the world. Thus, the sentence Doorman will return shortly does not mean that the doorman will, literally, be short when he returns. Rather that, because we tend to construe time in terms of physical distance, it makes sense, when we talk about time, to use spatial words like short and long (and back and over). Likewise, our use of grammatical tense, aspect, modality, countability, and so on, all originate in our lived experience. Grammar is perception.

Finally, an emergent view of grammar is one that has, in part, been fuelled by developments in corpus linguistics. Corpora demonstrate that language is both formulaic and subject to constant variation. This tension between stasis and flux means that, over time, certain strings of words (called constructions) become fixed and assume a grammatical, i.e. non-literal, function: they become grammaticised. The English future form going to is a case in point: a verb string that started life meaning the same as walking to, but became a metaphor for futurity, and was eventually reduced, informally, to gonna. According to the emergent view, grammar is ‘the set of sedimented conventions that have been routinized out of the more frequently occurring ways of saying things’ (Hopper 1998: 163). Grammar is routine.

Matter, mind, function, perception, routine: which of these multiple ways of looking at grammar (and this by no means exhausts the number of grammars that have been theorized) best serves the needs of language learners and their teachers? I’ll leave that for you to ponder on.


cognitive grammarReferences

Chomsky, N. (1972) Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.

Fries, C. C. (1952). The Structure of English. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1978) Language as Social Semiotic. London: Edward Arnold.

Hopper, P.J. (1998) ‘Emergent grammar’ in Tomasello, M. (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and functional approaches to language structure. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Lee, D. (2001) Cognitive Linguistics: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

(A version of this post first appeared on the Cambridge English Teaching forum)

S is for Situation

15 05 2011

Don't even know what they're called in English!

In the wood department of a large hardware store in Barcelona this week, I needed to negotiate the purchase of five lengths of moulding whose function is to prevent rainwater from entering under the doors that open on to a terrace.

It was a situation which was partly familiar (routine service encounter script) but also partly unfamiliar, not least because of the vocabulary I needed, as well as certain unforeseen departures from the script, such as the fact that the wood comes in standard lengths so you have to buy more wood than you actually need. And, for anything in excess of five ‘saw cuts’, there is an extra charge. I got the wood, but not without some linguistic awkwardness. Could I have been better prepared for this situation?

Situation room? Dogme Symposium

What got me thinking about this is something Howard Vickers said at the Dogme Symposium at the IATEFL Conference in Brighton last month. Howard suggested that a syllabus of ‘situations’ might make a better fit with learners’ needs than a syllabus of grammar McNuggets. On his website, Howard shows how he applied this approach with respect to a specific student who “wanted to have a clearer sense of what he would be learning when”. Howard’s solution?  “I have developed a kind of syllabus that gives greater structure to the classes and yet is naturally student focused.  This syllabus is based around situations that the student may well find himself in and themes that he is interested in.”

The notion of a situational syllabus is, of course, not new. As far back as 1966, Pit Corder wrote that “one can perfectly well envisage theoretically a course which had as its starting point an inventory of situations in which the learner would have to learn to behave verbally.  These situations would be analysed into categories, some of which would be behavioural, and then, and only then, would the actual linguistic items be specified to make the situations meaningful” (p. 96).

Corder was coming from a well-established tradition in British linguistics that drew on the work of J. R. Firth, central to which was the proposition that the meaning of an utterance is dependent on its “context of situation”.  Obvious as it may seem to us now, it was Firth who was the first to claim that learning to use a language is a process of “learning to say what the other fellow expects us to say under the given circumstances” (1935/1957, p.28).  It was left to others, such as Michael Halliday, to attempt to answer the question: “How do we get from the situation to the text?” (1978, p. 142). That is to say, what is it in the situation that determines the way the text is?  Accordingly, Halliday’s project was to identify “the ecological properties of language, the features which relate it to its environment in the social system” (p. 141). The outcome of this quest is enshrined in his Introduction to Functional Grammar (1985).

While linguists were wrestling with these questions, teachers were already implementing what came to be known as Situational Language Teaching. Lionel Billows’ wonderful Techniques of Language Teaching (1961) outlines the principles that underpin this approach. (Incidentally, the much-loved English in Situations by Robert O’Neil [1970] is not part of the Situational Language Teaching tradition, since the situations are not the starting point of course design, but are devised solely to contextualise pre-specified grammar items).

In order to ‘situate’ language learning, Billows proposes a system of concentric circles, radiating out from the learner’s immediate context (e.g. the classroom) to the world as directly experienced, the world as imagined, and the world as indirectly experienced through texts. Billows argues that we should always seek to engage the outer circles by way of the inner ones.

Nowadays, of course, it is much easier, using existing technologies, to bring the outer world ‘into’ the classroom. Moreover, we are much better equipped to gather ‘thick descriptions’ of the kinds of situations our learners will need to negotiate. And, of course, the students themselves can be recruited to the task, becoming ‘ethnographers’ of their own language use. As Howard Vickers suggests, “students can prepare for a phone call or a shopping trip using a Personal Phrasebook to prepare and look up useful phrases before (or even during) the situation.  Students can then record the experience (using an MP3 player or other mobile device) and bring the recording to a subsequent class”.

Which makes me think, what else could I have done – using the available technology – to prepare myself for – and learn from – my wood-buying experience?

And, I guess the other question is: in a general English class of learners with disparate (or undefined) needs, how could a situational focus be successfully implemented?

Mission accomplished!


Billows, L.F.  1961. The Techniques of Language Teaching. London: Longmans.

Corder, S.P.1966. The Visual Element in Language Teaching.  London: Longman.

Firth, J.R. 1957. Papers in Linguistics 1934-1951. London: Oxford University Press.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1978. Language as social semiotic: The social interpretation of language and meaning. London: Edward Arnold.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1985. Introduction to Functional Grammar. London: Edward Arnold.

O’Neil, R. 1970. English in Situations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.