Grammar: Making Meaning in Writing

Teachers who become interested in teaching grammar will find that there are a number of different kinds of grammar available. For educational purposes these can be usefully divided into three groups: traditional grammar, formal grammar and functional grammar. Traditional grammar is inherited from the Greeks and Romans. It was passed down through the centuries by way of helping scholars learn Greek and Latin and so gain access to the knowledge that was stored in ancient texts and in contemporary texts in Latin, which remained the language of international scholarship in Europe until the Renaissance.

During the Renaissance traditional grammar was applied to vernacular languages such as English as well and began to be used in schools, where it continued to be taught until ‘progressive’ education had a major impact on schools in the 1970s. Throughout this period traditional grammarians were concerned with establishing a ‘standard’ written language shared across speakers of different ‘spoken’ dialects. In eighteenth century England this was an important issue, since dialects were often so different that speakers from different parts of the country, or from different social classes for that matter, could not understand one another.

… By the twentieth century traditional grammar teaching mainly involved learning the parts of speech, parsing words, analysing a small set of strange sounding sentences (that looked as if they has been translated, badly, from Latin or Greek) and correcting sentences by applying rules of usage. Most of these ‘incorrect’ sentences sounded fine when you spoke them aloud; but to make them look right in writing, you needed to change them into the dialect of white, middle-class people who originally come from around London in England (since they set the ‘standard’ for the whole of the traditional grammar-using English-speaking world). ….

Beginning in the 1950s, Chomsky created a revolution in formal linguistics by showing how the grammar of a language could be represented as a kind of algebra — an abstract list of rules like those used by mathematician or logician (Chomsky, 1965). … Unlike animals, Chomsky suggested, humans were born with an innate language faculty, and it was the job of formal linguistics to find out just what this faculty was. This enterprise excited the interest of linguists around the world and has preoccupied linguists for more than a generation.

Throughout this period functional linguists have pursued a range of complementary interests … strongly influenced by the work of Michael Halliday, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics from the University of Sydney. Unlike formal linguists, these linguists have generally dedicated themselves to addressing practical concerns, including the kinds of problems that might be posed by language teachers. Unlike the Chomskyans, who are interested in the question of language and mind, functional linguists are more sociological in orientation — more concerned with relating language to society and with understanding how the ways in which language is used have shaped its structure. This has led functional linguists to develop semantically oriented grammars which show how people use language to make meaning in order to get on with their lives.

Before considering the ‘syntactic’ nuts and bolts of traditional, formal and functional grammar, let’s sum up the three kinds of grammar considered here in terms of their social purposes and goals. Traditional grammar, as inherited from the Greeks, degenerated over the centuries to the point where its main goal was to teach children how to write and speak in the standard language of their community — to tell them what was right and wrong, where right was defined with respect to the writing of powerful middle-class speakers. We can gloss the social function of grammars of this kind as prescriptive. Formal grammar, culminating in the work of Chomsky, is a twentieth century development and aims to discover innate neurological limitations on the forms of possible grammars. We can gloss the social function of grammars of this kind as descriptive. Functional grammar, as represented in the work of Halliday, is an alternative twentieth century development and tries to explain the ways in which language is related to its social environment. Because of its engagement with the way in which people use language to live, we can refer to grammars of this kind as rhetorical. The following is a summary of types of grammar:



Social function



standard language



neurological limitations



ecological design


Traditional Grammar

As noted above, traditional grammar teaching degenerated in schools to the point where it was reduced to learning the names of a few word classes (‘parsing’ the ‘parts of speech’), analysing a few textbook sentences, and learning how to correct a few other textbook sentences with so-called ‘bad grammar’.

As far as knowledge about language is concerned, the main thing that traditional grammar set out to teach was the parts of speech, or what linguists would refer to as the names of word classes — noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction and so on. These tended to be denned semantically — ‘a noun is the name of a person, place or thing’, ‘a verb is an action word’ and so on. Although helpful, definitions of this kind are fundamentally inadequate, as linguists are fond of pointing out (Huddleston, 1989). In a sentence such as ‘There was lots of commotion, for example, the verb was is not an action word and the noun commotion is not the name of a person, place or thing.

Fuller grammars would include more exotic categories like gerunds and participles, and the names of different kinds of clause — coordinating and subordinating, indicative and imperative and so on. Sentence analysis might, in addition, involve picking out the subject of a sentence, along with its predicate and direct or indirect object (or complement, as objects were sometimes called). …

Originally, traditional grammar functioned as a set of rules for correcting sentences. If, for example, a conjunction was defined as a word that joins clauses in a sentence, then you couldn’t begin a sentence with a conjunction. The following sentence must be wrong (offending conjunction in italics below):

So, you can’t begin a sentence with a conjunction.

But as traditional grammar degenerated in schools, often rules for correcting sentences were all that remained. These were designed to turn the spoken language of non-standard dialects into writing. From a social perspective what these rules amounted to was a set of prescriptions for white, middle-class, written English; the function of mass education was after all to civilise the working classes and debased colonials! A few examples of these rules are listed below:

A preposition is something you should never end a sentence with.

It is quite wrong to carelessly split infinitives.

And you should never begin a sentence with a conjunction.

In fact, one of the best known of contemporary split infinitives comes from the prologue to the well known television series, Star Trek: ‘. . . the Starship Enterprise, its five-year mission … to boldly go where no man has gone before. . . .’ As the examples themselves demonstrate, rules of this kind are made to be broken — not surprisingly, since they prescribe what people are supposed to do when they think about it rather than describe what people actually say. This means that traditional school grammar became not simply a grammar of etiquette but in addition a grammar of prejudice. It was a grammar that could be used to discriminate against people who spoke non-standard dialects or who wrote as they spoke. It is no accident that conservatives want to reinstitute a grammar of this kind.

Halliday makes the additional point that traditional school grammar was not only useless in helping people to use language more effectively, but was misleading about the nature of language: ‘the grammar [was] not well suited to text analysis, but also grammatical analyses were presented as right or wrong. In fact, the analysis of language is a task of interpretation; there are often two, three or more possibilities, and the interest may lie precisely in the differences among them.’ Halliday’s first point perhaps needs amplification. Traditional grammar stopped at the sentence; it was not itself concerned with linguistic resources cohesion and text structure. Since most of the things people write are more than a sentence long, this was a severe limitation.

It is thus small wonder that both educators and linguists gave up on a grammar of this kind. It is rather worrying, however, that instead of replacing a useless grammar with a useful one, the study of grammar was simply eliminated from the curriculum. Faced with a generation of first year students or practising teachers who know nothing whatsoever about the grammar of their language, we have often felt that in spite of its limitations, traditional grammar was much better than no grammar at all. …

Functional Grammar

Halliday … contrast[s] his functional approach to grammar with traditional grammar, although he might just as well have been talking about formal grammar: ‘It [traditional grammar] is formal; rigid; based on the notion of “rule”; syntactic in focus, and oriented towards the sentence. What is needed is a grammar that is functional; flexible; based on the notion of “resource”; semantic in focus, and oriented towards the text.’ What kind of grammar is it that models language as a text oriented resource for meaning? (Note that Halliday uses the term ‘text’ to refer to a stretch of language that hangs together and is appropriate to its context.) Perhaps the first point we need to make about a meaning oriented grammar is that it has to take into account different kinds of meaning. We can look at these types of meaning in two ways: from the perspective of context or from the perspective of grammar.

Looked at from context, the different types of meaning reflect the register variables field, tenor and mode. Field refers to what is going on — the social activity in which language plays a part. Tenor looks at language as interaction — who is talking to whom and how they feel about it. Mode is concerned with the role language plays in channelling communication — with the degree of feedback encouraged and the amount of abstraction facilitated. These three contextual variables determine the register of a speech event.

Looked at from language, the different types of meaning organise the grammar and semantics of language into what Halliday calls metafunctions. Ideational meaning is concerned with making sense of the world — with constructing reality as configurations of people, places and things, what they do, who or what they do them to and where, when, how and why they do them. Interpersonal meaning is concerned with enabling interaction — with constructing social reality as exchanges of goods and services or information and the ways people evaluate these negotiations. Textual meaning is concerned with organising communication — with constructing symbolic reality as a wave of information … .

In systemic functional linguistics the organisation of context correlates with the organisation of grammar. This means that there is a strong association between the register variable field and ideational meaning, between tenor and interpersonal meaning and between mode and textual meaning. If we know something about a text’s context, we can make predictions about its grammar; and conversely if we analyse a text’s grammar, we can recover information about its context. It is this solidarity relationship between register variables and metafunctions that makes systemic functional linguistics such a valuable model for teachers. These important correlations can be summarised thus:

Organisation of context

Organisation of grammar

field: ‘what is going on’
tenor: ‘who is taking part’
mode: ‘the role language is playing’

ideational meaning
interpersonal meaning textual meaning

Because they deal comprehensively with meaning, systemic functional grammars are very complex — much more complex than traditional school grammars and including many more labels than formal grammars (which are more concerned with rules). This is an obstacle for teachers and their students; functional grammars take time to learn. The pay-off is that once you have learned a functional grammar, it can do a lot of work. Because of this complexity, we can only hint at the kind of work a functional grammar does here ….

As a grammar of ideational meaning, one of the jobs a functional grammar does is to sort out the kinds of goings-on in the world. In broad outlines English does this by sorting out reality as action (what is happening outside our head), mental processing (what is ‘happening’ inside our head) and being (how things are related to each other). We can gloss these categories informally as doing, meaning and being and illustrate them as follows:

Clause as ‘representation’

(ideational meaning)

[doing] The young

put on

about 200 lbs a day . . .

[meaning] We commonly


porpoises along our shores,

[being] The largest


the sperm whale.

As a grammar of interpersonal meaning, part of the work of a functional grammar is to organise dialogue. In very general terms English does this by giving speakers the option of exchanging goods and services or information and of giving or demanding these commodities. A few of the different roles played by clauses in dialogue are outlined below:

Clause as ‘exchange’



Whale watchers can

distinguish the species of whale,


Can whale watchers

distinguish the species of whale?



the various species of whale.

As a grammar of textual meaning, the grammar is especially concerned to arrange information in the clause. In English what comes first and what comes last are especially important. The information that comes first is known as Theme; it represents the speaker’s point of departure for the clause and often reflects where she or he is coming from. The information that comes last is usually new and represents where the speaker is heading to. Note the different positions of the Norwegians and the explosive harpoons in the following examples (Theme in italics and New in quotes):

Clause as ‘message’


The Norwegians

introduced ‘explosive harpoons’.

Explosive harpoons

were introduced ‘by the Norwegians’.

What the Norwegians introduced

was ‘explosive harpoons’.

Looking at different types of meaning in the grammar means that clauses have to be analysed in a number of different ways at the same time. While traditional grammar allowed just one analysis for each clause … , functional grammar looks at the clause from the perspective of each metafunction. It does this to make the analysis meaningful.

Martin, J.R. and Joan Rothey. 1993. “Grammar: Making Meaning in Writing.” Pp. 137-153 in The Powers of Literacy: A Genre Approach to Teaching Writing, edited by B. Cope and M. Kalantzis. London: Falmer Press, pp.143-146. || Amazon || WorldCat

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