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Review of  Meaning-Centered Grammar

Reviewer: Edward McDonald
Book Title: Meaning-Centered Grammar
Book Author: Craig Hancock
Publisher: Equinox Publishing Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Ling & Literature
Issue Number: 18.1000

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AUTHOR: Hancock, Craig
TITLE: Meaning-Centered Grammar
SUBTITLE: An Introductory Text
SERIES: Equinox Textbooks and Surveys in Linguistics
YEAR: 2005

Edward McDonald, School of Asian Studies, University of Auckland


Craig Hancock's ''Meaning-Centered Grammar'' is a course in English grammar
from the viewpoint of teaching writing, developed over the course of five
years at the college level in classes, and ''aimed largely at English
teaching majors'' (p.1). Hancock explains his overall goal as follows (p.1):

''Against the grain of my discipline, which has continued to think of
grammar as a banal subject tied to archaic and banal teaching practices, I
went in search of an approach to grammar compatible with meaning making
approaches to reading and writing. The working premise has been that form
and meaning are organically interconnected, that word choice and word
arrangement are not neutral carriers of a pre-existent meaning, but a
deeply important part of the meaning making enterprise.''

Hancock links his approach to many of the traditional concerns of
''composition'' and ''aesthetics'', and makes a useful comment on naive versus
professional understandings of the writing process where notions of grammar
are usually invoked (p.1):
''Traditionally, grammar choices have been choices of 'correctness' or
'style'; for more experienced writers, revision is essentially a movement
towards meaning.'' In this context, Hancock identifies as his basic
question ''whether this functional notion of form could be extended to
grammar'' and describes the current textbook as ''a decade long positive
answer to that question'' (p.1).

Chapter 1, ''Rethinking grammar,'' clearly shows the results of that decade
long active pondering on the role of grammar in teaching writing, and
provides a well-judged and highly approachable discussion of such issues as
''grammar is not error'' and ''a sentence is not a complete thought.'' Chapter
2, ''Basic principles of grammar,'' is again a clear and consistent overview
of the basic kinds of evidence -- word order, inflection, function words --
that we draw on in recognising grammatical distinctions. Chapter 3,
''Elements of the simple clause,'' then introduces the basic word classes,
using a framework very close to that of Quirk et al. (1985), i.e. what
would most probably normally be categorised -- with a certain lack of
recognition of Quirk et al.'s original contribution -- as ''traditional

Chapter 4 introduces the basic insight of systemic functional grammar, as
represented in Halliday (1994), that clause structure may be divided up
among three different meaningful structures, from the point of view of, as
the chapter title has it, ''Context based meaning in a sentence.'' Concepts
from this text-based approach of systemic functional grammar are also drawn
on in Chapter 6, ''Transitivity: clause as representation.'' The more
traditional form-based approach to grammar is utilised in Chapter 5, ''A
closer look at verb phrases;'' Chapter 7, ''Verbs as adjectives, nouns, and
as heads of non-finite subordinate clauses;'' Chapter 8, ''Coordination and
compounding: appositional phrases;'' and Chapter 9, ''Finite subordinate

Chapter 10, ''Grammar and writing: punctuation,'' moves into more typical
writing territory in explaining the use of punctuation to clarify
structure. Chapter 11, ''Grammar and meaning in longer texts,'' uses the
grammatical framework introduced in previous chapters on two short (despite
the chapter heading) texts: a poem by Robert Hayden, and an extract from an
autobiography by Richard Rodriguez. In addition to the main discussion and
demonstration of grammatical analyses, each chapter also contains ''section
exercises'' giving the student practice on short single sentence analyses,
as well as a ''chapter practice,'' usually on a text extract.


A good textbook is the hardest thing to write. Despite a strong tradition
of academic snobbery that would see textbook writing as the ''easy''
alternative to producing, say, an academic monograph, exactly the opposite
is in fact the case. The writer of a monograph can usually depend on more
or less fixed conventions of genre, and a clearly defined readership with
whom s/he shares an enormous amount of background knowledge and
presuppositions, as well as clear criteria for what counts as success,
criteria which draw on and are constantly reinforced by the whole academic
process of reviewing and critiquing across a range of forums.

The textbook writer operates with almost none of these comfortable
certainties. S/he can assume little or no common background with the
potential readership, and thus a much stronger pressure for the textbook to
stand or fall on its own merits, not only as a whole but at every step of
the exposition. In most cases, s/he will be working across at least two
different registers, that of the disciplinary field or fields, and that of
the pedagogic process. In many cases, s/he will also be negotiating between
different theoretical perspectives on a subject, not able to deal with
disagreements directly, as in a monograph, but only indirectly in choosing
explanations and attempting to derive some sort of working consensus out of
what is often a Babel of competing claims.

In this book, Hancock has attempted the difficult task of blending insights
from rhetoric and the teaching of writing with terms and descriptions from
the two linguistic traditions of traditional grammar and systemic
functional grammar, the latter in the form set out in Halliday (1994).
There are some areas in which he has succeeded brilliantly. The opening
chapter, ''Rethinking grammar,'' deals with the whole thorny issue of
knowledge about grammar and its relationship to writing in a more
thoughtful and comprehensive way than any other similar publication I am
aware of, and does so in an eminently sensible and approachable tone that
seems ideally suited for its readership.

It is when the textbook moves into introducing an explicit framework for
grammatical analysis that it loses me to some extent. One of the reasons
for this is what reads to me like an exegesis that seems not to be able to
see the descriptive wood for the analytical trees: though I must
acknowledge that I am not, of course, the sort of reader for whom the book
was designed, and for whom such a close concentration on detail may be
helpful and supportive. On this point, I must also defer to Hancock's
decades-long teaching experience and his five-year trial of this particular
textbook with students.

But another more serious reservation comes from Hancock's attempt to
combine terms and analyses from traditional grammar and systemic functional
grammar. The grammatical commentaries on two texts given in Chapter 11 are
very typical of the sorts of analyses systemic functional grammar was
designed to carry out, and are obviously inspired by its example; but these
''meaning-based'' analyses themselves, to quote from the book's title, are
done largely in terms of the categories of traditional grammar, whose
largely ''form-based'' nature proves resistant to such an application. As a
result, what the reader is left with, it seems to me, is a descriptive
apparatus centred not in meaning, but in form, and a naive reader might be
forgiven for concluding that the whole battery of terms from systemic
functional grammar is an ''extra'': a confusing and redundant add-on to the
''real'' nitty-gritty which is traditional grammar.

A comparison with a textbook that attempts a similar sort of blend for the
same sort of readership should illuminate this criticism. Graham Lock's
''Functional English Grammar'' (1996), is as the subtitle makes clear ''An
introduction for second language teachers,'' and like Hancock's work draws
on both traditional grammar, in the form put forward in what Lock terms
''the indispensable'' reference of Quirk et al. (1985), and systemic
functional grammar. In relation to the latter, Lock explains that ''because
this book is intended for teachers rather than for linguists or text
analysts, I have felt free to adapt, reinterpret, and use selectively''
(Lock 1996: xiii) insights provided by scholars working within that theory.
In my opinion, he succeeds brilliantly in this task, because he not only
has a deep understanding of the overall aims of systemic functional theory
and what a systemic functional type of analysis is designed to show, but
because he has obviously thought hard about the needs of his target
readership and has tailored his material to that audience.

While Hancock is equally clear on his target readership, his understanding
of systemic functional theory is perhaps less deep, and in terms of its
overall aims throws it into a surprising and rather uneasy cohabitation
with generative grammar, as he explains in the ''Preface'' (p.2):

''Generative grammar has generally shied away from pedagogical application,
but has deeply established the truth that we are all innately wired for
language, that language is learned rather than taught, that a language rich
environment is the most important catalyst for language acquisition, that
all human dialects are equally rule-driven, equally capable of rendering
the world. The goal of this book is to bring that unconscious grammar to
conscious light and to explore ways in which effective writing works in
harmony with that natural language.''

I suspect many generative linguists would be surprised at Hancock's
attribution to them of the idea that a ''language rich environment is the
most important catalyst for language acquisition'', since that is the very
thing they tend to dismiss as of little importance, with Chomsky on record
as claiming that ''language development really ought to be called language
growth because the language organ grows like any other body organ'' (Chomsky
1983), developing naturally rather than being taught; while Krashen's whole
argument (e.g. Krashen 1987) against the need for explicit teaching about
language rests on a similar assumption.

The idea of language as ''rule-driven'' is obviously and admittedly taken
from generative grammar, and also resonates strongly with the concerns of
traditional grammar -- a linkage that is of course the result of borrowing
by generative grammar from traditional grammar not the other way around;
but it seems to me to sit uneasily with the book's overall aim of
encouraging writers to develop their own voice, something that systemic
functional theory's conceptualisation of ''language as resource'' supports
much more closely. Hancock's reliance on traditional grammar thus traps
him, it seems to me, in a world-view that the whole thrust of the book is
continually trying to argue against. Furthermore, his own ''case against''
traditional grammar seems to tempt him beyond what a textbook like this can
practically achieve (p.2):

''One principal role of the book is to equip someone to participate in a
public discussion of grammar, and for that reason I have tried to hold to
as much of the traditional terminology of grammar as possible. Anyone
wishing primarily to avoid error in the traditional sense of the term would
still be well served by the much deeper and wider understanding offered
here. A good deal of prescriptive grammar is highly questionable, even
dysfunctional, and wider understanding gives us the insight necessary to
make informed judgments.''

The ability to ''participate in a public discussion'' -- in an informed way,
that is -- requires a very sophisticated cross-theoretical understanding of
the aims and applications of traditional grammar, presumably in this case
as critiqued by systemic functional grammar; and not only is this something
which seems to me of questionable value for the intended readership of this
textbook, it is something for which the book itself is not really able to
provide a good model, since it does not clearly delineate the scope of
these two kinds of grammatical description. (A realistic and hard-headed
approach to the uses and benefits of traditional grammar as regulating a
common written standard can be found in Trask 2001). Here again, Lock's
work provides a much clearer and more useable framework, introducing the
traditional framework of Subject Predicator (''verb'') Object and so on, but
reinterpreting it, a la Halliday, in semantic terms, and then adding
further layers of analysis in terms of Transitivity, Theme and Rheme, and
so on, which fill in aspects of English grammar highly relevant to teaching
or learning writing but on which the traditional framework is largely silent.

Another textbook which, though for a readership of students rather than
teachers, in my opinion succeeds much better in mediating between grammar
and writing is Carolyn Hartnett's ''Meaning First'' (2000). While it takes a
much more directly writing-focused approach than Hancock's book, as its
subtitle ''A Functional Handbook of Fifty Ways to Polish your Writing''
indicates, like Hancock it is clearly informed by a systemic functional
approach. Here, however, the systemic functional influence is completely
absorbed into the rationale and organization of the book, with chapters,
for example, on ''Packing Information in Sentences'' (basic clause
structure), ''Relating to the Reader, the Time and the Truth with Verbs''
(tense and modality) and ''Making Your Writing Friendly to Readers''
(information flow). Thus any linguistically naive reader can make use of --
and evaluate the usefulness of -- Hartnett's textbook completely on its own
terms, and without needing to take anything on trust.

Hancock is obviously enthusiastic about the benefits of using functional
grammar to inform traditional grammar, but it seems to me his textbook
needs further clarification of its descriptive framework in order to make
it more directly useable by his readership. If I may be forgiven for citing
my own work, my account of developing a functional text-based grammar for
Chinese (McDonald 1999) documents how difficult the process of development
can be: I too had to come to grips with the problem of Chinese ''traditional
grammar'' -- similarly adapted from the tradition of Latin grammar but in
this case only from the end of the 19th century; and for me too the initial
versions spoke more directly to linguists than students, and an enormous
amount of tweaking and tinkering and serious rethinking was necessary in
order to create an autonomous framework for pedagogical needs. So I must
not been understood to be criticizing Hancock for ''dumbing down'' systemic
functional grammar: as I mentioned earlier, ''dumbing down'' is exactly the
opposite of what goes on in the case of textbooks such as this, at least if
we are talking about the amount of hard thinking and writing required from
the person developing the textbook. We all know that the best teachers are
those who handle their knowledge lightly and ''make it seem easy'', but we
also all know that this is truly a case of ''the art that conceals art.'' If
I say that Hancock has made a good start, I hope that doesn't come across
as patronising, but simply as a recognition of the difficulty of the task
he has set himself.


Chomsky, Noam. 1983. Things No Amount of Learning Can Teach. Noam Chomsky
interviewed by John Gliedman. Omni, 6:11, November 1983.

Halliday, M.A.K. 1994. An Introduction to Functional Grammar. 2nd edition.
1st edition 1985. London: Arnold.

Hartnett, Carolyn G. 2000. Meaning First: A Functional Handbook of Fifty
Ways to Polish Your Writing. Superior WI: Parlay Press.

Krashen, Stephen D. 1987. Principles and Practice in Second Language
Acquisition. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall International

Lock, Graham. 1996. Functional English Grammar: An Introduction for Second
Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McDonald, Edward. 1999. Teaching Grammar through Text: an integrated model
for a pedagogical grammar of Chinese. Journal of the Chinese Language
Teachers Association. 34.2, 91-120.

Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. 1985. A
Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman

Trask, R.L. 2001. Mind the Gaffe. The Penguin Guide to Common Errors in
English. London: Penguin

Edward McDonald has taught language, linguistics, and semiotics at the
National University of Singapore, Tsinghua University Beijing, and
currently at the University of Auckland. His Ph.D. research was on the
development of a functional text-based grammar of Chinese, and he has
published on pedagogical grammar in Language Sciences and the Journal of
the Chinese Language Teachers Association (JCLTA).

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