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Review of  A Theory of Syntax for Systemic Functional Linguistics

Reviewer: Evans Gesura Mecha
Book Title: A Theory of Syntax for Systemic Functional Linguistics
Book Author: Robin P Fawcett
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 22.2162

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AUTHOR: Fawcett, Robin P.
TITLE: A Theory of Syntax for Systemic Functional Linguistics
SERIES TITLE: Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 206
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2010

Evans Gesura Mecha, Department of Language and Literature Education, Kampala


This book offers a theoretical outline of an alternative approach to Systemic
Functional Linguistics (SFL), 'Cardiff Grammar'. Fawcett gives a historical
overview of SFL for the past forty years in detail, and demonstrates how his
theory differs from Halliday's (the standard theory), labelled 'Sydney Grammar'.
According to the author, there is need to come up with an alternative theory to
deal with some descriptive gaps not addressed by Sydney Grammar.

The book consists of two parts. Part 1 summarizes developments within Systemic
Functional Linguistics for the last forty years, the alternative theories in
Halliday's work and the emergence of Cardiff Grammar as an alternative to Sydney
Grammar. The representation of the structure of clauses using 'multiple
structure' levels in Halliday (1994) is queried, and Fawcett suggests that there
is need to integrate syntax into the model posited by Halliday. He traces the
way the original seven main concepts of 'categories' have been used in the two
alternative accounts within Systemic Functional Grammar. In Part 1 the author
gives a background for the alternative tenets that he develops in Part 2. In
Part 2, Fawcett discusses 'categories' and 'relationships' for a theory of
syntax in Systemic Functional Grammar that can be used for the generation and
analysis of texts, and are computer implementable. These notions are exemplified
with examples drawn predominantly from English and occasionally from other
languages. He also introduces the concepts that are needed in a modern theory of
systemic functional syntax that are assumed to overcome the shortcomings of
Sydney Grammar.

Fawcett summarises Halliday's seminal 1961 paper ''Categories of the Theory of
Grammar'' in Chapter 2, setting out the four categories and scales that were
central to his theory of grammar at that point, later supplemented with
additional concepts in the early and middle 1960s. In Halliday (1961), the
concept of 'levels of language', consisting of 'form', 'substance' and
'context', is postulated (p. 17).

In the definition of categories and scales, Fawcett is highly indebted to
Halliday. Fawcett (pp. 18-20) adopts the notions wholesale. The major categories
according to Halliday (1961) are unit, element and class. Unit is ''the category
set up to account for the stretches (...) that carry grammatical patterns''
(Halliday, 1961:57), element is the category that ''enables us to recognize
'likeness' between 'structures''', and class is the ''grouping of members of a
given unit'' (Halliday, 1961:64). The categories are further subdivided into
three scales, which are rank, exponence and delicacy. Rank is the scale on which
units such as sentence, clause, group (phrase), word, and morpheme are ranged;
exponence is the scale which relates the categories of the theory to the data;
and delicacy is the scale of differentiation. Fawcett (p. 24) says that ''there
is no visual representation'' of Halliday's proposed categories that has been
tried on data to test whether it is applicable.

In Chapter 3, the place of the systemic functional theory of syntax is
discussed. It is considered not to be 'autonomous' but connected to the meanings
that are expressed by texts (p. 44). In systemic functional grammar the
distinction between language and a text is described as 'language as potential'
and 'language as instance' respectively. The two aspects, 'potential' and
'instance', according to Fawcett, when added to the concepts of 'meaning' and
'form' can provide a framework that can be used to represent the nature of any
given language. The four concepts form the basic components of a systemic
functional grammar within which alternative current theories of syntax can be
set. In Chapter 3 the author also shows that the theory he is developing is an
outgrowth of Saussure's notions of 'signs' and the two concepts 'paradigmatic'
and 'syntagmatic'. Syntax, in this model of language, is seen as belonging in
the syntagmatic relations at the level of form. Therefore, the text represents
thinking on language in terms of either the ''instances of syntax or the syntax
potential'' (p. 43) that specify the outputs from the grammar.

In Chapter 4 the key changes by which Halliday transformed the 1961 model into
the modern Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) are discussed. The author shows how
the concept of 'system' is made central in thinking about language, that the
choices in systems entail the choice among meanings, and that grammar serves
many functions simultaneously. Halliday proposed the system networks of
TRANSITIVITY, MOOD and THEME, which model choices between meanings. The effect
of the system networks is surveyed by Fawcett -- he argues that this move is
wrong compared to the earlier notion that system networks constitute the level
of semantics. This forms one of the reasons for the formulation of the
alternative theory that is set out in the second part of the text. Chapter 5
provides a survey of the basic concepts in the paper ''Systemic Theory''
(Halliday, 1993) and in Chapter 6 Fawcett isolates out the concepts that remain
intact, those that have changed and the ones that have been added.

Fawcett alters or introduces new terminology to supplement that stipulated in
the 'standard theory' given in IFG (Halliday 1994). He gives four concepts as
the fundamental categories for the theory of syntax in SFL, namely class of
unit, element of structure, item and place. First, the 'class of unit' used in
the standard theory is determined by its potential for operation at given
elements of the unit on the 'rank scale'. In Fawcett's Cardiff Grammar the
concept of 'class of unit' is identified solely by its internal structure -- its
potential array of elements of structure such as clause, nominal group,
prepositional group, quality group and quantity group in English. Second, the
'structure' of unit which is the basic category in ''Categories'' is replaced by
the element of structure. Though the 'element of structure' is present in IFG it
is omitted in ''Categories'' in favour of 'structure' of a unit. Third, the
concept of item replaces 'word' and 'morphemes' in the ''Categories'' 'rank scale
units'. The concept of item is meant to complete the account of syntax because
elements should be made up of items. Last, place (the numbered position in a
unit at which an element is positioned) is used, though in Halliday it is not
considered an important category.

In Chapters 10 and 12, Fawcett sets out concepts drawn from computational models
of parsing described by Weerasinghe & Fawcett (1993) needed for the
specification of 'instances of syntax'. The theory of instances of syntax
consists of categories. Chapter 10 examines the categories and Chapter 11 the
relationships. The book ends with Chapter 12, which recapitulates the concepts
that are needed for a theory of syntax in the Cardiff branch of SFG.

Cardiff Grammar recognizes concepts associated with a single structure not used
in Sydney Grammar. The concept of a single structure in Sydney Grammar is
instrumental in the bid to integrate the 'multiple structure' representations in
IFG. Therefore, Cardiff Grammar drops any 'intermediate' instantial
representations between the 'selection expression' of features that are the
output from the system networks and the single, integrated structure that must
be the final structural representation of any text-sentence. Fawcett also
considers the 'level of meaning' as the one in which the multifunctional nature
of language is displayed. Hence generating a single -- that is -- an integrated
output structure is done at the level of semantics, thus eliminating the need
for 'intermediate' structures given in IFG. In addition Fawcett justifies his
postulation of an independent grammar citing the impossibility of superimposing
Cardiff Grammar on Sydney Grammar as the main factor. The main challenge lies in
the difficulty noted in applying 'structure conflation' to a model (Sydney
Grammar) that is intended to generate a set of five or more different structures
for the clause. He suggests that in order to merge the two theories, the
grammars should use the concept of 'element conflation' rather than 'structure
conflation', but he opts for a parallel theory of syntax.

The book has three appendices: Appendix A provides an example of a generative
systemic functional grammar model as presented in Part 1, Appendix B provides
summary diagrams of central units of English syntax and their structures taken
from Fawcett's (in press) ''Functional Syntax Handbook: Analysing English at the
Level of Form,'' and appendix C gives an account of the 'rank scale debate'. The
appendices are followed by a list of references and an index.


Fawcett is writing for two groups of readers who are part of the ‘users’ or
'appliers' of Linguistics: students (postgraduates and undergraduate students of
language and linguistics, who seek an extended treatment of Halliday's classic
IFG) and experienced linguists (''busy academics with teaching and administrative
loads'' (Fawcett 2010: vii) who have little time to research and explore new
theoretical frameworks). The text offers an opening for further theoretical
thinking on systemic functional syntax and future areas for research. This goes
beyond the aims of most of the available texts on SFL like Eggins (2004) that
present notions of the systemic functional approach to language that one can use
in describing meaning in day to day discourse. This is in line with the
expectations of Halliday, whose aim was to construct a theory that is
''essentially consumer oriented'' (1985:7).

According to Kilpert (2003), language exhibits some degree of indeterminacy
which Standard SFL attempts to account for. Much of the indeterminacy becomes
evident when an item fits the description of more than one subcategory defined
in the theory. To avoid this pitfall, Fawcett tries to retain only the levels of
language that do not get down to the level where indeterminacy is rampant. His
theory hence takes more of the concepts that can survive the tests of any
language. This is the primary function of a metatheory.

The text is very suitable for research-oriented linguists and students of
syntax. There are a number of typos and some unclear sentences which need some
editing. However the greater part of the book is well written. The book would
have been rendered more reader friendly if the author had used more sentential
data for exemplifying some of his arguments. Moreover, the author intends his
theoretical construct to be a complete substitute to the classical theory
postulated by Halliday. I query the need of presenting it as an independent
construct as opposed to a sub-theory within SFG. However, the move is in keeping
with the evolutionary nature of theory development that Halliday follows. I
think this is a good reaction to the demand for challenging tenets of a given
theory and setting up suitable alternatives. One of the tests of a good theory
is that it can be falsifiable and it can co-exist with opposing theories. This
is what Fawcett's current enterprise in theory building proves.

Fawcett critiques the shortfalls in the Sydney branch as set out in Halliday
(1994), without getting adversarial, with the intention of refining SFG to cater
for syntactic issues. As a syntactic theory, its tenets are limited to answering
questions as to what constitutes the units of a sentence and how meaning is
created by joining one unit to another. The theory has to pass the test of
parsimony for it to be considered adequate. At this time it is premature to
comment on Fawcett's theory's value in analysing syntactic aspects of human
languages as a whole; there is need for it to be tested using languages that
have distinct syntactic features from English, which forms the main source of
data used for theorizing.


Eggins, S. (2004). An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics.
International Continuum publishing group.

Fawcett, R. (in press). Functional Syntax Handbook: Analyzing English at the
Level of Form. London: Continuum.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1994). ''An Introduction to Functional Grammar'' (Second
Edition). London: Edward Arnold.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1993). ''Systemic Theory''. The Encyclopedia of Language and
Linguistics. 4505-8. Pergamon.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1985). Systemic background. In J. D. Benson, & W. S. Greaves
(eds.), ''Systemic Perspectives on Discourse, Volume 1''. Selected Theoretical
Papers from the 9th International Systemic Workshop (pp. 1-15). Norwood, NJ:
Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1956). ''Grammatical categories in Modern Chinese''.
Transactions of the Philosophical Society. 177-224.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1961). ''Categories of the theory of grammar''. Word 17, 241-92.

Kilpert, D. (2003). Getting the full picture: a reflection on the work of M. A.
K. Halliday. Language Sciences 25:159-209.

Weerasinghe, A. R., & Fawcett, R. (1993). ''Probabilistic incremental parsing in
Systemic Functional Grammar''. Bunt, H., & Tomita, M., (eds.), Proceedings of
the Third
International Workshop on Parsing Technologies (PT3), Association for
Computational Linguistics Special Interest Group on Parsing. Tilburg,
Netherlands: Institute for Language Technology and Artificial Intelligence,
University of Tilburg, 349-367.

Evans Gesura Mecha is affiliated to Kampala University on a full-time basis in the Graduate School. His research interests are primarily on interface phenomena such as the syntax-discourse pragmatics interface, phonology-morphology interface, the morphosyntax of Ekegusii (a Bantu language), multilingualism and education: the acquisition of English in an SLE context. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in Linguistics in The University of Nairobi and is currently preparing a thesis on 'The Information Structure of Ekegusii'.