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On the dysfunctional nature of systemic functional grammar. (Language Teaching & Learning).


In the past decade, there has been a growing interest in North America in systemic functional grammar (SFG). Because it assumes that meaning is directly related to the structure of language, many researchers claim that SFG is more relevant to the concerns of all English language teachers than the more dominant formalist approaches to language description. The basic assumption of SFG -- that language structure is derivative of meaning -- is fundamentally flawed. As a consequence, the actual SFG descriptions of some basic structures of English are inaccurate. We conclude that SFG offers little assistance to language teachers who need to understand the nature of language in general and English in particular.


Teaching about English grammar requires an adequate description of the structure of English. Recently, there has been a growing interest in North America in MAK Halliday's systemic functional grammar (SFG) as such a description. Graddol, Cheshire, & Swann (1994), an introductory text on linguistics written in the UK and available in the States, notes that among a number of the current varieties of theoretical grammars, SFG is very influential in Australia and Great Britain. They claim that SFG has the widest "practical application" because it is constructed to "say something useful" about texts. In the United States, Grabe and Kaplan (1996, 1997) promote SFG for teachers of ESL because of its claimed relevance to texts while dismissing any value of a Chomskyan approach because its sentence level focus. In Australia, Halliday's home base, the National Centre for English Teaching and Research has issued several publications to explain SFG. One such introduction is Butt et al. (1995) written for pre-service and in-service teachers.

Given its importance in other English-speaking countries, it is not surprising that SFG publications are beginning to appear in North America. Halliday (1994), a very dense fundamental text is now accompanied by a workbook (Martin, Jattiessen, & Painter, 1997). Texts such as Thompson (1996) and Lock (1996), based heavily on Halliday (1994), are introductions to the basic principles of SFG. Interest in SFG appears to be growing in North America. The purpose of this paper is to examine the basic assumptions of SFG to determine the validity of its claims. We argue that there is considerably less to SFG than its adherents claim.

Grammar as function

Because SFG assumes that knowledge about language consists of recognizing the observable effects of linguistic choices in the context, it follows that every linguistic form derives from a function. Halliday (1994), the source for descriptions in other SFG oriented texts, claims that functional grammar is "functional" in "three distinct although closely related senses."

1) It is functional in the sense that it is designed to account for how the language is used ... Language has evolved to satisfy human needs ... -- it is not arbitrary ...

2) Following from this, the fundamental components of meaning in language are functional. All languages are organized around two main kinds of meaning, the "ideational" or reflective and the "interpersonal" or active. These components ... are the manifestations in the linguistic system of the two very general purposes ... (i) to understand the environment (ideational), and (ii) to act on the others in it (interpersonal). Combined with these is a third metafunctional component, the "textual," which breathes relevance into the other two.

3) Thirdly, each element in a language is explained by reference to its function in the total linguistic system. In this third sense, therefore, a functional grammar is one that construes all the units of a language -- its clauses, phrases and so on -- as organic configurations of functions. In other words, each part is interpreted as functional with respect to the whole. (pp. xiii-xiv)

The third sense merely restates the basic SFG assumption about language; however, the first two make claims about language which are seriously flawed.

First, formal linguistic analyses of language reject the notion that the structure of language can be explained by use. Although Halliday (1985, p. xvii) claims that every linguistic system and form has evolved to satisfy human communicative needs, he presents no evidence to support this claim other than the non-substantiated suggestion that human linguistic evolution is probably recapitulated in the development of language use by the child. In fact, formal linguistic analyses provide abundant evidence against the functionalist claim in the form of ordinary language use which defies a functional explanation. Bickerton (1995) asks those who claim that language structure can be explained as cultural adaptation to explain how the following knowledge we have about language is a result of such adaptation. First, he asks what the cultural explanation is for the fact that the following sentences have different meanings.

1) John wants someone to work for.

2) John wants someone to work for him.

Second, given the fact that the absence of the pronoun "him" in (1) and (2) makes a difference, Bickerton then asks why, with or without the pronoun, (3) and (4) have the same meaning (for those who find such sentences possible in their dialect).

3) Which letters did Bill destroy without reading?

4) Which letters did Bill destroy without reading them?

Finally, Bickerton asks what are the far-reaching cultural, social, and economic advantages obtained by allowing (5) and (6) but which would have been frustrated if (7) had been allowed.

5) Mary is someone that people like as soon as they see.

6) Mary is someone that people like as soon as they see her.

7) *Mary is someone that people like her as soon as they see.

The problem with Halliday's second claim, linguistic forms having the dual function of representing the environment (i.e., ideational meaning) and acting on others (i.e., interpersonal meaning), is that the meaning of an utterance is more than its linguistic form. Consider how the meaning of the response "Well, we better lock up the liquor cabinet" changes in the following situations.

8) Husband: My sister's three small children are coming over.

Wife: Well, we better lock up the liquor cabinet.

9) Husband: My mother is coming over.

Wife: Well, we better lock up the liquor cabinet.

In exchange (8), the wife seems concerned about the welfare of the children. It does not suggest that the children necessarily drink. In exchange (9), the wife is making one of the following implicatures: her mother-in-law disapproves of alcohol or her mother-in-law should not drink. The exact same utterance has both different ideational and interpersonal meaning depending on the context. We can find no SFG explanation to account for these facts.

Although SFG claims a strong commitment to the principle that linguistic function determines form, Halliday (1994) acknowledges, with no attempt at explanation, clear counter examples to that principle.
 The relationship [between the semantic categories of statement, question,
 offer and command] is a rather complex one. For statements and questions
 there is a clear pattern of congruence: typically, a statement is realized
 as declarative and a question as interrogative -- but at the same time in
 both instances there are alternative realizations. For offers and commands
 the picture is even less determinate. A command is usually cited, in
 grammatical examples, as imperative, but it is just as likely to be a
 modulated interrogative or declarative, as in "Will you be quiet?", "You
 must be quiet!" while for offers there is no distinct mood category at all,
 just a special interrogative form "shall I ...", "shall we ...?" which
 again is simply one possible realization among many.... There is rarely any
 misunderstanding, since the listener operates on the basic principle of all
 linguistic interaction - the principle that what the speaker says makes
 sense in the context in which he is saying it. (our emphasis) (p. 95)

Halliday's comments ignore the lack of concordance between form and function when declaratives and questions can also function as commands. He alludes to Grice's cooperative principle, but a Grician explanation is incoherent within an SFG framework. His examples pose a critical problem for the entire descriptive apparatus of SFG. Such indirect speech acts show that grammar is only one part of how meaning is determined in context and undermine the claim that the structure of language is fundamentally related to meaning. We are puzzled at how the leading theorist can maintain his strong assumption about grammatical form and meaning when he is aware of counter-examples.

Sentence level descriptions of SFG

We have argued the claims that SFG makes about the nature of language are misleading and untenable. These problems are not without consequences for language teachers because SFG claims lead to descriptions that do not reflect what native speakers know about the language.

Analysis of sentence structure must have as its goal descriptive adequacy. SFG fails in this regard. First, its identification of constituent types is arbitrary and incoherent. Second, its description of basic sentence structure as a flat, tripartite structure fails to account for important relations between sentence constituents such as that between the auxiliary and head verb as well as those holding between head verbs and their complements. From a pedagogical point of view, it is also the case that SFG's classification of sentences in terms of meanings is bound to confuse students as they struggle to make sense of the (non-explained) fact that the same meaning type can be communicated through a variety of divergent sentence structures - especially in light of SFG's insistence that forms are "organic configurations of functions" (cf. Halliday's third assumption on language as functional).

Halliday (1994, p. 27) describes four ranks within grammar: the word, the group/phrase, the clause, and the sentence. It is the distinction made between "group" and "phrase" that is problematic because it is both incoherent and unnecessary. Sequences of more than one word are called "groups" if they can be considered as "expansions" of the central word in the sequence. These central words belong to the traditional form classes of Noun, Verb, Adverb, and Adjective. Examples of groups given by Lock (1996) are "the two frightened boys" (noun group), "shouldn't throw" (verb group), "almost inevitably" (adverb group), and "good enough" (adjective group). Syntagmes of these types are all groups except for those involving prepositions which are constituents not of groups but of "phrases." The stated motivation for this distinction is that syntagmes with prepositions as heads are not reducible to the preposition. This distinction appears to have little basis other than the fact that prepositions, unlike nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives do not have lexical sense. In defense of the notion, Halliday (1994) suggests prepositions "function as minor predicators having a nominal group as its complement" and claims that "the internal structure of `across the lake' is like that of `crossing the lake' "(p. 212). Thus, it appears that one criterion of phrases is that their heads have obligatory complements.

Following this line of reasoning, it is unclear why verbs requiring obligatory nominal complements such as "arrest" are not the heads of phrases rather than groups. Furthermore, this SFG distinction between groups and phrases is unable to account for adjectives like "fond" which also require obligatory complements. For example, reducing the adjective group "fond of Mary" in (10) to its central word "fond" renders (11) ungrammatical.

10. John is fond of Mary.

11. *John is fond.

The distinction between groups and phrases is unmotivated, reflecting only the difference between lexical and non-lexical heads.

SFG's description of basic sentence structure is also problematic. The sentence is conceived as having a tripartite structure whose parts or "functions" are given in (12) and illustrated in (13).

12. SUBJECT FINITE (including main verb) COMPLEMENT

13. Joan might take French.

In (13), "Joan" is the subject, "might" is the finite with its accompanying head verb, and "French" is the complement. However, there is no analysis offered justifying the distinction of the finite - essentially the first element of the auxiliary -- from the rest of the verb group. This does not correspond to what native speakers know about the relationship between the auxiliary and the main verb. Consider (14) through (16) and the constituency of "too."

14. Joan might take French and Jill might take French.

15. Joan might take French and Jill might too.

16. *Joan might take French and Jill too French.

Comparing (15) and (16) reveals that the head verb and its complement are a constituent but that the finite and the head verb are not.

SFG muddies the waters even further by designating that part of the verb group other than the finite as the "predicator" (Lock, 1996, p. 20) Thus in (17), the finite is "might" and the predicator is "have taken." Unfortunately, this analysis is also untenable, as (18) and (19) show.

17. Joan might have taken French

18. Joan might have taken French and Jill might have too.

19. *Joan might have taken French and Jill might too French.

"Have taken" is certainly not a constituent. There is not a structural separation between the auxiliary marked for "finite" and other auxiliaries in the verb group. The notion "predicator" is not at all motivated.

SFG does not recognize the dependency that exists between heads of verb groups and their complements. It labels the complements of transitive verbs differently from the complements of other verbs, calling the first "objects" (because they can be made subjects of passive sentences) and all others "complements," but it misses completely the structural similarities. The structural relationship between the heads and obligatory complements of linking and intransitive verbs is exactly the same as that which holds between transitive verbs and direct objects, as shown in (20) and (21).

20. Joan might become sleepy and Jill might too.

21. Joan might reside in Boston and Jill might too.

By trying to taxonomize the overwhelming variety of meanings that language communicates, SFG theorists ignore the systematic structure of language. The result is that they produce an overabundance of meaning-based or functional categories which have little or no identifiable relation to the linguistic structures which express them, thus undermining their entire program.

A final example of establishing a taxonomy of meaning which has no identifiable relationship to linguistic structure is the discussion of "material process" verbs in Thompson (1996). He uses the following sentences to exemplify material processes. The first set has human subjects and the second and third sets have inanimate or abstract subjects.
 He has been shaving.
 The young girl bounded out of the gate.
 Edward was sawing the wood.
 Her mother smashed the glass.

 The car slithered off the road.
 Coarse grass was growing.
 The unhappiness disappeared.

 The fire had destroyed everything.
 Scores of tiny brambles scratched him.
 The pounding rhythm shook walls and floors. (Thompson, 1996, p 80)

The problem with this list is that, in the interest of grouping these verbs by meaning, their syntactic properties have been ignored. There is no explanation of the fact that these verbs, which represent the notion of material process, do so through a wide array of verb structures. The first grouping, for example, has an intransitive verb with a zero complement, an intransitive verb with an adverbial complement, and two transitive verbs. This is an unlikely state of affairs if, to use Halliday's words, formal structures are "organic configurations of functions" or "[every grammatical structure] can be explained, ultimately, by reference to how language is used." SFG provides no explanation of the principles by which meanings such as "material processes" are instantiated into linguistic form.


The appeal of SFG for language teachers lies in its claim to derive language structure from meaning. The goal of language teachers, of course, is to promote skilled language use in their students. This teaching task appears more coherent if there is a predictable relationship between meanings in text and grammatical structures. We have argued that this relationship is largely chimeric.

There are no easy solutions to teaching about language and its use. We believe that the competence-performance distinction of Chomskyan linguistics is key to understanding the developing language knowledge and skill of students and must inform teaching. When teaching about language, teachers must decide whether students lack knowledge of certain grammatical structures or whether students do not know how to apply their grammatical knowledge to a particular task. Space does not allow us to describe particular classroom strategies that promote stronger form-meaning connections in student texts. However, SFG's insistence on deriving forms from meaning is, in effect, "putting the cart before the horse," and it obscures, rather than illuminates, learner efforts to put meanings into form.


Bickerton, D. (1995). Language and human behavior. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Butt, D. et al. (1995). Using functional grammar: An explorer's guide. Revised edition. Sydney, Australia: National Centre for English Language Teaching and Research.

Grabe, W. & Kaplan, R. (1996). Theory and practice of writing. New York: Longman.

Grabe, W. & Kaplan, R. (1997). The writing course. In K. Bardovi-Harlig & B. Hartford (eds.), Beyond methods: Components of second language teaching (pp 172-197). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Graddol, D. Cheshire, J. & Swann, J. (1994). Describing language. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

Halliday, MAK. (1995). An introduction to systemic functional grammar. 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.

Lock, G. (1996). Functional English grammar: An introduction for second language teachers. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Martin, J., Matthiessen, C. & Painter, C. (1997). Working with functional grammar. New York: Arnold.

Thompson, G. (1996). Introducing functional grammar. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Robert Yates, Central Missouri State University, MO

Jim Kenkel, Eastern Kentucky University, KY

Robert is an associate professor of English/TESL and Jim is an associate professor of English. Both have collaborated on a number of papers dealing with the kinds of knowledge pre-service teachers need to know about language and how to teach students in all disciplines about the nature of English.
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Author:Kenkel, Jim
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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