Exploding the myth of “however”

October 6, 2010

A friend of mine is fond of telling his son to avoid the use of absolutes: ‘You guys NEVER let me go anywhere’, ‘We ALWAYS have peas with dinner’. It is advice which people offering ‘rules’ for language usage might like to bear in mind. I am ALWAYS amazed, for example, when teachers and tertiary students tell me that they were taught to NEVER start a sentence with however.

Like many so-called ‘rules’ of usage, this is based more in prejudice than actual current convention. The well-respected Style manual for authors, editors and printers (John Wiley and Sons Australia, ISBN 0-7016-3648-3) lists the following as acceptable uses of however (when it means but, yet or nevertheless):

However, I will let you know.

I’m not sure of the outcome; however, I will let you know as soon as this is clear.

They also recommend that the following usage is ‘not widely accepted, and should therefore be avoided in standard or formal publications’ (p75):

I’m not sure of the outcomes, however I will let you know as soon as this is clear.

Not doubt someone, somewhere will disagree with this advice, but I am siding with John Wiley and Sons.

Useful grammar books

August 22, 2009


If you’re looking for some useful books on Systemic Functional Grammar, here are some of my favourites:

  • Butt, D. et. al. (2003). Using functional grammar: an explorer’s guide. Sydney: Macquarie University.
  • Derewianka, B. (1998). A grammar companion for primary teachers. Newton, Australia:PETA.
  • Droga, L. and Humphrey, S. (2003). Grammar and meaning: an introduction for primary teachers. Berry, Australia: Target Texts.
  • Gee, J. (1990). Social linguistics and literacy: ideology in discourse. London: The Falmer Press. [See Chapter 4 in particular if you would like grammar put into a broader perspective. Not a book for beginners.]
  • Halliday, M. and Matthiessen, C. (2004). An introduction to functional grammar. London: Arnold. [The ‘bible’ of Functional Grammar – once again, not for complete beginners unless you have a linguistic background already.]

Keep an eye out for additions to this list over the coming weeks.

Grammar in the National Curriculum

May 10, 2009

teens-studyingLast week, The Australian newspaper again set its sights on the teaching of English, particularly grammar. In its usual manner, the paper made inaccurate comments about the use of Functional grammar in the classroom. The paper’s sentiments were echoed in a letter to the editor on Saturday 9 May. By coincidence, the letter was written by my former, Senior English teacher.  Printed below is the response I sent off to that letter. (At the time of posting, The Australian had not chosen to publish my response – but, then, given that they don’t like people disagreeing with their own, misinformed educational views, I would have been surprised if they had).

“Enid Duncan (Letters, 9-10/5) claims that traditional grammar is the most suitable for schools as it is simpler than one of the alternatives, functional grammar. Now, Enid (or should I say Mrs Duncan!) was my Senior English teacher in 1978 and 1979. Since then, I have gone on to a 26 year career as an English teacher. Regretfully, I can only give my former teacher’s letter 11/20. While I also welcome a renewed emphasis on teaching grammar, like most critics of functional grammar, Enid has her facts wrong.

Numerous research projects over many decades have demonstrated consistently that traditional teaching of grammar does NOT raise literacy standards. For example, the 2007 WritingNext report commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation of New York concluded that the “teaching of the parts of speech and structure of sentences had a negative effect [on student achievement] which was small, but…statistically significant, indicating that traditional grammar instruction is unlikely to help improve the quality of students’  writing…However, other instructional methods, such as sentence combining, provide an effective alternative to traditional grammar instruction…a recent study (Fearn & Farnan, 2005) found that teaching students to focus on the function and practical application of grammar within the context of writing…produced strong and positive effects on students’ writing” (p21).

Enid states that traditional terms such as ‘noun, verb, adjective and verb’ (sic) are better compared to the functional grammar terms ‘ideational, interpersonal and predicator’. However, despite the impression given, these terms are completely unrelated to the traditional set; they do not refer to the same aspects of language. In fact, all of the traditional terms listed are found in functional grammar textbooks. Moreover, I have never heard any proponent of functional grammar suggest that ideational, interpersonal and predicator are suitable terms to use with young students. As with any specialist field, knowledge of grammar must be introduced in age appropriate ways, often using simpler terms and definitions initially.

Thanks for the kind offer to act as a ‘valuable resource’, Enid, but you’ll be happy to hear that, despite very real gaps in grammar knowledge for some teachers, there are also many very skilled and knowledgeable English teachers. The bottom line? A functional grammar can do everything traditional grammar purports to do, but also a great deal more. I hope that those of us who are literacy experts and have used a functional approach to grammar very successfully for many years will not be hamstrung by requirements to use inferior methods dictated to us by the well-intentioned, but mis-informed traditionalists.”

Troublesome adverbs

January 31, 2009

Announcer at the start of the American television show, Judge Judy: ‘She claims her son in law purposefully broke the cell phone.’

I admit, dear reader, this sentence made my grouchy heart cringe! That ‘purposefully’ just rubs me up the wrong way and then down the other side. So, am I just being a conservative old fuddy duddy? Well, let’s explore the issues.

For a start, was the phone broken with a goal or purpose in mind (purposefully), or was it broken knowingly, with conscious deliberation (deliberately) as opposed to being broken accidentally? To my mind, the sentence would be more precise if it read: her son in law deliberately broke the cell phone. (Yes, yes, I know that you can say I broke the phone on purpose. Used as an adverb, however, it does create more ambiguity in meaning.)

But there’s more. If you take out she claims, you have an independent clause: her son in law deliberately broke the cell phone. The verb is broke and the subject is her son in law. In general, it is better not to split the subject and verb with an adverb. Instead, the adverb could be placed at the very beginning of the clause (deliberately, her son in law broke the cell phone) or after the verb (her son in law broke the cell phone deliberately).

If I were to be generous, I would admit that the attribution, she claims, does make the first option more than a little clumsy (She claims deliberately her son in law broke the cell phone). I might also admit that if the speaker wants to emphasise that the breaking of the cell phone was no accident, then deliberately does need to come close to the front. Consequently, if I were generous, I might agree that the original construction does make sense and was probably a good solution to a tricky linguistic problem. If I were to be generous…

Anyway, dear readers, I let you be the judge.

Bookshop bungle

October 31, 2008

Okay, it’s easy for simple proofreading errors to slip through unnoticed. All the same, isn’t it fun to mock those mistakes!

Here’s a beauty in the latest Angus and Robertson bookstore brochure. They have apparently just introduced a new rewards card for loyal customers. The benefits are listed as: reward vouchers, instant prizes, major prize draws and exclusive offers.

So far, so good. But then we are told: ‘Recieve a $5 voucher every time you reach 100 points!’.

There’s just something wrong about a bookshop not knowing the ‘i before e except after c‘ rule.

The abuse of ‘both’

July 5, 2008

Is it difficult to understand that this word is used when referring to two items only, for example ‘Both the cheese and the chocolate look inviting’? Apparently it is difficult for the organizers of a recent conference on thinking skills. According to the information brochure, one of the presenters has turned ‘his research into award-winning practice in both education, business and industry’. Oh, deary me – and these are supposed to be the best thinkers in the world?

Apostrophes again…and more

June 29, 2008

Apostrophes revisited. Following my blast on apostrophes in the last post, a reader has requested information on what to do when the word ends in ‘s’ already – do you just add an apostrophe and no extra ‘s’?

No! As with any other singular word, you add an apostrophe followed by an ‘s’, as in Charles’s spaniels.

However, plural words are simply followed by an apostrophe, as in the cats’ tails.

Do I say ‘different from’ or ‘different to’? Hrmph! How illiterate are we becoming! Despite their preaching to English teachers about not teaching students to read and write properly, journalists themselves just can’t get it right.

The rule is ‘different from’. There is no other option – although I suspect resistance to ‘different to’ is futile. Unfortunately.

The apostrophe

June 27, 2008

Is it really so hard to use punctuation correctly?

This photo was taken at a roadside stall on Mount Tambourine (South East Queensland Australia), but the problem of apostrophe misuse is shamefully ubiquitous.

For the record, there should be no apostrophe in a plural word such as ‘avocados’ (and yes, that’s the correct spelling!).

Where are they used? In two circumstances only – to indicate:

  • a deleted letter, as in it’s (it is).
  • possession, as in ‘the avocado’s seed’.

Anything else deserves a public flogging!