Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

The Pedagogic Grammarian's Dilemma: Modality and Personality in Grammatical Description

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

The Pedagogic Grammarian's Dilemma: Modality and Personality in Grammatical Description

Article excerpt


This paper investigates an issue that I call the "pedagogic grammarian's dilemma": the choice facing writers of pedagogic grammars between being specific about grammar and risking being wrong, or hedging and risking being vague, as formulated by Henry Widdowson (1997). Using two corpora of grammatical description, it examines how a number of exponents of modality are used to hedge and finds firstly that they are far more common than in ordinary text. More importantly there is a link between the use of such modality and the approach to personality chosen in the grammars: hedging is more common when the more friendly YOU is used to address users than when WE is used; this suggests an interpersonal (as well as epistemic) motivation for the hedging. Overall the response of the grammars studied to the pedagogic grammarian's dilemma is to hedge, in order, it seems, to avoid being prescriptive.

1. Introduction

In this paper I want to consider an area that is of great interest to me: the meta-language of pedagogic grammars. By "metalanguage" I understand any kind of language about language (e.g. as defined in Johnson--Johnson 1998), rather than the logician's ideal and distinct system for talking precisely about language. (For a more detailed discussion of the meaning(s) of "metalanguage" see Berry 2005a). I am not so much interested in what such grammars say (the content) as in how they say it (the style), though there is a strong connection between the two.

My reasons for studying this field are two-fold. Firstly, I have been engaged personally, in a modest way, in the writing of pedagogic grammars--having written two books in the Collins Cobuild English guides series (Berry 1993, 1997). While doing this I was aware of being subject to a number of constraints that affected what I could say:

--space. Publishers do not have endless resources to accommodate their writers' verbosity; even scholarly grammars (which nowadays approach the 2000 page mark) are subject to constraints on space.

--learner level and maturity. This involves a number of factors which affect the complexity of concepts that can be presented and the kind of language that can be used in description (including terminology). Swan (1994) discusses such criteria, in particular what he calls "conceptual parsimony".

--in-house style. Certain terms and features of style have to be used to conform to that of other publications. In Cobuild publications this meant using terms like "noun group" instead of "noun phrase", and you to address the readers (more on this below).

And all this comes before we start to consider the possibility of incomplete knowledge on the part of the writer. These constraints, along with the tensions and resulting trade-offs they impose, are at the root of what I am calling the "pedagogic grammarian's dilemma". I will return to this central issue in Section 3.

The second reason is that it seems to me that such writing is a valid object of investigation from a linguistic or discourse analytic point of view. However, it does not seem to have attracted the attention of linguists or discourse analysts so far, perhaps because it is too close to the linguist's bone. It seems to be acceptable to study any genre (e.g. academic writing, political speeches, journalism, and so on) so long as it is not in the linguist's backyard. A rare example is Van Leeuwen's (2004) study of three texts written by linguists (including one he co- wrote) examining political interviews from a critical discourse perspective.

When it comes to pedagogic metalanguage, there is another dimension which is more applied in nature, namely the way the readers (teachers and learners) react to the text and to its metalingual features. This is an issue that I have considered elsewhere (Berry 2000, 2004), finding that features such as modality and personality do make a difference and do need to be taken into consideration by grammarians:

   The style used and the metalingual choices made do have an effect
   on learners; writers need to consider what form (or forms) of
   personality to adopt and what effect the use of qualification will
   have on their readers

                                                          (2004: 15). … 
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