On the Dysfunctional Nature of Systemic Functional Grammar. (Language Teaching & Learning)

Article excerpt


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. …


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