Structure in Grammar and in Function: A Marginal Note

Author: Raphael Gamaroff


The Structuralist-Functionalist controversy in language learning

Internal and external grammar, and problem solving



Language learning/teaching theory is shot through with numerous controversies but none so obdurate as the “structure versus function” dispute. One wonders why the problem exists at all, because the concepts form and function are primordial ingredients in all scientific investigation. They are not made, not discovered, but given.

So why do applied linguists have a problem? Let us compare language learning with the study of science.

One cannot think two thoughts at the same time. Thus, one cannot muse on the marvellous structure  (anatomy) of the eye while simultaneously thinking about how it functions (physiology). However, no medical student has ever lost any sleep over which is posterior, anatomy or physiology.

So why all the fuss in language learning? Trying to answer that question is what this marginal note is about.

At the 1990 South African Applied Linguistics (SAALA) conference in Durban, a reception was held in a long reception room. At one end, a hubbub of delegates quaffing and scoffing; at the other, a quartet playing Bach’s Brandenburgs. Except for one person (myself), no one paid any attention to the exquisite music.

Two flies on the wall:

Fly One: Such boors, no culture.

Fly Two: But this is no time to play Bach, except for that solitary asocial creature huddled in the corner.

Each fly had its own idea as to which was important, which marginal; culture or esprit de corps. Each language theorist has his/her own idea as to which is important, and which is marginal.

The Structuralist-Functionalist controversy in language learning

The controversy in applied linguistics revolves around whether language learning is best learnt through the structural (formal) or the functional approach. The structural approach is also called the “grammatical” approach.

Structuralism in applied linguistics refers to the study of language elements below and up to sentence level. Functionalism refers to the study of the message as a whole.

What I would like to do in this essay is examine the relation between the terms structure, function and grammar, and show two things: first, that these three concepts are abstractions from a holistic process; second, that grammar resides and presides at the core of language learning and language use.

In this discussion we focus on language learning in the school situation, and not on preschool language learning.

Let us now tackle the main issues of this controversy by examining sentence meaning and discourse meaning.

There is a difference between sentence meaning (semantic meaning) and the meaning of a discourse as a whole (pragmatic meaning) [Brown 1987:14 and Leech 1983].

The sentence in isolation from a functional context only has potential meaning. It is this potential meaning which has to become actualised in language use (sociolinguistic context).

What is meant by the potential meaning of sentences?

It is obvious that every sentence in isolation from its sociolinguistic context must contain meaningful units. For example, each of the three words in the sentence I am reading is a meaningful unit. These three units are combined into a larger meaningful unit, namely, the sentence.

The sentence, in turn combines, with other sentences to form an even larger unit called discourse. And it is only at the discourse level that parts of sentences and sentences come alive. Meaning at the sentence level and below is referred to in linguistics as semantic meaning, while meaning at the discourse level is referred to as pragmatic or sociolinguistic meaning. So from the point of view of discourse ( language use), the sentence has potential meaning only.

Widdowson (1979:119), using different terminology, makes the same distinction as Brown and Leech. Widdowson distinguishes between two categories; the “signification of linguistic forms” and their “communicative value as utterances in context”.

Language behaviour involves both of these categories. Widdowson (1979:119) explains his distinction:

    ….there is no one-to-one correspondence between the signification of linguistic forms and their communicative value as utterances in context. Discourse meanings are to some degree unpredictable. At the same time they cannot be entirely unpredictable: the relationship between form and function is not purely arbitrary, or otherwise there would be no linguistic basis for communication at all…The fact that context may override the meaning associated with sentences does not mean that one cannot fruitfully explore this meaning…..

In “utterances in context” (discourse), one meaning may take many forms, or many forms may express one meaning. It is this reciprocal relationship between form and meaning which makes possible the infinite creativity of language. However, this infinite creativity, if not controlled, would obstruct rather than facilitate discourse (Ricoeur 1974).

In transformational grammar (TG), the terms surface structure and deep structure are used to refer to form and meaning respectively. However, TG theory is not enough to explain the nature of discourse, i.e. language use. For example, consider the following pair of utterances made famous by Chomsky:

1) “He is easy to please”, and

2) “He is eager to please”.

In both sentence 1) and sentence 2), He is the grammatical subject. TG theory improves on this structuralist theory by pointing out that He in sentence 1) is the recipient of to please, whereas He in sentence 2) is the agent of to please; two parallel structures revealing in sentence 1) a complex relation between deep structure (sentence meaning) and surface structure, and in sentence 2) a relatively simple relation between deep structure and surface structure.

In terms of discourse, the TG explanation does not explain how these utterances function in language use. In TG theory, both He is easy to please and He is eager to please would be regarded as

declaratives, i.e. would be described in terms of mood: but mood conveys nothing about language use. He is eager to please could have at least the following three additional meanings, depending on the context (Brown 1984):

1. He is not eager to please.

2. He is definitely eager to please.

3. He is definitely not eager to please.

4. He but not she is eager to please.

Sociolinguists would consider TG inadequate because it only focuses on semantic meaning (sentence meaning) and not pragmatic meaning (discourse, language use).

The distinction between semantic and pragmatic meaning can also be explained in the following way (Leech 1983):

– the meaning of X, which is the semantic or sentence meaning,


what you mean by X, which is the pragmatic or sociolinguistic meaning.

The sentence I am reading means that there is somebody, namely me who is reading. This meaning is the semantic or sentence meaning.

We use I am reading in a life situation.

Student A is sharing a room with Student B. Student A is reading in the room while Student B is out. Student B returns, sees Student A bowed over a book, and shouts: What are you doing? It is obvious to Student A that Student B is not requesting information as to whether Student A is reading a book – it is obvious that this is so.

Suppose Student A’s answer is I’m reading. The semantic meaning of this utterance is clear, namely, Student A is not eating, or sleeping, but reading. But what does Student A mean by I’m reading and what does Student B mean by What are you doing?

Here are a few possibilities of the pragmatic meaning of these two sentences;

Question: “What are you doing?”

1. Hey, what are you doing in my bed?”

2. What a miracle, you’re reading a book!

3. We’ve been looking all over for you, and here you are all the time, rotting at your desk.

Answer: “I’m reading”

1. Please don’t disturb me.

2. It’s no good, I’ll never speak to you again.

3. I’m so bored, the TV is not working; what else is there to do but read – yawn.

4. Who the blazes do you think you are to speak to me like that?

5. You illiterate idiot, go back to your comics.

So the pragmatic context of language does not merely go beyond the sentence meaning, it makes the sentence actually meaningful, and actual meaning is the only kind of meaning that we can live by.

From the point of view of language study, pure linguistics (for example, Chomskyan linguistics) is not interested in “actual” meaning, but only in sentence meaning. Applied linguistics (language teaching), on the other hand, is interested in how sentences combine to formulate discourse.

To summarise the discussion so far:

The structural syllabus focuses on sentence meaning and parts of the sentence as a preparation for the communication of meaning. The functional syllabus focuses directly on the use of language in communication.

The way I see the problem is that it is not a matter of merely looking at individual differences in learners such as learning styles, and then deciding which of the two approaches is the better one. Individual differences could obscure the hidden workings of language.

And it is the workings of language which have to be laid bare. What, with all the tearing and pulling at its “syntactic joints and semantic flesh” (Johnson 1985), language is blanched of its lifeblood; grammar.

But if grammar is structure, how can structure be drained off from itself? Furthermore, what has grammar got to do with function if grammar is synonymous with structure?

The answers to these questions might help us to decide where grammar resides; at the face and/or at the fundament of language.

Here is an example of some of problems involved in defining grammar:

The following is an excerpt from a guide to the course on Practical English (University of South Africa 1988):

Correct grammar is important because grammatical mistakes can lead to people not understanding what you are saying or writing, and, secondly, because grammatical mistakes are like dirty, torn clothes – they give the people you meet a very bad impression of you. If you have good ideas and a good understanding of the work, but your assignments are full of grammatical errors, you will receive low marks, or may even fail (see Du Toit and Orr 1987 for a similar view).

Students, many of whom come from “grammar-based” schools, are firstly told that bad grammar fuddles meaning, and then warned that even if they get their meaning across, they will be penalised for soiling their clothes. The Practical English exam answers do not only have to mean right, they have to look right.

The message to the student: the message is not enough.

The clothing metaphor of language
What I would like to do now is examine whether this clothing metaphor of language is helpful.

In defense of this metaphor, I do not see anything wrong with giving students the impression that grammar is nothing more than dirty clothes. From a practical point of view there is no other adequate way of explaining what editing means, because it would be foolish in a Practical English course to burden students with the paradoxes we are dealing with here.

But the danger is that the understanding of grammar by teachers -including the “coco” (communicative competence [Ridjanovic 1983]) contingent – may remain a superficial matter.

The notion of grammar as external to meaning is confused. This confused view is exemplified in such metaphors as “grammar is the clothing of thought” (see the discussion above on the UNISA Practical English Guide). This confusion is at least double. There is the grammar of the in-built “Language Acquisition Device” (LAD) (Chomsky 1957) and there is the editing at the last stage of the writing process.

Internal and external grammar, and problem solving

The LAD kind of grammar – internal grammar – involves problem solving; at the conscious and at the unconscious levels. Editing also involves problem-solving.

We now examine the relationship between these two kinds of grammar (namely, 1. grammar external to meaning and 2. LAD grammar) and problem solving.

The following authors are of interest here: Baijnath (1991), Murray (1990) and Jeffery (1990).

Baijnath (1990) has tried to trace “the writing problems of EAP [English for Special Purposes] students to their roots”. Baijnath found that many students using the process approach to writing made little progress. The errors of students were classified into a hierarchy of difficulty; for example, reasoned argument appeared towards the top, and “grammar” appeared towards the bottom.

Bajnaith interviewed the students. With regard to grammar, it was discovered that almost all the at risk students did not bother correcting their errors. Baijnath did not offer any reasons why students did not attempt to correct their grammar. Before I suggest possible reasons, it would be useful to read Murray’s (1990:140) views about grammar:

In the case of students’ writing, I began to realise that if I corrected all the surface language errors – grammar, spelling, punctuation and vocabulary – their essays were still not satisfactory: they did not answer the question; they contained irrelevant information; the overall argument was difficult to follow…The essential problem is that they did not distinguish between spoken and written English. Spoken English is context-embedded, that is, it can be understood in terms of the situation in which it occurs. Therefore, it does not need to be explicit. Clarification can always be sought if meaning is not clear. Written English, on the other hand, is context-reduced: the reader relies solely on the words on the page. The writer, therefore, cannot assume shared knowledge; she must be explicit.

In both Baijnath and Murray a distinction is made between grammar and cognitive and academic language proficiency (CALP) [Cummins 1984). The inference is that if grammar is good, it does not follow that the organisation of ideas is good.

The reason, I suggest, why students do not pay much attention to correcting grammar errors is that these errors are not just “dirty-clothing” in need of a wash. If soiled linen was all there was to it, students would not object to spending time in the laundry. The problem is that grammar errors go far deeper than editing.

The distinction between competence and performance is useful here.

Competence refers to the language system, to what the learner knows about the language. This system is called various things by various authors, e.g. “langue” (Saussure 1959), “built-in syllabus (Corder 1981).

Performance refers to slips of the tongue or pen, or memory blocks. Although the distinction between competence and performance is problematic (O’Connell 1988:272), Taylor (1988) and Widdowson 1989), the distinction is still useful in explaining Baijnath’s data.

One possible explanation why students do not correct their performance “mistakes” is that almost all of these mistakes are not slips of some kind, but rather competence “errors”, i.e. a systematic or in-built deficit. In such circumstances, no amount of editing is going to help, because there was nothing to slip on in the first place. Kroma’s (1988:43) view is that students can correct their own errors. The point is whether Kroma’s students can correct these errors (minor mistakes like spelling excluded) without outside intervention.

A distinction should be made between an in-built deficit, which implies both conscious and unconscious incompetence, and a temporary deficit which can be remedied by “consciousness raising”, i.e. teacher intervention.

Whether students need teacher intervention or not, the main point here is that academic writing cannot be taught properly if grammar is merely regarded as an editing exercise rather than as an integral part of the writing process.

Jeffery (1990:120) describes the role of grammar in speaking and writing in the following way:

”… we do need that [grammatical categories – brackets added] in order to gain control of WL [written language – brackets added], for whereas SL (spoken language – brackets added] requires no conscious grammatical understanding, WL does: the most elementary reading and writing presuppose word and sentence at least; and progress is awkward without noun, verb, number, tense, phrase, clause, and so on. These categories come naturally to nobody, and with difficulty to some, for they are all artificial abstractions from the flow of speech. Nobody speaks in words and sentences; therefore everybody needs to be taught about them.”

”Inchoate thought has to be organised in order to make your meaning clear to your readers (and yourself), and that takes skill in arranging the units of WL into structures…So it can come about that after twelve years of schooling some fluent speakers falter on paper; being unschooled in grammar they are still not consciously aware that you cannot depend solely on intuition in writing as you can in speaking.”

To summarise Jeffery’s view: grammar resides in and presides over the whole process of language/cognition, from the phoneme to the completed message. Grammar is more than a stock of static structures; it is a dynamic ability to manipulate language/ideas, and it is this kind of grammatical competence that needs to be developed in the teaching of academic skills.

One caution; Jeffery’s view that spoken language does not require “conscious grammatical understanding” (in Jeffery’s sense of the term) is questionable (Murray above expresses the same view as Jeffery). The boundary between speaking and writing – indeed between all the four skills – is not so clear cut. It may be that speaking in its beginnings is an unconscious activity, but as the speaking skill develops there is an increase in the conscious activity of selecting and arranging of linguistic elements, which in a way is like creating a story (Wells 1987:197). Manipulating grammatical elements (conscious grammatical understanding) originates in informal listening, then moves through a continuum (and combination) of informal speaking and writing to formal listening, formal speaking and formal writing (the last three also occurring in various combinations).

To summarise the discussion so far:

The division of language into structure and function is misleading, because the medium and the message, to use Saussure’s (1959) tarnished metaphor, are two sides of the same coin. The human mind abstracts the universe into form and function, body and mind, time and space, and so on. These abstractions are productive because they reveal reality; yet, abortive, because they distort it.

Finally there are two authors I would like to mention who have made interesting contributions to the debate, Langacker (1990) and Coe (1987).

Langacker’s (1987, 1990), “cognitive grammar” explains language as a conceptual unity of grammar and meaning, where lexicon, morphology and syntax form a gradation. At the Language, Thought and Culture conference (University of the Witwatersrand April 1990) Langacker on being asked “What is the use of cognitive grammar?” replied “It’s Poetry”. What Langacker means is not clear, but I would guess he means that cognitive grammar is a thing of beauty, not to be swallowed up in the practical concerns of language learning. Yet, cognitive grammar is not limited to linguistica poetica, because it does expose the deficiency of splitting language into function words (syntactic joints) and content words (semantic flesh). Therefore Langacker’s insights may be useful in language learning theory.

Coe (1987:13) ventures off the well-beaten track of pedestrian language learning theory and returns with a concept borrowed from New Rhetoric (via Hegel); sublation. This term denotes the simultaneous preservation and transcendence of the form/function antithesis. Coe, addressing composition writers, tries to reconcile the form/function dichotomy using the paradox of preservation and transcendence. This paradox reminds both the structuralist and the functionalist that the abstraction of language into form and function is one dangerous dichotomy to be treated with caution.

Applied linguists, sandwiched between sublation and “poetry”, need to get comfortable with the with New Rhetoric and cognitive grammar . On the other hand, the pure linguists, who prefer art to craft should realise that artists (including poets) never become philosopher kings: Socrates has other plans.


I did not focus in this marginal note on the difference between first and second language learning. What I tried to do was to paint a neutral landscape of one of the main problems common to both kinds of language learning; structuralism and functionalism.

The painting can be – must be – painted on and viewed from both sides of the canvas. On the one side – “structure in grammar”; on the other – “function in grammar”. But – and this is the paradox and origin of the controversy – the picture can only be seen complete when viewed from both sides of the canvas at the same time. However, in the process, grammar is absorbed into and bisected by the canvas, which is the margin – the margin preserved and transcended.


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Coe, R.M. 1987. An apology for form; or, who took the form out of process. College English, 49:13-28.

Corder, S.P. 1981. Error analysis and interlanguage. Oxford. Oxford University Press. Cummins, J. 1984. Wanted:A theoretical framework for relating language proficiency to academic achievement among bilingual students. In Rivera, C. Language proficiency and academic achievement. Multilingual Matters 10. Clevedon. Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Du Toit, A. and Orr, M. 1987. Achiever’s Handbook. Johannesburg. Southern Book Publishers.

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Newmeyer, F. J. 1983. Grammatical theory: Its limits and its possibilities. Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

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O’Connell, D.C. 1988. Critical essays on language use and psychology. New York. Springer-Verlag.

Ricoeur, P. 1974. Structure, word, event. In The conflict of interpretations. Evanston, Illinois. North Western University Press.

Ridjanovic, M. 1983. How to learn a language, say English, in a couple of months. English Teaching Forum, 21(1).

Saussure, F. 1959. Course in general linguistics, (Tr. Wade Baskin). London. Peter Owen.

Taylor, D.S. 1988. The meaning and use of the term “competence” in linguistics and applied linguistics. Applied Linguistics, 9(2):148-168.

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One response to “Structure in Grammar and in Function: A Marginal Note

  1. Pingback: “All I am is a sinner saved by grace.” No more of that! | OneDaringJew

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