Young children often write as they speak. But the way we speak and the way we write are not quite the same. When we speak, we often use many clauses (which include groups of words) in a sentence. But when we write — particularly in academic settings — we should use fewer clauses and make the meaning clear with fewer words and clauses than if we were speaking.
To be able to do this, it’s useful to understand specific written language tools. One effective tool in academic writing is called grammatical metaphor.
The kind of metaphor we are more familiar with is lexical metaphor. This is a variation in meaning of a given expression.
For example, the word “life” can be literally understood as the state of being alive. But when we say “food is life”, metaphorically it means food is vital.
Grammatical metaphor is different. The term was coined by English-born Australian linguistics professor Michael Halliday. He is the father of functional grammar which underpins the Australian Curriculum: English.
Halliday’s concept of grammatical metaphor is when ideas that are expressed in one grammatical form (such as verbs) are expressed in another grammatical form (such as nouns). As such, there is a variation in the expression of a given meaning.
There are many types of grammatical metaphor, but the most common is done through nominalisation. This is when writers turn what are not normally nouns (such as verbs or adjectives) into nouns.
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For example, “clever” in “she is clever” is a description or an adjective. Using nominalisation, “clever” becomes “cleverness” which is a noun. The clause “she is clever” can be turned into “her cleverness” which is a noun group.
“Sings” in “he sings”, which is a doing term or a verb, can be expressed by “his singing”, in which “singing” is a noun.
In these examples, the adjective “clever” and the verb “sings” are both expressed in nouns — “cleverness” and “singing”.
Grammatical metaphor, which is often done through nominalisation like in the examples above, typically features in academic, bureaucratic and scientific writing. Here are four reasons it’s important.
1. It shortens sentences
Grammatical metaphor helps shorten explanations and lessen the number of clauses in a sentence. This is because more information can be packed in noun groups rather than spread over many clauses.
Below is a sentence with three clauses:
When humans cut down forests (clause one), land becomes exposed (2) and is easily washed away by heavy rain (3).
With grammatical metaphor or nominalisation, the three clauses become just one.
Deforestation causes soil erosion.
“When humans cut down forests” (a clause) becomes a noun group – “deforestation”. The next two clauses (2 and 3) are converted into another noun group – “soil erosion”.
2. It more obviously shows one thing causing another
Grammatical metaphor helps show that one thing causes another within one clause, rather than doing it between several clauses. We needed three clauses in the first example to show one action (humans cutting down forests) may have caused another (land being exposed and being washed away by heavy rain).
But with grammatical metaphor, the second version realises the causal relationship between two processes in only one clause. So it becomes more obvious.
3. It helps connect ideas and structure text
Below are two sentences.
The government decided to reopen the international route between New Zealand and Hobart. This is a significant strategy to boost Tasmania’s economy.
Using grammatical metaphor, the writer can change the verb “decided” to the noun “decision” and the two sentences can become one.
The decision to reopen the international route between New Zealand and Hobart is a significant strategy to boost Tasmania’s economy.
This allows the writer to expand the amount and density of information they include. It means they can make further comment about the decision in the same sentence, which helps build a logical and coherent text. And then the next sentence can be used to say something different.
4. It formalises the tone
Using grammatical metaphor also creates distance between the writer and reader, making the tone formal and objective. This way, the text establishes a more credible voice.
While there have been some calls from academics to make writing more personal, formality, social distance and objectivity are still valued features of academic writing.
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It’s taught, but not explicitly
Nominalisation — as a linguistic tool — is introduced in Year 8 in the Australian Curriculum: English. It implicitly appears in various forms of language knowledge from Year 1 to Year 10.
It becomes common across subject areas in the upper primary years. And it is intimately involved in the increasing use of technical and specialised knowledge of different disciplines in secondary school.
But the term “grammatical metaphor” is not explicitly used in the Australian Curriculum: English and is less known in school settings. As a result, a vast majority of school teachers might not be aware of the relationship between grammatical metaphor and effective academic writing, as well as how grammatical metaphor works in texts.
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This calls for more attention to professional learning in this area for teachers and in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programs. This will help equip student teachers and practising teachers with pedagogical content knowledge to teach and prepare their students to write effectively in a variety of contexts.