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Theoretical and Descriptive Categories in Systemic Functional Linguistics

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Halliday’s 1992 paper “Systemic Grammar and the Concept of a ‘Science of Language’” provides one of the clearest statements, as well as one of the most perceptive warnings, about the potential dangers of “comparative description” in linguistics. Halliday makes a distinction between theoretical categories, the basic building blocks of any theory, which represent how language is modelled within that theory; and descriptive categories, derived from theoretical categories in generating the description of a particular language. Such a distinction is beautifully clear in theory, but highly problematic in practice; and goes against the long tradition of European linguistics to adapt the descriptive categories of an “originary" language to any “new” language. This bias is deeply rooted in the practice of modern linguistics under the heading of universals, which Halliday has characterised as “descriptive categories said to be present in every language”. This book uses the example of developing a grammatics for Modern Chinese, whose relatively short history has been political and ideological as much as intellectual and applied, to explore what is involved in generating descriptive from theoretical categories within the framework of systemic functional linguistics, and in the process derive some useful working principles for all linguistic theories.

Published: Nov 1, 2026