LINGUIST List 10.1194

Thu Aug 12 1999

Review: Berk: English Syntax

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  1. Mayrene E Bentley, Book Review: Berk, English Syntax

Message 1: Book Review: Berk, English Syntax

Date: Mon, 2 Aug 1999 15:30:31 -0400 (EDT)
From: Mayrene E Bentley <bentle16pilot.msu.edu>
Subject: Book Review: Berk, English Syntax

 Lynn M. Berk, (1999) English Syntax: From Word to
 Discourse, Oxford University Press, N.Y. Pp. 315. Paper
 $24.95

 Reviewed by Mayrene Bentley, Visiting Assistant Professor,
 Dept. of Linguistics and Languages, Michigan State University

 _English Syntax: From Word to Discourse_ is a descriptive survey
 of English syntax which appeals to both novice and scholar. Its
 author, Lynn Berk, has succeeded in making an important
 pedagogical contribution for TESOL programs and for students
 of linguistics and English grammar. Her syntactic descriptions of
 lexical categories, phrases, and clauses are concise yet enriched
 by semantic and historical explanations. Throughout her book,
 Berk follows a general pattern when introducing new structures:
 1) description of the syntactic features of the lexical category,
 phrase, or clause 2) discussion of the relevant semantics 3)
 consideration of the discourse functions of the item under
 discussion. Berk's approach makes the book very accessible
 and useful to students in an introductory course on English
 syntax. The book also serves as a resource for an English as a
 second language instructor as well as for an advanced second-
 language learner of English.
 Clarity with conscientious attention to essential detail
 characterizes Berk's book. This is a mark of a well-seasoned
 teacher. Her clear explanations are coupled with numerous
 supporting examples, some of which are "real life," being taken
 from sources such as television, radio, novels, and magazines.
 Judicious use of concentric boxes rather than tree diagrams
 serves to illustrate the syntax of both simple and embedded
 clauses. Berk uses traditional functional and part-of-speech
 terms to label the structures within the boxes. Her preference
 for "boxes" may have been consideration for a more efficient
 page layout or simply, accessibility for American students who
 arrive at the university with sometimes only rudimentary training
 in English grammar. With respect to layout, Berk uses
 capitalization and boldface type to distinguish chapter
 subheadings. While this stylistic choice diminishes the
 "reference-book" look, it inhibits quick access to selected points
 while simultaneously forcing the reader to keep track of major
 categories and subcategories while reading. This is also true of
 the table of contents which relies on indentation and page
 numbers for the numerous divisions within each of the book's
 five chapters.
 Berk's strengths lie in her historical accounts of problematic
 issues in syntax such as verbs which allow two bare noun
 phrases and those which only take prepositional indirect objects.
 She also demonstrates her commitment to a functional
 explanation of syntax by her untiring descriptions of the semantic
 roles of subjects and their co-occurrence restrictions with
 particular verbs or adverbs. When one finishes the book, one
 wonders how grammar was ever taught without recourse to
 meaning. Another strength is Berk's repeated use of established
 diagnostics when determining subjecthood or when
 differentiating, for example, between an infinitive direct object
 and an infinitive verb complement. The reiteration of these tests
 throughout the book is instructive; however, a complementary
 workbook of exercises or end-of-the-chapter exercises would
 provide practical application of the tests which Berk so aptly
 describes and applies to her own examples.
 New terms are given in boldface and repeated in the 12-
 page glossary at the end of the book. Berk also provides an
 occasional etymological explanation for some of the new
 vocabulary such as the Latin root for "transitive" and the
 historical source for "patient." These explanations are helpful for
 the novice trying to acquire unfamiliar terminology. However,
 the general absence of the term, "part-of-speech," in the text
 and in the glossary seems like an oversight since Berk uses the
 term to introduce the notion of modification at the start of
 chapter four.
 In the first part of the book, Berk makes an occasional
 typological comment such as "In most languages a sentence
 does not require a word or phrase that functions as subject;"
 (p.11). While Berk may feel that such comments provide
 interest and enlightenment to the beginning student of English
 syntax, the comments are not fully informed and are so sporadic
 in the text, that they strike one as inconsequential. While a
 footnote may have been a more appropriate place for such
 comments, it is apparent that Berk has consciously chosen to
 restrict the number of footnotes in the book to a sum total of ten.
 Furthermore, the scope of her book is English syntax and not
 how English differs from other grammatical systems.
 The book has a brief introduction and five chapters. The
 introduction gives a history of the prescriptive and descriptive
 approaches to English. The account is valuable but lacks
 sufficient explanation when describing grammaticality. Berk
 defines a grammatical sentence as one spoken "by a native or
 fluent speaker of English under ordinary circumstances." It is
 not clear what constitutes "ordinary circumstances" (p.4).
 Chapter One, "Basic Sentence Structure," includes a
 description of subjects, predicates, and transitivity with
 considerable discussion of semantic roles. Semanticists may
 differ with some of Berk's pairing of semantic roles with noun
 phrases, but her choices provide an introductory basis which can
 lead to further discussion. Her definition of a benefactive as one
 who "doesn't receive the direct object, but rather benefits from
 some action involving the direct object" (p.44) seems too
 narrow in consideration of a sentence such as "I baked a cake
 for Mary."
 Chapter Two, "The Noun Phrase," discusses different kinds
 of lexical nouns (e.g. count, non-count, collective, etc.) and
 pronouns (e.g. personal, reflexive, interrogative, etc.) with
 substantial treatment of generic and unique reference, specific
 and nonspecific reference as well as non-specified. Berk also
 includes genitives in her discussion on determiners.
 Chapter Three, "The Verb Phrase," handles tense, aspect,
 passives, epistemic and deontic modality, mood, negation and
 existential "There." In her discussion on tense, Berk suggests
 two frame sentences for determining the past tense and past
 participle of a verb, "I___yesterday" (p. 100) and "I have___."
 The tests seem somewhat superficial for a native speaker of
 English and of minimal value for a non-native speaker. Although
 Berk tries to limit superfluous diagrams, a time line indicating
 tense and aspect distinctions based on "the moment of speaking"
 may have been more illuminating than a prose description of
 relevant distinctions where "present time," (p.98) is Berk's
 choice of terms (one almost too general for elucidating these
 muddy concepts.)
 The explanation which Berk gives for the contrast between,
 "Josh has washed four loads of clothes" and "John washed four
 loads of clothes," is that the first sentence focuses on the fact
 that Josh is not yet finished while the second sentence focuses on
 the fact that the job is complete. While this may be the case in
 some instances, another plausible interpretation is that the first
 focuses on the fact that the job IS complete at the time of
 speaking and the second focuses on WHEN the job was
 completed, i.e. prior to the time of speaking.
 Berk is to be congratulated on witnessing to the fact that
 English is rife with passives such that "Proscribing the passive
 altogether in student or professional writing simply generates bad
 prose" (p.122).
 In her devotion to functional explanations, Berk points out
 that pronouns "resist occupying final position" because
 "pronouns typically express given information and... new
 information usually appears last in the sentence" (p. 127). While
 this is true, it is also true that pronouns resist primary stress, and
 final words in a sentence are generally stressed.
 Chapter Four, "Modification," is a discussion of adjectives
 and adverbials with acute attention given to co-occurrence
 restrictions for particular verbs with certain intensifiers, adverbs
 of manner, direction, and frequency.
 Chapter Five, "Clauses: Coordination and Subordination,"
 finds many concentric boxes illustrating the nesting characteristic
 of syntactic relations. In addition, Berk provides numerous
 sentences in summary boxes which allow for a cursory reading
 of some chapter parts where descriptive detail abounds, an
 important time-saving feature in the life of many working
 American students. The chapter concludes with a chart
 summarizing the major clause types based on a functional
 classification (e.g. subject, direct object, etc.).
 English Syntax: From Word to Discourse is an important
 contribution to the teaching of grammar since it differs from other
 available sources on English grammar. Berk's book shows
 some similarities to Givon's English Grammar: A Function-
 Based Introduction, Vol. 1 (1993), but Berk spends
 considerable time discussing historical points, laying out semantic
 restrictions, and giving the social context in which a sentence is
 uttered. She also provides helpful hints for ESL teachers by
 pointing out syntactic differences between British and American
 English and some typical faults by learners of English. In a
 similar vein, Berk's book differs from the well-known A
 Grammar of Contemporary English (1972) by Quirk et al. in
 Berk's attention to meaning and pedagogy. Berk's use of
 summary boxes to conclude her discussions and minimal
 footnotes makes her book extremely accessible. The book is
 carefully edited with fewer than five typographical errors. I feel
 that she has wholeheartedly succeeding in achieving her goal, "to
 ensure that students learn the basics of English grammar but that
 at the same time they come to understand the richness and
 complexity of the system"(p.xv).

 References
 Givon, T. 1993. English Grammar: A Function-Based
 Introduction, Vol. 1. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

 Quirk, R, S. Greenbaum, G. Leech, and J. Svartvik. 1972. A
 Grammar of Contemporary English. London: Longman.


 Mayrene Bentley is a Visiting Assistant Professor of
 Linguistics and African Languages at Michigan State University.
 She will be a 1999-2000 Fulbright Scholar at the University of
 Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Her research interests are Bantu
 languages, typology, and language teaching.
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