LINGUIST List 12.1563

Wed Jun 13 2001

Review: Borjars & Burridge, Intro Eng Grammar (2nd rev)

Editor for this issue: Terence Langendoen <terrylinguistlist.org>


What follows is another discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect these discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for discussion." (This means that the publisher has sent us a review copy.) Then contact Simin Karimi at siminlinguistlist.org or Terry Langendoen at terrylinguistlist.org.

Directory

  1. Alex Bergs, Review of Borjars & Burridge, Introducing English Grammar

Message 1: Review of Borjars & Burridge, Introducing English Grammar

Date: Wed, 13 Jun 2001 16:20:15 +0200
From: Alex Bergs <bergsphil-fak.uni-duesseldorf.de>
Subject: Review of Borjars & Burridge, Introducing English Grammar

B�rjars, Kersti, and Kate Burridge (2001) Introducing English Grammar. Arnold,
paperback, ISBN 0-340-69173-5, xiii+311pp., $24.95.

Reviewed by Alexander T. Bergs, Anglistik III -- English Language and
Linguistics, Heinrich-Heine-Universit�t Duesseldorf


This textbook introduces students without any prior knowledge of linguistics to
the fundamental principles and phenomena of English Grammar and to the
systematic way of studying them. The book comprises ten chapters, each of which
concentrates on one specific aspect of English grammar, starting with some
fundamental questions, like "why study grammar", through word classes, clauses,
phrases and finally "grammar at work". Each chapter concludes with a brief
section with "points to remember" (not to be found in chapter one, however) and
one or two pages of exercises. The book finishes with a section with further
readings and an index. The main body of data used in this book (see below) is
taken from local editions of the magazine THE BIG ISSUE (Australia, Northern
England, Scotland), plus some examples from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

Chapter 1 basically sets the scene for what is to follow. Notorious questions
asked by undergraduates are anticipated and succinctly discussed. These include
the notion of "standard English", linguistic data acquisition, prescriptive
versus descriptive approaches, and the never-ending, nagging "Why study English
grammar?". The latter question is answered from no fewer than five different
points of view: the study of language typology and that of universal grammar,
the uses of "grammar" in speech therapy and in foreign language learning (or
rather teaching), and its importance in stylistics. The last but not least point
that is mentioned is that some people just *like* doing grammar "for its own
sake" - a soothing thought to many of us, maybe. A brief summary of the
different branches of linguistics concludes this chapter.

Chapter 2 is on the basic structure of sentences. It focuses on the components
and structures of sentences from a bottom-up perspective, starting with
morphemes and words and only then moving on to the larger structures within
sentences. The notion of syntactic constituency is tackled quite simply by
intuition and with the help of poor overweight Timothy Toast, upon whom "an
extensive weight loss program was unleashed at an expensive Miami health spa".
What follows is an extensive discussion of seven different tests for
constituency (substitution, unit of sense/sentence fragment, movement, co-
ordination, and reduction, omission, intrusion), again exemplified with the help
of poor Timothy. A brief introduction to different notional systems for
representing syntactic structures (underlining (!), bracketing, trees) finishes
the main body of this chapter.

Chapter 3 introduces students to the words of English. Eight different "lexical
categories" are introduced (verbs, incl. aux. -, nouns, incl. pronouns -,
adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, determiners, conjunctions and interjections).
Ways to recognize these in particular sentences, their respective subgroups and
relevant characteristics are described and discussed. This chapter finishes with
a discussion of phrasal categories and their structures, including the bar- and
double-bar level and their representation. These tree representations are taken
up again at the end of chapters 4-8 in discussions of the respective components.

Chapter 4 discusses syntactic functions: predicate, subject, object, predicative
complement, adverbial. Each of these headings subsumes a discussion of problems
and phenomena specific to that component, which in turn help to elucidate
characteristics of that particular function (e.g. subject- operator inversion as
a diagnostic for "subject").

Chapter 5 is on different sentence types: declaratives, interrogatives,
imperatives, exclamatives, echoes. Every section contains discussions of various
subtypes, e.g. yes-no questions, wh-questions, tag questions etc. Most of these
are portrayed from two points of view: structure and function. The discussions
of tag questions, for instance, starts off with a brief description of the
function(s) of tags, followed by a step-by-step guide to forming this type of
question (which reminds one a little bit of the style of traditional
transformational rules) again followed by an extensive discussion of the
function of these forms, alternatives, and colloquial usages.

Chapter 6 describes and discusses the verb phrase in greater detail, including
specifics of its constituency, tense versus aspect, and lexical versus auxiliary
(and modal) verbs. Special emphasis is given to the role of auxiliaries and
modals in the formation of different tenses and aspects. The function of the
latter also receives stress in the exposition.

Chapter 7 does quite the same for noun phrases. It shows the distinction between
heads, (pre-)determiners, (post-) modifiers, and complements.

Chapter 8 deals with more complex constructions, or 'clauses within clauses':
finite clauses (declarative and interrogative structures, if-complement clauses,
relative clauses, 'that'-clauses), non-finite clauses ('to'-infinitives, bare
infinitives, participle constructions) and subjectless clauses (i.e. the
semantic-syntactic interpretation strategies for subjectless clauses).

Chapter 9, headed "Beyond the sentence", turns to questions of information
packaging, functional sentence perspective and the communicative function of
different sentence structures. Topics such as the given-new distinction,
unmarked sentence structures and the cohesion of texts, based on topic-comment
ordering are introduced before various discourse strategies are described and
discussed. These include passivization, 'tough'-movement, existentials,
extraposition, and focus constructions such as it-clefts, wh-clefts, fronting,
left- and right dislocation.

Chapter 10 talks about "Grammar at work". While the notion of dialects
(understood as varieties based on groups of speakers) was introduced at the
beginning of the book and is used throughout, this chapter introduces the notion
of 'registers' - varieties associated with contexts or purposes. It describes
differences between speech and writing (fluency features, discourse particles,
ellipsis, syntactic complexity, and presentation of information) and then goes
on with a brief discussion of "E-speak", electronic communication in email. The
rest of the chapter deals with three occupational varieties and their linguistic
characteristics: personal ads, sports talk, bureaucratese.

Writing an introduction to English grammar is a task as bold as it is honorable.
The discipline is very old indeed and the list of related books from almost
every decade is rather long. One is easily tempted to ask "what for?" or "what's
so special about this one?" when a new book on English grammar appears in the
catalogue. This is a book, however, that need not shun this question (contrary
to some others, one should add).

First, it deals with modern, real, messy data. The days of "John gave Mary the
book" as the perfect example of a ditransitive verb are finally over. The same
goes for the few treatments that still portray 'whom' as the only possible
object-form relativizer: "Of course, as real linguists, we don't interpret this
as 'people don't speak properly anymore'. The way we express this is that many
English speakers are losing the distinction between subject form and object form
in this environment" (B&B 222f). A soothing thought to anybody who has to
explain to his or her students every year why what they read in the grammars is
not what they hear on TV.

Second, this book seems to be one of the very few that are able to cover a lot
of ground without being generally too shallow. It is only natural that a
treatment that starts virtually from scratch and that seeks to cover a little
bit every major issue needs to be selective in parts and that it may have to
make a few shortcuts here and there. The appearance of a tree with a three-
branching S-node, for instance, in order to accommodate operator-do in yes-no
questions (p. 136), comes as a bit of a surprise after all the beautifully
binary branching trees that have been drawn up to that point, but this certainly
does not spoil the argument as whole. A second example: The introduction of e-
speak (pp.278f) does mention some of the more important distinctions in that
field (e.g. planned versus unplanned discourse, emoticons etc.) but it is
generally too short to be of much use. Also, it seems to confuse email and chat-
conversation: "Email is written, of course, but it shares many of the features
not just of spoken language, but of actual conversation; this is especially true
of the language of chat groups, where people exchange messages in much the same
way as they would chatting face to face" (p. 278). A lot more could have been
said about that. But one should not forget that this is, after all, an
introduction to English grammar, and not a scholarly discussion of new varieties
of English.

A third positive thing that must be mentioned is that this book is as theory
neutral as any treatment of syntax can be. Yes, it uses trees, it talks about
bar-level categories, heads and modifiers but it is not an introduction to
syntactic theory in the strict sense. It gives students a nice and easy way into
theory, but it is surely too weak on that part to be included on the reading
list for a course on formal syntactic theory or such. We as linguists sometimes
seem to forget that trees are not a natural good by themselves, that they are
not intrinsically valuable. They are tools and should be treated as such.
However, that doesn't mean that syntactic theory should be underestimated.
Students need to understand what the difference is between an adverbial and an
adverb is, or why they can leave out "on the front porch" in a sentence like "I
really love these geraniums on the front porch" but not in "He put the geraniums
on the front porch". And this is exactly what this book explains without
necessarily referring to tree representations. These only serve as a additional
information and are not the primary goal of the exposition.

A fourth reason why this book is to be preferred to many other books in the
field of general introductions is its verbal presentation. It is written in a
clear, accessible, and reader-oriented style with just the right amount of
anecdotes and wit to make it entertaining but not over-the-top buoyant. The
examples taken from daily speech and interesting, well-known literature, such as
the Lord of the Rings, further help to lower inhibitions on parts of the
students. A section like "Points to remember", has, in my experience, always
helped students to see both the wood and the trees and they will certainly help
to memorize the major points in this case.

What is to be criticized, however, is the general layout of the book. A few more
tables and diagrams would have been nice to make certain points a little bit
clearer. Instead, readers are confronted with a lot of plain text. This is
alleviated to a certain extent by just the right amount of sensible and helpful
chapter and section headings. Also, the "further reading" section is a bit on
the short side. Four pages all in all with about sixty titles, arranged
thematically in different sections, is not what I would expect from a top level
text book like this one. The general lack of references within the text itself
is certainly en vogue with this type of literature, it would have been helpful,
however, to my mind, if students had had the opportunity to do some very
specific follow-up reading on certain points, just to make them critically aware
of some of the more controversial issues (like the binary branching discussion
or the centennial dispute about "that" as complementizer or relativizer). Also,
Biber et al.'s latest seminal work, the "Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written
English", published in 1999, should have been mentioned at some point, despite
its last minute appearance, but here I can see that publishers are maybe
sometimes too slow to allow for these last minute changes.

Apart from these minor criticism this is a very useful, clear, accessible and
interesting textbook for a general readership and first-year students of English
and/or Linguistics. It will certainly help teachers of introductory grammar
courses to acquaint students with the basic principles of English grammar and
the general style of syntactic argumentation and to prepare them for the use of
the major reference grammars, such as Quirk et al. (1985) or Biber et al.
(1999). In that way it is a very good bridge between school grammar (if students
have ever encountered grammar at school!) and the big, impressive reference
works that are needed at more advanced levels at university. The demand put on
university teachers to leave the ivory tower and turn to practical real-life
topics has always been a great danger to linguistics in general and grammar in
particular, which is, inherently, a traditional subject of the ivory tower. This
book is one of the first and probably also one of the best attempts to bridge
this gap between the real world and its economical demands and the theory and
praxis of grammatical studies. Students dealing with English (grammar) on the
basis of this book will, in all likelihood, not have the feeling that what they
have learnt is not even worth the paper it's printed on; instead they will see,
hopefully, that doing grammar can be fun, that it need not be old-fashioned,
technical, classics-oriented and that it can also be put into action in various
aspects of everyday life. What I wish for now is a small booklet with further
exercises based on this book so that the hands-on approach may even be taken a
little bit further. And I want to know what became of poor Timothy Toast.

References:
Biber, Douglas et al. 1999. The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English.
London: Longman.
Quirk, Randolph et al. 1985. A comprehensive grammar of the English Language.
London: Longman.

Alexander T. Bergs is lecturer in English Language and Linguistics at Heinrich-
Heine-University Duesseldorf and in General Linguistics at Bonn University. His
main areas of research include historical linguistics and language change,
sociolinguistics and syntax.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue