LINGUIST List 15.2128

Thu Jul 22 2004

Review: General Linguistics: Finch (2003)

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  1. Lynn Burley, How To Study Linguistics: A Guide to Understanding Language

Message 1: How To Study Linguistics: A Guide to Understanding Language

Date: Tue, 20 Jul 2004 21:04:02 -0400 (EDT)
From: Lynn Burley <>
Subject: How To Study Linguistics: A Guide to Understanding Language

AUTHOR: Finch, Geoffrey
EDITORS: Peck, John; Coyle, Martin
TITLE: How To Study Linguistics
SUBTITLE: A Guide to Understanding Language
SERIES: Palgrave Study Guides
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
YEAR: 2003
Announced at

Lynn A. Burley, University of Central Arkansas


How to Study Linguistics is meant to be used by beginning linguistics
students, and is written in an engaging, relaxed style appropriate to
the book's purpose of looking at ''linguistics in a clear, sensible
way'' (x). Four chapters cover the expected areas, an introduction to
basic concepts, sound, syntax, and meaning, while the other three,
''Beginning Linguistics,'' ''Studying Linguistics Further,'' and ''How
to Write a Linguistics Essay,'' offer some fare not usually found in
other Introduction to Linguistics-type texts.


Chapter One, ''Beginning Linguistics,'' explains two pieces of advice
that any new linguist should consider: to beware of all books on
linguistics and to learn to think linguistically. Linguistics books
often present information in technical terms and are based in one or
another of the theories, which is not necessarily bad, but quite
daunting to the beginner. Hence, the discussion on learning to think
like a linguist, meaning to separate social ideas of language from
linguistic uses of language -- correct/wrong vs. well-formed/ill-

Chapter Two, ''The Linguistic Context,'' further helps students to
think like a linguist by first getting them to defamiliarize language.
Through this process, Finch introduces the basic ideas of competence
and performance. The rest of the chapter is devoted to the functions
of language, which he breaks down into micro and macro functions in
order to build a framework for further study. He discusses seven
micro functions: physiological, phatic, record keeping, identifying,
reasoning, communicating, and pleasure functions. The macro functions
include ideational, interpersonal, poetic and textual. Understanding
these functions gives students a basis for delving further into the
native competences as concerns the next few chapters.

Chapter Three, ''Studying Sound,'' begins a traditional chapter on
sound, but there is more here than the International Phonetic Alphabet
(IPA) and a description of the speech organs. Finch begins by getting
students thinking about sound first -- the differences between spoken
and written representations of sound, what combinations are
permissible in English, how we use sound aesthetically, and the
problems our alphabet has in describing our speech sounds. Then he
introduces the idea of phonemes and allophones followed by minimal
pairs and the description of consonants and vowels. The final section
discusses some of the phonological processes that occur in connected

Chapter Four, ''Studying Syntax,'' is divided into two parts: the
formalist approach and the functional approach. Finch tells students
that the idea here is to just develop the right mental attitude rather
than floundering in the complexities of the subject. He shows
students that they already have knowledge of syntax by having them
fill in the blank slots of various sentences, which gives them a list
of determiners, verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs. Now students
just need to learn to how these constituents work in syntax. The
formalist approach is presented as the idealization of sentences, a
way to get at our competence in order to better understand the
cognitive processes our brains use in regard to language. Students
learn the basics of phrase structure grammar and building trees. The
functional approach introduces the student to grammatical functions of
words and phrases, functional roles (actor, patient, goal, etc.),
textual function, interpersonal function, and poetic function.

Chapter Five, ''Studying Meaning,'' covers both semantics and
pragmatics. The main division is between what words mean in a
sentence and what the force of the sentence is. The chapter begins
with a discussion of sense and reference, briefly covering semantic
features, connotation, register, and semantic fields. Finch also
covers sense relations -- synonymy, antonymy, polysemy, hyponymy and
incompatability. Next is a discussion of diachronic semantics and the
processes of semantic change. Lastly, some time is spent on prototype
theory and a discussion of truth as it pertains to semantics. The
pragmatics section begins with the concepts of communicative
intention, thematic force, inference and implicature. The cooperative
principle and the maxims are introduced, followed by speech acts.

The longest chapter, Chapter Six, ''Studying Linguistics,'' is again
divided into two parts. The first is dedicated to exploring each of
the three main areas of phonology, syntax and semantics in more
detail, and the second examines some applications of these areas in
sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics and stylistics. In phonology,
Finch covers rule notation, complementary distribution, free
variation, and intonation. In-depth syntax begins with some
morphology -- bound and free, word formation processes, and
allomorphs. This allows a closer look at X bar theory and
transformational grammar. In semantics, Finch delves deeper into
logical semantics, including truth conditions and intension and

In the second part of the chapter, Finch gives students an idea of
what each of the three fields of sociolinguistics, stylistics and
psycholinguistics is about. There is a brief discussion on the social
factors affecting language use, dialect and style-shifting.
Stylistics gives students some tools for looking at literary texts --
ways to discuss textual function, ideational function and
interpersonal function, and the psycholinguistics section is a very
brief introduction to child language acquisition.

The last chapter, ''How to Write Like a Linguist,'' is full of advice
that works for whatever type of assignment students may be writing.
Finch stresses the importance of continuing to think like a linguist,
of studying language as it is used rather than how some entity thinks
it should be used. To start, students need to approach a subject as a
problem to be solved rather than as a report on what some textbook
says about a topic. This means students must ask questions, find the
gaps that are not covered in the readings. He also stresses that
students should use their own examples as this will aid them in
thinking linguistically and engaging them in the subject. Then
students are to organize their data in such a way as the assignment
requires. Basically, most papers will require students to observe,
describe and explain. Finally, students needs to be aware of their
use of terms, that they truly understand them and use them correctly,
that they write clearly, develop an argument, and thoroughly discuss
their points.


The blurb on the back of the book states that How to Study Linguistics
is an ideal companion to students' studies at the introductory level,
and I agree that it should be just that -- a companion. This is not
an introductory textbook since it does lack exercises and does not
offer many examples as most introductory textbooks do. It works well
as a companion book for several reasons. First, it is much more
readable than most textbooks -- Finch stays away from technical terms
as much as is possible and clearly gives advice to students on what to
think about when encountering technical terms. He uses analogies and
examples to get students thinking about how they use language, often
asking them to consider their own use and to listen to those around
them. For example, he discusses how one dresses for a business
function to introduce the concepts of right/wrong language use and
well-formed/ill- formed.

A second feature that makes this text a student-friendly companion is
how each subject is introduced. Most introductory level textbooks are
quite good at giving lots of information on a particular subject, but
not at explaining why students may be studying it. Finch mentions
throughout why it may be worthwhile to take a look at some particular
aspect of linguistics. In this way, it becomes more meaningful to
students rather than just getting through it. Finch is also quite
candid about some of what students will study. He quotes an extensive
piece of scholarly text on syntax, saying it ''looks like the stuff of
nightmares,'' (p. 84), which is absolutely true even for advanced
students. But he continues by explaining how this piece is both
realistic -- syntax is a very rich and complicated area -- and that it
can be approached one step at a time and need not be so daunting. He
is good at reassuring students there is value in what is to be studied
and that it is actually easily studied when one learns to think
linguistically and pay attention to how language is used.

A third feature that makes this a good companion guide is that last
chapter on how to write like a linguist. Even linguistic papers at
the beginning level require a form students may not yet have
encountered in their studies -- namely, working with real data that
they themselves have collected. And while students may be used to
generating their own topics, doing so in linguistics, I think, is much
more difficult since the subject matter is so new and different. The
recurrent advice of thinking like a linguist does need to be
emphasized when writing like a linguist since students have been
taught for so long to trust what they read in books rather than
natural data. Finch goes through an example of writing a paper on
tense to show how students can generate questions to be answered, how
they can avoid just regurgitating what other texts have to say and how
to organize their data most effectively. I believe such a chapter
should be standard in other introductory textbooks.

Other user-friendly features include bold-facing new terminology
together with about a 230 term glossary in the back. There is also an
index and the revised 1993 IPA chart. Chapters are divided into
sections and subsections for easy thumbing through.

As for depth of coverage, there is here about as much as I would
expect from an introductory level book; even more so with the chapter
on studying further. I know most textbooks do not cover X bar theory
in syntax or the symbols used in logical semantics, so having that
available for the more curious student is an advantage. On the other
hand, some subtopics do not get as much coverage as might be expected.
For example, the discussion of antonyms does not cover some types, and
the discussion of synonyms is just a paragraph. In syntax, while
Finch does a good job of showing students that they already know about
grammar by having them fill in blank slots of sentences where
determiners or nouns would go, there is no other help in figuring out
these lexical categories. In my experience, students need more tools
to learn to identify lexical categories in order to do syntax.

My only other caveat here is no fault of anyone's, least of all Finch,
and that's simply he is British and I am not. He classifies some
sounds as diphthongs that are not for many American dialect speakers,
and his discussion of postvocalic r and h dropping will be a little
confusing for most American speakers.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book as a supplement for any 
beginning linguistics student. Given how readable it is and the 
attitude that anyone can do this with a little thoughtfulness is 
invaluable to students who often feel overwhelmed by a subject they 
think they know very little about. The last chapter on writing is a 
useful tool no matter what level the student is and can be summarized 
and supplemented to fit any undergraduate class. This is a fine 
addition to the tools available to beginning students.


Dr. Lynn Burley is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing
and Speech at the University of Central Arkansas. She teaches courses
in semantics, sociolinguistics, world languages and linguistics for
educators. Her research interests center on Native American
linguistics, and she is currently finishing a paper on the production
of morphological errors.
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