LINGUIST List 15.3244
Thu Nov 18 2004
Review: Lang Desc/Applied Ling: Price (2003)
Editor for this issue: Naomi Ogasawara <naomilinguistlist.org>
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A Comprehensive French Grammar
Message 1: A Comprehensive French Grammar
From: Ioanna Sitaridou <ioanna.sitaridouuni-hamburg.de>
Subject: A Comprehensive French Grammar
Date: Mon, 15 Nov 2004 21:02:20 +0000
From: Ioanna Sitaridou uni-hamburg.de>
Subject: A Comprehensive French Grammar, 5th ed.
AUTHOR: Price, Glanville
TITLE: A Comprehensive French Grammar, fifth edition
SERIES: Blackwell Reference Grammars
PUBLISHER: Blackwell Publishing
Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/14/14-918.html
Ioanna Sitaridou, Department of Spanish and Portuguese,
University of Cambridge
This textbook introduces students with no knowledge of linguistics but with
considerable knowledge of French to the various aspects and phenomena
of French Grammar. The book comprises five chapters (introduction, the
noun phrase, verbs, the structure of the sentence, and adverbs,
prepositions and conjunctions), a contents list, an appendix, an index, a
bibliography list and a terms and abbreviations list (the last two
immediately following 'contents'). Each chapter follows a different
organisation, however they all have an introduction but yet no summary.
Chapter 1 (Introduction) basically presents the French alphabet, its phonetic
transcription and all the conventional orthographic rules for French. More
explicitly, it covers the mute vs the aspirate 'h' (that is, the fact that 'h'
pronounced but sometimes counts as mute and sometimes as aspirated),
capitalisation (i.e. 'le Canada' BUT 'le jeudi' NOT 'le Jeudi'), punctuation,
division into syllables, hyphens, accents and cedilla, diaeresis (i.e 'Saül'
NOT 'Saul') and elision (i.e 'j'aime' NOT 'je aime').
Chapter 2 (The Noun Phrase) discusses the basic morphological structure of
the noun phrase. Apart from the Introduction, there are sections on the
functions of the noun phrases (i.e. the subject, the complement of the
subject (sic), the object, the genitive, the complement of the proposition),
possessive function, determiners, gender, number, miscellaneous [sic],
adjectives and degrees of comparison, pronouns and quantifiers, etc.
Chapter 3 (Verbs) deals with the verbs and either defines or discusses
topics such as the following: conjugations, moods and tenses, the persons
of the verb, defective verbs, the morphology of the verbs, reflexive verbs,
the passive, negative and interrogative conjugations, person and number,
tenses, infinitives, participles, moods, modals, imperatives, idioms, etc.
Chapter 4 (The Structure of the Sentence) is concerned with the syntax of
French. It deals with four phenomena: negation, interrogation, inversion,
and dislocation and fronting.
Chapter 5 (Adverbs, Prepositions and Conjunctions) describes first, the
different types of adverbs according to their semantics; second, simple and
complex prepositions and which verbs subcategorise for what preposition
(what the author calls 'government of verbs by prepositions', p. 501) as well
as their semantics; third, the types of conjunctions and whether they require
indicative or subjunctive.
Finally, the Appendix briefly describes the type of expressions used to
interrogate about age, time, price, dimensions, speed, and fuel
Writing (or rather rewriting in this case since the book already counts its
fifth edition) a grammar book is by no means an easy task and it could not
be exhaustive and yet user-friendly at the same time. The advantages of
this textbook are first, that it is suitable for other types of reading such as
browsing. The short numbered paragraphs -- very much in the spirit of
Grevisse's (1993) seminal 'Le bon Usage' grammar -- may read
as 'rubriques', particularly suitable for quick browsing.
Second, it uses a wealth of examples (although the source is most of the
times not acknowledged) and it makes clear the distinction between spoken
and written language, a rather important dimension of today's French, and
one, which is most often overlooked by both grammarians and syntacticians.
However, there are quite a few points to criticise. The first point has to do
with the fact that in the preface it is not identified what the goals are set out
to be and what the target audience is supposed to be. What we know --
namely that is intended for advanced learners of French -- comes from a
few lines on the back cover of the book. Having said that, it is worth
mentioning that Price might have chosen not to be explicit over this issue
simply because the book is a revised version of an existing classic:
Comprehensive French Grammar with Classified Vocabularies (1950) by L.
S. R. Byrne and E. L. Churchill, where the goals presumably are more
saliently defined. At the same time however, the author states that the book
is an altogether 'new' grammar, thus the sole authorship, and in this sense
we would expect him to reinstate the aims of the book and identify the
Second, this is a heavily prescriptive grammar. Quite often the
terms 'traditional' grammar and 'prescriptive' grammar are used
interchangeably, however in this case we clearly deal with a grammar of an
over(t)ly prescriptive character without some of the values attributed to
traditional grammars (i.e. in 'va-t-il' type of examples, epenthetic 't' is not
labelled as a phonological process called epenthesis but rather it is
described as an insertion of 't', the implication being that it is particular to
this type of construction). More explicitly, the author uses expressions, such
as '... in certain circumstances one must (bold in the original) use the
subjunctive (and, in others, that one must (bold in the original) use the
indicative' (p. 358); 'In speech, the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctive
should always (bold in the original) be ...' (p. 382). The obvious question to
ask here is whether prescriptivism can be avoided in second language
acquisition. My personal view is that a certain amount of rule-learning is
inescapable but crucially this can be done in various ways -- the one I am
ascribing myself to is by providing explanations along with 'dry' rules. But
more on this point next.
Third, there is often a problem of organisation of the textbook. In
formalistic terms, the Contents section is rather idiosyncratically compiled
in that it has no chapter or section numbering. It is also not clear when
sections carry a numeral (a Roman as in some sections of Chapter 3 but
none for the same level of embedding in Chapter 2) and when they do not.
It should however be mentioned that paragraphs do carry a number. In
terms of organisation of the material, problems often arise because of the
unclear distinction between morphological and syntactic treatment of the
phenomena (to the extent of course this is always possible to disentangle). I
exemplify by means of two examples: first, in Chapter 2, in the section
about the functions of the noun phrase, the function of indirect object is
not included. More precisely, it is set apart, namely by heading a separate
section (here the section coincides with the paragraph number hence I can
identify it as number 21). There is no reason whatsoever for the indirect
object not to be included in the section about the syntactic functions. I
guess the author wants to put emphasis on how English is different from
French in terms of marking the object. Second, in Chapter 3, in section N
on 'Moods' it is not clear at all why infinitives, participles and gerunds
should be considered as moods (especially the last two ones). Third, in
Chapter 4, it is not clear why the structure of the sentence should only
contain negation, wh-constructions, inversion, dislocation and fronting.
The point being that all sorts of other phenomena could also have been
presented from a syntactic point of view, i.e. the noun-adjective ordering,
control constructions, the licensing of subjects, passives, just to name a few.
Fourth, and to me this is the most deficient aspect of the textbook, there is
complete lack of explanatory adequacy and intention of building up meta-
linguistic awareness. To put it differently, it scores very poorly in explaining,
although in all fairness this seems to lie outside the author's aims. For
instance, on p. 358 it says '...that we shall not attempt to define the
term 'mood' ...'; on p. 15 it uses the term subject without attempting to
define it. It is expected by the student to grasp the term by mere exposure
to the underlined parts of the examples. However 'immersion' is a
communicative teaching method and thus fails in written textbooks. The
obvious question then -- and which we raised earlier -- is to which extent
second language acquisition is sustainable in this prescriptive manner, and
moreover how suitable it is for university students of French. I would like to
suggest that the way to teach 'French Grammar' or 'Introduction to Any
Grammar' -- at university level in particular -- should be done by using the
tools of linguistic theory. Furthermore, the book does not take into
consideration the results of current syntactic research, so for instance, it
does not mention the aspectual information that the verb may carry in
French (cf. the Chapter on the 'Verbs', p. 310) and tries to capture the verbal
system solely in terms of the tense-mood distinction; or on another
occasion it does not make the distinction between morphological and
abstract Case, and therefore it is said that French does not have a genitive
Case (sic) (cf. p. 15).
Finally, there are a few typographical errors, and although the less
problematic aspect for me, I will briefly mention two: on p. v, 'partitive
articie' instead of 'partitive article'; on p. 5 'le due de Bourgogne' instead
of 'le duc de Bourgogne'.
Overall, this is a useful reference grammar which may work well in
conjunction with other textbooks for first year English-speaking students of
French as well as for English-speaking teachers of French.
Byrne, L. S. R. & E. L. Churchill (1950) Comprehensive French Grammar with
Classified Vocabularies. Oxford: Blackwell.
Grevisse, M. (1993) Le bon usage. Grammaire française, 13th ed., recast by
A. Goosse. Paris and Louvain-la-Neuve: Duculot.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Ioanna Sitaridou is University Lecturer in Romance Philology at the
University of Cambridge and Director of Studies in Linguistics at Queens'
College. Her main areas of research are synchronic and diachronic syntax,
in particular: acquisition, language contact, dialectal variation, and
language change. Her 2002 doctoral dissertation is entitled 'The Synchrony
and Diachrony of Romance Infinitives with Nominative Subjects'. During her
postdoctoral research at the University of Hamburg, she worked on the
licensing of null subjects in Old French dialects, and the development of
overt subjects in the history of French.
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