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LINGUIST List 23.1882

Sat Apr 14 2012

Review: General Linguistics; English: Rutherford (2011)

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Date: 14-Apr-2012
From: Sheila Dooley <sheila.dooleyutb.edu>
Subject: Whys & Therefores
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Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/22/22-4655.html
AUTHOR: William Rutherford
TITLE: Whys & Therefores
SUBTITLE: A Rational Look at the English Language
YEAR: 2011

Sheila A. Dooley, Department of English, University of Texas at Brownsville


This volume is a collection of 100 short dialogues between a tutor ('Marta') and
a student ('Patrick') discussing some of the most puzzling facts about English
spelling, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. Patrick poses a 'Why?'
question about English, to which Marta responds with a Socratic discourse,
leading Patrick to a 'Therefore' answer. Or, Marta herself initiates a dialogue
by extending a discussion from a previous session. The dialogues, which are
referred to as 'Days', are arranged into twenty chapters, each one composed of a
set of five dialogues whose content is related thematically. The majority of the
chapters deal with questions of morphology and syntax.

On Day 1, Marta and Patrick begin their collaboration with a discussion of what
it means to know a word like 'drink'. In later discussions of vocabulary and
word formation, they explore phenomena such as neologisms, the negative
allomorphs 'in-/im-/il-', and the right-headedness of compounds in English. One
whole chapter is devoted to compounds and another to the formation of
contractions. Syntactic topics range from correct usage of case forms and
negative polarity items to the construction of cleft sentences, relative
clauses, comparatives, and interrogatives. For example, in Day 51, Marta and
Patrick work out the syntactic constraints governing how to use 'who' and 'whom'
correctly. The next day, they continue the discussion of wh-words, discovering
that sentences which have the form of questions can in fact be statements, as
when Marta says 'Can anybody argue with that?' Additionally, there are three
chapters which deal exclusively with questions of English spelling and
phonology, including silent letters, consonant clusters, syllabic consonants,
and stress placement. Over Days 44 and 45, Marta helps Patrick to understand why
some words double their final consonant when a suffix is added, while others do
not. By the end of Day 45, Patrick is able to articulate the rule that
consonants are doubled when a preceding vowel is lax (as in 'shopping'). There
are also Days devoted to the semantics of idiomatic expressions, spatial deixis,
metaphor, and epistemic and deontic modality. The final chapter of the book
revisits the question of word knowledge, and in Day 100, Patrick and Marta end
their tutoring sessions with observations about the grammatical 'mistakes' that
native speakers produce naturally, such as the phenomenon of the double 'is', as
in 'What the problem is is that . . . '

Each chapter ends with a Postcript, or 'PS', that sometimes serves as an
exercise for the reader in applying or extending the content of the chapter. An
index of technical terms, a list of references, and notes to accompany the Days
and Postscripts complete the contents. The book is described by the author as a
'do-it-yourself book' (p. xiv) and is intended for a wide audience of readers
who have varying degrees of familiarity with the subject matter. It can be read
simply for entertainment, but the author states in the preface that its purpose
is (among other things) to stimulate curiosity about language, inspire critical
thinking, and demonstrate to native speakers that they do actually know a great
deal about language intuitively.


Even though the discussions of each Day are mainly kept at a level suitable for
general or beginner student audiences, there is still material here that can be
enlightening for readers with more advanced knowledge of some areas of
linguistics. For example, Patrick wonders on Day 26 why English spelling is so
'crazy', with words like 'bomb', 'sign', and 'muscle', which contain silent
letters. These seem much more logical, however, after Marta simply reminds
Patrick that these 'silent' letters are not silent in the related words
'bombardier', 'signal', and 'muscular'. Marta and Patrick revel in affix
productivity, adding '-ize' and gleefully creating new words left and right.
They explore the spatial metaphors of 'come/go' and why the order in frozen
expressions such as 'coming and going' cannot be reversed, inviting the reader
in a PS to extend the investigation of frozen word orders to three-place
expressions, such as 'lock, stock, and barrel'. Topics such as these and many
others rarely find their way into introductory level linguistics texts, but can
illustrate much about the structure of language. There are also some fresh takes
here on fundamental but thorny points of English grammar. The basic mysteries of
specificity and definiteness are appealingly clarified without any recourse to
philosophy or logic. A whole chapter on the family of contractions in English
helps with distinguishing between the false twins ‘it’s/its’-- a distinction
that is incredibly elusive to many student English writers. Marta reminds
Patrick that 'its' is not so exceptional after all and is actually not the only
possessive in English without an apostrophe; we all tend to forget about
'theirs', 'ours', and 'hers'.

The format of Whys & Therefores is truly innovative and is by far its most
memorable feature. While this book is not the first linguistic work to use the
dialogue framework (cf. Lasnik & Uriagereka 1988; Uriagereka 1998), it is the
first to deliver dialogues that are short enough, accessible enough, and
entertaining enough for mass consumption. It is a particularly contemporary
format, with the Days suggestive of a 'dialogue of the day' app or a YouTube
snippet. The discursive structure of the dialogues can feel repetitive if too
many Days are read in one sitting, so the book is indeed best consumed in the
daily format in which it is structured. The fact that the Days are presented as
dialogues also gives the reader the impression of participating in a live
version of the action, somewhat like the vicarious experiences so popular today
in reality TV programs. The book is clearly more than just a collection of
transcripts of student-teacher interactions. Like reality TV, the recorded
conversations have been chosen and arranged by the author with care to present
something that is much more than just a literal record of what was said.

One cannot help but wonder, nevertheless, how much editing took place in the
transcripts. This is not clear. In fact, neither is it altogether clear if the
dialogues actually took place or if they are the skillful composition of a
teacher well-versed in both the Socratic method, and the intricacies of the
English language. At first, there is no reason to doubt that 'Marta' and
'Patrick' did have these conversations. However, after a while, they both seem
to be incredibly astute. If only all students were as inquisitive and observant
as Patrick! If only all tutors were as knowledgeable, patient, and entertaining
as Marta! If these two personas were indeed based on actual individuals, then
the author certainly chose them well. Wanting the full experience, I went in
search of the accompanying CD which is available for the book. I wanted to hear
the lively interaction between Marta and Patrick. Unfortunately, the audio
versions of the dialogues were not available from the publisher's website,
contrary to what is stated in the preface of the book. Websites are notoriously
ephemeral, so we can only hope that the publisher will deliver the audio content
in the future. It would greatly enhance the whole experience of these dialogues,
which are usually quite lively, even in the form of the written word.

The design of the book is also non-traditional. Several fonts and font sizes are
blended together on each page. Boldface, italics, quotation marks, capitals, and
underlining jostle one another everywhere, creating a visual frenzy at times.
Proverbs, quotations, cartoons, and other bits of literature or popular culture
are pasted in like post-it notes at the beginning or end of each Day. These are
clearly meant to stimulate interest, provoke thought, and give the whole text
added personality. The effect of all these visual elements can at first be one
of distraction rather than support and enhancement for the content of the text.
However, there is a method to this madness. This is most evident on the first
page of each chapter, where the sometimes mysterious titles for each Day are
displayed in a mixture of font sizes. For example, Chapter 3 begins with a
collage of the Day titles (with non-capitalization and punctuation preserved
from the text): 'worth a standing ovulation. . . ', 'a mirror into the future',
'souving the serp', 'hamburgers & infotainment', 'hair today, gone tomorrow',
and 'glarpos and elbonics' (the chapter PS). This chapter is about creativity in
language, so it is understandable that its Day titles are extraordinary. And
they do serve a purpose; after the initial visual shock, curiosity sets in. How
can one resist such titles? What in the world could Patrick and Marta be
discussing in a dialogue titled 'souving the serp'? The reader has to find out,
and dives in, learning about speech errors and the persistence of English

Coverage of linguistic concepts is limited in scope and unsystematic in
arrangement, even if the Days are grouped into thematic chapters. However, as
the author explains in the preface, this is an effect of selecting topics that
could be handled well in simple dialogues. Two-thirds of the book's dialogues
are devoted to concepts of morphology and syntax, with the final third being
composed of a mixture of subject areas. There is thus a strong bias toward
coverage of word and sentence structure. Within subject areas, the choice of
topics for each chapter is somewhat of a grab bag. For example, Chapter 19,
'Modification', includes the following concepts: adverbial modification,
relative clauses, object and subject relatives, 'the garden path', cleft
sentences, and noun complements. The reader is given, at best, a taste of each
one of these. Again, this is constrained by the need to keep the dialogues
consistently brief and accessible to a general audience of readers.

While the dialogue structure of the book might seem to recommend it highly as a
candidate for an introductory linguistics textbook, it is not intended to be
used as one and would indeed be unsuitable for this purpose because of its
limited scope. Technical vocabulary is used in context, but is not always
defined sufficiently within a dialogue. Patrick seems to control a fair amount
of linguistic knowledge already and may be more advanced than some readers.
Although it is possible for readers to consult the index to locate discussions
of technical terms, the index is arranged in a non-traditional way that can be
confusing. Instead of listing page numbers, the index references terms by Day
and PS numbers. A more traditional format would have been much easier to
navigate, and the addition of a separate glossary of terms would have enhanced
the book's user-friendliness for uninitiated readers; but then, it would be a
totally different book, more similar to so many other introductory textbooks in
print. Whys & Therefores could, however, be used successfully as a supplemental
text in conjunction with a more traditional textbook.

The author mentions that the book can be used for reference, but, as stated in
the previous paragraph, the contents are too limited in scope and arranged too
randomly for it to function properly as a good reference book. Information about
a specific term or phenomenon must be gleaned in bits and pieces from different
sections of the book. For example, information on the term 'compound' can be
found in Days 1, 66, and 76-80, and the term is (according to the index)
featured as well in the PS extras to Chapters 1, 4, 8, 16, and 20. However, the
PS to Chapter 1 is an exercise in speculation about what is included in
'knowledge of a word', and the term ‘compound’ is totally absent from the text
there. Using this volume as a reference tool would be unhelpful for readers who
want to find clear information on key terms and concepts quickly.

The explanations given each Day vary greatly, and some days are -- true to life
-- far more satisfying than others. This depends partially on the familiarity of
the reader with linguistic analysis and vocabulary. Even if terminology is not
an issue, some readers may not fully appreciate the Socratic method of
presentation. It asks the reader to engage completely in the intellectual
journey toward an explanation, rather than offering one up for immediate
consumption. There are even several Days which can seem to offer no 'Therefore'
answer at all. Some readers may be left simply feeling more confused at the end
of the Day. Take Day 49, 'classifying, categorizing', in which Marta leads
Patrick down a rational path to determine why some words take the suffix '-ify'
while others take '-ize'. Patrick's first hypothesis is that the difference is
between 'long' and 'short' words, and Marta helps him to refine that to a
difference based on how many syllables a word contains. Marta points out,
however, that both suffixes can be found attached to two-syllable words.
Patrick's final response is that 'it looks like the two-syllable ones can go
either way', to which Marta replies, 'Nice little generalization', and the
dialogue is suddenly done. The reader is left still wondering why we must say
'humid-ify' and not 'humid-ize'. Leaving some questions partially unanswered may
have the desired effect of spurring readers on to investigate more on their own,
but it can just as easily frustrate them. This is an acknowledged danger
inherent in the Socratic method of teaching rather than a unique feature of this
particular book.

Ultimately, Whys & Therefores is a bold work hoping to combine and balance
pedagogy, linguistic discovery and explanation, and entertainment. This is not
an easy task to undertake, as any teacher will confirm. A measure of this book's
value is that it is likely to be highly useful to teachers -- not as a core
textbook, because its coverage is incomplete and unsystematic, but as a gold
mine of supplemental material for introductory linguistics courses. The clearest
measure of this book's success is its potentially transforming effect on the
reader, which is stated specifically as the goal of the author. First
impressions may be that this unconventional book is confusing and a trifle
unsettling, but this in itself engenders natural human curiosity and an urge to
solve its mysteries and achieve an understanding. What could be a more perfect
embodiment of Socratic pedagogy?


Uriagereka, Juan. 1998. Rhyme and reason: An introduction to Minimalist syntax.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lasnik, Howard & Juan Uriagereka. 1988. A course in GB syntax. Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press.


Sheila A. Dooley teaches English Grammar, Introductory Linguistics, and Introduction to Second Language Acquisition to students in the Rio Grande Valley who are on the career path to becoming English teachers. Her research includes both innovative classroom practices for teaching grammar and typological studies of verb initial languages.

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