LINGUIST List 8.788

Mon May 26 1997

Review: Morenberg: Doing Grammar, 2nd Ed.

Editor for this issue: Andrew Carnie <carnielinguistlist.org>


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Message 1: Review of Morenberg's Doing Grammar

Date: Sun, 25 May 1997 20:31:27 -0700
From: Ronald Bonham <rbonhamisland.net>
Subject: Review of Morenberg's Doing Grammar


 REVIEW of Max Morenberg,(1997), Doing Grammar, Second edition, Oxford UP, .
 New York, 292 pp. (incl. Appendix and Index).

Reviewed by Ronald Bonham <rbonhamisland.net>, Malaspina
University-College


"The way it was is the way it is." This slogan from a TV commercial appears
several times in Morenberg's new edition of his 1991 work, Doing Grammar.
Another significant phrase is , "Grammar is cumulative" (204). Together,
these two cryptic statements capture the clear economy of the prose in this
work and sum up much of what Morenberg is up to in this book, especially with
this second edition. While demonstrating the basic structural patterning
underlying grammar, the book reveals its systemi nature which
permits a repertoire of infinitely variable phrases and sentences from a
limited core.

Designed as a text with the struggling, even recalcitrant grammar student in
mind, Morenberg's book has become more accessible, "user-friendly," in this
edition. The lean, often compressed original seven chapters in 176 pages have
expanded to ten chapters in 292 pages, presented now in a more relaxed, 
unbuttoned manner. Overall the book feels more comfortable as the author
now establishes his work's theoretical and practical
background and his academic credentials (rooted in the traditions of
Jespersen, Chomsky, Pike, and Allen (x) but also in his own graduate
studies at Florida State and in contributions of his own "thousands of
students" (xii) ). While exploring the larger contexts and historical
framework for its study, Morenberg grasps that grammar is "an
analytic science, just like botany, or chemistry, or anthropology" (5).
Repetition and expansion of ideas allow the author to show that grammar
is cumulative yet ordered. Above all, in the new edition, Morenberg
demonstrates the benefits of grammar study as he emphasizes its value 
in developing analytical skills and in assisting with the
development of the "knowledgeable writer" and the "perceptive student of
literature" (242). Such an ambitious scope makes the book less neatly 
resolved and self-contained than in its original edition but more
rewarding in its challenge to its readers to take the
analysis of grammar into the real world.

Certainly the idea of dividing up and expanding the first two chapters into
four is an excellent one; so much material that was once compressed now
has breathing room to develop. My experience with using the first edition
as a classroom text (with 5th year ESL/ EFL educators who had little or no 
background in linguistics) supports the decision
to expand on this material and to offer it in less concentrated dosages.
Students found this material daunting and yet crucial for
handling the rest of the book. Chapter 1 still has the
same title as in the first edition: " Identifying Verb Types," but provides
more context, definition, and fuller examination of the six core verb
types -- the center of Morenberg's discussion both here and throughout
the entire work. A most useful examination of the
nature and scope of grammar has been added. Chapter 2 ,"Analyzing
Sentences, " brings in some of the old Chapter 1 but offers a lot 
of new discussion of sentence formation. This material is not only helpful
in relating verbs and sentences but also provides some
valuable examination of the nature of constituent and hierarchical
structure. Here Morenberg draws upon the tradition of Chomsky's work
with syntax as well as Pike's work with string constituent analysis
derived from tagmemics. I was pleased to see the discussion of the
value as well as the limitations of diagramming ("Diagrams are tools, not
goals" (33)). Many of my students struggled with this approach to analysis
and felt that they did not understand the concepts if they were unable
to arrive at the same diagrams as those in the text. The assurance here 
will help to put details of diagramming in perspective
as part of grammar study but not its essence.

Chapters 3, "Expanding Verb Phrases," and 4, "Exploring Noun Phrases,"
essentially break up the first edition's Chapter 2, "Expanding Verb
Phrases and Noun Phrases," into two chapters which offer fuller and
better paced discussion of this material. The discussion of noun
phrases is, in particular, significantly amplified with a clear explanation
of the difference between determiner and adjective and a thorough
examination of types of pronouns -- presentation absent from the
first edition. 

Chapters 5 through 9, which "explain how grammar builds sentences by
rearranging and combining core sentences (89), retain the same titles
as the original Chapters 3 through 7; however, they are developed more 
extensively with several more subject headings and
fuller exemplification. 

The last chapter in the new edition, Chapter 10: "What Can You Do Now That
You Can Do Grammar? The Rhetoric of Sentences," is entirely new and takes 
the study beyond the limits of the structure and "acceptability" of sentences
to an examination of their "quality" and "effectiveness". Here Morenberg
takes the book to a new level of discussion as he
begins to consider the complex and less defined areas of style, taste,
composition, interpretation, and aesthetics and the impact of
grammatical knowledge here.

>From the start, Morenberg demonstrates awareness of, and response to, a general
antipathy to grammar study, ranging from a lack of interest in it as
something to "endure" to an active distaste for it as something
"dreaded and disliked". However, he has us question this perspective
by reinforcing the view that humans are "language animals" and
hence grammatical beings. Thus, something is wrong in the ways in which
educators have made the unconscious conscious: "We're born to love grammar.
We're taught to hate it." 

After acknowledging his own struggles with the knowledge as a subject
at school, Morenberg turns to Paul Roberts' notion that grammar is 
"something that produces the sentences of a language". This notion 
was a revelation to Morenberg since it made grammar dynamic and productive
as well as something of practical value. He draws upon
this outlook in defining the two central ideas of Doing Grammar -- the "grammar
machine" which permits the production of "an infinite number of sentences
from a small number of constituents" and the "combining excercise"
which allows students of grammar "to combine two sentences into one
in as many ways as they can" (ix). These two ideas are, of course, 
not original with Morenberg but his keeping them in focus throughout the
book provides it with clear grounding and framework and keeps the immediacy and
productivity of grammar always in sight. 

Doing Grammar has, if anything, become even more "user-friendly" in its new
edition. It still offers a lot of exercises at the end of each chapter
and some selected answers in the Appendix to help the students check
their own responses to the questions. The sample sentences remain lively
and topical; again, they are even more vigorous and engaging than
those in the first edition. Some emphasize current issues ("O. J. had denied
guilt," "Calvin Klein's world is a world of subdued chic");
some employ contemporary language/ phrasing ("The 'killer brownie'
I bought at the snack bar was sinfully rich"); some are curious
("Entomologists believe that termite flatulence causes 20 per cent of the
world's methane", "Bruce Wayne will turn 70 in 2009"); some are
even controversial (The manufacture of U.S. weapons is in the hands
of a few giant corporations") . As Morenberg points out,
they are all "real sentences" (x), and they have that feel. 

The chapters in the new edition not only continue to offer summaries but
also provide previews which establish the chapters' focal points/ key
issues. The chart summary of the verb types (140) gives the student
a useful anchor for the discussion of sentence formation
in the subsequent chapters. This symmetry makes the book easier to follow,
key elements easier to remember. The point about how indirect objects
can "perceive as well as receive" is a useful indicator of their function 
which I plan to draw upon in future teaching. At times those of us
teaching grammar despair of the terms we are stuck with from Latin-
based grammars, yet they are difficult to escape. Morenberg's book brings
together "traditional principles" with "contemporary formulations" (x);
he employs, for example, the term "tense" for verbs but also uses the 
terms "modality" and "aspect" as "closely related grammatical concepts
that overlap with real-world time but aren't always the same
thing" (46). Another useful part of this discussion is Morenberg's
acknowledgement that English verbs have "only two tense forms
- PAST and PRESENT" and that tense is a "form changing characteristic" 
which is "not real-world time" (48). This viewpoint helps
clarify an issue that, in my experience, many students find confusing.

Contributing to the casual, unbuttoned approach are the anecdotes (like the one
concerning the "longest sentence" which allows Morenberg to comment on the
limitations of diagramming and the complex permutations of sentence
formation); analogies; the occasional useful test (like the one in
Chapter 2 on identifying subjects and predicates); the
odd bit of editorial assurance ("Try not to let all this confuse you") (38);
slogans and ads ("It's Consistency, Stupid!); and even a joke and a
key play on words ("Thermogrammatics" in Chapter 7). As Morenberg 
shamelessly professes, "Well, if it works for you . . . ", and he is right,
of course. These elements, along with the attention to
clarity of language, contribute to making the teaching of grammar --
referred to with distaste by my highschool teacher as "Old Boredom" 
- more engaging and hence more effective.

However, at times the informality of Morenberg's language is -- for this
reviewer -- jarring to the ear. He frequently uses "more clear":
whatever happened to "clearer"? Also, I object to the usage "different 
than" which should logically be "different from" or "other
than," although this may be a losing battle. Beginning sentences with
coordinating conjunctions has become common practice in informal writing, 
but one would hope that a grammarian would avoid it. I also assume
that "either . . . or" deals with a choice between
two possibilities whereas Morenberg uses this correlative form for
three: "The other two-place transitive is followed either by two
noun phrases, by a noun phrase and then an adjective phrase, or by a
noun phrase and then an infinitive phrase" (9). 

Also there are places where the points are not very clear. For example,
Morenberg states that "nonrestrictive modifiers are most movable.
Not relative clauses" (216) This is confusing since nonrestrictive 
relative clauses are movable in the example. I had to look at
this discussion a few times before I realized that the issue here is the
degree of movability, and I'm sure that this subtlety would go by many
students. Also, Morenberg claims that in the phrase "with the spoken lines
taking on a life of their own," "with is considered an
introductory word, like a subordinate conjunction". Because of this,
"absolute phrases introduced by with. . . are not prepositional phrases. 
They remain absolute phrases." (227) I am not sure why a prepositional 
phrase couldn't exist here with the form of preposition but the function
of absolute phrase. The statement that "with is considered an
introductory word" begs the question. Why/ By whom? Also the statement that
"intransitive verbs don't need nouns or adjectives immediately to their
right" (6) fails to really explain clearly enough what intransitive verbs
are or the fact that they do not carry information across from the subject
to a recipient or object -- the etymological meaning of
"intransitive". It is also unclear why the modal "must" is presented as a
"past form with no base/ present form" (52). Why not the other way around? 
The source/ origins of the term "slot" for positions that need to be
filled by certain structures is unfamiliar to me and appears a vague 
usage for the notion of subcategorization. Such issues are rather minor
quibbles, but they can result in confusion for the reader. 

The diagrams of the sentences are often a problem as well since they tend to
dominate some of the discussion and are frequently on the next page, so
the reader needs to flip back and forth to connect them to the discussion.
There are also no other materials present for students who are visual 
learners: charts or illustrations would help to supplement the use of 
bold titles and the dividing up of the chapters into subheadings for
some right hemisphere stimulation.

The last chapter -- the major addition to Doing Grammar-- is a heroic
effort to expand the value of studying grammar beyond the development
of "analytical skills" to the cultivating of compositional and reading/
interpretative skills. Certainly the concern here with style and
sentence effectiveness will contribute to the growth of the "knowledgable
writer" and the "perceptive student of literature" (242) and it is
worthwhile having this pointed out. The observations about style 
through Romano's and especially Hemingway's prose (245-48) are
revelations that would be valuable to explore with students. Unfortunately,
the chapter is short and appears truncated. The discussion
of the Plain English Movement is not developed, and the concluding 
pages on punctuation's role in sentence effectiveness are rather
anti-climactic and flat. The chapter doesn't really come
together as a whole or as the final chapter of the book. What Morenberg, I
hope, will do is write another book which explores the issues of
style, effectiveness, and usage -- a companion work and rhetorical 
application of the analytical principles at work here. Tied
on to the end of the existing book, it just doesn't meet the needs or
expectations .

Meanwhile, we have a solid and valuable book to draw upon, and one which
suggests the possible directions to explore in employing grammatical 
analysis in real-world applications. Next week, I will be starting 
a linguistics course with a new group of ESL/EFL educators and will be
using Doing Grammar as one of my two main texts. I'm
looking forward to seeing how the new edition works for my students. I
cannot think of any stronger recommendation for Morenberg's book!

Reviewed by (Dr.) R. A. Bonham, Chair, Department of English, Malaspina
University-College, Nanaimo, British Columbia, CANADA.

My scholarly interests include Indo-European Philology, History of Writing
Systems, and the History of the English Language. I have also been 
involved with curriculum development and reviewing linguistics textbook
plans/ proposals. My current teaching interests are focussed on linguistics
for educators, especially ESL/EFL. Next academic year I will be teaching 
a new course which I have developed called "Linguistics and the
Dimensions of Literacy". 
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