Lynn M. Berk, (1999) English Syntax: From Word to
Discourse, Oxford University Press, N.Y. Pp. 315. Paper
Reviewed by Mayrene Bentley, Visiting Assistant Professor,
Dept. of Linguistics and Languages, Michigan State University
_English Syntax: From Word to Discourse_ is a descriptive survey
of English syntax which appeals to both novice and scholar. Its
author, Lynn Berk, has succeeded in making an important
pedagogical contribution for TESOL programs and for students
of linguistics and English grammar. Her syntactic descriptions of
lexical categories, phrases, and clauses are concise yet enriched
by semantic and historical explanations. Throughout her book,
Berk follows a general pattern when introducing new structures:
1) description of the syntactic features of the lexical category,
phrase, or clause 2) discussion of the relevant semantics 3)
consideration of the discourse functions of the item under
discussion. Berk's approach makes the book very accessible
and useful to students in an introductory course on English
syntax. The book also serves as a resource for an English as a
second language instructor as well as for an advanced second-
language learner of English.
Clarity with conscientious attention to essential detail
characterizes Berk's book. This is a mark of a well-seasoned
teacher. Her clear explanations are coupled with numerous
supporting examples, some of which are "real life," being taken
from sources such as television, radio, novels, and magazines.
Judicious use of concentric boxes rather than tree diagrams
serves to illustrate the syntax of both simple and embedded
clauses. Berk uses traditional functional and part-of-speech
terms to label the structures within the boxes. Her preference
for "boxes" may have been consideration for a more efficient
page layout or simply, accessibility for American students who
arrive at the university with sometimes only rudimentary training
in English grammar. With respect to layout, Berk uses
capitalization and boldface type to distinguish chapter
subheadings. While this stylistic choice diminishes the
"reference-book" look, it inhibits quick access to selected points
while simultaneously forcing the reader to keep track of major
categories and subcategories while reading. This is also true of
the table of contents which relies on indentation and page
numbers for the numerous divisions within each of the book's
Berk's strengths lie in her historical accounts of problematic
issues in syntax such as verbs which allow two bare noun
phrases and those which only take prepositional indirect objects.
She also demonstrates her commitment to a functional
explanation of syntax by her untiring descriptions of the semantic
roles of subjects and their co-occurrence restrictions with
particular verbs or adverbs. When one finishes the book, one
wonders how grammar was ever taught without recourse to
meaning. Another strength is Berk's repeated use of established
diagnostics when determining subjecthood or when
differentiating, for example, between an infinitive direct object
and an infinitive verb complement. The reiteration of these tests
throughout the book is instructive; however, a complementary
workbook of exercises or end-of-the-chapter exercises would
provide practical application of the tests which Berk so aptly
describes and applies to her own examples.
New terms are given in boldface and repeated in the 12-
page glossary at the end of the book. Berk also provides an
occasional etymological explanation for some of the new
vocabulary such as the Latin root for "transitive" and the
historical source for "patient." These explanations are helpful for
the novice trying to acquire unfamiliar terminology. However,
the general absence of the term, "part-of-speech," in the text
and in the glossary seems like an oversight since Berk uses the
term to introduce the notion of modification at the start of
In the first part of the book, Berk makes an occasional
typological comment such as "In most languages a sentence
does not require a word or phrase that functions as subject;"
(p.11). While Berk may feel that such comments provide
interest and enlightenment to the beginning student of English
syntax, the comments are not fully informed and are so sporadic
in the text, that they strike one as inconsequential. While a
footnote may have been a more appropriate place for such
comments, it is apparent that Berk has consciously chosen to
restrict the number of footnotes in the book to a sum total of ten.
Furthermore, the scope of her book is English syntax and not
how English differs from other grammatical systems.
The book has a brief introduction and five chapters. The
introduction gives a history of the prescriptive and descriptive
approaches to English. The account is valuable but lacks
sufficient explanation when describing grammaticality. Berk
defines a grammatical sentence as one spoken "by a native or
fluent speaker of English under ordinary circumstances." It is
not clear what constitutes "ordinary circumstances" (p.4).
Chapter One, "Basic Sentence Structure," includes a
description of subjects, predicates, and transitivity with
considerable discussion of semantic roles. Semanticists may
differ with some of Berk's pairing of semantic roles with noun
phrases, but her choices provide an introductory basis which can
lead to further discussion. Her definition of a benefactive as one
who "doesn't receive the direct object, but rather benefits from
some action involving the direct object" (p.44) seems too
narrow in consideration of a sentence such as "I baked a cake
Chapter Two, "The Noun Phrase," discusses different kinds
of lexical nouns (e.g. count, non-count, collective, etc.) and
pronouns (e.g. personal, reflexive, interrogative, etc.) with
substantial treatment of generic and unique reference, specific
and nonspecific reference as well as non-specified. Berk also
includes genitives in her discussion on determiners.
Chapter Three, "The Verb Phrase," handles tense, aspect,
passives, epistemic and deontic modality, mood, negation and
existential "There." In her discussion on tense, Berk suggests
two frame sentences for determining the past tense and past
participle of a verb, "I___yesterday" (p. 100) and "I have___."
The tests seem somewhat superficial for a native speaker of
English and of minimal value for a non-native speaker. Although
Berk tries to limit superfluous diagrams, a time line indicating
tense and aspect distinctions based on "the moment of speaking"
may have been more illuminating than a prose description of
relevant distinctions where "present time," (p.98) is Berk's
choice of terms (one almost too general for elucidating these
The explanation which Berk gives for the contrast between,
"Josh has washed four loads of clothes" and "John washed four
loads of clothes," is that the first sentence focuses on the fact
that Josh is not yet finished while the second sentence focuses on
the fact that the job is complete. While this may be the case in
some instances, another plausible interpretation is that the first
focuses on the fact that the job IS complete at the time of
speaking and the second focuses on WHEN the job was
completed, i.e. prior to the time of speaking.
Berk is to be congratulated on witnessing to the fact that
English is rife with passives such that "Proscribing the passive
altogether in student or professional writing simply generates bad
In her devotion to functional explanations, Berk points out
that pronouns "resist occupying final position" because
"pronouns typically express given information and... new
information usually appears last in the sentence" (p. 127). While
this is true, it is also true that pronouns resist primary stress, and
final words in a sentence are generally stressed.
Chapter Four, "Modification," is a discussion of adjectives
and adverbials with acute attention given to co-occurrence
restrictions for particular verbs with certain intensifiers, adverbs
of manner, direction, and frequency.
Chapter Five, "Clauses: Coordination and Subordination,"
finds many concentric boxes illustrating the nesting characteristic
of syntactic relations. In addition, Berk provides numerous
sentences in summary boxes which allow for a cursory reading
of some chapter parts where descriptive detail abounds, an
important time-saving feature in the life of many working
American students. The chapter concludes with a chart
summarizing the major clause types based on a functional
classification (e.g. subject, direct object, etc.).
English Syntax: From Word to Discourse is an important
contribution to the teaching of grammar since it differs from other
available sources on English grammar. Berk's book shows
some similarities to Givon's English Grammar: A Function-
Based Introduction, Vol. 1 (1993), but Berk spends
considerable time discussing historical points, laying out semantic
restrictions, and giving the social context in which a sentence is
uttered. She also provides helpful hints for ESL teachers by
pointing out syntactic differences between British and American
English and some typical faults by learners of English. In a
similar vein, Berk's book differs from the well-known A
Grammar of Contemporary English (1972) by Quirk et al. in
Berk's attention to meaning and pedagogy. Berk's use of
summary boxes to conclude her discussions and minimal
footnotes makes her book extremely accessible. The book is
carefully edited with fewer than five typographical errors. I feel
that she has wholeheartedly succeeding in achieving her goal, "to
ensure that students learn the basics of English grammar but that
at the same time they come to understand the richness and
complexity of the system"(p.xv).
Givon, T. 1993. English Grammar: A Function-Based
Introduction, Vol. 1. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Quirk, R, S. Greenbaum, G. Leech, and J. Svartvik. 1972. A
Grammar of Contemporary English. London: Longman.
Mayrene Bentley is a Visiting Assistant Professor of
Linguistics and African Languages at Michigan State University.
She will be a 1999-2000 Fulbright Scholar at the University of
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Her research interests are Bantu
languages, typology, and language teaching.