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Review of  The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language

Reviewer: Joybrato Mukherjee
Book Title: The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language
Book Author: Rodney D. Huddleston Geoffrey K Pullum
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 13.1853

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Date: Wed, 3 Jul 2002 19:53:36 +0200
From: Joybrato Mukherjee
Subject: Huddleston & Pullum (2002) Cambridge Grammar of English

Huddleston, Rodney, and Geoffrey K. Pullum (2002) The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, hardback ISBN 0-521-43146-8, xvii+1842pp, $100.00 (introductory price until December 2002).

Joybrato Mukherjee, University of Bonn

The new Cambridge Grammar was announced by its publishers as "the grammar for the 21st century". In light of its size and comprehensiveness, it is no doubt difficult to exaggerate the admirable achievement and the monumental quality of this volume. It should be noted at the outset that this grammar has benefited from extensive collaboration with a couple of distinguished scholars who have contributed substantial parts to individual chapters. The list of co-authors includes Laurie Bauer, Betty Birner, Ted Briscoe, Peter Collins, David Denison, David Lee, Anita Mittwoch, Geoffrey Nunberg, Frank Palmer, John Payne, Peter Peterson, Lesley Stirling and Gregory Ward.

It is of course impossible to go into details about all topics covered in such an impressively voluminous piece of work. In the following, I will provide a brief overview of the contents of the twenty main chapters. Afterwards, I will focus on some design features of the general approach to language description that are characteristic of the Cambridge Grammar. This critical evaluation will take the form of a comparison of the grammar under review with another grammar of similar range and depth of coverage. Specifically, the Cambridge Grammar is an obvious competitor of Quirk et al.'s (1985) well-established and widely used Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, the pioneering role of which is explicitly acknowledged by Huddleston and Pullum in the preface to the Cambridge Grammar. Thus, it stands to reason in this context to point out some major similarities and differences between the two grammars.


At the beginning of Chapter 1 ("Preliminaries"), the authors set out the aim of the book, which is intended to give a comprehensive and descriptive account of the grammatical principles that underlie the general-purpose, standard, international variety of present-day English. What follows is a discussion of some general issues, e.g. the different goals and coverage of prescriptive and descriptive grammars, differences between speech and writing, and the relation between description and theory. Finally, the authors introduce some basic concepts in syntax (e.g. constituent structure and various syntactic and lexical categories) and throw a glance at the pragmatic and semantic implications of grammar (e.g. concepts such as pragmatic presupposition). Chapter 2 ("Syntactic overview") provides a synopsis of central elements and constructions in English grammar. For example, the authors deal with the difference between the concepts of sentence and clause, with phrase types and clause types and with information packaging. This brief overview sets the agenda for the subsequent chapters in that each chapter is intended to describe a particular level of analysis and/or a specific linguistic phenomenon in more detail: "The verb" (Chapter 3); "The clause: complements" (Chapter 4); "Nouns and noun phrases (Chapter 5); "Adjectives and adverbs" (Chapter 6); "Prepositions and preposition phrases" (Chapter 7); "The clause: adjuncts" (Chapter 8); "Negation" (Chapter 9); "Clause type and illocutionary force" (Chapter 10); "Content clauses and reported speech" (Chapter 11); "Relative constructions and unbounded dependencies" (Chapter 12); "Comparative constructions" (Chapter 13); "Non-finite and verbless clauses" (Chapter 14); "Coordination and supplementation" (Chapter 15); "Information packaging" (Chapter 16); "Deixis and anaphora" (Chapter 17). Two chapters are devoted to morphology and word-formation: "Inflectional morphology and related matters" (Chapter 18); "Lexical word-formation" (Chapter 19). The grammar is rounded off by a discussion of English punctuation (Chapter 20), which is followed by suggestions for further reading, a lexical index and a conceptual index.

It is obvious that the overriding design of the Cambridge Grammar is largely reminiscent of the Comprehensive Grammar (compare the precursory second chapter and the similar range of topics covered by many other chapters). However, the grammar under review does not include a separate section on intonation (cf. Appendix II in the Comprehensive Grammar), although aspects of prosody are taken into account at various places (e.g. in discussing the correlation between right dislocation and intonational phrasing, cf. p. 1414). On the other hand, the Cambridge Grammar elaborates in a much more detailed way on morphological issues than the Comprehensive Grammar. Despite the similarity in overall structure, the Cambridge Grammar is conceptually quite different from the Comprehensive Grammar. The authors thus point out that "the present work often pursues a very different theoretical approach and analysis from that of Quirk et al." (p. xvi). To some of these differences I will turn in the critical evaluation.


It would be beyond the scope of this review to list and discuss all pros and cons of the Cambridge Grammar as I see them. As for the positive aspects, suffice it to say that in many regards Huddleston and Pullum (and their collaborators) succeed in not only systematising previous linguistic research but also in opening up new perspectives in the description of English grammar and in introducing new and promising concepts. For example, the Cambridge Grammar is of great benefit for all linguists who are interested in grammar both from a morphological and a syntactic perspective, because a substantial part of the grammar is explicitly devoted to a highly perceptive overview of morphology and word-formation (in the sense of what may be called 'word-internal grammar'). The in-depth discussion of the various internal structures of compounds is one case in point (cf. pp. 1644ff.). Also, there are many examples of refreshingly innovative concepts and/or terminology. For example, the notion of "presentational status" (p. 229) is introduced in order to describe semantico-pragmatic differences between different syntactic functions of one and the same semantic role (e.g. 'Kim' in 'Kim shot Pat' vs. 'Pat was shot by Kim'). A second example is the systematic distinction of "canonical" and "non- canonical" structures throughout the grammar (e.g. canonical 'Kim referred to the report' vs. non-canonical 'Kim did not refer to the report', cf. p. 46).

On the other hand, there are many analyses that I feel uneasy about. Sometimes, this is simply caused by unsatisfactory definitions, as for example in the case of the vague distinction between sentence and clause (cf. p. 45), the introduction to catenatives (cf. p. 65), and the use of the terms 'genitive' and 'accusative' (cf. p. 458). In many cases, however, my skepticism seems to be due to the fact that the authors tend to start off from some theoretical model without offering alternative approaches (in terms of a multiple analysis) and/or to draw clear boundaries between categories which should rather be taken to merge into each other (where preference should thus be given to a descriptive gradient).

To begin with, the authors take for granted that syntactic constituent structure should be represented by strictly binary-branching (or, in some cases, singulary-branching) trees, which leads to the classic generative ((NP)(VP(V)(NP))) analysis of clauses such as '((a bird)((hit)(the car)))'. In fact, this is but one example of the influence that generative concepts have obviously exerted on the Cambridge Grammar (although in other cases, the authors deviate from generative models and terminology, compare for example their comments on the inapplicability of the notion of 'dative' to present-day English on p. 457). Coming back to the bird/car-example, it is of course far more convincing for many non-generativists to allow for multiple branching as in the Comprehensive Grammar (that is, for three parallel branches combining the clause node with the three phrases at hand, functioning as subject, verb and object respectively). Generally speaking, the authors' treatment of clause elements turns out to be slightly confusing and - in my view - less plausible than the description offered by the Comprehensive Grammar with its clear distinction of five formally defined phrase types and five clause elements as the functions fulfilled by phrases at clause level.

As mentioned above, the Cambridge Grammar also differs from the Comprehensive Grammar in not allowing for multiple analyses. One example should suffice to illustrate the problem involved. In commenting on the concept of phrasal verbs (e.g. in 'He put in his application'), for example, Huddleston and Pullum write that they (i.e. 'put + in') "do not form syntactic constituents" and that "it is for this reason that we do not use the term 'phrasal verb' in this grammar" (p. 274). In contrast, the Comprehensive Grammar (cf. p. 1152) distinguishes between 'phrasal', 'prepositional' and 'phrasal-prepositional verbs', thus establishing a gradient of multi-word verbs with different strengths of linkage between the verb and the preposition. Also, the Comprehensive Grammar (cf. p. 1156) explicitly mentions two complementary analyses of verb-preposition combinations, so that a sentence like 'She looked after her son' can be analysed either as 'S-V-A' ('She - looked ^Ö after her son') or as 'S-V-O' ('She - looked after - her son'). To me, it seems to be a general weakness of the Cambridge Grammar not to allow for such multiple analyses nor to sketch out descriptive gradients in the first place. What is more, this self-imposed restriction to one particular analysis (which, I should add, may also be seen as a strength in that it helps to increase the overall theoretical stringency) is to some extent strangely at odds with the authors' statement that "the primary goal of this grammar is to describe the grammatical principles of Present-Day English rather to defend or illustrate a theory of grammar" (p. 18).

The second major weakness of the Cambridge Grammar is of a more methodological nature and concerns the data and the 'evidence' that have been drawn on by the authors. They write in the preface (cf. p. 11) that the data have been of four different kinds: (1) their own intuitions as native speakers; (2) other native speakers' intuitions; (3) computer corpora; (4) other (pre-corpus and corpus-based) dictionaries and grammars. It should be noted that the only corpora that have been directly used by Huddleston and Pullum are the one-million-word Brown Corpus, LOB Corpus and the Australian ACE. Other text sources remain unspecified, and the Wall Street Journal, in my view, does not qualify as a representative 'corpus' but is an example of a linguistically unstructured 'archive' (which may be used as a source of authentic examples but from which general trends in language cannot be extrapolated). Can a reference grammar of the English language, published in the year 2002, really be based on corpus material containing three million words only? I would say no. Although information obtained from corpus-based dictionaries and grammars have been taken into consideration in various regards (e.g. for lists of words that tend to be frequently used in a grammatical construction), the use of corpus data remains unsystematic because there is no discussion of how the data (both corpora as such and other corpus-based resources) are related to the grammatical description. Additionally, the reader is kept in the dark about which of the example sentences are invented and which ones are authentic. In a sense, then, Stubbs's (1993: 9) critical remark on the Comprehensive Grammar, which is partially based on the Survey of English Usage, also applies to the Cambridge Grammar: "This relation between corpus, example sentences and description is not discussed at all in the introduction to Quirk et al (1985), and the accountability to data of description and theory is therefore undefined." It has to be kept in mind, though, that the Cambridge was published 17 years after the Comprehensive Grammar. That is to say, very large corpora would have been easily available to the authors of the Cambridge Grammar. In passing, it should also be noted that the Comprehensive Grammar has by now been complemented with a genuinely corpus-based description of English by Biber et al. (1999) who capitalise to a very large extent on the descriptive apparatus provided by the Comprehensive Grammar. In the preface to the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, based on a 40-million-word corpus of spoken and written English, Biber et al. (1999: viii) thus point out that "the two grammars complement rather than compete with each other." In other words, I would contend that the largely intuition-based Cambridge Grammar cannot measure up to the combination of the structuralist-oriented and theoretically eclectic Comprehensive Grammar and its corpus-based counterpart, i.e. the Longman Grammar, from an empirical point of view. Note, for example, that in the Cambridge Grammar (cf. p. 1403) non-extraposition of to- clauses is described as the "basic version", although corpus findings on frequencies in natural data clearly show that it is better to regard the extraposed form as the more basic form (cf. Biber et al. 1999: 724f.). Additionally, the Cambridge Grammar does not give any detailed information on the significant correlation between the distribution of extraposition/non-extraposition and genre distinctions.

A third shortcoming of the Cambridge Grammar is of a formal nature. Unfortunately, only very few tables and diagrams are used (in comparison with, say, the Comprehensive Grammar). The Cambridge Grammar may be "typographically superior", as announced in the prospectus, but it is clearly less reader-friendly, I feel, than the Comprehensive Grammar due to its lack of graphical visualisation. Also, the sections are not numbered consecutively throughout the grammar, and I personally find the distinction between a lexical and a conceptual index less useful than the integrated (and in all regards much more refined) index of the Comprehensive Grammar.

In conclusion, I would suggest that, at the end of the day, any "grammar for the 21st century" be open to competing theoretical approaches in general and be based on a systematic and detailed analysis of authentic corpus data in particular (although I am fully aware that this must cause a stir in the formalist camp). While theoretical breadth (in terms of multiple analyses and descriptive gradients) are at the heart of the Comprehensive Grammar, the first attempt to write a corpus-based reference grammar has already been made, as mentioned above, in the form of Biber et al.'s (1999) Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. In both regards, the Cambridge Grammar thus comes across as a quaint anachronism: too many axiomatic assumptions (such as a strictly binary-branching constituent structure) are taken for granted prima facie, and the language data are not consistently and systematically obtained from naturally occurring discourse. Despite the notable and astounding achievement that the Cambridge Grammar represents, it is not the kind of grammar that fills me with enthusiasm. More specifically, I personally continue to regard the combination of the Comprehensive Grammar and the Longman Grammar (in spite of all their weaknesses and inconsistencies) much more elegantly convincing than the Cambridge Grammar. Needless to say, the preference for a particular reference grammar will always be a matter of personal taste and, in the final analysis, an act of faith. Comprehensive as it is, the Cambridge Grammar is without any doubt a reference work that should be available to all grammarians. Whether it will gain a position similar to the Comprehensive Grammar after, say, ten years remains to be seen.


Biber, Douglas, Stig Johansson, Geoffrey Leech, Susan Conrad and Edward Finegan (1999): Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow: Pearson Education.

Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik (1985): A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman.

Stubbs, Michael (1993): "British traditions in text analysis: from Firth to Sinclair", Text and Technology: In Honour of John Sinclair, ed. Mona Baker, Gill Francis and Elena Tognini-Bonelli. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 1-33.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Joybrato Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor of Modern English Linguistics in the Department of English of the University of Bonn/Germany. His research interests include corpus linguistics, EFL teaching, intonation, stylistics, syntax and text-linguistics. He is the author of 'Form and Function of Parasyntactic Presentation Structures' (2001), published by Rodopi Editions, and of 'Korpuslinguistik und Englischunterricht' ('Corpus Linguistics and English Language Teaching', 2002), published by Peter Lang. At present, he is working on a corpus-based study of English ditransitive verbs.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521431468
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 1860
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