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Review of  An Introduction to the Grammar of English

Reviewer: Anja Wanner
Book Title: An Introduction to the Grammar of English
Book Author: Elly van Gelderen
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): English
Language Family(ies): New English
Issue Number: 14.456

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Date: Tue, 11 Feb 2003 01:12:03 -0600
From: Anja Wanner
Subject: Review: An Introduction to the Grammar of English.

Gelderen, Elly van (2002): An Introduction to the Grammar of English.
Syntactic Arguments and Socio-Historical Background.
Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, paperback ISBN 158811 1571 ($
29.95), hardback ISBN 1588112004 ($ 68.00). xxiv + 200 pages.

Reviewer: Anja Wanner, Department of English, University of

This book is a textbook for undergraduates in a typical introductory
English Grammar class. It steers a middle course between traditional
grammar (Quirk at al. 1985) and generative grammar (Aarts 2001) and it is
designed to be covered in one semester. It familiarizes students who have
no prior linguistic knowledge with classifying parts of speech, finding
syntactic phrases, and representing the structure of clauses in tree
diagrams. It has numerous exercises, many of them followed by model
answers, with data drawn from various sources (including poetry,
clippings from newspaper articles, and cartoons).

The book is divided into 11 short (all under 20 pages) chapters,
following the familiar textbook pattern of moving from the analysis of
the smallest syntactic unit (words) via diagnostics for syntactic phrases
to the structure and representation of simple and complex clauses. Each
chapter ends with a set of exercises, followed by model answers. There
are three review blocks, including suggestions for exams. A 10-page
glossary with references to the text completes the book; there is no
index. In addition to the standard material for a descriptive English
grammar class, van Gelderen includes a number of "special topics", which
might not seem very exciting from a theoretical point of view, but which
are issues that students of English are universally interested in, such
as the truth about the split infinitive, the problem of dangling
modifiers, the facts of the "whom/who" distinction and the appropriate
use of "hopefully" and "like".

After a short introduction (chapter 1) that focuses on the role of the
native speaker (this is where the book makes its most obvious borrowings
from Chomskyan theory), the text introduces criteria for classifying
"Categories" (lexical and grammatical) in chapter 2, using criteria from
morphology, syntax, and semantics. The approach is very hands-on  for
instance, it is pointed out that prepositions have characteristics of
both lexical and grammatical categories, but "for the sake of simplicity"
(p. 17) they are treated as lexical throughout the book. Chapter 3 deals
with phrases  it introduces the familiar constituency tests (movement,
coordination, substitution) and explaines how to build a tree diagram.
Van Gelderen uses a simplified version of X-bar Theory, without
projecting grammatical categories. She follows the generative tradition
of defining the functions in a clause as something that "can be read off
the tree" (p. 41). Grammatical functions and their representation in a a
tree diagram are discussed in chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 6 deals with the
syntax of the verb phrase, which is analyzed as consisting of a "verb
group" (auxiliaries and lexical verbs) and the complement. The chapter is
followed by a review section. Part three of the book is concerned with
complex sentences, for which numerous diagrams are given, involving an S'
category dominating a C position for complementizers (conjunctions).
Chapter 7 introduces non-finite clauses as clausal entities with an empty
subject position and  "to" being part of the verb group. Following
another review section, the structure of nonverbal phrases (Noun Phrase,
Adjectival Phrase, Adverbial Phrase, Prepositional Phrase) is revisited
in chapter 9, which emphasizes syntactic functions within a phrase
(determiner, head, modifier, complement). Chapter 10 discusses phrases
containing clauses, such as NPs with relative clauses (analysis: there is
no wh-movement, relative pronouns are treated as complementizers). The
book ends with a chapter on "Special sentences"  clauses that involve
movement, such as wh-questions, topicalization and passives. Tree
diagrams for these constructions are not provided, they are clearly not
within the scope of this book, as they would involve the introduction of
syntactic movement of phrases. The book closes with recommendations for
further reading and a bibliography.

This is a book that is geared towards students who will not take many
linguistics classes and who need a practical introduction to analyzing
English sentences. What makes this book stand out are the author's
conscious choices to keep the book student-friendly without
oversimplifying the material that is discussed. With all her emphasis on
structure, van Gelderen minimizes syntactic jargon and theorizing. For
instance she considers the hierarchy neutral term "constituent" a
"stumbling block" and consequently avoids it. The same holds for terms
like "recursion" and the "X" in X-bar theory. The structure of small
clauses is discussed without any reference to this term, and the empty
subject in infinitives is never referred to as "PRO".  These decisions,
als well as the flat analysis of the verbal complex, may strike the
reader who knows van Gelderen for her work on historical linguistics and
syntactic theory within the Minimalist Program (e.g. van Gelderen 1997)
as somewhat unexpected, but if this reader happens to teach introductory
English grammar classes on a regular basis, he or she will get over the
surprise quickly and will appreciate the practical decisions that van
Gelderen makes. Another student-friendly element are the exercises
throughout the book, wich are generally followed by model answers. The
point of the model answers is to provide feedback to the students  there
is no implication that there is only one acceptable answer to a question.
Students will also like the "special topics"  despite all affirmative
nods to a descriptive approach they still expect a grammar class to tell
them "what is right", or at least "why some people think that some things
are right and others are not". Another thing that student will appreciate
is the fact that tree diagrams are always represented completely (no
The book is much shorter and not as densely written as some comparable
textbooks, most notably the one by Brinton (2000), but I consider van
Gelderen's textbook more manageable as a text for the audience that it
targets. I also find it considerably clearer than the introduction by
Verspoor/Sauter (2000), also published by John Benjamins, which has a
confusing layout and does not make use of tree diagrams at all. In
comparison with Lobeck (2000), which is similar in its approach and its
target group, van Gelderen is more focused on structure and on the
practical analysis of data.
While van Gelderen's presentation of the material is very clear and
student-oriented, parts of the organization of the book are not.  For a
start, the subtitle of the book  Syntactic Arguments and Socio-Historical
Background  is somewhat misleading. There is a lot more syntax than
socio-historical background in this book. Yes, there are a number of
exercises based on historical texts, and the book does mention the
omission of auxiliaries in earlier stages of English and the like, but
there is no full section on, say, the grammaticalization of "do" or the
relationship between inflection and word order. As in Lobeck's (2000)
textbook, historical facts are brought up here and there, to illustrate
varieties of English and the changeability of linguistic rules. The
"special topic" sections that follow some of the chapters generally deal
with a conflict between prescription and description, they are not
necessarily historical, nor are they really tied thematically to the
chapters that they are part of. They are not mentioned in the table of
contents, and since there is no index, they may be hard to find.
The bibliography is short and, unfortunately, not very well edited. For
instance, Beth Levin's book on English Verb Classes and Alternations
(not: "Alterations") was published in 1993 (not: 1994), and classics such
as "The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language" by David Crystal and Jean
Aitchison's book on "Language Change" are not listed in their most recent
editions. Some books are missing altogether  for example, the "Further
Reading" section on p. 195 mentions a text by O'Grady et al. (1993), but
there is no such reference listed in the bibliography. The preface
describes van Gelderen's book as "in the tradition of the Quirk family of
grammars, such as the work of Huddleston, Burton-Roberts, Aarts & Wekker"
(p. ix), but neither Huddleston nor Aarts & Wekker show up in the
bibliography (and the textbook by Burton-Roberts, again, is not listed in
its most recent edition). The grammar by Quirk et al. (1985) is a
wonderful resource, alright, but there would have been no harm in
including one of the more recent reference grammars, such as the
corpus-based grammar by Biber et al. (1999).
Overall, though, van Gelderen's focused contribution to the textbook
shelf for English grammar classes is highly welcome. It balances
linguistic argumentation and practical answers in a student-friendly
manner and draws a clear line between what can be achieved in a
one-semester introductory class and what should be left to further


Aarts, Bas. (2001, 2nd ed.): English Syntax and Argumentation.
Houndsmills: Palgrave.
Aitchison, Jean (2001, 3rd ed.): Language Change: Progress or Decay?
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Biber, Douglas et al. (1999): Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written
English. Harlow: Longman.
Brinton, Laurel (2000): The Structure of Modern English: A Linguistic
Introduction. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Burton-Roberts, Noel (1997, 2nd ed.): Analysing Sentences: An
Introduction to English Syntax. Longman: London.
Crystal, David (1997, 2nd ed.): The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language.
Cambridge: Cambrige University Press.
Gelderen, Elly van (1997): Verbal Agreement and the Grammar behind its
"Breakdown": Minimalist Feature Checking. Tuebingen: Max Niemeyer.
Levin, Beth (1993): English Verb Classes and Alternations. A Preliminary
Investigation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lobeck, Anne (2000): Discovering Grammar. An Introduction to English
Sentence Structure. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Quirk, Randolph et al. (1985): A Comprehensive Grammar of the English
Language. London: Longman.
Verspoor, Marjolijn/Sauters, Kim (2000): English Sentence Analysis. An
Introductory Course. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.


Anja Wanner is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she teaches English syntax and syntactic theory. She did her Ph.D. work on verb classification in English. She currently works on argument alternations and the representation of agentivity in scientific discourse.