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Review of  An Introduction to the Grammar of English

Reviewer: Evans Gesura Mecha
Book Title: An Introduction to the Grammar of English
Book Author: Elly van Gelderen
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 22.621

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AUTHOR: Elly van Gelderen
TITLE: An Introduction to the Grammar of English (Revised Edition)
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2010

Evans Gesura Mecha, Department of Language and Linguistics, Kampala University


In this textbook, van Gelderen combines a traditional grammar approach with
generative grammar to introduce the analysis of the structure of sentences in
the English language. The book offers a practical introduction to analysing
English sentences for students who may or may not take further linguistics
classes at the undergraduate level. The basic concepts of the grammar of English
are introduced, with emphasis on structure, in a reader-friendly manner that
encourages readers to use linguistic arguments. Each of the eleven chapters
begins with a brief introduction to grammatical concepts, builds up the basic
arguments, which are followed by exercises, answers to these exercises, and
“special topics” such as split infinitives, passives and dummies, to mention a
few. Additionally, there are highlights to key concepts and intermediate
summaries using tables and figures. The revised edition has four review blocks,
one more than the first edition of the textbook, which are followed by potential
exam questions. The book ends with a seven page glossary, and a shortened
reference list (consisting of two web pages and nine books). Unlike the first
edition, this edition includes an index. Throughout the book, the author
minimizes the use of abstract discussions and syntactic jargon, with the aim of
accommodating readers who do not have any background in linguistics, e.g., those
in the departments of humanities, philosophy, or education. To that end, she
uses examples picked from poetry, jokes and puns to generate interest in the
aspects of grammar under discussion. This being a revised edition, the author
has updated example sentences and cartoons, also texts for analysis have been
rearranged and additions have been made to the “special topics” sections. The
author has also incorporated some new subtopics such as timelines for tense. The
book now ends with a chapter on ''Special sentences,'' clauses that involve
movement, such as wh-questions, topicalization and passives. Tree diagrams for
these constructions are provided (they were not included in the first edition of
the book). One should also note that the title of book has been changed – the
subtitle (''Syntactic Arguments and Socio-Historical Background'') is gone, along
with some socio-historical details.
In chapter 1, ''Introduction,'' van Gelderen discusses the concept of grammatical
competence (the idea that native speakers intuitively know what constitutes the
grammar of their language). She also briefly runs through the issue of
descriptivism (‘what people really say’) as opposed to prescriptivism (‘what
some people think ought to be said’) with the aim of blending the two approaches
in setting out the grammar of the English language. Further, she mentions
aspects that are usually subsumed under the notion of context, such as formal
and informal uses of English.
Chapter 2 is dedicated to the classification of syntactic categories or parts of
speech in English. Van Gelderen divides the categories into two: lexical and
functional or grammatical categories. The main criterion in making the
distinction is semantic: Lexical categories are determined by virtue of them
having meaning whereas grammatical categories are functional and thus have no
meaning. Van Gelderen makes a transition from the semantic view of categories to
a structural analysis, which is common in similar textbooks.

In Chapter 3 (''Phrases'') van Gelderen discusses how to combine lexical items
into phrases, in the tradition of context-free phrase structure rules. The
structure of phrases is represented in tree diagrams, in which constituents are
labeled with relatively standard names (S=Sentence; NP=Noun Phrase; VP=Verb
Phrase; PP=Prepositional Phrase; CP=Complementizer Phrase; N=Noun;
Det=Determiner, more advanced labels, such as DP and avoids lapels found in some
current work within generative grammar, such as DP [for Determiner Phrase] and
TP [Tense Phrase] are avoided). The constituent structure of a sentence can be
represented either as bracketed structure or as a tree diagram, but the author
prefers the latter. Chapter 3 is followed by a review of chapters 1-3.
In chapter 4, ''Functions in the Sentence,'' six major grammatical functions
(subject, predicate, direct object, indirect object, complement, and adverbial)
are introduced. The object and predicate functions are used as the basis for
distinguishing verbs, and there is an explication of what light verbs are.
In chapter 5, ''Functions of Prepositions and Particles,'' the author discusses
the differences in the functions of adverbials and objects. The notion of
adjunction is demonstrated without being explicitly mentioned.
In chapter 6, ''The structure of the verb group in the verb phrase,'' van Gelderen
looks at the structure of the verb group with reference to auxiliary verbs,
tenses and finiteness. A second review, of chapters 4-6, is given after chapter 6.
Chapters 7 and 8 deal with complex sentences. In chapter 7, entitled ''Finite
Clauses: Embedded and Coordinated,'' sentences with coordination and
subordination are described and analysed. The complementizer (C) is introduced
as the syntactic head of the Complementizer Phrase (CP). Both the complementizer
and the Complementizer Phrase (CP) are essential in handling clausal elements
that are considered to be pre-nuclear, parenthetic, and post-nuclear in
sentences. The CP is a node in a syntactic tree that replaces S' in the X-bar
representation of sentences. Non-finite sentences are also discussed. Chapter 8
is followed by a review of chapters 7-8.
In chapter 9, van Gelderen explicates the structure of the Prepositional Phrase,
Adjectival Phrase, Adverbial Phrase, and Noun Phrase. The focus is on how
phrases function within other phrases as modifiers and complements to the heads
of phrases. The functions of modifier and complement in the Noun Phrase are
considered to be similar to those of the adverbial and the object in the Verb
Chapter 10, ''Clauses as parts of Noun Phrases and Adjectival Phrases,'' deals
with modifiers or complements found within phrases in relative clauses. Relative
clauses are defined as clauses that provide more information about a noun. The
structural analyses in the chapters coming after chapter 7 all make use of the
notion of the Complementizer Phrase (CP).
Chapter 11 is about so-called special sentences, sentences that involve
syntactic movement, for example interrogatives. In particular, wh-questions are
analysed as involving the movement of an operator (the wh-phrase) to the
left-periphery (in the CP). The same analysis is considered to apply to
exclamatives. The final part of the chapter briefly mentions the analysis of
topicalization, passives, cleft and pseudo-cleft constructions. The structures
are explained using the notion of movement, and a few tree diagrams are given
(not included in the first edition). The chapter is followed by a review of
chapters 9-11.


The text has numerous attributes that make it a good choice for students who
would like to improve their knowledge of the basic syntax of English. The
chapters can be easily covered in the course of a semester, and the book
contains useful exercises after every topic. Although it targets an audience
without prior knowledge of linguistics, it does not oversimplify grammatical
concepts, as is done in some comparable texts, such as Altenberg and Vago
(2010). The textbook is based on both generativist and traditional grammar
approaches. Controversial syntactic analyses are avoided. For example, there is
no discussion of mixed category constructions such as the verbal gerund,
deverbal nouns, or participles, which have verbal and adjectival properties. The
book is restricted to a purely syntactic approach, with limited discussion of
morphology and semantics. It does not consider insights gained in the study of
phonology that inform some aspects of syntax, as discussed in Nelson and
Greenbaum (2009), or the study of pragmatics, as discussed in Brinton & Brinton
(2010). While the notion of context is mentioned, for example with regard to
formal and informal uses of English, there is no explanation of how
extra-linguistic contexts and co-text interact in language structure. For
example, the term topicalization, introduced in chapter 11, is associated with
syntactic movement of topic elements to the sentence-initial position. It is
pointed out that topicalization can serve to front old information, but there is
no introduction to the classification of old and new information or to
information structure (e.g., Erteschik Shir 2007); more content is needed on the
pragmatic constraints that are responsible for movement of sentential
constituents. Overall, however, the analyses presented can serve as a good
introduction to the grammar of English as well as a launch-pad to more complex
analyses for serious readers of syntax. It is for this reason the text is, and
will remain, popular in the teaching of undergraduate courses in English syntax.


Brinton, J. L. & Brinton, M.D. (2010). The Linguistic Structure of Modern
English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Altenberg, E. & Robert M. Vago. (2010). English Grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Erteschik-Shir, N. (2007). Information Structure: the Syntax-Discourse
Interface. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nelson, G. & Sidney Greenbaum. (2009, 3rd Edition). An Introduction to English
Grammar. London: Longman.

Leech, G. and Svartvik, J. (2004, 3rd Ed.). A Communicative Grammar of English.
London: Longman.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Evans Gesura Mecha is a fulltime lecturer at Kampala University (Uganda). His research interests are interface phenomena such as the syntax-discourse pragmatics interface, phonology-morphology interface, as well as the morphosyntax of Ekegusii (a Bantu language), multilingualism and education, and the acquisition of English in an SLE context.