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AUTHOR: William Rutherford TITLE: Whys & Therefores SUBTITLE: A Rational Look at the English Language PUBLISHER: Equinox YEAR: 2011
Sheila A. Dooley, Department of English, University of Texas at Brownsville
This volume is a collection of 100 short dialogues between a tutor ('Marta') and a student ('Patrick') discussing some of the most puzzling facts about English spelling, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. Patrick poses a 'Why?' question about English, to which Marta responds with a Socratic discourse, leading Patrick to a 'Therefore' answer. Or, Marta herself initiates a dialogue by extending a discussion from a previous session. The dialogues, which are referred to as 'Days', are arranged into twenty chapters, each one composed of a set of five dialogues whose content is related thematically. The majority of the chapters deal with questions of morphology and syntax.
On Day 1, Marta and Patrick begin their collaboration with a discussion of what it means to know a word like 'drink'. In later discussions of vocabulary and word formation, they explore phenomena such as neologisms, the negative allomorphs 'in-/im-/il-', and the right-headedness of compounds in English. One whole chapter is devoted to compounds and another to the formation of contractions. Syntactic topics range from correct usage of case forms and negative polarity items to the construction of cleft sentences, relative clauses, comparatives, and interrogatives. For example, in Day 51, Marta and Patrick work out the syntactic constraints governing how to use 'who' and 'whom' correctly. The next day, they continue the discussion of wh-words, discovering that sentences which have the form of questions can in fact be statements, as when Marta says 'Can anybody argue with that?' Additionally, there are three chapters which deal exclusively with questions of English spelling and phonology, including silent letters, consonant clusters, syllabic consonants, and stress placement. Over Days 44 and 45, Marta helps Patrick to understand why some words double their final consonant when a suffix is added, while others do not. By the end of Day 45, Patrick is able to articulate the rule that consonants are doubled when a preceding vowel is lax (as in 'shopping'). There are also Days devoted to the semantics of idiomatic expressions, spatial deixis, metaphor, and epistemic and deontic modality. The final chapter of the book revisits the question of word knowledge, and in Day 100, Patrick and Marta end their tutoring sessions with observations about the grammatical 'mistakes' that native speakers produce naturally, such as the phenomenon of the double 'is', as in 'What the problem is is that . . . '
Each chapter ends with a Postcript, or 'PS', that sometimes serves as an exercise for the reader in applying or extending the content of the chapter. An index of technical terms, a list of references, and notes to accompany the Days and Postscripts complete the contents. The book is described by the author as a 'do-it-yourself book' (p. xiv) and is intended for a wide audience of readers who have varying degrees of familiarity with the subject matter. It can be read simply for entertainment, but the author states in the preface that its purpose is (among other things) to stimulate curiosity about language, inspire critical thinking, and demonstrate to native speakers that they do actually know a great deal about language intuitively.
Even though the discussions of each Day are mainly kept at a level suitable for general or beginner student audiences, there is still material here that can be enlightening for readers with more advanced knowledge of some areas of linguistics. For example, Patrick wonders on Day 26 why English spelling is so 'crazy', with words like 'bomb', 'sign', and 'muscle', which contain silent letters. These seem much more logical, however, after Marta simply reminds Patrick that these 'silent' letters are not silent in the related words 'bombardier', 'signal', and 'muscular'. Marta and Patrick revel in affix productivity, adding '-ize' and gleefully creating new words left and right. They explore the spatial metaphors of 'come/go' and why the order in frozen expressions such as 'coming and going' cannot be reversed, inviting the reader in a PS to extend the investigation of frozen word orders to three-place expressions, such as 'lock, stock, and barrel'. Topics such as these and many others rarely find their way into introductory level linguistics texts, but can illustrate much about the structure of language. There are also some fresh takes here on fundamental but thorny points of English grammar. The basic mysteries of specificity and definiteness are appealingly clarified without any recourse to philosophy or logic. A whole chapter on the family of contractions in English helps with distinguishing between the false twins ‘it’s/its’-- a distinction that is incredibly elusive to many student English writers. Marta reminds Patrick that 'its' is not so exceptional after all and is actually not the only possessive in English without an apostrophe; we all tend to forget about 'theirs', 'ours', and 'hers'.
The format of Whys & Therefores is truly innovative and is by far its most memorable feature. While this book is not the first linguistic work to use the dialogue framework (cf. Lasnik & Uriagereka 1988; Uriagereka 1998), it is the first to deliver dialogues that are short enough, accessible enough, and entertaining enough for mass consumption. It is a particularly contemporary format, with the Days suggestive of a 'dialogue of the day' app or a YouTube snippet. The discursive structure of the dialogues can feel repetitive if too many Days are read in one sitting, so the book is indeed best consumed in the daily format in which it is structured. The fact that the Days are presented as dialogues also gives the reader the impression of participating in a live version of the action, somewhat like the vicarious experiences so popular today in reality TV programs. The book is clearly more than just a collection of transcripts of student-teacher interactions. Like reality TV, the recorded conversations have been chosen and arranged by the author with care to present something that is much more than just a literal record of what was said.
One cannot help but wonder, nevertheless, how much editing took place in the transcripts. This is not clear. In fact, neither is it altogether clear if the dialogues actually took place or if they are the skillful composition of a teacher well-versed in both the Socratic method, and the intricacies of the English language. At first, there is no reason to doubt that 'Marta' and 'Patrick' did have these conversations. However, after a while, they both seem to be incredibly astute. If only all students were as inquisitive and observant as Patrick! If only all tutors were as knowledgeable, patient, and entertaining as Marta! If these two personas were indeed based on actual individuals, then the author certainly chose them well. Wanting the full experience, I went in search of the accompanying CD which is available for the book. I wanted to hear the lively interaction between Marta and Patrick. Unfortunately, the audio versions of the dialogues were not available from the publisher's website, contrary to what is stated in the preface of the book. Websites are notoriously ephemeral, so we can only hope that the publisher will deliver the audio content in the future. It would greatly enhance the whole experience of these dialogues, which are usually quite lively, even in the form of the written word.
The design of the book is also non-traditional. Several fonts and font sizes are blended together on each page. Boldface, italics, quotation marks, capitals, and underlining jostle one another everywhere, creating a visual frenzy at times. Proverbs, quotations, cartoons, and other bits of literature or popular culture are pasted in like post-it notes at the beginning or end of each Day. These are clearly meant to stimulate interest, provoke thought, and give the whole text added personality. The effect of all these visual elements can at first be one of distraction rather than support and enhancement for the content of the text. However, there is a method to this madness. This is most evident on the first page of each chapter, where the sometimes mysterious titles for each Day are displayed in a mixture of font sizes. For example, Chapter 3 begins with a collage of the Day titles (with non-capitalization and punctuation preserved from the text): 'worth a standing ovulation. . . ', 'a mirror into the future', 'souving the serp', 'hamburgers & infotainment', 'hair today, gone tomorrow', and 'glarpos and elbonics' (the chapter PS). This chapter is about creativity in language, so it is understandable that its Day titles are extraordinary. And they do serve a purpose; after the initial visual shock, curiosity sets in. How can one resist such titles? What in the world could Patrick and Marta be discussing in a dialogue titled 'souving the serp'? The reader has to find out, and dives in, learning about speech errors and the persistence of English morphology.
Coverage of linguistic concepts is limited in scope and unsystematic in arrangement, even if the Days are grouped into thematic chapters. However, as the author explains in the preface, this is an effect of selecting topics that could be handled well in simple dialogues. Two-thirds of the book's dialogues are devoted to concepts of morphology and syntax, with the final third being composed of a mixture of subject areas. There is thus a strong bias toward coverage of word and sentence structure. Within subject areas, the choice of topics for each chapter is somewhat of a grab bag. For example, Chapter 19, 'Modification', includes the following concepts: adverbial modification, relative clauses, object and subject relatives, 'the garden path', cleft sentences, and noun complements. The reader is given, at best, a taste of each one of these. Again, this is constrained by the need to keep the dialogues consistently brief and accessible to a general audience of readers.
While the dialogue structure of the book might seem to recommend it highly as a candidate for an introductory linguistics textbook, it is not intended to be used as one and would indeed be unsuitable for this purpose because of its limited scope. Technical vocabulary is used in context, but is not always defined sufficiently within a dialogue. Patrick seems to control a fair amount of linguistic knowledge already and may be more advanced than some readers. Although it is possible for readers to consult the index to locate discussions of technical terms, the index is arranged in a non-traditional way that can be confusing. Instead of listing page numbers, the index references terms by Day and PS numbers. A more traditional format would have been much easier to navigate, and the addition of a separate glossary of terms would have enhanced the book's user-friendliness for uninitiated readers; but then, it would be a totally different book, more similar to so many other introductory textbooks in print. Whys & Therefores could, however, be used successfully as a supplemental text in conjunction with a more traditional textbook.
The author mentions that the book can be used for reference, but, as stated in the previous paragraph, the contents are too limited in scope and arranged too randomly for it to function properly as a good reference book. Information about a specific term or phenomenon must be gleaned in bits and pieces from different sections of the book. For example, information on the term 'compound' can be found in Days 1, 66, and 76-80, and the term is (according to the index) featured as well in the PS extras to Chapters 1, 4, 8, 16, and 20. However, the PS to Chapter 1 is an exercise in speculation about what is included in 'knowledge of a word', and the term ‘compound’ is totally absent from the text there. Using this volume as a reference tool would be unhelpful for readers who want to find clear information on key terms and concepts quickly.
The explanations given each Day vary greatly, and some days are -- true to life -- far more satisfying than others. This depends partially on the familiarity of the reader with linguistic analysis and vocabulary. Even if terminology is not an issue, some readers may not fully appreciate the Socratic method of presentation. It asks the reader to engage completely in the intellectual journey toward an explanation, rather than offering one up for immediate consumption. There are even several Days which can seem to offer no 'Therefore' answer at all. Some readers may be left simply feeling more confused at the end of the Day. Take Day 49, 'classifying, categorizing', in which Marta leads Patrick down a rational path to determine why some words take the suffix '-ify' while others take '-ize'. Patrick's first hypothesis is that the difference is between 'long' and 'short' words, and Marta helps him to refine that to a difference based on how many syllables a word contains. Marta points out, however, that both suffixes can be found attached to two-syllable words. Patrick's final response is that 'it looks like the two-syllable ones can go either way', to which Marta replies, 'Nice little generalization', and the dialogue is suddenly done. The reader is left still wondering why we must say 'humid-ify' and not 'humid-ize'. Leaving some questions partially unanswered may have the desired effect of spurring readers on to investigate more on their own, but it can just as easily frustrate them. This is an acknowledged danger inherent in the Socratic method of teaching rather than a unique feature of this particular book.
Ultimately, Whys & Therefores is a bold work hoping to combine and balance pedagogy, linguistic discovery and explanation, and entertainment. This is not an easy task to undertake, as any teacher will confirm. A measure of this book's value is that it is likely to be highly useful to teachers -- not as a core textbook, because its coverage is incomplete and unsystematic, but as a gold mine of supplemental material for introductory linguistics courses. The clearest measure of this book's success is its potentially transforming effect on the reader, which is stated specifically as the goal of the author. First impressions may be that this unconventional book is confusing and a trifle unsettling, but this in itself engenders natural human curiosity and an urge to solve its mysteries and achieve an understanding. What could be a more perfect embodiment of Socratic pedagogy?
Uriagereka, Juan. 1998. Rhyme and reason: An introduction to Minimalist syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Lasnik, Howard & Juan Uriagereka. 1988. A course in GB syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Sheila A. Dooley teaches English Grammar, Introductory Linguistics, and
Introduction to Second Language Acquisition to students in the Rio Grande
Valley who are on the career path to becoming English teachers. Her
research includes both innovative classroom practices for teaching grammar
and typological studies of verb initial languages.