LINGUIST List 32.487

Tue Feb 09 2021

Review: English; Applied Linguistics; Syntax: Freidin (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 16-Aug-2020
From: Difei Zhang <>
Subject: Adventures in English Syntax
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Robert Freidin
TITLE: Adventures in English Syntax
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Difei Zhang, University of Wisconsin Madison


This book is written not only for readers who want to become “a more effective user of the language”, but also for readers who are eager to gain a deeper “understanding of English sentence structure” (p. i). By establishing and explaining the link between English syntax and its application in writing, the author, Robert Freidin, a linguistic professor at Princeton University, uses a variety of real-life examples (also shown through the title of each chapter) to indicate how bad writing – ambiguity, redundancy, vagueness and lack of cohesion and coherence – are created by certain syntactic structures/constructions. The book explores and analyzes English syntax from word level to phrasal level and gradually to clausal level, introducing basic linguistic concepts that can help its readers become capable of evaluating English writing with concrete linguistic reasons and evidence.

The book starts off with a close examination of two simple phrases: “one fish two fish red fish blue fish” in Dr. Seuss children’s book, and the title of Lynne Truss’ book: Eats, Shoots & Leaves. In Chapter 1 “an adventure in ambiguity with one fish two fish”, Freidin explains why it is possible for even a short phrase to create different ambiguous interpretations. Through the analysis of ambiguity caused by words with different meanings but having the same written form (singular ‘fish’ vs. plural ‘fish’; ‘shoot’ as a noun vs. ‘shoot’ as a verb), and the explanation of how coordination using coordinators or punctuations can eliminate certain ambiguity, this chapter demonstrates that English syntax is not simply about individual word order, it is instead about the computation of different syntactic units. Alongside the analysis, some basic linguistic concepts such as singular, plural, phonetic form, lexicon (p. 2), coordinate structure (p. 6), asyndetic coordination (p. 9) and the Oxford comma (p. 10) are also introduced with examples as key linguistic terms for analyzing English syntax.

After Chapter 1 shows how coordination can be used to eliminate ambiguity, Chapter 2 on the contrary demonstrates how coordination can also create ambiguity. The title of this chapter “exceptional students and teachers” is exactly one example: whether the adjective ‘exceptional’ modifies only students or modifies both students and teachers. In the first half of this chapter (2.1), the author uses simple tree diagrams (p. 14) to illustrate how the syntactic relations can be different within the same phrase, which visually helps the readers comprehend these two different computations of the same set of syntactic units. Freidin then continues his illustration of tree diagrams with a more complicated noun phrase by adding a prepositional phrase modifier (p. 16) to the original phrase, and further explains each interpretation with their distinct hierarchical structure. In the second half of this chapter (2.2) the author introduces the structure of multiple coordination, where the use of other coordinators that can also cause ambiguity (‘or’, ‘either’, ‘both’) are demonstrated with examples. The main aim of this chapter is to help the readers understand the two dimensions of English syntax: the linear order, which is visible; and the hierarchical order, which is usually invisible until it is realized by a syntactic tree diagram. And, as indicated at the end of this chapter, knowing the interplay between these two dimensions can facilitate how we process (read) and create (write) sentences (p. 24).

Chapter 3 at first glance looks just like a continuation of Chapter 2 – using the title “Introduction to Language and Linguistics” as an example of showing the structural ambiguity caused by coordination (3.1). However, Chapter 3, in fact, goes beyond that; it takes the readers to visit some of the most fundamental questions related to human language usage: what exactly is language? What is linguistics? And how do we define these terms in order to properly interpret the title of this chapter? To answer these questions, Freidin first examines the word “language” on both mental lexical level (3.2) and syntactic computational level (3.3). Using examples from both English and Japanese, this chapter asserts that the “hierarchical structure, but not linear order, determines interpretation” (p. 51). This emphasis on computational procedures as an important part of human language further facilitates readers’ understanding of the importance of English syntax: the reason why we interpret some sentences as bad writing has little to do with the choice of each individual word or with writing manuals alone – it exists in the language itself, more specifically, how it is structured syntactically. Based on this more in-depth understanding of language and linguistics (3.4 and 3.5), the author ends this chapter with a variety of authentic examples/excerpts on the misuse of ‘and’ and analyzes how it can create ambiguity, redundancy and vagueness.

After Chapter 3 as a thorough discussion of syntax that prepares the readers to think about English writing from a structural perspective, Chapter 4 “a review of a book by two philosophers” begins to deal with more complex syntactic constructions including complex noun phrases modified by post prepositional phrases, relative clauses and infinitival clauses. In the first half of this chapter (4.1-4.3) Freidin uses tree diagrams to explain and illustrate the definition, structure and examples of each of these more complicated syntactic constructions. Based on that, the author goes on to discuss 3 major prescriptive grammar rules alongside syntactic analysis in section 4.4: preposition stranding (p. 76), split infinitives (p. 83) and ‘that’ vs. ‘which’ (p. 88). By showing the internal structure of these constructions, the author points out these prescriptive rules need to be both taught and enforced (p. 88), since they are not backed up with any natural linguistic constraints. This discussion on how certain prescriptive grammar rules in fact contradict natural English grammar provides readers with a different way to judge good/bad writing.

The rest of the book is organized in a more modular way by exploring more complex syntactic constructions, namely: displacement, passive voice, interrogatives, adverbials, and ellipsis. Some of these concepts are discussed along with others because of their interrelationship.

Chapter 5 “Bob is certain to succeed” mainly focuses on displacement, where Freidin examines displacement of clauses, in passives and in noun phrases. Based on the examination of how certain syntactic elements can be located in alternative syntactic positions, the author illustrates how to utilize displacement as “a tool for establishing coherence between sentences in a text” (p. 135). Following this, Chapter 6 “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” adapts the opening sentence in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to show how the choice of a certain sentence structure can be more powerful than other alternatives and therefore demonstrate one’s artistry in English writing.

Chapter 7 “Does every politician who cheats instinctively lie?” continues to expand displacement together with other syntactic constructions including adverbials, questions (both yes/no-questions and wh-questions) and relative clauses. More linguistic terms such as wh-displacement (p. 161), cleft (p. 163) and pseudo-cleft (p. 166) are introduced and illustrated with example sentences as well as tree diagrams.

Chapter 8, which is also the last chapter of this book, introduces ellipsis as a new syntactic construction and at the same time, revisiting passive constructions (which have been discussed earlier in Chapter 5) based on Henry Fowler’s analysis. The chapter starts off with the examination of Fowler’s analysis of “inferior defenses could then, as now, be tackled, as Vernon did at Porto Bello, Exmouth at Algiers, & Seymour at Alexandria”, listing out each of Flower’s original solutions to this problematic sentence. However, after using syntactic trees to break down this sentence into smaller syntactic constituents and coming up with parallel structures of these smaller units, Freidin proves that the problematic sentence turns out to be caused by ellipsis other than the bad use of passive. Using this as an example, the author again illustrates how having basic syntactic knowledge can help one to pinpoint the actual problem in bad writing and encourage the readers of this book to become more capable language users.


Just as its title says, Adventures in English Syntax provides its readers with an adventurous experience regarding different syntactic constructions, ranging from some well-known/relatively simple ones such as the Oxford comma, preposition stranding, split infinitives and ‘that’ vs. ‘which’ to some lesser known or complicated/controversial ones such as the use of passive, displacement and ellipsis. The most valuable feature of this book is that it introduces English syntax to readers without linguistic backgrounds, and provides them with opportunities to think about the English language from a structural, vertical perspective. With authentic examples incorporated into each chapter, as well as the actual editing of a sentence, a paragraph, and a text, the author shows the readers of this book how exactly syntactic knowledge can enhance actual language use, and how powerful a reader and writer you would become if you managed to comprehend the structure of the English language.

Although most parts of the book are designed for readers with no background in linguistics, some of the chapters, especially Chapter 4-8, can be assigned as supplementary readings (not as a textbook, since there are no exercises, and the trees are not strictly following x-bar theory) to first year linguistic students who are taking their first syntax class, and perhaps, considering the levels of difficulty and complexity of these chapters, it is even more appropriate to linguistic students with more advanced syntax knowledge. Based on my teaching experience at UW-Madison, for readers with limited syntactic knowledge, it can be already challenging to identify syntactic units/constituents (noun phrases, verb phrases, adjective phrases…etc.). However, the tree diagrams in Chapter 4-8 involve more complicated functional syntactic elements (C and T) other than just individual lexicons/phrases, and have more vertical layers - all of these can be intimidating for readers without any linguistic background. To improve scaffolding, it would be nice if there were more explicit content on more basic knowledge, for example, the identification of constituents, the distinction between “word class” (noun, verb, adverbs…etc.) and “grammatical function” (subject, object, modifier, adverbial…etc.) before moving onto clausal-level constructions.

In terms of helping to enrich the readers’ linguistic knowledge, the glossary at the end of the book (p. 192-196) is very helpful. Listing the key linguistic terms which appeared in the book with their definitions is definitely helpful for readers who want to revisit these concepts afterwards. However, the glossary is organized by alphabetical order – if there were an index which listed the chapters where these terms first appeared , the readers might be helped to make connections between the terms and the actual book content.

Overall, the book is inspiring for readers with or without linguistic knowledge. For readers without a linguistic background, the book approaches good/bad writing with concrete and detailed syntactic analysis using tree diagrams and color-coded text, which visually helps the readers realize and comprehend the vertical way of decomposing a sentence. For readers with some linguistic background, the book provides evidence on how syntax knowledge can be used as a tool. Unlike most of the syntactic textbooks which emphasize more on the question “what is syntax”, this book also answers the question “what can syntax do”. By showing how syntactic analysis can be incorporated into the actual editing process, also by discussing/comparing how a similar meaning can be realized by alternative sentence structures, the book suggests linguistic/syntactic knowledge can be incorporated as one of the pedagogical approaches of teaching English writing.


Difei Zhang is currently pursuing her Ph.D. degree in English Language and Linguistics at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has been a Writing Center instructor for 2 years and has been teaching introduction to college composition/academic writing for more than 3 years. Her dissertation topic is using corpus-based approach to analyze the digital transformation of news writing, specifically focusing on the change of certain syntactic features. Her research interests mainly include: applied English syntax, register analysis of digital news, corpus-based syntactic analysis of English written texts.

Page Updated: 09-Feb-2021