LINGUIST List 32.2400

Fri Jul 16 2021

Review: Applied Linguistics; General Linguistics; Syntax: Rankin, Whong (2020)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 05-Apr-2021
From: Elena Sharafutdinova <>
Subject: Grammar
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Tom Rankin
AUTHOR: Melinda Whong
TITLE: Grammar
SUBTITLE: A Linguists' Guide for Language Teachers
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2020

REVIEWER: Elena Sharafutdinova, California State University, Fresno


“Grammar: A Linguists’ Guide for Language Teachers”, written by Tom Rankin and Melinda Whong and published by Cambridge University Press (2020), aims at closing the gap between theoretical linguistics and language teacher training. This book is explicitly and directly addressed to teachers—with or without any specific linguistic background—to provide them with “tools to address any challenging question about grammar” they may encounter in their everyday teaching activity (1). The two authors, who are linguists with teaching background, apply a “language-data-based approach” (1) to help teachers to obtain a better grasp of the complexity of language, what is possible and not possible in the grammar of a language and, more generally, to understand how a language works. To achieve these goals, Rankin and Whong discuss a variety of linguistic phenomena (from word order to the construction of the past tense) taken from a great number of languages, including English, French, Italian, Russian, Korean, Japanese, Swahili, Sanskrit, and Norwegian.

The book is comprised of 5 chapters, each of which tackles a different topic: the relationship and gap between linguistics and education (Chapter 1), language (Chapter 2), grammar (Chapter 3), language learning and acquisition (Chapter 4) and, finally, language education (Chapter 5). The first chapter also serves as an introduction to the whole book, providing its general structure. Each chapter has a main narrative in which a concept is developed in a cumulative way. However, in all the chapters except Chapter 5, the main narrative is accompanied by a series of text boxes (“Case in Point”) used to highlight a specific grammatical phenomenon—for example, the use of articles, the passive voice, etc. The text boxes are meant to work as independent units which the reader can work through separately. To strengthen the practical nature of this book, each chapter concludes with a list of hands-on questions to suggest to the reader ways to apply the concepts covered in the chapter in his/her everyday activity as a teacher.

Chapter 1, “A Guide to the Linguists’ Guide to Grammar”, addresses the relationship and gap between linguistics and education. The authors first introduce the two opposite approaches in linguistics to language: formalists (who are more interested in the grammatical structures of language, i.e., form) and functionalists (who focus more on how language is used, i.e., function). The opposition between form and function is illustrated with a specific example, a comparison in the use of the passive voice in English and Swahili. The reader can follow the reasoning detailed in the main narrative to understand the difference between form and function and refer to the text box which addresses the same topic in a more specific way. Chapter 1 also introduces the reader to different approaches to linguistics to describe how language works and how it develops. In doing so, Rankin and Whong introduce the reader to general theories and also to different fields and subfields of linguistics. A practical definition is provided each time a new term is introduced. This way, the reader can follow and understand complex explanations. Moreover, each approach is linked to a grammar phenomenon (for example, verb classes, evidentiality, telicity, etc.) which is analyzed by comparing English grammar with that of another language. The comparison allows the reader to expand his/her notion of the topic. For example, in the case of the passive voice, a comparison between English and Sanskrit shows that, contrary to Sanskrit, English does not possess a marker for the middle voice, but still allows middle constructions with specific verbs. This information can help a teacher in building a teaching strategy or provide a more effective explanation of English passive voice.

Chapter 2 discusses the notions of language, languages, and Language. Like any other chapter, the concepts covered in this chapter are discussed from the perspective of language teachers who are not necessarily proficient in linguistics. Therefore, Rankin and Whong provide a series of basic definitions such as the “human Language” (with a capital “L”) in contrast to other forms of communication, its main characteristics (duality of structure, discreteness, and arbitrariness), and different variations within human language. For example, the difference between two sounds can be linguistically meaningful in one language but not in another one and, according to the two authors, the same idea applies to grammar. The grammatical concepts made available by human facility can be applied differently according to the language we speak or want to learn. Through a series of examples involving grammatical concepts such as person, number, etc., the authors show how what is taken as normal in English represents only one of the possibilities of grammar (46) and, at the same time, they show how some concepts are shared by all languages. In other words, among the infinite possibilities of meanings and functions, some of them “find grammatical expression in all languages” (48). This is what the authors call “Virtual Grammar”, the idea that “certain grammatical concepts or features are universally expressed in all Languages” (48). Rankin and Whong’s discussion of the classifications of language families represents another effective example of how the book is structured. The authors observe that even though English is genetically closer to German than to the Romance languages, for a series of satellite-framed verbs (i.e., verbs that require a preposition) there is a Latinate counterpart (verb-framed pattern). This demonstrates that it is still possible to “find typological similarities between languages without close genetic connections” (56). Finally, Chapter 2 discusses the notion of “a language” and its relationship to dialects.

Chapter 3 introduces the reader to the intricacies of grammar by starting from the general way grammar is usually perceived—as a set of arbitrary rules that have to be learned. Grammar is then discussed in more abstract ways, such as the prescriptive-descriptive dichotomy. The expression “Virtual Grammar”, used by the authors to talk about the grammar they have in mind, aims precisely at this goal: to present grammar in the abstract way it is conceived in linguistics but, at the same time, in a way that is pedagogically useful. This is the reason why they analyze grammar in two ways. One is as the “mental grammar” each individual possesses, based on the individual’s own linguistic experience. This mental grammar is characterized by an obvious degree of variability across individuals, although overlap across individuals makes a speech community sharing the same grammar still possible. The second way is the “general mental capacity for grammar”, which is fixed across the human species (80). The goal of the authors’ choice is to “convince” the reader that an understanding of grammar in this way “can be pedagogically useful” (81). The two ways lead the reader through their notion of “pedagogical grammar” as “a way of thinking rather than a set of rules” (95). Through the discussion in the main text, as well as in the text boxes about specific topics (among others: preposition displacement; number, countability, and genericity; unaccusativity; case marking and pronouns; agreement and participles; habituality and incompleteness), Rankin and Whong suggest that the reader/teacher build a catalogue of grammatical properties that does not ignore the dichotomy between the specific (the many features building up the complexity of grammar) and the abstract.

Chapter 4, “Language learning and acquisition”, addresses the paradox represented by the different language learning outcomes in first and second language acquisition: while people eventually master the language they have been exposed to from birth (L1), they encounter limitations in learning a new language (L2) as adults (“fossilisation”). This chapter is therefore devoted to second language acquisition (SLA) and how, according to SLA, the acquisition of L1 and L2 are “the same and different” (118). On this account, the chapter presents research contradicting the assumption that learning language later in life is the same as learning general skills (“Fundamental difference hypothesis”). Linked to the concept of “transfer”, the chapter also discusses the techniques proposed by VanPatten’s “Processing Instruction”. VanPatten focused on the cues used by learners for comprehension and how they differ from language to language. Rankin and Whong also discuss the “Bottleneck Hypothesis” addressing the acquisition problem—one of the sources for fossilisation—caused by the encoding of different types of meaning for specific morphemes. Based on this discussion, Rankin and Whong suggest the reader/teacher design exercises that help the learner to make connections between meaning and grammar structure. Chapter 4 also provides a summary of L2 grammar development in each of its stages: the beginning, the middle stage, and the advanced one. For each stage, the influence of L1 transfer is discussed. In the final part of Chapter 4, Rankin and Whong talk about the differences between classroom vs. “some kind of immersion” learning (137), with the explicit intent of challenging the idea that the two settings are completely different. For this purpose, the authors discuss a series of concepts and teaching approaches, in particular, “overgeneralisation errors”, “language instinct”, and “prosodic bootstrapping”—employed by children to identify word/phrase boundaries—to be paired with the use of “formulaic sequences” in teaching a language. The discussion of the innate abilities of children in acquiring a language is then followed by some considerations regarding the equally crucial role played by “nurture” in the language learning process. Linked to this discussion is the question: “Can language be learnt later in life?” posed by the authors at the end of the chapter. To answer this question, they contrast the use of quantifier scope in English and Japanese, suggesting that “abstract properties of language can also be learned later in life” (156).

The last chapter, “Language education”, contains more general remarks on language education. In particular, Rankin and Whong discuss the purpose of language teaching by questioning the high goal set by Sato and Loewen (2019) of fluent and accurate L2 usage. Rankin and Whong point out that teaching is connected with much broader educational goals (a “messy reality” 163). They also contrast the teaching of language vs. the teaching of other subjects and dwell on unanswered questions related to language development and language learning. Chapter 5 also reflects on previous language knowledge and how the knowledge of an existing language can actually be used in L2 instruction. In addressing this topic, Rankin and Whong discuss the concept of “nativeness” and analyze possible differences between a language learned from birth and languages learned later in life. The last topic covered in Chapter 5 is the relevance of linguistics research to language teaching and, more generally, the relationship between theory and practice in teaching a language.


In “Grammar: A Linguists’ Guide for Language Teachers”, the authors Tom Rankin and Melinda Whong present a hands-on discussion of grammar phenomena through a comparison of a variety of languages, in order to provide teachers with research-based tools to teach and talk about grammar in class.

Drawing on the comparison between different linguistic approaches to language and on language-based data, this book aims at closing the gap between theoretical linguistics and language teacher, a well-known issue already pointed out by Lennon (1988) among many others. By mingling theoretical approaches with insightful and practical examples based on the most-established research in linguistics and by providing clear definitions of the technical terms and theories discussed in the book, “Grammar: A Linguists’ Guide for Language Teachers” is capable of turning complex aspects of linguistics into a clear narrative that can be followed by a reader who does not have a background in linguistics.

To conclude, “Grammar: A Linguists’ Guide for Language Teachers” is recommended to all those teachers who want to enrich their teaching of grammar in class, in alignment with Johnston and Goettsch’s (2000) claim emphasizing the importance of training language teachers in theoretical linguistics alongside language pedagogy and applied linguistics. Readers will benefit from this book not only because it helps teachers better to grasp the complexity of language, what is possible and not possible in the grammar of a language, and, more generally, how language works, but also because it provides practical explanations of grammar phenomena across a variety of languages. In this way, the book is sure to enhance teaching strategies in the multilingual classroom.


Johnston, Bill and Karin Goettsch. 2000. In search of the knowledge base of language teaching: Explanations by experienced teachers. “Canadian Modern Language Review/ La Revue canadienne des langues vivantes”, 56(3). 437–468.

Lennon, Paul (1988). The linguist and the language teacher: Love at first sight or the end of the honeymoon. “English Teaching Forum”, 26(4). 2-5.

Sato, Masatoshi and Shawn Loewen. 2019. Towards evidence-based second language pedagogy: Research proposals and pedagogical recommendations. In Sato, Masatoshi and Shawn Loewen (eds.), “Evidence-based second language pedagogy: A collection of instructed second language acquisition studies”, 1–24. New York: Routledge.

VanPatten, Bill. 1996. “Input processing and grammar instruction: Theory and research”. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.


Elena Sharafutdinova holds two master’s degrees, one in teaching Italian as a second language and one in Linguistics. Her primary research interest is in second language acquisition and pedagogy with a focus on the Italian language. Elena is also interested in phonology and the interaction of second language acquisition with different disciplines within and outside linguistics. She actively participates in international and national conferences on applied linguistics and education. Currently, Elena teaches Italian for the department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures at California State University, Fresno.

Page Updated: 16-Jul-2021