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Review of  Understanding English Grammar

Reviewer: Roman Karczewski
Book Title: Understanding English Grammar
Book Author: Ronald Wardhaugh
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 14.2827

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Wardhaugh, Ronald (2002) Understanding English Grammar: A Linguistic
Approach, 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishing.

Announced at

Roman Karczewski, Minsk State Linguistic University, Belarus

Wardhaugh's objective is to introduce not only ''those who specialize
in some way in ''English'' -- students of the language and of the
literature, teachers of English as either a native or second or
foreign language, and teachers of reading and the language arts'' (x)
but also ''beginning students of linguistics'' (x) to ''the essentials
of English structure, i.e., information about English words,
sentences, and sounds'' (ix). However, this is not the volume for
those who are looking for a reference grammar. ''Indeed, a fundamental
goal of this book is to bring to students' attention some of the basic
concepts of modern linguistics'' (x).

The content of the book is divided into 13 text chapters (1
Preliminaries, 2 Word Classes, 3 Constituents and Phrases, 4 Basic
Clauses, 5 Coordination and Embedding, 6 Clausal Variation, 7
Underlying Relationship, 8 Rules and Principles, 9, 10 Phonetic
Realization, 11 Word Formation, 12 Words and Sounds, 13 Sounds in
Context) and each of them is followed by some exercises to apply the
knowledge the reader has gained from working through its chapters. In
chapter 14 (Further Reading) the author gives ''a list of books that
students might profitably be encouraged to examine''(x) so as to
develop the knowledge about the structure of the English language. The
book ends with an indexed glossary with reference pages.


As mentioned above the author's idea about the scope of material and
the manner he is going to elucidate it to a potential reader through
the pages seems to be quite clear: ''to point out what appear to be
certain essential facts about English'' (ix). Despite the division of
the material in the book, the whole data may be logically categorized
into two parts, i.e. syntactical/grammatical (chapters 1-8), and
lexical-phonetic (chapters 9-13). All the records in the first part
are clearly systematized so as to supply a reader with essential
information needed to focus on English sentences. In the second part
the author is not so well organized. Wardhaugh starts from Sounds and
Systems then pays attention to purely lexical matters (chapter 11) to
come again to the phonetic description (chapters 12, 13). Maybe it
would be easier for a reader to learn first matters first, i.e. to
lead his expedition to linguistics from the smallest units of the
language -- phonemes/morphemes than words than sentences. Such
operation will probably help the author to avoid deliberate subject
shifts from chapter to chapter and make the text more accessible and

As far as the first part of the book is concerned there are only a few
things that need brushing up. Author's schemes like ''past have+-en
be+-ing run; past can have+- en be+-en inform'' (p.61; p.123),
i.e. describing the sentence deep structure would probably be more
''readable'' if all ''grammatical markers'' (past, -en, -ing) were
somehow betokened.

Secondly, while describing ''pseudotransitive verbs or mid verbs'' --
have, take, do (p.88) such word combinations as ''have a bath, take a
look, do the dishes'' the author calls idioms. The description seems
to be quite dubious. In the glossary ''idiom'' is explained as ''A
group of words with a meaning unique to that group: 'kick the bucket'
with the meaning 'die'.''(p.272) On page 237 the author gives another
interpretation ''An idiom is a combination of two or more words in
which the combination takes a unique meaning, i.e., a meaning that in
no way derives from the sum of the parts.'' When we take into
consideration similar constructions with each of the verbs, such as:
have a dance with, do a dance, take a bath (match up to ''have a
bath''), and compare them with Wardhaugh's patterns, we notice that
the meanings are similar. Therefore, it is hard to define whether
these are idioms or just (and maybe 'so far') word groups with a 'new
meaning'. That's why for such lexis I think more appropriate would be
terms like 'common expressions/fixed expressions'.

Another case worth mentioning and probably discussing is described on
page 113, where the author explains nonrestrictive and restrictive
relative clauses: ''In contrast, a nonrestrictive relative clause is
omissible. If omitted, the result is no such drastic change of meaning
[if compared to restrictive clauses] because a nonrestrictive relative
clause merely provides additional nonessential (i.e., ''by the way'')
information. Such information could have been supplied in another
sentence: My television set, which is portable, is
battery-operated. My television set is battery operated. It is (also)
portable.'' There seems to be no doubt that if a nonrestrictive clause
is omitted the sentence looks correct from grammatical point of
view. The question is: Is ''my television set is portable'' because it
is ''battery-operated'' or ''my television set is battery operated''
that's why it is ''portable''? In other words is it always legitimate
to add omit such clauses? Is the sentence: 'My television set is
portable' equal to the two above? If so, then the only possible
variant here is: 'My television set, which is battery-operated, is
portable' and only in this case 'which is battery-operated' is a
nonrestrictive relative clause. Than we have to focus upon another
matter, i.e. are these sentences (logically) correct: a) (?) My cell
phone, which is battery-operated, is portable. b) (?) My cell phone,
which is battery-operated, is portable. c) (?) My cell phone, which
is not battery-operated, is portable. d) (?) My phone, which is not
battery-operated, is not portable. The author's second example is
also worth examining. ''The movie, whose director is a Swede, is
really good. The movie is really good. Its director is a Swede.''
(p.113) Here the quandary is as follows: Do these sentences describe
the same state of things? or, maybe, 'Swedes are good directors that
is why their movies are really good'? Is it possible to speak about a
nonrestrictive relative clause in this case? A third illustration of a
nonrestrictive relative clause seems to be unambiguous and
indubitable: ''The chest, in which I kept old clothes, was destroyed.
The chest was destroyed. I kept old clothes in it. ''(p.113) But, is
the sentence 'The chest I kept old clothes in was destroyed.' the same
sentence, or is it already a different sentence (with a restrictive
clause)? In any case the hitch is clear, i.e. the language samples
that are easy to understand and instantly recognizable will let a
reader not to miss the point while studying the language.

In chapter 6.3 Questions Wardhaugh describes 'English question system'
- ''There are two basic kinds of question: yes-no questions, which
seek either 'yes' or 'no' for an answer, e.g., Are you ready?; and
information-seeking questions, either echo questions, e.g., You want
what? or wh- questions beginning with a wh- word, e.g., What do you
want? '' (p.130). Then 'yes-no questions' are divided into three
groups: inverted questions; inverted questions with alternative; tag
questions. There are two facts which make this taxonomy clumsy and
inappropriate. First, only one type of alternative questions may be
classified as 'untainted' representative of the group, i.e., questions
with negation of the predicate as one part of the given alternative,
e.g., ''Are you ready or not?''(p.131). The second example, i.e.,
''Are you going to London or Oxford?''(p.131) has four possible
answers. The answers depend on the intonation of the question and
there may be two providing either 'yes' or 'no' and the other two
providing information 'London' or 'Oxford'. The yes/no variant is
possible only as the 'true' or 'false' attitude to the action
indicated by the predicate, i.e. when the questioner is interested in
fulfillment of the action but not in the potential destination. That's
why this type of question is miscellaneous with the first and the
third type of inverted questions, i.e., sentences with different
actions described by the predicates, e.g., ''Are you going to do it or
are you just kidding me? '' What is of interest here is that the
potential fulfillment of both of the actions indicated, i.e., in
certain circumstances the questionee may perform both -- s/he may be
saying in a humorous way ''I'm going to do it.'' And this utterance is
likely to be used as an answer to a 'wh- question'. Another point
against this systematization is that 'yes/no' answer is also possible
to at least half of ''echo questions'', e.g., Going? John?
etc. Furthermore, there is no place in this classification for a
question like 'What are you going to do with it, fix it or throw it

In the 'logically' second part of the book Wardhaugh describes units
of the language which are smaller than a sentence, i.e. sounds and
words. In chapter 9 and the subsequent the author describes the system
of the English sounds with the phonetic symbols. The things worth
noticing here are as follows:

a) describing the English sound system, Wardhaugh uses 'wedge'
phonetic symbols to illustrate initial phonemes in such words as chin,
gin, ship, and seizure, measure (pp. 186-187) together with the
'canonical' (IPA) transcription symbols ''theta'' and ''eth'', for the
initial phonemes in the words thin, than (p.186). Probably, it would
be better to avoid such 'symbol blending' and use either IPA symbols
exclusively (as is standard in many textbooks and dictionaries) or
''purely Latin transcription symbols'' as in the American College
Dictionary. (see also the paragraph after next.)

b) On page 201 a reader may notice the statement: ''Many unstressed
vowels are best transcribed with the phoneme ... (called ''schwa'')
that we use in words like nut and cut'' (both of the words in italics
and ''u'' bold faced). The statement is quite doubtful particularly
when supplemented to ''After alveolar stops, i.e., /t/ and /d/, a
schwa is inserted to produce the / -[e]d/ allomorph. (p.201) The
question arising here is quite simple, i.e., when and where does that

c) It would be a nice move of Wardhaugh to explain, why: ''We will use
a modified version of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) in the
transcriptions that follow'' (p.204) especially, when ''The IPA is
perhaps the best-known system of phonetic notation in existence''
(p.204). In sum: what kind of modification is used and how does it
differ from the widely applied transcription symbols?

d) Throughout the text, Wardhaugh uses boldface to distinguish the
words for which explications are given in the book's glossary. Such
terms as: ''archiphoneme (p.200); phonetic notation, IPA, unreleased,
diacritics, complementary notation, free variation, (p. 204-205);
sound, syllable, sentence, word (p.217)'' are not listed in the
glossary notwithstanding the fact that the glossary ''can be used for
quick reference to matters covered at greater length in the


Wardhaugh's book is a good source of linguistic data for a
non-prepared reader. However, it stands clearly that without a tutor's
help the book is not comprehensive in its exploration of English
grammar. Indeed, an inquisitive student will try to find out what
''for many speakers of English'' (p.67), ''it is also possible on
occasion'' (p.105), ''in some varieties of English'' (p.112, 130, 135,
157, 170, 214) really mean. In the upshot, Wardhaugh's ''Understanding
English Grammar'' is ''a short illustrative linguistic
dictionary''. Unfortunately (or maybe purposely) not always explicit.

I'm a Ph.D. student at the Department for the History of English and
English Grammar, Minsk State Linguistic University, Belarus. My
interests cover Pragmatics (Speech Act Theory), Critical Discourse
Analysis, and Argumentation.