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Review of  An Introduction to English Sentence Structure

Reviewer: Ferid Chekili
Book Title: An Introduction to English Sentence Structure
Book Author: Jon G Jonz
Publisher: Equinox Publishing Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 26.539

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Review's Editor: Anthony Aristar


The last sentence in the Preface serves as a good summary of the book's main idea: “...a functional grammar of modern written English structure…”, in other words, “the focus of attention in this introductory book is mainly on investigating the ways in which event structure is represented in language.” (6). The book is intended for a wide audience: “a humanities student or a teacher in preparation or an aspiring writer or just a plain old language lover” (ix). The data used for illustration is taken from H.G. Wells's “The war of the Worlds” (1898).

The book contains a preface, ten chapters, charts and lists, a glossary, references and an index. Each chapter contains a number of activities with 'suggested responses', usually at the back of the book, 'practice with terminology', 'bracketing and labeling conventions', 'sentences for analysis', and (starting with chapter 3) 'analysing and reporting elements'. Chapters 9 and 10, also, contain sections labelled 'Text for Analysis' and 'Dialog for Analysis'. Each chapter begins with a section entitled 'Preliminaries' which serves as either an introduction or a summary.

Chapter 1 (Language and Events in Experience) is, mostly, a justification of the approach used in terms of both structure and function. J. argues that “everyday experience is made up of events that involve a process that occurs, participants playing various roles in the event, and the circumstances under which the event occurs” (6). She further argues that “language structures … are directly related to the events in our everyday lives” (6). Each event is then illustrated with examples from “The War of the Worlds”.

In Chapter 2 (Clauses: Processes) she considers the basic resources that English employs in building clauses, starting with processes which she takes to be the core unit of the clause. She argues that “clauses reflect event structure in a remarkably direct and transparent manner by focusing on event structure processes, their participant roles and attendant circumstances” (20). She then illustrates a number of process types that we use to interpret our environment.

Chapter 3: Clauses: Participants and Circumstances. Here, she turns to an identification of the role-players, essential props and circumstances. She argues that “every process entails specific participant roles” (34). She further shows that the traditional classification of subject, direct object and indirect object ought to be supplemented by another participant term, namely, 'oblique object'. She then turns to a definition of circumstances, pointing to the difficulty, sometimes, to differentiate them from participants. These functions (participants and circumstances) are illustrated using “The War of the Worlds” and practiced both in the text and the activities following it. Near the end of the chapter (and subsequent ones) she devotes a section to analysing and reporting elements -here, clause elements - where she introduces steps for analysing structures and reporting results.

Chapter 4: Word Groups and Phrases. Beginning with this chapter, she discusses the constituent structure of word groupings. Here, she explains and defines the concept of word group and contrasts it with that of phrase. Word groups are shown to have heads and edges. “Higher- ranking units such as clauses or clause complexes can fit into lower-ranking units such as word groups”, thus contributing to the “productive potential of any language” (55). She describes three major word groups, i.e. adjective groups, adverb groups and preposition groups, including the components of the groups and how to identify their heads. She concludes with a description of phrases as opposed to word groups, arguing that phrases are made up of two or more word groups.

Chapter 5: Verb Groups. The chapter considers the 'special features' of English verb groups which represent the process part of events and clauses. This chapter -which deals with the elements of verb groups- and chapter 6 -which explains the role of the verb group's left-hand edge in creating clause types- “show that the beginnings of clauses in general hold powerful potential for guiding language users in establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships and in making sense of the narrative events that language represents” (82). Here, she focuses on the elements of verb groups, including the main verb, its left-hand edge (Tense, Modal, nonfinite clause marker), the 'Precentral Space' (semiauxiliaries and core auxiliaries, do) and the right-hand edge, including postposed particles and idiomatic elements.

Chapter 6: The Power of Beginnings. Here, J. is concerned with “how the leading edges of language units, verb groups included have special significance” (108). She argues that in yes/no questions, “instead of first running into the subject of the clause (the default setting) you first encounter the left-hand edge of the verb group” (109) which signals yes/no questions. In direct requests and imperative clauses, the subject is a missing element providing “a major cue to a listener's processing mechanism” (111), and the left-hand edge is occupied by a “zero modal”. Similarly, clauses are negated by associating “a negative word with the left-hand edge of the verb group” (114). Finally, content questions -traditionally wh-questions- are formed by placing “a wh-marker in front of a regular yes/no question” (115).

Chapter 7: Noun Groups. Noun groups are shown to perform functions almost everywhere in a clause. J. also lists and illustrates the structural possibilities of the noun group (126), and explores tests for identifying nouns, based on inflections, derivational endings and syntax, and describes the noun group elements, including, the main noun, determiners, adjective groups and prepositional phrases. She concludes the chapter with a section on 'putting units together' where she describes, in turn, conjoining, apposition and embedding/subordinating.

Chapter 8: Embedded wh-clauses. Starting with this chapter, J. looks more closely at embedding, beginning with embedded wh-clauses (this chapter). Four major varieties are identified: the 'normal version', the 'missing-marker version', the 'whiz version' and the 'headless version'. These versions are then reported in triangle-convention form. The chapter ends with a brief outline of extraposition of wh-embedded clauses, then wh-embedded clauses are shown to be either restrictive or nonrestrictive. Finally, wh-clauses are argued to be embeddings rather than appositives.

Chapter 9: Nonwh-Subordinate clauses. Here, she considers another form of combining clauses: nonwh-subordination. She begins by providing lists of wh-markers and nonwh-markers. This is followed by a description of the distribution and function of subordinate nonwh-clauses and a comparison between nonwh-subordination and wh-clauses. Next, she raises the issue of object complements, arguing that they are best analysed -in order to be “consistent with the assumption that clauses represent event structures”- as subordinate nonwh-clauses (small clauses in other frameworks -e.g. Aarts (1992)). Finally, a description of absolute clauses is provided.

Chapter 10: Nonwh-Complementation, Apposition, Discontinuity; Nonfinite wh-clauses. In this chapter, J. provides a description of what she calls nonwh-complement clauses defined as nonwh-clauses that are “embedded in adjective groups and noun groups” (198). This category includes 'nonfinite nonwh-complement clauses' and 'nonwh-That complement clauses'. This is followed by a description of 'Appositive nonwh-That clauses' and of discontinuity in both extraposition and raising. Finally, she deals with “clause complexes that appear to possess characteristics of both wh- and nonwh-clauses simultaneously” (206-209) which she labels 'nonfinite wh-clauses'.


In my opinion, J. has succeeded in producing an accurate and fairly comprehensive description of English clauses and word groups. One interesting feature of the book- which serves to draw and retain the reader's attention- is the tone/style used: J. tends to address the reader directly, using a friendly, informal and at times, quite humourous tone of voice.

Another significant feature of the book is its heavy reliance on practice which, besides its obvious merits, contributes to making the explanations/concepts less abstract for the reader. Practice takes various forms: the 'practice with terminology' sections have the effect of making the reader at home with the newly-introduced terminology, by practicing with concrete examples. The 'Analysing and Reporting' sections, which show the reader how to analyse grammatical structures and report results, provide practice, not only of the current chapter, but also of everything up to that point. The 'Sentences for Analysis' sections introduce the reader to new sets of data for them to analyse by themselves. Chapters 9 and 10, also, contain sections labelled 'Text for Analysis' and 'Dialog for Analysis' aiming at describing structure in context. The 'Suggested Responses', at the back of the book, allow the reader to verify the correctness of their newly-acquired knowledge. Each chapter, also, contains activities and extensive illustrations with abundant examples drawn from “a real and coherent context” (27), all aiming at making the reader more familiar with the author's explanations. Similarly, and in order to further achieve the above objectives, repetition is made use of frequently: the basic idea of the book, i.e. The fact that the function of language is to represent the events in everyday experience- is repeated in every chapter.

On the negative side, the book contains a few shortcomings, owing, perhaps, to the introductory nature of the task at hand which places certain limits on the extent of elaboration and depth:

For instance, although the work is function- and structure-oriented, there is no mention of information structural processes such as focalised/topicalised constructions, notoriously taken to illustrate the interface between structure and function (cf. e.g. Rizzi 1997).

Similarly, although the description of English clauses and word groups is clear and insightful, there is a large number of lists and rules -both indicating completeness- reminiscent of traditional grammar descriptions, (e.g. 81, 86...).

Regarding terminology, it is unclear whether some of the new terms introduced by J. are in fact needed, as they refer to constructions that have a well-established tradition. For instance, 'nonfinite nonwh-complement clauses' (199) refer to what classical Government and Binding theory termed 'Control'; and 'nonwh-That complement clauses' (200) refer to Ross's (1967) the 'Complex NP' construction. Similarly, the elements of event structure - the terms 'process', 'participant', 'circumstance'- may be parallelled to 'predicate', 'argument' and 'adjunct' respectively in formal argument structure theory. On the other hand, certain terms, which have become fairly common, are not used by J. For example, the term 'Unaccusative' (e.g. Burzio 1986) for the class of verb which J. describes on pp. (26-27).

Contrary to most formal approaches, which analyse ‘that’ as part of the clause -its head - J. treats it separately as a 'marker' that is external to the clause. In relatives – here, wh-clauses- ‘that’ is shown to correspond to other wh-markers (146), hence, missing an important generalisation recognised in other frameworks (e.g. Rizzi 1990), namely, that ‘that’ is the same complementizer in both relatives and other types of embedding, that may or may not co-occur with a wh-word. (In relatives, ‘that’ shows up when the wh-element is a null operator). In the other uses of ‘that’, as a pronoun, a determiner and a comparative marker (168) which J. takes as justification for the dual analysis of ‘that’, ‘that’ does not introduce a subordinate/embedded clause.

Certain statements are made which clash with other proposals and which therefore would require an explanation. For example, “semiauxiliaries might be seen as a spot in English clauses where formerly full-blown nonfinite clauses (introduced with ‘to’) are being taken into the verb group as auxiliaries as time goes by” (98). Even though this statement may be true for most cited cases, some of these constructions (including J.'s examples with ‘seem to’) have, in fact, been analysed – synchronically- as consisting of two clauses in certain frameworks (see e.g.Haegeman 1994).

Likewise, some of the tests -based on meaning- that J. uses, for instance, to distinguish phrasal verbs from prepositional verbs (99), have been found unreliable by some researchers. More reliable tests have been used in the literature, such as coordination facts (e.g. Akmajian and Heny 1975).

Finally, although the book is descriptive, it aims at universality. However, there is an obvious lack of explanation – an important criterion of universality. For instance, certain well-known processes are described but left unexplained in spite of a rich literature on the subject - e.g. The analysis of expletive ‘it’ (203-204): in formal approaches, an explanation for its presence, namely, the Extended Projection Principle, has been provided; or raising constructions, such as ‘Ted wanted her to leave’ (205) which have been explained in other frameworks, with reference to Exceptional Case Marking.

Similarly, despite the fact that the basic function of language argued for in the book – namely, that language represents everyday experience- may be universal, the book is basically descriptive and hence, would be “a viewpoint on English” and not, as mentioned in the preface, on “language in general”.

Notwithstanding these inevitable limitations, the objectives set out at the beginning of the book have, in general, been met: the book has fulfilled its aim of being a good introduction to the description of English sentence structure and function that is certainly useful to the intended audience. Likewise, the book has succeeded in achieving its main objective, namely, showing «how language is shaped to reflect the events in ordinary everyday experience» (ix).


Aarts, B. 1992. « Small clauses in English: the Non-Verbal Types ». Berlin and NewYork: Mouton de Gruyter.

Akmajian, A. and F. Heny. 1975. « Introduction to the Principles of Transformational Syntax ». Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Burzio, L. 1986. « Italian Syntax: A Government Binding Approach ». Dordrecht: Reidel.

Haegeman, L. 1994. « Introduction to Government and Binding Theory », 2nd edition. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Rizzi, L. 1990. « Relativised Minimality ». Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rizzi, L. 1997. The fine structure of the left periphery. In « Elements of Grammar: a Handbook of Generative Syntax », ed. Liliane Haegeman, 281-337. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Ross, J. 1967. « Constraints on Variables in Syntax ». Doctoral Dissertation. MIT.
Ferid Chekili is Professor of English and Linguistics, currently employed by the University of Bahrain.His research interests include syntactic theory, the syntax/information structure interface and generative second language acquisition.

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