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Review of  From Words to Grammar

Reviewer: Boris Yelin
Book Title: From Words to Grammar
Book Author: Roger Berry
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
General Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 27.910

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Reviews Editor: Helen-Aristar-Dry


The proposed audience of “From Words to Grammar,” by Roger Berry, is undergraduate students of English and trainee teachers on postgraduate courses. It aims to teach syntax in a bottom-up fashion, where lexical items are the topic of discussion, and English syntax is discovered by analyzing word usage. It is an exercise book that contains many examples of authentic corpus text with short explanations of the grammar. Essentially, the student internalizes the concepts through practice. The book begins with an introduction explaining the conventions of the book, including information about concordance lines (taken from the British National Corpus), which highlight the word in question. Otherwise, the main text consists of twelve chapters: Nouns, Personal pronouns; Pronouns and determiners; Adjectives; Prepositions; Adverbs; Verb patterns; Modal auxiliaries; Multi-word verbs; Question words, relative words, and subordinators; Multi-functional words (I), and Multi-functional words (2). Most of the chapter titles speak for themselves, but a few are worth clarifying. The Verb patterns chapter focuses on transitivity and complements and adjuncts of verbs. The Multi-word verbs chapter covers phrasal and prepositional verbs. Lastly, both Multi-functional words chapters examine words that belong to several word classes. The book concludes with a combined glossary/index that either defines words not defined in the main text or refers readers back to the appropriate section to review a certain definition.

In order to more easily envision how the book is structured, I offer here an exercise from the text (pgs. 66-67), which, in the text, immediately follows an explanation of the uses of ‘still.’

Activity 6.1

Decide whether ‘still’ on these lines is:
a. an aspect verb
b. a linking adverb
c. a degree adverb
d. an adjective

Hint: look at the position of ‘still’

1. The thirty year old is STILL at home.
2. STILL, he does realize that service companies will feel the pinch too…


As stated above, “From Words to Grammar”, is really a beginner’s roadmap to syntax. However, no mention of the word syntax is ever made in the text, a smart move on the part of Berry, since students are more familiar with grammar and what they learned in school. Essentially, this book teaches what I would call syntax-lite with good tests to determine word class and without syntax trees; this makes it an effective link between what students think they know about the words they use and the reality. With respect to its intended audience, I think it would only be appropriate as an undergraduate (pre)introductory text to syntax, and in the hands of a skilled instructor, this book is very helpful to illuminate much of the polysemy and homonymy in English. However, since graduate students often dive into more complex syntactic notions and operations, it would most likely be an insufficient graduate text. Also, the book can sometimes be unclear or difficult for someone who has little to no experience with grammar, and the directions may seem unclear. Thus, this book would not be ideal for self-study since it could greatly benefit from students’ working through at least a few problems with an instructor.

Though this book is targeted at learners of English syntax, the application of the knowledge in this book would be infinitely useful to second language learners that have English as their first language. Often beginning (and even higher-level) learners will adopt a strategy of one-to-one translation correspondences, but this book would show them, for example, that the word ‘that’ assumes so many roles, which makes it highly likely to be rendered in a variety of ways in other languages, e.g. Spanish or French. Moreover, learning the specific roles of words and how they relate to each other would boost the metalinguistic knowledge of students so that they may learn additional languages more systematically, struggling less with the grammar. This book could also be useful for high-level English as a Second Language (ESL) learners. Often, they get confused by multiple meanings and uses for words, or they cannot use certain prepositions in a native-like manner due to their first language; this confusion can last for a long time. However, the motivated ESL instructor and learner could use this text to tease apart the similarities and differences in word usage as well as pinpoint specific difficulties.

With respect to the content, probably the most difficult chapter of the book is Modal auxiliaries, given that people often have trouble discriminating the uses of modals. Beyond the grammatical explanations, by pointing out pragmatic differences, such as ‘could’ and ‘might’ potentially being more tentative than their counterparts ‘can’ and ‘may,’ Berry exposes the reader to word functions that are often hard for speakers to articulate.

Two of the most positive aspects of this book are the acknowledgement of dialectal differences and a firm stance against prescriptivism. As an example of the former, Berry points out the differences in grammatical usage, e.g. the use of ‘yet’ and ‘already’ with the present perfect In British English and the past in American English. Nevertheless, if used in an American classroom, some of these differences would have to be explicitly stated (as dialectal differences) to the students, since occasionally, some phrasing sounds quite unnatural to at least some American English speakers, e.g. ‘the committee are’ and ‘government are’, where the verb agreement implies a plural nature to the singular nouns. As to battling prescriptivism, there are numerous examples of uses the author accepts as legitimate (that are often criticized) peppered throughout the text: ‘they’ as a singular neuter pronoun, ‘hopefully’ as a sentence adverbial, ‘less’ used with countable nouns, ‘like’ as a quotative, etc…

One aspect I found missing is the occasional lack of alternate nomenclature, such as ‘subject pronoun’ for ‘subjective pronoun’ and ‘object pronoun’ for ‘objective pronoun’--designations which are more well-known to those with at least basic grammatical knowledge. Another example is the use of the terms ‘intrinsic modality’, encompassing permission, obligation, intention, and promise, and ‘extrinsic modality’ encompassing possibility. Though the author mentions that there are other terms, it would be helpful for the readers to know the more commonly used terms ‘deontic modality’ and ‘epistemic modality’ if they wanted explore the topic further.

Since language is complex, and individual differences exist, there were a few times where after looking at the solution guide I was not convinced of some of the classifications. For instance, in Activity 3.11, the reader is asked where ‘a’ can be inserted before ‘few’ to create a positive impression, and the following sentence is on that list: “Very few people at all would ever … say that…” (p. 40). Unless the author meant that ‘very’ could be replaced by ‘a’, “Very a few people…” at best sounds unnatural, and in either case the reader is left slightly confused. In another instance, Activity 12.1 C asks the reader to identify concordance lines in which ‘that’ can be omitted. I happened to include one instance in my list that was not in the author’s, but I was at a loss as to why ‘that’ would be necessary in this sentence.

Essentially, the examples above of discrepancies point to the need of an instructor to help the reader through the text and to foster discussion. This would create an environment allowing the student to imagine more examples and to examine other words beyond the book. Overall, this book is successful in teaching grammar contextually through word classes and would be helpful to any language learner exploring word meanings and syntax.
Boris Yelin is currently a doctoral student in Applied Spanish Lingustics at Purdue University. His main interests are SLA and Pedagogy with a focus on L3 acquisition. Past research has included looking at the intersection of language variation and semantics with respect to mood. His current career trajectory is teaching language for the government.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780415713757
Pages: 190
Prices: U.K. £ 85.00
Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780415713764
Pages: 190
Prices: U.K. £ 24.99