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Review of  An Introduction to English Grammar

Reviewer: Kirsten Colquhoun
Book Title: An Introduction to English Grammar
Book Author: Gerald Nelson Sidney Greenbaum
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
General Linguistics
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 27.3208

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


An Introduction to English Grammar by Gerald Nelson and Sidney Greenbaum is the fourth edition of a textbook first published in 1991. This edition contains a number of revisions and additions in order to make the text more accessible and its content more up-to-date. The book is aimed at students with “no prior knowledge of English grammar” and claims to provide “everything a student needs on the theory and practice of English usage”.

The book is divided into two parts, with an additional introductory section. The introduction provides an overview of English grammar, with mention of the different varieties of English, the differences between standard and non-standard English, descriptive and prescriptive rules as well as a guide to the usage of the book. The first part of the book is titled ‘The Grammar’ and consists of four chapters on key topics of grammar: the parts of a simple sentence, word classes, the structure of phrases, and sentences and clauses. The second part is titled ‘The Applications’ and details – in five chapters – how these topics are utilised in everyday usage. It looks at common usage problems, style, English in use, punctuation, and word formation and spelling. The English in Use section has been updated to include aspects of English in social media and the word formation section is new too.

In both parts of the book, the chapters are clearly subdivided into short sections, at the end of which are numerous examples. At the end of each chapter there are exercises relating to each section and a set of more advanced exercises. The answers to these exercises are not in the book but are available on the website. There is a glossary at the end of the book.


In general the different parts of the chapters are clearly signposted by subheadings, which make it much easier to navigate what could be very dense text. This also helps a reader to find certain information without having to read the entire book. The explanations are written in simple and clear language, and each point is supported by numerous examples, which is very effective. At the end of each chapter, the exercises provided are comprehensive. However, the fact that the answers to the exercises are only available on the website and not in the book could make doing the exercises a bit awkward; as a reader I would prefer to be able to check my answers immediately in the book. This could be a response to the younger generation of reader who would find it natural to use a book in conjunction with online resources; the perceived convenience of this aspect will depend on the reader.

The first part of the book – ‘The Grammar’ - is fairly standard in its approach, though I do feel it is written in such a way as to be very accessible to readers, which is commendable. What is particularly helpful are the examples given. For each point made there are numerous examples and short, simple explanations which make the chapters very easy to follow. The chapters also work their way up from word classes and the parts of a sentence up to sentences and clauses. This structure ensures a solid foundation before moving onto more complex matters.

It is the second part of the book – ‘The Applications’ - where a few issues arise.

The first chapter of the second part of the book deals with ‘Usage Problems’, which is a welcome addition to any book of English grammar. In the chapter numerous aspects of English grammar which are problematic to learners of English are explained. For example, subject-verb agreement with collective nouns. The rules guiding the correct usage are explained for each problematic concept. What, unfortunately, seems to be lacking in many of these sections is an explanation or examples of common instances of incorrect usage. The contrast of these with correct sentences would provide valuable insight, such as for English teachers as a means of anticipating problems their learners may have.

The chapter on style offers a number of concrete ways style can be improved in writing. While chapters such as this one can be quite vague and unclear, this chapter looks at issues such as end-focus, cleft sentences, subordination and parallelism, among others, which are separated into their purposes – emphasis, clarity and consistency. In this way a usually unclear topic becomes comprehensible and meaningful. What is provided here as well (and is lacking in the chapter on usage problems) are examples of clumsy or faulty constructions and illustrations of their improvements. These examples of incorrect usage are thus able to illustrate differences in style based on language choice. Being able to contrast the examples proves very effective as a means of explanation.

The ‘English in Use’ chapter studies the use of English in contemporary settings, from conversational English and sports commentary to social media and literature. Many extensive examples are given of the different texts, which are then used to illustrate the points made. This section also helpfully refers back to the relevant sections in other chapters which relate to the theory behind the usage in question. This chapter is quite comprehensive and includes interesting discussions of language in sports commentary, emails, tweets and literature. At the same time, though, as is usually the case when dealing with grammar in texts such as these, the chapter looks at features of common usage by way of explanation rather than providing a set of rules to follow. The corresponding exercises at the end of the chapter mirror this, by asking for comment on examples of usage and not for reformulation, which would be counterintuitive for such texts.

The next chapter – ‘Punctuation’ – continues with the theme of the book by focussing on language usage. While it does mention and clarify punctuation rules, it pays particular attention to common punctuation styles. Here again numerous examples are given to demonstrate the accompanying text and references are made to previous related sections.

The final chapter is on word formation and is an addition to this edition of the book and a welcome one at that. It looks at word structures and spelling rules and also provides a list of commonly confused words which are pronounced similarly. This will serve to highlight common errors for students so they can be avoided, as well as to prepare English teachers for possible difficulties students may have.

In general, this book provides a useful overview of English grammar, as well as incorporating discussion of other interesting aspects of usage and difficulties. The updates to include more recent English are a good (and necessary) addition. It is written in a very easy, readable style which makes it even more attractive as it presents a more pleasant reading experience than would a dry instruction manual.

While it is aimed at students with little experience of English grammar, it would also be suitable as a resource book for newer English teachers, as it provides clear explanations and gives good examples. As for learners of English, the complexity of the language may prevent the learners from relating to the text; it would be incomprehensible for a lower level English language learner but I assume this is not the targeted audience. In fact, the book could even be a useful resource for more advanced learners of English.

Overall, An Introduction to English Grammar would be a welcome addition to any student’s bookshelf. While it may appear to be a dense text rather than a grammar reference book, once involved you’ll find it easy to navigate, easy to read and, most importantly, easy to understand. The book has managed to remain popular since its first publication in 1991 and this edition will only serve to maintain that reputation.
Kirsten Colquhoun holds an MPhil in English and Applied Linguistics from the University of Cambridge, as well as the DELTA. She currently works as a freelance TEFL teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer. She is interested in topics related to English language teaching and second/foreign language acquisition.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781138855458
Prices: U.S. $ 130.00
Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781138855496
Pages: 350
Prices: U.S. $ 44.95