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Review of  Essential Grammar for Today's Writers, Students, and Teachers

Reviewer: Catharine M Welch
Book Title: Essential Grammar for Today's Writers, Students, and Teachers
Book Author: Nancy Sullivan
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
General Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 28.289

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Nancy M. Sullivan’s “Essential Grammar for Today’s Writers, Students, and Teachers”, is a manageable-for-one-semester textbook designed to introduce grammar concepts to students who may not have a strong background in grammar. While Sullivan’s primary intended audience is Education majors, this text is suitable for any student interested in developing a working knowledge of the fundamentals of English grammar. The book is written from a linguistics viewpoint that puts primary emphasis on function over form. Throughout the five chapters of the text, more traditional definitions are abandoned (such as the age-old “noun = person, place, or thing” explanation), and instead words are viewed in terms of the role they perform in the sentence. To accomplish this goal, Sullivan provides various diagnostic tests that students can utilize to determine the function of sentence components.

The concept of form versus function is critical to the ordering of the information throughout the textbook. Sullivan’s style is to introduce a basic concept—such as verbs—where the form and function are interrelated, and then extend the student’s understanding by giving examples such as gerunds and participles that have the form of a verb but the function of some other word class. The chapter titles themselves highlight her “define, then extend” methodology. For instance, Chapter 1: Word Classes is directly followed by Chapter 2: Extending the Basics.

Two of the more distinct aspects of the book involve 1) Sullivan’s choice of sample sentences that exemplify the grammatical concepts being presented, and 2) her use of a corresponding “Language Focus” box at the beginning of each chapter. Sullivan makes a concerted effort to avoid a common issue in grammar texts whereby seemingly random and context-less sample sentences such as “Mary kicked the ball” fill the pages. She instead organizes each chapter around a linguistic theme, or “Language Focus,” that is presented at the outset of the chapter. These themes include: Language and the Brain (Chapter 1), The Sounds of Language (Chapter 2), Sociolinguistics (Chapter 3), Language Acquisition (Chapter 4), and The History of English (Chapter 5). Every sample sentence in the book relates conceptually to the theme of the chapter in which it appears.

As would be expected with a grammar text, many exercises appear throughout the book with a detailed answer key at end of the volume. The exercises are generally brief, ranging from 5-10 questions each and are designed to assess student understanding of key concepts. Regardless of the length of the exercise, only the first 5 questions of each exercise are included in the book’s answer key.

Chapter 1: Word Classes

Sullivan begins her text with the eight major parts of speech, which she notes are contemporarily referred to as word classes. She remarks that professors can no longer assume that college students enter their courses having any meaningful prior experience with grammar, including knowledge of these basic parts of speech. Thus, she does not approach this chapter as simply a review of previously learned knowledge, but as a true beginner’s introduction to nouns, adjectives, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. From the start, Sullivan acknowledges the more traditional definitions of these word classes, but then seeks to expand the learner’s understanding of these terms. For example, in the section on adjectives, the idea that “an adjective modifies a noun or pronoun” is addressed and supported by sample sentences with arrows demonstrating nouns being modified by preceding adjectives. (Interestingly, Sullivan includes determiners as a sub-category of adjectives and contrasts them with descriptive adjectives, explaining how the former is a closed class and the latter an open class.) The adjective section quickly moves toward more functional perspective, though, with sample sentences demonstrating noun-like words (e.g. ‘brain’, ‘language’) functioning in an adjectival capacity. Sullivan also is quick to point out that adjectives most typically occupy two “slots” in a sentence, either before a noun or after a linking verb. This chapter sets the tone of the rest of the book by asking students to conceptualize word classes based on the word’s function and placement in the sentence instead of on rote definitions that are often oversimplified and incomplete.

The chapter theme—which she calls the “Language Focus”—is on the topic of “Language and the Brain.” The chapter begins with a brief discussion about language processing, and sample sentences throughout the chapter include topics such as brain lateralization, child language acquisition, and language disorders. The chapter contains 14 exercises that evaluate student understanding of presented concepts. Several all-chapter review exercises conclude the chapter.

Chapter 2: Extending the Basics

The second chapter seeks to provide a more detailed look at several word classes that were highlighted in Chapter 1, including nouns, prepositions, verbs, and conjunctions. In this chapter, students are introduced to the concept of phrases—Noun Phrases (NPs), Prepositional Phrases (PPs), and Verb Phrases (VPs). Drawing on this concept, students are given some basic information about the structure of English sentences, such as the fact that subjects are always NPs and that Prepositions always co-occur with an NP. After identifying the structural components of NPs and PPs, Sullivan again returns to the question of the function of these constituents. For PPs, she points out that they can serve either an adjectival or an adverbial function. For NPs, the concepts of subject, object, object of the preposition, and appositives are introduced.

Students often become confused between PPs and phrasal verbs because of the overlap between prepositions and particles (e.g. turn in vs. in the garden), and Sullivan uses this point to transition the discussion from NPs/PPs toward VPs. The remainder of the chapter focuses on creating active and passive constructions by manipulating VPs and subject- and object-position NPs. The chapter concludes with an explanation of a specific type of conjunction, the conjunctive adverb, and its function in uniting two VPs.

The “Language Focus” for Chapter 2 involves “The Sounds of Language”. Sample sentences throughout the chapter include topics such as articulation, the IPA, phonological variation in dialects, and foreign language accents. This chapter contains 11 self-check exercises with an additional 6 all-chapter review exercises at the end.

Chapter 3: Sentence Patterns

The second chapter ended with a discussion of VPs, and the third picks up where the second left off. In this chapter, though, the focus is on identifying the difference between a linking verb and an action verb, as this critical distinction dictates the entire structure of the sentence. Sullivan walks the reader through the basic definition of a linking verb, as well as the be-substitution test to determine if a verb is linking or not. She then moves into a discussion of transitive and intransitive verbs, highlighting the fact that some verbs can function both as a linking verb and as an intransitive action verb. After laying this groundwork, she returns to linking verbs (LV) and identifies three common sentence structures related to them: Subject + LV + Adverb; Subject + LV + Predicate Adjective; Subject + LV + Predicate Nominative. Four additional action verb structures are then given—one intransitive (Subject + Intransitive Verb) and three transitive (Subject + Transitive Verb + Direct Object; Subject + Transitive Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object); and Subject + Transitive Verb + Direct Object + Object Complement. Although Sullivan acknowledges elsewhere in the book that this is not an exhaustive list of English structures, these are some of the higher frequency constructions.

The chapter begins with a brief discussion of sociolinguistics. Language policy, bilingualism, and sociolinguistic variation pertaining to gender and age were all topics touched on in the sample sentences. The third chapter contains 10 exercises with 5 additional all-chapter review exercises at the end.

Chapter 4: Verbals: Gerunds, Participles, and Infinitives

While the verbs in Chapter 3 all functioned in a more traditional way, the “verbs” in focus in Chapter 4 possess the form of a verb but actually function as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs. Sullivan calls these “verbals”, a category that includes gerunds, participles, and infinitives. Gerunds, which are verbals that function as nouns, are described, and three tests for identifying gerunds are given. Participles are then explained as being similar to gerunds but functioning as adjectives instead of nouns. Sullivan uses this as an opportunity to discuss dangling participles, a common student error in formal writing. Indeed, as is the case here, each chapter often has very practical punctuation and writing tips interwoven into the lesson that help students understand how grammar knowledge can be applied in real-world scenarios. The same is true of the final topic of the chapter—infinitives, which are described as functioning as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs. After giving examples of infinitives and infinitive phrases, the practical application of split infinitives comes into focus. Sullivan instructs students both on how to identify a split infinitive and on when this construction should be avoided in writing.

The chapter begins with a brief discussion of the theme “Language Acquisition,” and sample sentences throughout the chapter include topics such as first language acquisition stages, primate language, methods for learning a second language, and the critical period hypothesis. Thirteen grammar exercises are interspersed throughout the text with four all-chapter review exercises concluding the chapter.

Chapter 5: Adjective, Adverb, and Noun Clauses

The final chapter shifts the focus away from verbs and instead delves into adjective, adverb, and noun clauses. This chapter is rightly included at the end of the text, as it builds on many of the skills and vocabulary learned in the previous four chapters. The chapter begins with a clarification on the difference between phrases and clauses. The previous chapter’s discussion of verbals is essential for students to be able to rightly identify whether a structure contains both a subject and verb, thus making it a clause. The conversation then turns towards types of clauses, with adjective clauses being presented first. This section includes a thorough description of relative pronouns and antecedents, as well some “quirks” of adjective clauses such as the ability for a relative pronoun to be omitted on occasion. The following section on adverb clauses points out that the subordinating conjunction “that” can likewise be omitted in some cases.

The final topic of Chapter 5 is noun clauses, which helps bring the book full-circle, as knowledge of nouns—the word class that kicked off Chapter 1—becomes relevant again. By this point, however, students have become aware that the “noun slot” of a sentence isn’t just reserved for “person, places, or things,” but instead can be occupied by a wide variety of phrases and clauses that function as nouns.

The theme “The History of English” takes center stage in Chapter 5. A callout box appears early in the chapter, directing readers toward the well-known YouTube video “The History of English in 10 Minutes”. Sample sentences throughout the chapter incorporate topics such as Old/Middle/Modern English, the Norman Conquest and other major events in the history of English, word etymology, and the significance of English as a global language. Fifteen self-check exercises followed by 3 chapter review exercises conclude Chapter 5.


As a professor in Texas who teaches Education majors, I am quite familiar with the target audience for the book as well as the grammar concepts that are tested on teacher certification exams in our state. This textbook positions itself perfectly for pre-service teachers who may not have a strong background in grammar yet need to know these critical concepts in order to pass the certification exams. For that niche market, this book is more than adequate. The text is written to a general audience, however, so its usage is in no way confined to pre-service teachers and would be appropriate for anyone wanting to enhance their understanding the basic structure of English.

The study of grammar can be both infinitely complex and excruciatingly boring, and Sullivan tackles these obstacles in creative ways. To keep the complexity in check, Sullivan is intentional in selecting the topics that she chooses to cover and the depth into which she delves on the selected topics. She states in the Introduction that she purposefully does not explore every exception to every grammar rule or include an exhaustive list of sentence structures. (I do note that the sentence structures she covers correspond to those often tested on the teacher certification exams in our state.) She avoids nonessential topics not only to keep the readers focused on the main points, but also to help keep the book from becoming unnecessarily long and unwieldy.

To keep the banality at bay, Sullivan purposefully introduces intriguing linguistics concepts into the text without taking the focus away from the grammar instruction. Various “Did You Know?” boxes appear throughout the text that offer some interesting tidbit about contemporary language use and then direct the reader to additional information on the subject. One such box directs students toward a YouTube video that highlights research about the correlation between personal pronoun usage and lying.

Other creative and unique aspects of this text are the chapter themes and the sample sentences related to the theme. While these serve their purpose in providing more appealing sentences with which to analyze grammatical structures, I found myself reading through the sample sentences and desiring a more cohesive or logical sequence. For instance, in a half-page explanation of reflexive pronouns, the sample sentences presented ranged in topics from SLA to Einstein donating his brain to science to seizure surgery. While these sentences all loosely relate to the chapter theme of “Language and the Brain”, I found it distracting as I tried to determine how the sentences related to each other.

In future editions of this book, I would love to see expanded “Language Focus” chapter introductions that more exhaustively address the chapter theme. A suggestion might be to actually incorporate the sample sentences from the chapter into a unified paragraph or short essay so that the students can be initially exposed to the sentences as part of a coherent discourse. Then, once they see them again later in the chapter being analyzed for their structure, they can more readily relate the sentence back to the chapter theme. As a fellow linguist, I absolutely agree with Sullivan that her inclusion of these mini-linguistics lessons are an “exciting dimension” to this grammar book and simply would like to see this aspect expanded and presented in a more accessible way.

Lastly, should an instructor consider adopting this text for a course, I’d like to mention two small but important details. One is that the book has a very nice aesthetic and is priced competitively. The book’s formatting is very agreeable and easy-to-navigate. The sample sentences are accompanied by supporting notations (underlining, arrows, etc.) that are both visually appealing and instructive. Routledge, the publisher, and Sullivan did an excellent job at keeping the price low without sacrificing quality. Secondly, Routledge provides Instructor Notes via their website. These notes include an answer key to the exercises, as well as some suggested assignments that Sullivan uses in her own classroom. These assignments, particularly the Grammar Literacy paper, enable students to apply their grammar knowledge to their own writing.
Catharine Welch, Ph.D., enjoys teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in the education department at the University of North Texas Dallas in Dallas, TX. Her areas of interest include pragmatics, sociolinguistics, educational linguistics, and Spanish.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781138857025
Pages: 251
Prices: U.S. $ 200.00
Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9780765641748
Pages: 251
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