Lessons on the noun phrase in English

Lessons on the noun phrase in English: From representation to reference. By Walter Hirtle. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009. Pp. xiv, 405. ISBN 9780773536043. $95 (Hb).

Reviewed by John Hewson, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Both this text and Hirtle’s earlier Lessons on the English verb (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007) originated with courses taught at Université Laval in Quebec City over several decades. The purpose of these courses, and the resources that developed from these classes was to give insight into the choices the English language offers, ‘not to describe usage but to describe what explains usage’ (xi).

Ch. 1, ‘What we are going to talk about and how’ (3–15), presents an emic versus etic approach, where the simple (i.e. monosemic) singular versus plural contrast of the underlying nominal system (examined in Chs. 3–7) produces many different surface (i.e. polysemic) kinds of singular and plural, with a certain amount of overlapping of the two (e.g. a crossroad, a crossroads, the enemy is/are approaching).

Gender is examined in Ch. 8, ‘Gender in the substantive’ (126–46). English has two simple underlying binary contrasts. The first is between the animate and inanimate genders. The second type of contrast distinguishes masculine from feminine. There is a straightforward usage of this system in English discourse, with some possibility for underlying categories to overlap on the surface.

Ch. 9, ‘The substantive’ (147–59), investigates how the substantive in English can be the support of an adjective or a verb, but has its own internal support. In this sense, the substantive in English differs from finite verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, as shown in the following syntagmas: substantive < verb < adverb and adverb > adjective > substantive.

Ch. 10, ‘The system of the articles’ (160–74), begins the discussion of the definite and indefinite articles as a binary pair. H argues in Ch. 11, ‘A vs. the in discourse’ (175–96) that the English articles are complementary in function. The indefinite article is introductory, while the definite article is anaphoric, referring back to the situational context of the speaker’s intended message.  Ch. 12 ‘Bare vs. articled –s substantives’ (197–213) and Ch. 13 ‘Bare vs. articled –ø substantives’ (214–33) deal extensively with article usage. H presents an analysis of the complex alternation of definite, indefinite, and zero articles with singular and plural nouns.

In Ch. 14 ‘Any as a quantifier’ (234–49) and Ch. 15 ‘Some and the system’ (250–69), any and some are dealt with as another binary pair. These quantifiers are members of a single binary contrast that involve partitive quantifiers. A variety of contrastive pairs can be found (e.g.  I didn’t buy any sugar/ I bought some sugar or, more subtle Didn’t we buy any/ some sugar?) that differ in their contextual message. Furthermore, unlike the articles which are always completive pronouns (requiring a N to form an NP), the partitives can be completive (e.g. any book) or suppletive (e.g. any of them) pronouns.

H examines the use of demonstratives in Ch. 16 ‘The demonstratives’ (270–91). This and that, in addition to being either completive or suppletive, may also be either singular or plural. In the operational system, this signifies a movement towards the here and now (e.g. a person approaching is typically this person, even at a distance); and that signifies a movement away (e.g. a person walking away is that person, even if close). The contextual effects of this distinction are examined and discussed at length. For example, this, like the indefinite article, is often introductory (e.g. I met this man), and that is anaphoric (e.g. That problem you mentioned…).

After a brief chapter on determiners as completive pronouns in Ch. 17, ‘Determiners as completive pronouns’ (292–301), Ch. 18, ‘-’s Phrase’ (302–15), investigates the English possessive -’s suffix and summarizes the problems with analyzing it as discussed by grammarians and others. H covers this in considerable detail.

Ch.19, ‘Suppletive pronouns as noun phrase’ (316–31), spends some time on the pronoun it, too often dismissed as an empty pronoun. Ch. 20, ‘Personal pronouns and the expression of gender’ (332–47), examines how nouns may have their own inherent gender, but that it is frequently overridden in the selection of the gender of the substituting personal pronoun.

Ch. 21 ‘The noun phrase and person’ (348–57) deals with the element of person as the linguistic element that enables the referential function of the NP. Ch. 22, entitled ‘Syntactic function’ (358–67), examines the varying roles of direct and indirect object, case forms, and prepositional phrases.

This book constitutes a comprehensive view of the noun phrase in English, with many interesting insights that are not only useful for teachers and learners of English as a second language but also challenging for grammarians and linguists who specialize in the English language.