Understanding English grammar

Understanding English grammar: A linguistic introduction. By Thomas E. Payne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xvii, 433. ISBN 9780521757119. $39.99.

Reviewed by Janne Skaffari, University of Turku

There is a huge market for textbooks on English grammar, in Anglophone countries and elsewhere, to which the main title of this book undoubtedly refers. However, anyone reading this book will soon realize that it is not so much a grammar in the traditional sense as a linguistics textbook with a focus on syntax. The author aims at combining language learning and current linguistic ideas, not prescribing ‘good English’.

The book contains an introduction and fifteen chapters, the majority of them 20–26 pages long. Each chapter concludes with a summary, a short further reading section, and some exercises. The topics range from the history of English (Ch. 1) to pragmatically marked constructions (Ch. 15). The historical overview is followed by chapters on linguistic typology, word classes, morphology and word-formation, and the semantics of ‘participants’ and ‘actions’ in clauses. Chs. 7 and 8, discussing such syntactic concepts as constituency and determiner phrases, start the more demanding second half of the book, covering complementation and modification, characteristics of English verb structures, and patterns of clause combination. Finally, the glossary gives brief definitions of some 400 terms, followed by endnotes and a lengthy bibliography.

The references section contains about 170 entries, some forty percent of them from after 2000. The sources cover a broad range of linguistic topics. Although a number of grammars have been consulted, it is surprising that some recent corpus-based descriptions of English, most notably the Longman grammar of spoken and written English (1999), are missing from the bibliography. P does use material from large corpora and the Internet, thus avoiding the problems arising from the traditional armchair grammarians’ invented examples.

An experienced teacher, P regularly takes up the pedagogical concerns involved in describing English grammatical structures to non-native speakers of the language. Indeed, most academics teaching English in non-Anglophone countries probably have to use textbooks primarily intended for the United Kingdom or United States market and cannot but deplore the native-speaker proficiency often assumed by such books. P has actually dedicated this volume to his former students in South Korea. What remains an unsolvable problem in textbooks is that students with different linguistic and educational backgrounds may require different solutions to the problems they face when learning grammar: for instance, not everyone finds motion verbs difficult, or benefits from a discussion of fifteen aspectual categories.

The linguistic approach to grammar is commendable but makes the textbook quite complicated in places. Moreover, several topics or concepts appear as if from nowhere: for example, generative grammar appears in Ch. 7 with little explanation. It is, thus, evident that this book is best read with a teacher who can clarify the linguistic analyses and classifications. This book on understanding the structures of English will certainly give many new ideas not only to the student but also to the teacher.