Whys and therefores: A rational look at the English language

Whys and therefores: A rational look at the English language. By William Rutherford. London: Equinox, 2011. Pp. 288. ISBN 9781845536510. $24.95.

Reviewed by Colette van Kerckvoorde, Bard College at Simon’s Rock

It is impossible to miss the unusual format of this book. One notices a very brief preface, followed by one hundred dialogues, each of which is the same length: two pages, followed by a section entitled ‘Notes and solutions’, a list of references, and an index. While the use of dialogues is indeed surprising, it nevertheless works well to fulfill the author’s goals.

In the preface, the author explains what he wants to accomplish: first and foremost, he hopes to provide his readers with an awareness that they indeed possess a lot of intuitive knowledge about their native language, English, and that they often need only to reflect on and analyze their own use of the language if they want to uncover its grammatical rules and structures. This is evident to most students of linguistics. To a more general audience, however, this may not be obvious, and William Rutherford had this kind of reader in mind when he developed the concept for this book.

The main part of this work consists of twenty chapters, and each chapter contains five two-page Socratic dialogues that focus on a common topic related to language use. In these dialogues, Patrick, a student, makes observations about some of the linguistic features he encounters; and Marta, his mentor, assists him in thinking about these features, coaches him to find additional examples, and helps him to recognize regularly occurring patterns within the language. Linguistic terminology is introduced in each dialogue and is highlighted, by means of capital letters, to alert the reader to a new concept. The dialogues are well written and easy to follow, and they are available online as audio files. They can be read in order, as suggested by the sequence in which they occur, starting with ‘Day one’, but it is also possible to read the dialogues in random order. At the end of each chapter, there is a postscript: here, the reader is invited to reflect on or analyze some simple materials.

This work is entertaining and refreshing. Any student who debates whether an introductory linguistics course might be useful could benefit from this work, as it is aimed at a general reader who is curious about language, but may expect a very different and more traditional approach. In addition, many language purists might enjoy this work. I can imagine that such readers may be puzzled at first but may become convinced by R’s approach. His approach provides the reader with an awareness that there is much more to language than what traditional English language education offers, and this work may encourage the reader to venture into more advanced linguistic material.