14.456, Review: Language Description: van Gelderen (2002)

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LINGUIST List:  Vol-14-456. Sat Feb 15 2003. ISSN: 1068-4875.

Subject: 14.456, Review: Language Description: van Gelderen (2002)

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Date:  Thu, 13 Feb 2003 12:43:29 +0000
From:  Anja Wanner <awanner at wisc.edu>
Subject:  An Introduction to the Grammar of English

-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------

Date:  Thu, 13 Feb 2003 12:43:29 +0000
From:  Anja Wanner <awanner at wisc.edu>
Subject:  An Introduction to the Grammar of English

Gelderen, Elly van (2002): An Introduction to the Grammar of English.
Syntactic Arguments and Socio-Historical Background.
Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, paperback ISBN 158811 1571 ($
29.95), hardback ISBN 1588112004 ($ 68.00). xxiv + 200 pages.

Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/13/13-2585.html

Anja Wanner,
Department of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison


This book is a textbook for undergraduates in a typical introductory
English Grammar class. It steers a middle course between traditional
grammar (Quirk at al. 1985) and generative grammar (Aarts 2001) and it
is designed to be covered in one semester. It familiarizes students
who have no prior linguistic knowledge with classifying parts of
speech, finding syntactic phrases, and representing the structure of
clauses in tree diagrams. It has numerous exercises, many of them
followed by model answers, with data drawn from various sources
(including poetry, clippings from newspaper articles, and cartoons).


The book is divided into 11 short (all under 20 pages) chapters,
following the familiar textbook pattern of moving from the analysis of
the smallest syntactic unit (words) via diagnostics for syntactic
phrases to the structure and representation of simple and complex
clauses. Each chapter ends with a set of exercises, followed by model
answers. There are three review blocks, including suggestions for
exams. A 10-page glossary with references to the text completes the
book; there is no index. In addition to the standard material for a
descriptive English grammar class, van Gelderen includes a number of
''special topics'', which might not seem very exciting from a
theoretical point of view, but which are issues that students of
English are universally interested in, such as the truth about the
split infinitive, the problem of dangling modifiers, the facts of the
''whom/who'' distinction and the appropriate use of ''hopefully'' and

After a short introduction (chapter 1) that focuses on the role of the
native speaker (this is where the book makes its most obvious
borrowings from Chomskyan theory), the text introduces criteria for
classifying ''Categories'' (lexical and grammatical) in chapter 2,
using criteria from morphology, syntax, and semantics. The approach is
very hands-on  for instance, it is pointed out that prepositions have
characteristics of both lexical and grammatical categories, but ''for
the sake of simplicity'' (p. 17) they are treated as lexical
throughout the book. Chapter 3 deals with phrases. It introduces the
familiar constituency tests (movement, coordination, substitution) and
explaines how to build a tree diagram.  Van Gelderen uses a simplified
version of X-bar Theory, without projecting grammatical
categories. She follows the generative tradition of defining the
functions in a clause as something that ''can be read off the tree''
(p. 41). Grammatical functions and their representation in a a tree
diagram are discussed in chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 6 deals with the
syntax of the verb phrase, which is analyzed as consisting of a ''verb
group'' (auxiliaries and lexical verbs) and the complement. The
chapter is followed by a review section. Part three of the book is
concerned with complex sentences, for which numerous diagrams are
given, involving an S' category dominating a C position for
complementizers (conjunctions).  Chapter 7 introduces non-finite
clauses as clausal entities with an empty subject position and 
''to'' being part of the verb group. Following another review section,
the structure of nonverbal phrases (Noun Phrase, Adjectival Phrase,
Adverbial Phrase, Prepositional Phrase) is revisited in chapter 9,
which emphasizes syntactic functions within a phrase (determiner,
head, modifier, complement). Chapter 10 discusses phrases containing
clauses, such as NPs with relative clauses (analysis: there is no
wh-movement, relative pronouns are treated as complementizers). The
book ends with a chapter on ''Special sentences'': clauses that
involve movement, such as wh-questions, topicalization and
passives. Tree diagrams for these constructions are not provided, they
are clearly not within the scope of this book, as they would involve
the introduction of syntactic movement of phrases. The book closes
with recommendations for further reading and a bibliography.


This is a book that is geared towards students who will not take many
linguistics classes and who need a practical introduction to analyzing
English sentences. What makes this book stand out are the author's
conscious choices to keep the book student-friendly without
oversimplifying the material that is discussed. With all her emphasis
on structure, van Gelderen minimizes syntactic jargon and
theorizing. For instance she considers the hierarchy neutral term
''constituent'' a ''stumbling block'' and consequently avoids it. The
same holds for terms like ''recursion'' and the ''X'' in X-bar
theory. The structure of small clauses is discussed without any
reference to this term, and the empty subject in infinitives is never
referred to as ''PRO''. These decisions, als well as the flat
analysis of the verbal complex, may strike the reader who knows van
Gelderen for her work on historical linguistics and syntactic theory
within the Minimalist Program (e.g. van Gelderen 1997) as somewhat
unexpected, but if this reader happens to teach introductory English
grammar classes on a regular basis, he or she will get over the
surprise quickly and will appreciate the practical decisions that van
Gelderen makes. Another student-friendly element are the exercises
throughout the book, wich are generally followed by model answers. The
point of the model answers is to provide feedback to the students 
there is no implication that there is only one acceptable answer to a
question.  Students will also like the ''special topics'' despite
all affirmative nods to a descriptive approach they still expect a
grammar class to tell them ''what is right'', or at least ''why some
people think that some things are right and others are not''. Another
thing that student will appreciate is the fact that tree diagrams are
always represented completely (no ''clotheshangers'').  The book is
much shorter and not as densely written as some comparable textbooks,
most notably the one by Brinton (2000), but I consider van Gelderen's
textbook more manageable as a text for the audience that it targets. I
also find it considerably clearer than the introduction by
Verspoor/Sauter (2000), also published by John Benjamins, which has a
confusing layout and does not make use of tree diagrams at all. In
comparison with Lobeck (2000), which is similar in its approach and
its target group, van Gelderen is more focused on structure and on the
practical analysis of data.  While van Gelderen's presentation of the
material is very clear and student-oriented, parts of the organization
of the book are not. For a start, the subtitle of the book  
'Syntactic Arguments and Socio-Historical Background'  is somewhat
misleading. There is a lot more syntax than socio-historical
background in this book. Yes, there are a number of exercises based on
historical texts, and the book does mention the omission of
auxiliaries in earlier stages of English and the like, but there is no
full section on, say, the grammaticalization of ''do'' or the
relationship between inflection and word order. As in Lobeck's (2000)
textbook, historical facts are brought up here and there, to
illustrate varieties of English and the changeability of linguistic
rules. The ''special topic'' sections that follow some of the chapters
generally deal with a conflict between prescription and description,
they are not necessarily historical, nor are they really tied
thematically to the chapters that they are part of. They are not
mentioned in the table of contents, and since there is no index, they
may be hard to find.  The bibliography is short and, unfortunately,
not very well edited. For instance, Beth Levin's book on English Verb
Classes and Alternations (not: ''Alterations'') was published in 1993
(not: 1994), and classics such as ''The Cambridge Encyclopedia of
Language'' by David Crystal and Jean Aitchison's book on ''Language
Change'' are not listed in their most recent editions. Some books are
missing altogether, for example, the ''Further Reading'' section on
p. 195 mentions a text by O'Grady et al. (1993), but there is no such
reference listed in the bibliography. The preface describes van
Gelderen's book as ''in the tradition of the Quirk family of grammars,
such as the work of Huddleston, Burton-Roberts, Aarts & Wekker''
(p. ix), but neither Huddleston nor Aarts & Wekker show up in the
bibliography (and the textbook by Burton-Roberts, again, is not listed
in its most recent edition). The grammar by Quirk et al. (1985) is a
wonderful resource, alright, but there would have been no harm in
including one of the more recent reference grammars, such as the
corpus-based grammar by Biber et al. (1999).  Overall, though, van
Gelderen's focused contribution to the textbook shelf for English
grammar classes is highly welcome. It balances linguistic
argumentation and practical answers in a student-friendly manner and
draws a clear line between what can be achieved in a one-semester
introductory class and what should be left to further exploration.


Aarts, Bas. (2001, 2nd ed.): English Syntax and Argumentation.
Houndsmills: Palgrave.

Aitchison, Jean (2001, 3rd ed.): Language Change: Progress or Decay?
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Biber, Douglas et al. (1999): Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written
English. Harlow: Longman.

Brinton, Laurel (2000): The Structure of Modern English: A Linguistic
Introduction. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Burton-Roberts, Noel (1997, 2nd ed.): Analysing Sentences: An
Introduction to English Syntax. Longman: London.

Crystal, David (1997, 2nd ed.): The Cambridge Encyclopedia of
Language.  Cambridge: Cambrige University Press.

Gelderen, Elly van (1997): Verbal Agreement and the Grammar behind its
''Breakdown'': Minimalist Feature Checking. Tuebingen: Max Niemeyer.

Levin, Beth (1993): English Verb Classes and Alternations. A
Preliminary Investigation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lobeck, Anne (2000): Discovering Grammar. An Introduction to English
Sentence Structure. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Quirk, Randolph et al. (1985): A Comprehensive Grammar of the English
Language. London: Longman.

Verspoor, Marjolijn/Sauters, Kim (2000): English Sentence Analysis. An
Introductory Course. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.


Anja Wanner is an assistant professor of English at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison, where she teaches English syntax and syntactic
theory.  She did her Ph.D. work on verb classification in English. She
currently works on argument alternations and the representation of
agentivity in scientific discourse.


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