English Grammar for Dummies

by Lesley J Ward and Geraldine Woods (Chichester: John Wiley, 2007): 368pp, £15.99 (pbk), ISBN 978 0 470 05752 0.

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Bloomsbury Grammar Guide

by Gordon Jarvie (London: A & C Black, 2nd ed. 2007): 244pp, £6.99 (pbk), ISBN 978 0 7136 8187 1.

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Reviewed by Wendy Toole

Is it possible to have too many grammar books? Here are two more, written in very different styles. Those who find one helpful will probably find the other difficult to use. Isn't it wonderful to have such choice?

Demons and black belts

On its cover, English Grammar for Dummies – which has been anglicized by SfEP founder member and trainer Lesley Ward – promises to be 'a plain English guide to grammar'.

It is written in a genial and humorous style and makes use of tables, tint boxes, checklists and graduated icons so that the reader can see at a glance the nature of the information being offered: a set of correspondences, a distillation of important points, a telling example or illustrative anecdote, or a nugget of information graded according to whether it is a 'tip', a 'warning', a 'demon' or a 'black belt' technical issue. A fifth icon flags up quizzes that recap the text at regular intervals.

Minimal fuss

The Bloomsbury Grammar Guide – subtitled 'Grammar made easy' – is a different and more traditional kettle of fish. It is smaller in format and generally more compact in presentation, and the information on points of grammar is presented succinctly and with minimal fuss, using mainly just subheadings, bold type and numbered lists to identify, emphasize and summarize.

These features are interspersed with short, clear passages of text that introduce each section. The book concludes with a useful glossary of 'figures of speech and literary devices', a chapter on 'common errors and confusibles' and a selection of tests and quizzes.

Too many subheadings?

A key consideration with reference books is how easy it is to retrieve information. English Grammar for Dummies boasts two separate contents lists ('Contents at a glance', giving part and chapter titles, and 'Table of contents', containing all the subheadings), which may be one more than is strictly necessary.

I certainly felt that the index suffered from having far too many subheadings – it would often be more helpful to be able to see where a general discussion of a topic occurs than to have the topic broken down into a dozen or more subdivisions so that you must scan the subentries to discover where the coverage begins.

I was also a bit nonplussed by the heading 'grammar', which directed me to 'see also specific topics' and wondered why I might want to look up certain common (italicized) words such as even and do (a note to explain this would have been useful).

Relevant coverage

In contrast, the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide has a simple list of chapters at the front, and an index that gives all the main topics one would expect to find in a book of this kind, with very few subheadings.

I found I could locate specific pieces of information very quickly in this book because I could go straight to the complete relevant coverage. Once arrived at the page, I could pick out the topic subheading and scan for examples (bold type), or read the whole item in moments.

Old favourites

I tried looking up a few old favourites in both books and (with the above provisos regarding speed of retrieval) found both to give excellent explanations.

English Grammar for Dummies wrapped the information up in whimsy and anecdote, while the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide presented it more dryly, in very few words. But if you want to get the low-down on a gerund, tidy up your dangling modifiers or identify incontrovertibly a subordinate clause, either book will help you do the job. English Grammar for Dummies is far from frivolous and the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide is in no way dull, so which would be the better choice for you all depends on the type of reference book you like to use.

A matter of taste

What these books do have in common, then, is a substantial amount of sound information. Which of the two any reader will prefer is in part a matter of taste – do you enjoy the spoonful of wit that aims to help the grammatical medicine go down, or do you prefer to get straight to the point and move swiftly on?

It is also partly a matter of how you want to use the book: you may want an entertaining book that you can sit down and read through, learning as you go, or a no-nonsense one to dive into at moments of uncertainty or brain fog in order to confirm a hunch or resolve an argument.

For myself and the way I work, I would choose the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide as I am a dipper-in and a checker-up. Others, who want more of a textbook that lends itself to chapter-by-chapter reading than a straightforward reference guide, may prefer English Grammar for Dummies. That is, however, not to say that they are dummies, or that I am not.

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