English Grammar: Understanding the basics

by Evelyn P Altenberg and Robert M Vago (Cambridge University Press, 2010): 284 pp, £21.99 (pbk), ISBN 978 0 521 73216 1.

Reviewed by Melanie Thompson

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I'm always on the lookout for good books to help me when I'm struggling to explain to authors why I've deemed it necessary to make a particular change to their carefully crafted manuscripts.

'This handy introduction covers all the basics of the subject, using a simple and straightforward style. Students will … be encouraged by its non-technical language,' says the blurb for English Grammar. Better still: 'It is specifically designed for readers who suffer from "grammatophobia".' Ah, sounds like just the ticket.

Explanations and exercises

The book is in three parts: 'Kinds of words', 'Kinds of phrases' and 'Getting started with sentences'.

In part 1, chapters (actually 'units', as this book is based on course notes) cover: nouns, verbs, determiners, adjectives, prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns and adverbs. Part 2 tackles similar issues but from the perspective of the phrase, and part 3 offers three summary chapters on sentence structure.

Each chapter revolves around a series of exercises with answers given later in the book or, for the 'More practice' questions, on a related website. It works like this:

  • The authors offer a short explanation of a point.
  • The reader runs through a few very basic exercises to practise identifying the construct in question.
  • The next point is explained.
  • There are more exercises.

There are also summary exercises at the end of each chapter.

'Insubstantial on paper'

For me, there are several problems with this book. Its tone is relentless. It's not a 'guide to English grammar' – it's a collection of snappy exercises that would work well on a computer but feel insubstantial on paper. Most important of all, being written by a pair of professors of linguistics in New York, it's based on the grammar of standard American English.

Oh, and there is an index, but it's fairly short and, as it's little more than an alphabetical list of subheadings, I'm not convinced it would be particularly helpful to a reader who knows little or nothing about grammar. On the other hand, the glossary is something I might use again.

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