Oxford Modern English Grammar

by Bas Aarts (Oxford University Press, 2011): 410 pp, £13.25 (hbk),  ISBN 978 0 19 953319 0.

Reviewed by Victoria Selwyn

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Aarts describes this book as 'influenced by ideas in theoretical work' but having the same outlook as 'modern descriptive reference grammars' which take the view that 'the grammar of a language is shaped over time by the speakers of that language, not by self-appointed individuals or learned bodies'. Accordingly, his examples are sourced from corpora.

That is as it should be: gone are the days when grammarians could prescribe ex cathedra, backing up their pronouncements with invented examples. You can argue with the choice of corpora, and Aarts cheats a little, but by and large he sticks to his principles. Yet from the outset, the descriptive reference grammar proves a slippery notion. 'You will not be told to avoid [the split infinitive] on the grounds that it is bad English', yet 'this does not mean that everything uttered by a speaker of English will be regarded as acceptable': some utterances 'violate the rules of English'.

Algebra-like strings

The blurb casts its net much wider, presenting the book as 'an invaluable reference for undergraduate and postgraduate students, and for anyone who needs a clear guide to English grammar'. Aarts himself claims that it does not assume 'any previous knowledge of grammatical concepts', and once you've got used to the terminology and the algebra-like strings that pepper most chapters, the concepts are well explained, with useful tables. But unless you're familiar with the terrain, you'll need to read the book in a fairly linear way.

The subject index is useful provided you know what you're looking for, but I haven't fathomed the purpose of the lexical index, while a glossary of terms might have been helpful. Other features include an excellent 'Notes and further reading' section and, bizarrely, an appendix of English irregular verbs.

Should you buy it? If you want an overview of English grammar and you're prepared to read it from cover to cover, yes – but you may then find it's not enough. If you want confirmation for your intuitions or an authority to cite to clients, probably not.

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