A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar

Rodney Huddleston, Geoffrey Pullum and Brett Reynolds (2nd edn, Cambridge University Press, 2021), 419pp, £26.99
ISBN 978 1 00908 801 5

Reviewed by Ben Dare

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Overall this fast-paced and informally written introduction to English grammar is stimulating and enjoyable, with helpful exercises and index.

As it’s a university textbook, if like me you’re reading for your own … enjoyment(?), read the prefaces – they contain advice on selecting exercises based on your available time and non-sequential orders to read the chapters. Caveat: while it’s not a cover-to-cover read, you may (*cough* I did) find that some of the terminology in later chapters is unfamiliar (‘deixis’, anyone?) and explained in earlier chapters. Index to the rescue!

Whatever order you read this book, start with chapters one and two. Chapter one covers the authors’ aims, and lays some foundations before talking about grammar – including the topics of Standard English and English’s variety (whether international or domestic). The book strongly emphasises that any English is not incorrect simply for being non-standard. I already feel uncomfortable at their examples that for all my attempts to be generous to other speakers I often hold my learnt patterns as superior.

The authors continue throughout to push me to be more thoughtful and inclusive; however, there are phrases that felt a little centred on the experience of those used to using Standard English – for example, that Standard English ‘tends to convey less about a person speaking it than many other dialects do’ (p3). So, yes, they guide me towards openness, but I would not wish to silence anyone who feels there’s more they could do.

Chapter two presents the book’s core approaches to grammar and summaries of the chapters (the authors call this chapter ‘rapid’ – they’re not wrong), helping me gauge where to go next:

  • summaries I didn’t really get (eg ‘adjuncts’) will be the first chapters to read
  • the really interesting summaries (eg one for the obviously rich ‘verbs’ chapter) – these I’ll read next
  • then a couple left me disinterested (eg ‘negation’ – it made sense but … I’ll get to it if I detect a negation-chapter-shaped hole in my life) – these will come last.

The main chapters themselves show an appreciable authorial fearlessness to shape the discussion as they feel is most helpful to the reader: ‘adjuncts’, I find when I get to the chapter, is the topic which includes much that has before been called ‘adverbial’, a term which the authors don’t use as they find it misleading. This is a good example of how the authors often sound quite certain about their (non-standard?) opinions, but they do give clear examples and are fairly good at showing their reasoning.

Each chapter is accompanied by exercises. These were a good balance to the text, getting me thinking about things differently, breaking up the ground for me to strengthen the foundations of my own English. One useful question asked me to think critically about the aims and assumptions of English language sources I use as authoritative. Another both showed me where ‘rules’ might conflict and asked me to judge which I preferred to follow in each instance (and say why) – very useful for editing!

Here, though, not being a formal student had a drawback: we are told it is important to check your answers. However, these answers are not in the book – they are only available through a Cambridge online account. So while the authors do a good job of explaining their topics, without this access I missed an element of the intended learning experience.

That said, I do feel like I’ll treat clients’ words with a more sensitive touch for reading this book. And while I had a general wariness of editorial pedantry, I feel like I’ve become more aware of my specific narrow-mindednesses. Even as a non-student, I feel I’m better off for having read it.


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