Understanding English Grammar: A linguistic introduction

by Thomas E Payne (Cambridge University Press, 2010): 452 pp, £25.99 (pbk), ISBN 978 0 521 75711 9.

Reviewed by Melanie Thompson

Buy this book

The author's name attracted me to this textbook. Even though I gave up studying history at the age of 14, I have heard of Thomas Payne – one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America but a native of Thetford, Norfolk, and described by Wikipedia as 'author, pamphleteer, radical, inventor, intellectual, revolutionary'.

If the parents of Thomas E Payne hoped their son would follow in the footsteps of the great TP, I dare say they would be proud. For Thomas E Payne, a research associate at the University of Oregon's Department of Linguistics, has clearly taken to the 'family business' of intellectual wordsmithing! He has already penned several other textbooks on linguistics, and is a linguistics consultant for SIL International.

Delivering promises?

So much for the author's credentials – what about the book? In terms of book production, it is of a high standard, with all the prerequisites of an academic text: notes, glossary, lists of figures/tables, extensive references and a lengthy index. In terms of delivering on the promises of the blurb, I am not so sure.

The book is described as 'the essential grammar toolkit for students of English language and linguistics and future teachers of English as a Second Language'. It condemns prescriptive 'guides to grammar' and sets out its intentions to be a 'textbook … for students who … would like … to understand grammar and how it works'. Fair enough, and I dare say it does all of these things.

To my mind, though, this book is much more suited to those who are engaged in the academic study of linguistics than anyone taking a TESL course, and it is certainly not bedside reading for a science-graduate-cum-writer/editor who wants a quick guide on how to explain structural problems to authors who are similarly lacking in appropriate grammatical terminology.

A problem previously unknown

For instance, although there are test-yourself-type questions at the end of each chapter, there are no answers (or even suggestions of answers) provided. You can only access the answers through the book/author website, and then only by registering and providing details of your bonafides as a 'faculty member'. OK, I suppose, as the answers are the author's copyright. But why not put them in the book?

More frustrating is the fact that the blurb poses a list of 'common' questions such as 'Why are English motion verbs hard to use?' Given that I hadn't realised that the problem existed, I dived in to find out. But I couldn't easily find the answer – not without ploughing laboriously through all 400-odd pages of this so-called 'handy guide'!

All of which demonstrates two things: (1) I am not qualified to give this book the sort of academically based review it certainly deserves; and (2) don't judge a book by its cover (blurb)!

An alternative

If you are looking for a handy guide to the linguistic principles of English, especially for teachers of English as a second language, I would far rather recommend Deborah Cameron's The Teacher's Guide to Grammar, which I reviewed for SfEP a few years ago [available in the Editing Matters online archive: January 2008, p 13]. Half the price, a quarter of the size, but 100% more user friendly.

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