English Grammar: The basics

Michael McCarthy (Routledge, Taylor & Francis, 2021), 226pp, £18.99
ISBN 978 0 367 63365 3

Reviewed by Jill French

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In English Grammar: The basics, Michael McCarthy, Emeritus Professor of Applied Linguistics at Nottingham University, UK, writes a clear introduction to English grammar. A well-known expert on the English language, with over 50 years of experience researching, teaching and writing, McCarthy has written 58 books. Many of his titles deal with academic studies which would be of interest to teachers and researchers. This volume aims to describe fundamental principles and cover basic concepts and terminology. It starts by exploring what we mean by grammar, highlighting that grammar varies with types of English, and acknowledging that grammar changes and approaches to grammar can be descriptive, prescriptive or proscriptive. The approach of the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Clearly setting out what grammar is and where it comes within the structure of language, the book helps with awareness of the social implications of language choices, particularly with use of standard and non-standard forms. The second chapter explains that grammar is the way words combine to make sentences and looks at words and morphemes, going on to describe how words belong to word classes.

The book focuses on the most important features and terminology of standard British English grammar but also, at times, mentions differences in American and Irish forms as well as US and Australian English.

Research using corpora shows that different patterns appear in different types of text, and in different Englishes, registers (spoken, academic writing, literary and creative writing) and dialects. Differences between formal or informal communication are also referenced.

The author does not condemn anyone’s grammar, or take sides in the battle over grammar in schools. He says, ‘Whether your grammar is influenced by your age, your social class, your peer group or the place where you grew up, whether English is your first language or a second language, whether you speak the long-established English of countries such as the UK, Canada or New Zealand, or one of the independent new English varieties, or just use English as a communicative tool in business or travel, you have choices when it comes to grammar.’

In chapter 5 theories and different approaches by important grammarians including Noam Chomsky, John Firth and Michael Halliday are discussed. This section may hold less of practical use to editors than perhaps chapter 8 which discusses punctuation and pronouns.

It is contended that choices are always more satisfying if they are made based on knowledge, evidence and awareness of what the choices imply, and to make the right choices you need the basics. This is what the book presents in a clear, accessible, and at times amusing way. There is an extensive glossary of useful terms.

Editors and proofreaders are likely to have already spent time developing their understanding of grammar. However, they may have clients who would benefit from the clear explanations which are set out in this book. These include the differences between using active voice clauses and passive voice clauses, fronted adverbials, semicolons, the comma splice and how controversial an innocuous feature of grammar may become.

Much of the content would fit well within schools, and teachers could make use of the volume in planning lessons. The material is clearly presented and includes many examples and suggestions of further reading, perhaps as a gateway to much fuller discussion in further writings by this and other authors.

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