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on 27 February 2008
I'm fascinated by grammar. I don't mean in a professional sense - I'm a computer scientist - but in the sense that I like to understand how this jigsaw we call English fits together. Why some things work, and sound right, and others don't. I like the "hey, yeah!" realisation on noticing, for example, that we say myself and herself, but not hisself (p.80). This book is not written primarily for the curious lay-person (like some of David Crystal's marvellous books), as you can tell by the title. But that's what I am, so it will flavour the review.

The book starts with a description of what English is - the sum of all its dialects. It presents an unashamed, and more interesting, descriptive approach, describing throughout the book how people in different parts (of the UK mostly) use the language, rather than a prescriptive "thou shalt", or proscriptive "thou shalt not" treatment. There are quotations from dozens of pieces of literature from different periods and in different styles, which are analysed in great detail to expose the finer points being explained.

The introductory chapters look at letters, morphemes, words, phrases, clauses, and sentences. The initial discussion is brief enough to guide you into the terminology. I enjoyed learning about the difference between functional descriptions (subject, predicator, determiner) and the form descriptions (noun phrase, verb phrase, definite article).

Chapter 3 looks at lexical words - ones that actually convey the meaning: nouns, verbs, adjectives etc. Anything you wanted to know about, for example, verb tenses, participles, and count/noncount nouns is here. The next chapter looks at function words - prepositions, pronouns, and other words that help everything hang together. Vocabulary - which words we choose, and what difference it makes - is the subject of chapter 5.

The book takes a much more technical turn with 3 chapters on phrases (phrases in general, noun phrases, and verb phrases), 4 on clauses (general, constituent complexity, clause complexity, and derived clauses), and then one on sentences. Learn about semi-auxilliary verbs, possessive phrases as determiners, and the (at least theoretical) possibilities in verbal phrase complexity: "The house might have been about to be being demolished."

The final chapter pulls together the many concepts introduced earlier in analyses of spoken and written language.

There are examples and exercises (some with answers) throughout the book. Only 13 references to other books on grammar seems a little small, but perhaps you won't need to go too much further if you have this one. Nearly 11 pages of index means that you can easily find an answer to that niggling query.

This book isn't for people trying to learn English - perhaps as a second language. But if you already know how to drive the language, and want to look under the bonnet/hood to find out what makes it work, this book will be a treat.
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