Wednesday, March 12, 2008

More muddled grammar

In the most recent issue of English Language and Linguistics, Rodney Huddleston reviews Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy's Cambridge grammar of English: A comprehensive guide (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Huddleston starts out with the positive:

It is certainly good to have a large number of examples from a spoken cor pus, and the Spoken Language set of chapters provide a useful account of features that are characteristic of speech rather than writing.

Having dealt with that, he moves on to considering the problems with the grammatical description and analysis, beginning thus:

"I have never seen a large-scale work on English grammar with anything remotely comparable to the amount of inconsistency and confusion to be found in the present work."

"Consider, as an initial example, the first two sentences of the section on tags (p. 547):

  1. Tags are a type of clause without a lexical verb but which relate to the verb in the main clause of a sentence.
    Tags consist of auxiliary be, do, have, lexical verb be or a modal verb and a subject (most typically a pronoun).

The first sentence says a tag has no lexical verb while the second says that it may contain the lexical verb be; six of the ten illustrations contain this be and hence are counterexamples to the first statement in (1)."

Well, that's rather awkward, but I'm sure it's a one time... er...

"In the ‘Modality’ chapter they analyse the came of I’d rather she came on Tuesday than Monday as a ‘past subjunctive form’ (p. 669). This is of course traditional grammar’s analysis, but C&M must have forgotten that the accounts of verb inflection they present elsewhere differ radically from that of traditional grammar and in particular do not recognise a past subjunctive form (or ‘function’): the analysis is thus inconsistent with the rest of the book, where traditional past subjunctives, other than were (and modals), are treated as ordinary (indicative) past tense forms."

Yes, well,...

"C&M say repeatedly that modals don’t inflect for tense (e.g. pp. 303, 398, 405, 896, 928), but having said on p. 398 that might break has no tense they go on, on the very next page, to cite They may get here by six o’clock as an example containing a tensed verb phrase – and to say that ‘core’ modals do not occur in non-tensed verb phrases!"

OK, surely that's it all. No?

"C&M say on p. 502 that all elements in basic clauses which are not S, V, O, or C are A, but this is inconsistent with their recognition of other types of complement (in the broad sense) than O and C, namely prepositional complements and locative complements (e.g. pp. 497, 526). Both of these are involved in further inconsistencies. In examples like She gave it to me (p. 784) the PP to me is called a prepositional complement and in the ‘Verb complementation’ chapter such clauses are classified as ditransitive (with the PP now called ‘oblique complement’); in the glossary, however, a ditransitive verb is defined as one with two objects, indirect and direct."

So, how much of this is there?

Huddleston goes on for 18 pages and mentions that he's only discussing the major problems.

Wow, that's pretty embarrassing! But Huddleston is a theoretical linguist. It would be natural for a more practical-minded ESL-focussed book to take a different approach.

"I would emphasise, however, that the criticisms I have made here have not been made from a theoretically oriented position. This would not have been the place, for example, to argue for some of the more radical departures from traditional grammar that H&P adopt, and in fact some of the main criticisms I have made of C&M’s grammatical analysis concern issues where traditional grammar’s account is superior to theirs: modal auxiliaries as tensed verbs, dependent interrogatives, the part of speech classification of possessives like my, your, etc.... And of course the bulk of my criticisms have been concerned with the extraordinary amount of inconsistency in C&M’s account of the grammar, a failure to meet elementary standards that apply to any grammar,"

I see. So is there any redeeming quality? Say, a nice binding or a well-compiled index?

"One final complaint concerns the index, which is nothing short of a disaster."



goofy said...

What book would you recommend to ESL students? How about H&P's "A Student's Introduction to English Grammar"?

Brett said...

Do you mean language learners or people who are studying to teach ESL? For the first group, it really does depend on their level and purpose, if I had to choose something overall, I'd go with the Larsen-Freeman series: Grammar Dimensions for the ELLs and The Grammar Book for studying teachers. Once they've got that under their belt, then maybe A Student's introduction to English Grammar.

goofy said...

I meant language learners. Thanks for the recommendation.