Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Teacher's Grammar of English: Stay away!

Cambridge ESL embarrasses itself once again with the recent publication of Ron Cowan's The Teacher's Grammar of English. I've already pointed out what a mess Carter and McCarthy's Cambridge Grammar of English: A comprehensive guide is. If you missed it, you can get a summary here.

I received my copy of TGE on Monday, and having gone through 8 of the 26 chapters, plus skimming many of the others, I am very disappointed to say that it is simply terrible.

Over the next little while, I'll be posting specific critiques, so if you're interested in all the morbid details, you can watch the carnage from the sidelines. You can even participate by adding comments if you ask Cambridge to send you an inspection copy. Don't bother buying a copy though.

I'll just present a few examples here of the problems:

The first three chapters are introductory and the author suggests that many teacher training courses might wish to skip them. Chapter four, then, is entitled 'Questions'. Before reading it, I wondered how you could talk about a complicated syntactic structure like questions (of which there are many kinds) without first considering relevant issues such as tense, auxiliary verbs, and differences between pronouns (who, what), determiners (what, which), prepositions (where, when), and adverbs (why, how). After reading it, I still had the same questions. I understand that in grammar many things are interconnected and you will run into problems whatever you start with, but beginning with questions seems to me to be a particularly odd choice.

Not that it gets better. Here's the remaining table of contents by chapter

5 Negation
6 Imperative sentences
7 Nonreferential it and there
8 Prepositions
9 Multiword Verbs
10 Determiners
11 Articles
12 Adjectives and Adverbs
13 Pronouns
14 Modal verbs
15 Indirect Objects
16 Tense and Aspect
17 Passive sentences
18 Relative Clauses
19 Conditional Sentences
20 Subject clauses and related structures
21 Complements
22 Focus Structures
23 Adverbial Subordinate Clauses
24 Comparatives and Superlatives
25 Coordination
26 Discourse Connectors and Discourse Markers

This makes no sense to me, but if you can divine any logical order from it, I'll be pleased to hear it.

I'll leave you with one more tidbit: The glossary includes entries for achievement verbs and accomplishment verbs, for telic and atelic verbs, and for ergative verbs, none of which strikes me as being particularly helpful distinctions. On the other hand, it has no entries for more basic terms such as part of speech or linking verb. Nor does it have an entry for an equivalent term. In fact, as far as I can tell, it doesn't even discuss the fact that some verbs take adjectives as predicate complements and some don't.

I really wanted this to be a good book. I'm not taking any pleasure in ripping it apart. None at all. I'd much rather find that a book has been the result of a good deal of careful thought, planning, and research. If you look at my review of the new Oxford Learner's Thesaurus, you'll see that I happily give praise where praise is due. Unfortunately, now all sorts of future teachers are going to be indoctrinated into this very confused grammar and then they're going to go out and try to convey it to their poor learners.



Anonymous said...

I hesitate to introduce the term ergative to students, but without the concept non-european students seem to quite happily write for example "The storm was swept through Scotland". I was wondering how Brett teaches the passive in relation to ergative verbs.

Brett said...

To be honest, I don't often run into this problem (and I'll admit that if my students managed to pair sweep with storm, I'd be quite pleased.)

Anyhow, I agree that giving them the label ergative may not be very helpful since dictionaries don't use it.

I think I'd begin by proposing the more standard "the storm swept through Scotland" and asking students why they might prefer one over the other. If they preferred the passive, I might approach it by way of examples, pointing out simple familiar constructions like "the door closed" and "the wind blew", contrasting those and other examples with animate subjects hoping that I could lead them to notice the difference.

From there, I might ask them to go through a particular text and identify all the inanimate subjects performing actions.

Unfortunately, I don't know of any helpful generalisations beyond that, and I have my doubts that a list of ergative verbs would be useful. In the end, I expect it would come down to pointing out individual instances as they came along, especially in the students' own writing.

What would you do?

Apelsin said...

Hi, which Grammar books would you recommend then, for a teacher's reading? Thanks you!

Brett said...

For many teachers, some combination of Martin Parrott's Grammar for English Language Teachers and Practical English Usage might be a good place to start.

If you're fairly academic in your approach, I'd go for a mixture of A Student's Introduction to English Grammar to get a solid grounding from the linguistic point of view, and then I'd move on to The Grammar Book, which isn't particularly strong in formal syntactic analysis, but is excellent in other regards and is aimed at language teachers.

You might also want to have a look at this post.

Anonymous said...

I think it's interesting that a person who provides such a harsh critique of a grammar text wrote the phrase "I'll be please to hear it."

Brett said...

Thank you for the proof reading, Anon! I've fixed it now.

Anonymous said...

My TESOL program used that text for a while but replaced it with Parrott's text for many of the reasons you point out. I still like Cowan's book for some of the activities suggested. As a new teacher, I'm always looking for suggestions. Parrott's book is very short and doesn't offer much cross linguistic comparison. Also, its activities section is pretty short. Cowan's book, although highly technical, has some good things in it for new teachers. I'm not sure if it's worth more than 20 bucks though. Just thought I'd give my two cents.

Krishna said...

I do not agree with you. It's one of the best books i have ever read!

Brett said...

Wow, that's quite a claim., Krishna. What makes it so good in your opinion?

Anonymous said...

Hello, Brett.
please help in showing all the possible functions of "where" clause in the following sentence:
"the cars are trying to enter the road where they are lined up"
is it adverbial,adjectival,or noun clause??
thanks a lot.

Brett said...

It is a relative clause and functions as a modifier of road. Many grammars would call this an "adjective clause", and that may be what your students will know.

J.A said...

Could this sentence please be analyzed???!!!!!!!

I had the car towed.

I=subject, had=verb, the car towed=????? past participles are used in perfect tenses and as adjective verbals. Niether of these situations apply. Mr Cowan in ch 17 said this was a passive voiced compliment! What? How does "the car towed" rename or describe "I". Anyway, i really want to know what sentence function "towed" serves.

Brett said...

Past participles are also used in passive voice (e.g., it was towed). The structure in your example is such that the car functions as object of had and towed is a predicative complement of had.

J.A said...

thank you for answering! such as simple sentence structure that is not covered in grammer textbooks