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A Communicative Grammar of English


Geoffrey Leech & Jan Svartvik


London: Longman, (Third Edition) 2002

Paperback. xiv, 440 p. £27.99. ISBN 0582506336


Reviewed by Wilfrid Rotgé

Université Paris-Ouest-Nanterre-La Défense




When it comes to English grammar, A Communicative Grammar of English (CGE) by Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik is definitely a classic. You just need to type “a commu” into Google’s search engine to see the full title (A Communicative Grammar of English third edition) appear in second position, which shows how popular it is.

But it is also a classic in the qualitative sense of the word. It is a grammar that many grammarians use as a reference, along with the well-known grammars written by Quirk et al, Huddleston & Pullum, Biber & al, and Swan, to quote just a few. They all provide quick answers to more or less simple questions, like “what is the difference between used to and would to refer to a state or a habit in the past?”; “is there a difference between this and that in back-pointing?” Which begs the question: are the answers provided explanatory or rather classical? Do they merely state facts or do they try to provide some kind of logic behind the grammar? In other words, does classic mean classical?

The grammar I have been asked to review is a third edition, published in 2002, twenty-seven years after the first edition (1975) – definitely a classic – and eight years after the second one (1994). This edition is different from the first one, if only because it is explicitly based on the famous 1780-page long grammar by Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik (A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language [CGEL]), published in 1985, ten years after the first edition of CGE.

Both CGE and CGEL were published by Longman, and Leech and Svartvik collaborated on both. It needs to be said that CGEL also benefited from CGE and the reviews it received throughout the world and that Leech is the co-author of yet another grammar also published by Longman in 1999, the famous Grammar of Spoken and Written English (GSWE), by Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad and Finegan, with a foreword by… Quirk. In other words, the relationship between CGE, CGEL and GSWE is rather intricate. To make things even more complicated, the preface of CGE mentions a fourth book, also published by Longman, A University Grammar of English (UGE), by Quirk and Greenbaum (1973), which is itself explicitly based on A Grammar of Contemporary English (as mentioned on page iii of UGE) by Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik, first published in 1972.

On page xi of CGE the two authors mention their indebtedness to CGEL, published ten years after the first edition of CGE, but this only makes sense if we know the history of the various grammars Leech and Svartvik participated in. CGE is actually quite different from CGEL, if only because it is “only” 442 pages long and has a smaller format with a larger font. Its arrangement is also totally different: whereas CGEL is organized into 19 grammatical chapters, with titles such as ‘verbs and auxiliaries’ or ‘coordination’, CGE is divided into three very distinct parts: ‘A guide to the use of the book’ (33 pages); ‘Grammar in use’ (187 pages), supposedly the “largest part of the grammar” (back cover of CGE), and the larger third part ‘A-Z in English grammar’ (194 pages).

Adjectives are dealt with in the third part, not the second. The reason for this lies in the originality of the second part, which justifies the title ‘Communicative Grammar’. It is organised around what the ‘communicator’ wants to communicate in certain situations or contexts and is based on different kinds of ‘meaning function’, which are divided into four sections:

A: Concepts;

B: Information,reality and belief;

C: Mood, emotion and attitude;

D: Meanings in connected discourse.

The presentation of adjectives [227-238] is more structural than communicative and therefore fits better into part 3 than into part 2. Interestingly, each entry in part 3 has a reference to CGEL. One could object that even though the syntax of adjectives is essential, even to advanced learners of English, adjectives are not disconnected from ‘emotion and attitude’ (section C).

CGE does not rely explicitly on one of the major theoretical frameworks currently used by linguists (especially Generative grammar or Cognitive grammar). Its goal is more pragmatic; it tries to answer the following question (especially in its second part): Which grammatical forms and structures can I use to communicate certain meanings in certain situations?

The authors manage to answer this question, which is essential for advanced students of English as a second language. In keeping with their goal, Leech and Svartvik’s grammar relies heavily on English language corpora, especially on Longman Corpus Network, even though the authors have to admit that corpus examples sometimes have to be simplified and that made-up examples can also be an advantage (CGE, 5). As all grammarians know, a balance between authentic examples and made-up ones has to be achieved.

As I mentioned before, although it is a classic, it may at times be a bit classical too: after a definition of the ‘progressive aspect’ which ‘refers to activity in progress’ [74], there follows a list of verbs that take or do not take the progressive, and then a paragraph with exceptions (verbs that do not normally take the progressive but which do in certain cases). However, the authors deserve much credit for synthesising the complex verbal system in a very useful table [82-83].

Some grammatical notions that may be overlooked in certain grammars are dealt with extensively in CGE, like ‘degree’. Other points do not seem to have sufficient space devoted to them, such as the ‘get-passive’, about which the only information given is that it is informal (levels of usage are essential in a communicative grammar) and that it is normally found in constructions without an agent (but this is true of the be-passive, too).

The presentation is unexplainably dull: only two colours are used, black and white, and the three different parts are not visually separated by different colours on the edge. When you focus on the running titles alone, it is difficult to make sense of the way they are organised, unless you know that the book is divided into three parts, each with its distinctive organisation.

In conclusion, would I recommend it? Definitely, especially to M.A. students, as it provides a very good compromise between A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language and A University Grammar of English, with a challenging organisation. The few negative remarks I have made are just a reminder that there is no such thing as a perfect grammar or that a perfect grammar one day is passé the next day, because grammatical reflection is alive… and kicking. First published over thirty-five years ago, A Communicative Grammar of English has withstood the test of time. This is the ultimate accolade.




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