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The Oxford Handbook of English Grammar


Edited by Bas Aarts, Jill Bowie & Gergana Popova


Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics series

Oxford: University Press, 2020

Hardcover. xxvi + 824 pages. ISBN 978-0198755104. £125


Reviewed by Laure Gardelle

Université Grenoble Alpes




This volume brings together contributions from 37 leading specialists to provide expert knowledge on current research in core areas of English grammar – that is, syntax and morphology. It is divided into five parts. Part I considers ‘Grammar writing and methodology’ (conceptualisations of grammar over the centuries, syntactic argumentation, the use of data and corpora). Part II goes on to examine the main theoretical approaches to English grammar today (cognitive linguistics, constructional approaches, dependency and valency approaches, generative frameworks, functional grammar, descriptive approaches and morphology). Part III addresses eleven subdomains of grammar in more detail, while Part IV covers the links between grammar and other fields of English linguistics (lexis, phonology, meaning and discourse). Finally, Part V explores grammatical variation and change.

It is impossible to do justice to the wealth of this volume, but here is a representative sample. About the evolution of grammars over time, Margaret Thomas shows how targeted audiences, theoretical assumptions (e.g. regarding philology or the need for taxonomies to be applicable to other languages), personal backgrounds, and perspective on data (constructed examples, data-driven descriptions) partly drive grammar writing. She illustrates this with a comparison of descriptions of the so-called ‘double negative’. The earliest she goes back is Lindley Murray (1745-1826), whose English Grammar was initially meant for Quaker schools; she then considers Henry Sweet (1845-1912), Otto Jespersen (1860-1943), Randolph Quirk (1920-2017) and Noam Chomsky (b. 1928), who though not a grammarian, is of course a founding father of generative approaches. The chapter should be taken as a backdrop to the volume, to reflect on the relativity of contemporary frameworks – and better understand where they come from, what they share, and how they are probably just one link in the chain themselves. To echo Sean Wallis’s remark [67], ‘any current linguistic theory is almost certainly incorrect, but a theory is necessary to make progress’. In the following chapter, Bas Aarts considers the importance of arguments when making taxonomic decisions, for instance in deciding whether my is a possessive pronoun or a determiner. Modern science favours a deductive approach, starting with a hypothesis and trying to falsify it (hypothesis-falsification approach). Accounts should also resort to simplicity, which involves both economy and elegance. These dimensions are then applied to a number of categories of English grammar, from constituency to inclusion of pronouns among noun phrases, the controversial inclusion of some -ing forms among gerunds, or the much-discussed relevance of distinguishing between prepositions and adverbs (e.g. look up / run up the stairs) or subordinators (e.g. before / before the party) on the sole basis of distribution. Innovative reorganisations are put forward. John Sprouse & Carso T. Schütze go on to examine the use of data in grammar. They consider five data types: corpus data (which is very useful, but not to test for ungrammaticality, for instance), acceptability judgements, reading times, electrophysiological methods (EEG, MEG) and haemodynamic methods (fMRI). Although acceptability judgements (whether informal or formal) have been the primary source of data, the authors argue for an integration of grammatical theories with theories of sentence processing, and so for more extensive use of the last three data types. Corpus data and their use for theorising are the focus of the next chapter, by Sean Wallis, who reviews their strengths (factual evidence, frequency evidence and interaction evidence) and weaknesses (for instance, annotation choices involve theory-driven decisions) and argues for a wider use of interaction evidence (‘probabilistic evidence that two linguistic events tend to co-occur’ [83]). The chapter also usefully addresses such central notions as concordancing, collocations, collostructional analysis, sampling and experiments.

Part II, which describes the basic tenets of a number of theoretical frameworks, is a good introduction for readers not already familiar with them. It is extremely difficult to sum up a theory in a few pages, and the chapters successfully meet the challenge, while also considering links with other frameworks. John R. Taylor provides an overview of Cognitive Grammar, focusing on word classes, lexical meaning, Grounding, subjectification / objectification, constructions, and cognitive reference points. Martin Hilpert describes Construction Grammar (which ‘sheds light on phenomena that are relevant beyond the confines of a single linguistic theory’ [106]), with applications to the ditransitive construction, modal auxiliary constructions, clefts, and morphological constructions. Thomas Herbst then describes various models that are based on Dependency relations. He shows how Tesnière’s Dependency model places the verb, not the sentence’s division into subject and predicate, at the top; so does Hudson’s Word Grammar. He also gives an overview of Mel’cuk’s four levels of dependency, along with examples. Related to dependency is valency, at the core of Tesnière’s model, which gave rise to various forms of valency theory, including, recently, within Construction Grammar. Terje Lohndal & Liliane Haegeman then turn to generative approaches, more specifically derivational (‘transformational’) ones, in order to show the ‘constant ingredients’ among them (hierarchical structure, merging and movement, c-command, copies, ellipsis). They stress the importance of constituent structure, locality and non-overt material in the framework. The following chapter, by J. Lachlan MacKenzie, is devoted to ‘functional’ approaches to English grammar. The term is notoriously hard to define, as noted by the author, but these approaches agree that the function of languages is to permit the communication of ideas and feelings, so that structure is motivated by interpersonal communication (especially by the cognitive properties of users, social relations, and spatio-temporal and socio-cultural contexts). Due to their emphasis on text (or more generally discourse) analysis, notions such as information structure, reference, ellipsis and lexical relations are central. MacKenzie considers a number of models, such as Systemic Functional Grammar, Dialogic Syntax, Role and Reference Grammar, or functional-typological approaches. This study is followed by a thought-provoking chapter by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, in which they reflect on ‘why modern descriptions of English grammar depart (and should depart) so strikingly from the description given in traditional grammars of earlier centuries’, based on their experience of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. They focus more particularly on pronouns and nouns; auxiliary verbs; adjectives, determinatives and attributive modification; prepositions, adverbs, and subordinators; subordinate clause types; discourse and information presentation; and function fusion. They end with a reflection on the lack of impact of the past sixty years in linguistic research on the general public’s understanding of grammar; the Cambridge Grammar tries to convey some elements of progress, while not adhering to one specific framework. Part II ends with a chapter on morphology, in which Andrew Spencer considers the strengths and potential fault lines of a number of theoretical approaches – such as Construction Morphology, Distributed Morphology or HPSG – that have taken the study of morphology beyond classical morphemics.

This chapter naturally leads the reader to Part III (subdomains of grammar), which Andrew Spencer opens with a study of inflection and derivation. His discussion of multiword expressions (let-imperative, auxiliary-like uses of go or use) is of particular interest. Laurie Bauer then considers compounds, with the complex issue of their definition (e.g. are all NN constructions compounds? Are there syntactic vs. morphological compounds?) and semantic interpretation. Willem B. Hollmann takes a closer look at word classes. He concludes from an overview of a variety of frameworks that notional definitions are insufficient (though semantic criteria should not be rejected altogether), and that a balance with morphological and syntactic criteria must be found. In the following chapter, Robert D. Borsley considers phrase structure, showing how Transformational Grammar and other generative frameworks have challenged the traditional approaches to syntax; he also concludes that a number of issues remain unresolved. Evelien Keizer then considers noun phrases, with contributions from generative, functional and cognitive linguistics. As part of the discussion on heads, the chapter includes a focus on binominal NPs, especially pseudo-partitives, and another on the contrast between modifiers and complements. Patrick Duffley examines clause structure, complements and adjuncts, again in a variety of frameworks. There again, the concept of head is central. Ekkehard König then considers clause types and speech act functions, with the central concept of illocutionary force. Next, Ilse Depraetere & Anastasios Tsangladis provide an overview of issues that underlie the study of tense and aspect. Among their discussions are whether the conditional is a tense, a mood or a form of modality, why it cannot be said that English has a future tense, and how tense, aspect and Aktionsart interact in discourse. This is followed by a chapter on mood and modality, by Debra Ziegler, which includes a diachronic perspective on the grammaticalisation of modal verbs. Then Thomas Egan considers subordination and coordination, covering asyndetic coordination and borderline cases between subordination and coordination (e.g. try and V and the grammaticalised go and V construction). Gunther Kaltenböck proposes a focus on information structure, with central concepts such as presupposition, activation, topic or focus, and information packaging constructions. These are a reminder that grammatical form may be pragmatically motivated.

This is a nice transition towards Part IV, which examines the links between grammar and other fields, namely lexis (Doris Schönefeld, with the central question of whether there is a cline between grammar and lexis), phonology (Sam Hellmuth & Ian Cushing argue that phonology should be a component of any grammar, with effects on word formation, lexical categorisation and syntax), meaning (Ash Asudeh shows that lexical relations, compositional semantics and pragmatics interact with grammar, although pragmatics used to be regarded as post-grammatical), and discourse (Jill Bowie & Gergana Popova argue that grammar is at play beyond sentence level, especially in interactive spoken discourse; they also consider the role of pragmatic enrichment in the grammaticalisation of some units, such as a bit of).

The last part of the volume focuses on grammatical variation and change. Marianne Hundt considers approaches to change in English grammar, with a focus on mood and modality, being to V and having to V. Peter Siemund then examines non-standard variation among regional varieties of English, with illustrations from reflexive marking, pronominal gender and case, tense and aspect, negation, subject-verb agreement, and clause structure (e.g. give it to me / give it me / give me it). Bernd Kortmann extends analyses to variation at world level, again in English-speaking varieties, including pidgins and creoles. Like Peter Siemund, he shows that variation follows patterns, clusters of features; top distinctive features can be established for each geographical area. Heidrun Dorgeloh & Anja Wanner focus on genre variation (and medium variation, as the focus is mainly on written vs. spoken English), with its consequences on grammatical elements such as left-dislocation or complexity. Genre conventions may also affect the representation of agentivity or word order. In a final chapter, Lesley Jeffries considers literary variation, with an interesting section on how non-standard forms are represented in literature, and another on how poetry makes use of clausal variation such as verbal delay.

As can be seen from this outline, the Oxford Handbook of English Grammar is a high-quality volume, with a strong unifying line: the authors make a point of comparing different frameworks, of highlighting the assets and specificities of this or that model. It was a feat to write a book on the grammar of English without going too far into grammatical descriptions (it is not a grammar), to present the tenets and arguments of so many different frameworks in just a few pages each, and to cover a wide enough range of grammatical areas. The result is extremely convincing and accessible. The reader might have liked some thoughts around the very concept of grammar in the introduction – where does the word come from? why has grammar been isolated from other components of language study, and been regarded by some as the worthiest field of investigation? what are the uses of research into grammar? why is it so difficult to trigger changes in the grammatical knowledge of the general public? But beyond this very minor point, this volume should be highly recommended to anyone interested in how language works: advanced students, for a broader awareness of the range of existing frameworks and to see how the frameworks they are most familiar with fit within the bigger picture; linguists working on English or other languages – for which not all of the frameworks might exist; and more generally anyone interested in grammars and other reference works, to understand why research is still ongoing, and will be for a long time yet.



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