Introducing English Grammar
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Introducing English Grammar

Kersti Börjars, Kate Burridge

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Introducing English Grammar

Kersti Börjars, Kate Burridge

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About This Book

Introducing English Grammar

introduces readers to the methodology and terminology needed to analyse English sentences. The approach taken is in line with current research in grammar, a particular advantage for students who may go on to study syntax in more depth. All the examples and exercises use real language taken from both standard and non-standard geographical areas and dialects, and include excerpts from Australian and British newspaper articles. Students are encouraged to think about the terminology as a tool kit for studying language and to test what can and cannot be described using these tools. This new edition has been fully updated and features:

  • an expanded introduction;

  • new texts and exercises that include data from social media;

  • revised material on 'Grammar at work' and 'English worldwide';

  • more suggestions for further reading at the end of the book;

  • updated online resources with extensive further reading and answers to the exercises, which can be found at

Written for readers with no previous experience of grammatical analysis, Introducing English Grammar is suited to anyone beginning a study of linguistics, English language or speech pathology, as well as to students whose interests are primarily literary but who need a better understanding of the structure of English.

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Introduction: the glamour of grammar

We’ve called this chapter ‘The glamour of grammar’ for a reason – grammar and glamour are historically one and the same word. Grammar happens to be the older form – it first entered English in the 1300s from French (although ultimately from Greek grammata, ‘letters’). It came to mean ‘learning,’ but then acquired additional senses to do with magic and the inexplicable (this shift makes sense when you bear in mind that the majority of people at this time were illiterate). In Scottish English a form appeared whereby [r] had changed to [l]. Glamour retained this earlier mysterious and magical sense, later shifting to its current meaning, ‘enchantment, allure.’ Nowadays the study of grammar still holds a lot of mystery and perplexity for students – what we’re hoping here is that it will also develop something of the newer sense of enchantment and allure that it holds for both of us.

1.1 Purpose and nature of grammatical description

There are many reasons why you might want to study the grammar of a language. You might, for instance, want to write a grammar of that language, say English, which can then be used by people to learn English. This is an extremely difficult task for many reasons. First, of course, you have to write it in such a way that the task of learning English is made easy for the language learner; in other words, it must be pedagogically sound. A problem more relevant to linguists is which constructions you will include as correct structures of English, and which you will exclude, or mark as ungrammatical. Consider the following sentences:
  1. (1) Oscar is een lieve maar niet zo slimme poes.
  2. (2) Maybe he’s dead? Killed his self getting out of the bath. (AUS#36:16)
  3. (3) Yeah, but speaking ‘proper’ means using all them posh f***ing words, innit? (online comment on the article ‘Curse this outbreak of repetitive swearing,’ The Times 31 May 2016)
  4. (4) It’s eerie that uncanny rusted Milo tin. (AUS#75:9)
  5. (5) That it’s eerie tin rusted Milo uncanny. (Adapted)
  6. (6) There’s several fridges packed full of bottles too. (comment on Tripadvisor in 2018)
  7. (7) There are several fridges packed full of bottles too. (Adapted)
  8. (8) Bloody hell, just whipped that up in his garage in between episodes of Game of Thrones. (AUS#563:13)
We are quite sure that all of you will agree that (1) and (5) should not be included in a grammar of English. If you are writing a grammar of English intended for language learners you might also want to exclude (2) and (3), perhaps some of the others too, even though many people who are native speakers of English would use and accept such sentences. How would you describe these sentences? Would you call them ungrammatical or dialectal? Do you think that some of them belong more to speech than writing? The sentences (6) and (7), for example, exemplify a notorious problem in English. Many grammars would describe (6) as ‘wrong’ (or ‘bad English’) and (7) as ‘correct’ (or ‘good English’). Which of the two sentences do you think you would you use? Which would you consider acceptable English? People, even linguists, are not always good at knowing what they would and would not use: if you ask people about things like this, you will quickly find that what they say they do and what they actually do can be quite different.

1.2 Standard English and variation

Sentences like those in the previous section which people might take exception to as being ‘bad English’ are not really errors of English, but rather errors of STANDARD ENGLISH. The thing to always bear in mind is that all speakers of English are dialect speakers – they all speak at least one dialect of English. Standard English happens to be the most important dialect in terms of the way society operates. It might surprise you to hear this called a dialect, because people tend to talk about the STANDARD LANGUAGE, but this is a misleading label. Standard English is one of many different dialects of English – it just happens to be the dialect that currently has the greatest clout. How it got to this elevated position, however, is a series of geographical and historical coincidences. Standard English was originally a local (prestigious) dialect of the London–Central Midland region and it just ended up at the right place at the right time. When varieties come to dominate in this way, it is never on account of linguistic reasons. London English piggybacked on a series of geographical, cultural, economic and political episodes. They include, for example, the emergence of London as a political and commercial centre and its proximity to Oxford and Cambridge; Chaucer’s literary genius; and William Caxton’s first printing presses (1476) in Westminster. These had the effect of putting London English in such a position that standardisation was inevitable. If a city other than London had had the same non-linguistic advantages (let’s say, Manchester), the socially prestigious dialect of that region would have been subject to the same spread. This is typically how ‘standard languages’ arise. It has nothing to do with a variety being perfect, but it has everything to do with economic, political and social context.
Standard English is a good dialect to know. For one thing, it’s a variety without a home – all over the globe people are using it and there’s very little variation. If you read newspapers around the English-speaking world or use email, bulletin boards on list-servers or electronic ‘conversation’ programs, you will have observed that there is already a fairly uniform world standard, at least in writing. In many ways Standard English now represents a kind of global lingua franca; it has been CODIFIED; in other words, recorded in grammars, dictionaries and style books. For example, if we think of the English used in Manchester or Melbourne (the two varieties that make up the bulk of the examples in this textbook), their distinctive character is to be found largely in phonology (i.e. differences of accent) and perhaps also some (colloquial) vocabulary items, but the two are not strikingly different from other standard varieties at the level of grammar. Speakers of non-standard varieties in these places, however, show not only differences of accent and vocabulary, but also significant grammatical differences. A distinctively Manchester or Melbourne English is much more apparent in these varieties, especially in colloquial or informal usage. You will be seeing some spectacular examples of non-standard grammatical diversity later in this book.
The fact that the standard variety has been codified must not be taken to mean that it is intrinsically better than other dialects. NON-STANDARD (or VERNACULAR) must never be equated with SUBSTANDARD. All dialects are equally good for the purposes they serve. They all have their own particular conventions; they just do things differently.
In this book we will not concern ourselves with questions of correctness. Statements like ‘The sentence in (6) is ungrammatical in English’ is an example of a PRESCRIPTIVE statement; in other words, it is stating what people should be saying. If you are doing grammar in order to teach people English, then you will have to make statements like these. Our task, however, is not to tell people what they should say, but to study what they do in fact say. Our aim is to make DESCRIPTIVE statements and to make you good at studying the English that exists around you. We will discover that native speakers of English will not use sentences like (1) and (5), unless they are speaking Dutch, in which case they might use (1), or have a serious speech impediment, in which case they might possibly use constructions similar to (5). With respect to the other sentences presented previously, however, we will find that some native speakers of English do in fact use them (even if they think they don’t), and hence we must take them seriously. In fact with the exception of the two we adapted ourselves, all of these were naturally occurring fairly recent sentences. (Just as an aside here – you don’t have to be a native speaker of a language in order to study it. You can make descriptive statements about English by studying native speakers of English.)
Frequently, constructions which are considered ungrammatical by prescriptionists are in fact examples of change in progress. In spite of the feelings of some people, you can never stop a living language from changing. For example, a sentence like There’s always been songs about sex and death is now frequent in speech and writing of many educated speakers. Yet it still hovers on the border between standard and non-standard – and certainly none of the linguistic inspectors would recommend its usage! However, give it time and we suspect it will become fully accepted.
One of the problems is that linguistic labels like Standard and non-Standard English suggest that we’re always dealing with clear-cut distinctions. In fact, behind these labels lies a reality of tremendous flux and variance. Some of the sentence examples earlier gave you a taste of this. Now look at those following to see how far this variation extends. Once again these are actual examples – we didn’t invent them!
  1. (9) Genim swines lungenne gebræd and on neaht nerstig genim fif snida simle
    ‘Take a pig’s lung, roast it, and at night fasting take five slices always’ (10th c. cure for hangovers)
  2. (10) Cast þe flessh þerto ihewed & messe it forth with þe swan irostede. It schal beon god vor to eten.
    ‘Cast the flesh thereto hewn & mess it forth with the swan roasted. It shall be good for to eat’ (= add the minced meat and serve it up with the roasted swan. It’ll be good to eat). (14th c. recipe for Swan Chowder)
  3. (11) If you not in business, like me, not lawyer, not those big shot, speak so good English for what? Let people laugh at you only. (Singapore English (or Singlish))
  4. (12) He’ll might could get you one. [Hawick Scots]
  5. (13) She’s like: <facial expression>. [Female Australian high school student]
  6. (14) You don’t, you don’t wanna have sort of around 13 turnovers at, uh, three-quarter time, but it’s saying that, uh, both teams have had … are being very active in their defence. (Basketball – between-action commentary)
  7. (15) > Having a nice holiday?
    Yep! Too much chocolate though :/ (Email message)
Just these few examples give you an idea of the extraordinary array of ‘Englishes’ encompassed under that one label ‘English.’ The diversity, as you can see, exists in many forms – there is exotic vocabulary and some structures that look very ‘unEnglish’ at times. The variation we see here falls along two dimensions. The first, illustrated by examples (9) and (10) as opposed to the rest, involves variation across time. Time influences language. Shifts in grammar, words and pronunciation occur even within one’s own lifetime. And if the time span is long enough, the changes can be truly spectacular, as these examples show.
The second dimension is variation across space. There are two types of space involved – geographical and social. At any given point in time, English will differ both between countries and within the same country. In this respect, English is probably more diverse than ever before. As it trots around the globe (as it has been doing since its initial expansion 450 years ago towards Wales and Scotland), it comes into contact with many different environments and languages. This triggers a burgeoning of diversity in the form of hybrids, dialects, nativised varieties, pidgins and creoles. Some of these are illustrated in examples (11) and (12).
Any socially significant group of people will differ in their linguistic behaviour. For example, social parameters to do with age, sex, sexual preference, socio-economic class, education and occupational status of speakers will typically correlate with the way sounds, vocabulary and grammar vary – people wear different linguistic features like badges of identity. Example (13) is a piece of colloquial teenspeak not confined to Australia. Age is an important social division in all cultures, and not surprisingly it is something people demonstrate through their use of language. As example (15) also illustrates, we alter our language to suit the occasions in which we find ourselves. Our language varies constantly in response to different situational factors, including things like the relationship between speakers and their audience (and even others who might be within earshot), the setting, the subject matter, or whether a spoken or written medium is used.
In a sense ‘English’ is a bit of a fiction. There is no one English, no one monolithic entity with a fixed, unchanging set of linguistic features. Rather, the label ‘the English language’ is a convenient shorthand for what is a remarkable assortment of different varieties. What they have in common is a shared history. All have links of some sort with the group of continental Germanic dialects that ended up in the British Isles sometime in the fifth century AD. And most are, to a greater or lesser extent, mutually comprehensible.
Obviously, in order to make this introductory look at the structure of English work, given that it will inevitably attract a diverse reading audience, we need to settle on one kind of English. We will therefore be using Standard English. Nearly all of our sentence examples are of naturally occurring language use by native speakers and come mainly from The Big Issue (mostly the English North and the Australian editions) or other sources where people write more or less as they would speak. As we wrote in the Preface to the first edition, our reasons here are two-fold. First, we would like to advertise The Big Issue, a good cause that deserves as much public exposure as it can get. Second, we are interested in language that is close to what is actually spoken by the majority of people – something that can’t always be said about the invented sentences that so often appear in textbooks.
We want to emphasise that choosing Standard English is not at all intended to be a judgement on which English is ‘best.’ We also want to emphasise the fact that as linguists our role is to study English as it is used, and so we include many examples from The Big Issue and other sources which can be said to live in the borderlands of what is acceptable in Standard English. Given English is such a hybrid and rapidly changing language, we feel we need to showcase some of this variation. So in each chapter we have breakout boxes illustrating some of the variation out there in grammar, including variation from some of the non-mainstream ‘traditional dialects’ that can hav...

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