Analysing Sentences

November 4, 2010

Author: Noel Burton-Roberts

Edition: Third

Publisher: Pearson Longman

Pages: 296

Price: £19.99

ISBN 9781408233740

Some textbooks on English grammar seem uninfluenced by anything after the 1760s; others seem oblivious to anything before the 1960s. I'm fed up with both kinds.

Just about everything that educated English speakers believe about grammar comes from late 18th-century grammarians such as Robert Lowth and his plagiarist/populariser Lindley Murray: nouns are thing-naming words; adjectives are (by definition) optional qualifiers "adding information" about something named by a noun; the subject of a sentence names the performer of the action expressed by the verb...There shouldn't be any books still peddling this sort of superannuated slop, but unfortunately there are hundreds. The many new discoveries about English syntax by 20th-century linguists simply did not affect the way grammar is taught.

Of course, the rise of linguistics also brought in its own under-motivated dogma and truckloads of fashionable notations and buzzwords. Although I'm all for bringing theoretical sophistication into syntax, I do not want to see practical sentence analysis subordinated to a recruitment campaign for a universal-grammar cargo cult.

What we need are textbooks bringing together broad descriptive range, theoretical neutrality and an awareness of modern grammarians such as Henry Sweet, Otto Jespersen, Leonard Bloomfield and Rodney Huddleston. Noel Burton-Roberts takes more than a few steps in the right direction in this new edition.

No longer, for example, are auxiliaries treated as odd little dingle-dangles preceding the verb. They are treated, correctly, as verbs in their own right, taking non-finite verb phrase complements. This gives "would be being prepared" essentially the same structure as "helped begin getting prepared". The special syntax and morphology of "would" and "be" does not alter the fact that they are verbs, and heads of verb phrases.

Burton-Roberts also breaks with tradition on the analysis of words such as "before". The dictionaries assign such words to three different parts of speech: adverb in "never before"; preposition in "before dinner"; and subordinator (subordinating conjunction) in "before we dine".

This is mad, and Jespersen saw that it was and offered a proposal: make them prepositions, ditch the old Latin-oriented view of prepositions (as odd little dingle-dangles preceding a noun) and accept that some prepositions take clause complements. Burton-Roberts adopts that line. (He continues to class conditional "if" and non-temporal "since" with the subordinators, which I think is wrong, but at least he has an argument: these words permit only clause complements, and form constituents that cannot occur as noun phrase modifiers.)

The book is not 100 per cent free of semantically based traditional vagueness, or unsound syntactic arguments, or (another irritant) silly invented examples. It has its imperfections. But I like its disinclination either to repeat 18th-century claptrap or to be a slave to contemporary theoretical fashions. I like its clear and forthright way of presenting syntax, and its many illustrative tree diagrams and useful exercises.

Burton-Roberts tries to get English syntax right and to supply arguments for the positions he adopts. More strength to his arm.

Who is it for? Undergraduate linguistics or English language students.

Presentation: Clear, lively, well planned.

Would you recommend it? Definitely a strong candidate.

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