Navigating English Grammar

This book is under construction. I am adding pages to it in my spare time, and converting a text originally written for dead trees to an online format requires a certain amount of rewriting. So while I certainly want to hear about any mistakes, please hold off on complaints about what has been omitted until I have time to put the complete text online. I have left place-holders for the chapters not yet online so you can get some sense of the whole work's outline.

The materials that serve as the basis for this work were originally prepared for a college class titled The Structure of Modern English, designed to introduce future teachers to linguistics. Such courses are typical in teacher-training programs around the United States. In one semester, students receive a smattering of phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and language acquisition, along with discussion of social attitudes towards language, class, gender, ethic and regional variation. Which aspects of linguistics are emphasized, and how they are taught, can make a big difference in what the teachers-to-be take from the course.

When I first began to teach The Structure of Modern English, I took the obvious path and used an introductory linguistics textbook. It was a fine textbook, but it was designed for linguists, not teachers. Many of my students, it soon became obvious, did not see how this material was relevant to them, and in at least some cases, they were right. When I reviewed some works specifically designed for teachers in training, I was disappointed by the thin coverage. Some were full of social discussion about such things as respect for home languages but empty of technical content. Others were more or less rehashes of traditional grammar, with varying degrees of acknowledgment to more recent linguistics, but all containing annoying inaccuracies.

I wanted a textbook that gave my students the basics of phonology, morphology, semantics, language acquisition, and sociolinguistics, but which really focused on the area where I believe K-12 teachers have the greatest need for significant knowledge: syntax. Owing to the history of grammar pedagogy, a majority of teachers since the 1960s have gone into service with no real understanding of grammar of any sort, either the traditional variety or the linguistic one. For many of my students, therefore, my class is their first exposure to any formal grammar. A portion of one semester, though, is hardly enough time to master English syntax. What, then, can I accomplish? My main purpose is to lay the groundwork for the real learning, which will take place later, when a new teacher is in the classroom, confronted with the need to correct papers, prepare students for standardized tests (as inevitable as they are odious), or satisfy state content standards that mandate the teaching of certain grammatical concepts, and realizes that her own grasp of the material she is supposed to teach is weak. At that point, she will open up whatever reference material is on hand and begin to teach herself.

The usual references for K-12 teachers are usage manuals, foreign-language textbooks left over from their own schooling, and particularly the textbooks issued to their own students. Each of these sources has its own problems. Usage manuals are not systematic in their presentation of grammar, focusing largely on an arbitrary collection of idiomatic constructions. Further, they are often inconsistent with one another, sometimes even self-contradictory. Foreign-language textbooks, obviously, are not teaching English grammar, but that of another language. Some concepts may apply equally well to English, but others are a poor fit and can be misleading. K-12 textbooks sometimes pay lip service to a few recent developments in linguistics, but political and economic forces conspire to keep them mired in nineteenth-century misconceptions. Scattered among the dross, there are some good grammar books. But how can one distinguish the good from the bad? How can anyone make sense of all the contradictory information?

Navigating English Grammar is a course in the fundamental concepts that are necessary for a solid understanding of grammar. It shows you how to apply those concepts to the analysis of English. By the end, we will have covered enough of the grammar of English that you should, in principle, be able to undertake a basic analysis of most English sentences (not just the artificially constructed examples of grammar books). Just as importantly, you should have the foundation to analyze novel constructions for yourself, and to approach reference grammars with a much deeper understanding.

In short, I hope to make you confident enough about your own grammatical knowledge that you can actually put it to use and make judgments on your own, without being browbeaten by the many blowhards who opine on the subject.