LINGUIST List 14.2827

Fri Oct 17 2003

Review: General Linguistics: Wardhaugh (2002)

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  • Roman Karczewski, Understanding English Grammar: A Linguistic Approach, 2nd ed.

    Message 1: Understanding English Grammar: A Linguistic Approach, 2nd ed.

    Date: Fri, 17 Oct 2003 13:21:50 +0000
    From: Roman Karczewski <>
    Subject: Understanding English Grammar: A Linguistic Approach, 2nd ed.

    Wardhaugh, Ronald (2002) Understanding English Grammar: A Linguistic Approach, 2nd ed. Blackwell Publishing.

    Announced at

    Roman Karczewski, Minsk State Linguistic University, Belarus

    Wardhaugh's objective is to introduce not only ''those who specialize in some way in ''English'' -- students of the language and of the literature, teachers of English as either a native or second or foreign language, and teachers of reading and the language arts'' (x) but also ''beginning students of linguistics'' (x) to ''the essentials of English structure, i.e., information about English words, sentences, and sounds'' (ix). However, this is not the volume for those who are looking for a reference grammar. ''Indeed, a fundamental goal of this book is to bring to students' attention some of the basic concepts of modern linguistics'' (x). The content of the book is divided into 13 text chapters (1 Preliminaries, 2 Word Classes, 3 Constituents and Phrases, 4 Basic Clauses, 5 Coordination and Embedding, 6 Clausal Variation, 7 Underlying Relationship, 8 Rules and Principles, 9, 10 Phonetic Realization, 11 Word Formation, 12 Words and Sounds, 13 Sounds in Context) and each of them is followed by some exercises to apply the knowledge the reader has gained from working through its chapters. In chapter 14 (Further Reading) the author gives ''a list of books that students might profitably be encouraged to examine''(x) so as to develop the knowledge about the structure of the English language. The book ends with an indexed glossary with reference pages. CRITICAL EVALUATION

    As mentioned above the author's idea about the scope of material and the manner he is going to elucidate it to a potential reader through the pages seems to be quite clear: ''to point out what appear to be certain essential facts about English'' (ix). Despite the division of the material in the book, the whole data may be logically categorized into two parts, i.e. syntactical/grammatical (chapters 1-8), and lexical-phonetic (chapters 9-13). All the records in the first part are clearly systematized so as to supply a reader with essential information needed to focus on English sentences. In the second part the author is not so well organized. Wardhaugh starts from Sounds and Systems then pays attention to purely lexical matters (chapter 11) to come again to the phonetic description (chapters 12, 13). Maybe it would be easier for a reader to learn first matters first, i.e. to lead his expedition to linguistics from the smallest units of the language -- phonemes/morphemes than words than sentences. Such operation will probably help the author to avoid deliberate subject shifts from chapter to chapter and make the text more accessible and coherent.

    As far as the first part of the book is concerned there are only a few things that need brushing up. Author's schemes like ''past have+-en be+-ing run; past can have+- en be+-en inform'' (p.61; p.123), i.e. describing the sentence deep structure would probably be more ''readable'' if all ''grammatical markers'' (past, -en, -ing) were somehow betokened.

    Secondly, while describing ''pseudotransitive verbs or mid verbs'' -- have, take, do (p.88) such word combinations as ''have a bath, take a look, do the dishes'' the author calls idioms. The description seems to be quite dubious. In the glossary ''idiom'' is explained as ''A group of words with a meaning unique to that group: 'kick the bucket' with the meaning 'die'.''(p.272) On page 237 the author gives another interpretation ''An idiom is a combination of two or more words in which the combination takes a unique meaning, i.e., a meaning that in no way derives from the sum of the parts.'' When we take into consideration similar constructions with each of the verbs, such as: have a dance with, do a dance, take a bath (match up to ''have a bath''), and compare them with Wardhaugh's patterns, we notice that the meanings are similar. Therefore, it is hard to define whether these are idioms or just (and maybe 'so far') word groups with a 'new meaning'. That's why for such lexis I think more appropriate would be terms like 'common expressions/fixed expressions'.

    Another case worth mentioning and probably discussing is described on page 113, where the author explains nonrestrictive and restrictive relative clauses: ''In contrast, a nonrestrictive relative clause is omissible. If omitted, the result is no such drastic change of meaning [if compared to restrictive clauses] because a nonrestrictive relative clause merely provides additional nonessential (i.e., ''by the way'') information. Such information could have been supplied in another sentence: My television set, which is portable, is battery-operated. My television set is battery operated. It is (also) portable.'' There seems to be no doubt that if a nonrestrictive clause is omitted the sentence looks correct from grammatical point of view. The question is: Is ''my television set is portable'' because it is ''battery-operated'' or ''my television set is battery operated'' that's why it is ''portable''? In other words is it always legitimate to add omit such clauses? Is the sentence: 'My television set is portable' equal to the two above? If so, then the only possible variant here is: 'My television set, which is battery-operated, is portable' and only in this case 'which is battery-operated' is a nonrestrictive relative clause. Than we have to focus upon another matter, i.e. are these sentences (logically) correct: a) (?) My cell phone, which is battery-operated, is portable. b) (?) My cell phone, which is battery-operated, is portable. c) (?) My cell phone, which is not battery-operated, is portable. d) (?) My phone, which is not battery-operated, is not portable. The author's second example is also worth examining. ''The movie, whose director is a Swede, is really good. The movie is really good. Its director is a Swede.'' (p.113) Here the quandary is as follows: Do these sentences describe the same state of things? or, maybe, 'Swedes are good directors that is why their movies are really good'? Is it possible to speak about a nonrestrictive relative clause in this case? A third illustration of a nonrestrictive relative clause seems to be unambiguous and indubitable: ''The chest, in which I kept old clothes, was destroyed. The chest was destroyed. I kept old clothes in it. ''(p.113) But, is the sentence 'The chest I kept old clothes in was destroyed.' the same sentence, or is it already a different sentence (with a restrictive clause)? In any case the hitch is clear, i.e. the language samples that are easy to understand and instantly recognizable will let a reader not to miss the point while studying the language.

    In chapter 6.3 Questions Wardhaugh describes 'English question system' - ''There are two basic kinds of question: yes-no questions, which seek either 'yes' or 'no' for an answer, e.g., Are you ready?; and information-seeking questions, either echo questions, e.g., You want what? or wh- questions beginning with a wh- word, e.g., What do you want? '' (p.130). Then 'yes-no questions' are divided into three groups: inverted questions; inverted questions with alternative; tag questions. There are two facts which make this taxonomy clumsy and inappropriate. First, only one type of alternative questions may be classified as 'untainted' representative of the group, i.e., questions with negation of the predicate as one part of the given alternative, e.g., ''Are you ready or not?''(p.131). The second example, i.e., ''Are you going to London or Oxford?''(p.131) has four possible answers. The answers depend on the intonation of the question and there may be two providing either 'yes' or 'no' and the other two providing information 'London' or 'Oxford'. The yes/no variant is possible only as the 'true' or 'false' attitude to the action indicated by the predicate, i.e. when the questioner is interested in fulfillment of the action but not in the potential destination. That's why this type of question is miscellaneous with the first and the third type of inverted questions, i.e., sentences with different actions described by the predicates, e.g., ''Are you going to do it or are you just kidding me? '' What is of interest here is that the potential fulfillment of both of the actions indicated, i.e., in certain circumstances the questionee may perform both -- s/he may be saying in a humorous way ''I'm going to do it.'' And this utterance is likely to be used as an answer to a 'wh- question'. Another point against this systematization is that 'yes/no' answer is also possible to at least half of ''echo questions'', e.g., Going? John? etc. Furthermore, there is no place in this classification for a question like 'What are you going to do with it, fix it or throw it away?

    In the 'logically' second part of the book Wardhaugh describes units of the language which are smaller than a sentence, i.e. sounds and words. In chapter 9 and the subsequent the author describes the system of the English sounds with the phonetic symbols. The things worth noticing here are as follows:

    a) describing the English sound system, Wardhaugh uses 'wedge' phonetic symbols to illustrate initial phonemes in such words as chin, gin, ship, and seizure, measure (pp. 186-187) together with the 'canonical' (IPA) transcription symbols ''theta'' and ''eth'', for the initial phonemes in the words thin, than (p.186). Probably, it would be better to avoid such 'symbol blending' and use either IPA symbols exclusively (as is standard in many textbooks and dictionaries) or ''purely Latin transcription symbols'' as in the American College Dictionary. (see also the paragraph after next.)

    b) On page 201 a reader may notice the statement: ''Many unstressed vowels are best transcribed with the phoneme ... (called ''schwa'') that we use in words like nut and cut'' (both of the words in italics and ''u'' bold faced). The statement is quite doubtful particularly when supplemented to ''After alveolar stops, i.e., /t/ and /d/, a schwa is inserted to produce the / -[e]d/ allomorph. (p.201) The question arising here is quite simple, i.e., when and where does that happen?

    c) It would be a nice move of Wardhaugh to explain, why: ''We will use a modified version of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) in the transcriptions that follow'' (p.204) especially, when ''The IPA is perhaps the best-known system of phonetic notation in existence'' (p.204). In sum: what kind of modification is used and how does it differ from the widely applied transcription symbols?

    d) Throughout the text, Wardhaugh uses boldface to distinguish the words for which explications are given in the book's glossary. Such terms as: ''archiphoneme (p.200); phonetic notation, IPA, unreleased, diacritics, complementary notation, free variation, (p. 204-205); sound, syllable, sentence, word (p.217)'' are not listed in the glossary notwithstanding the fact that the glossary ''can be used for quick reference to matters covered at greater length in the text.''(x).


    Wardhaugh's book is a good source of linguistic data for a non-prepared reader. However, it stands clearly that without a tutor's help the book is not comprehensive in its exploration of English grammar. Indeed, an inquisitive student will try to find out what ''for many speakers of English'' (p.67), ''it is also possible on occasion'' (p.105), ''in some varieties of English'' (p.112, 130, 135, 157, 170, 214) really mean. In the upshot, Wardhaugh's ''Understanding English Grammar'' is ''a short illustrative linguistic dictionary''. Unfortunately (or maybe purposely) not always explicit.


    I'm a Ph.D. student at the Department for the History of English and English Grammar, Minsk State Linguistic University, Belarus. My interests cover Pragmatics (Speech Act Theory), Critical Discourse Analysis, and Argumentation.