Review of “Grammar Crammer”

Comma Sutra had some mistakes and poor arguments, but this book really takes it up a notch. The Grammar Crammer has some jaw-droppingly crazy material. I’ve organized this as replies to particular quotes from the book. Some of this book is available on google books, if you want to have a look at the larger context of any quote.

The basic problem with the book is that the authors haven’t got the slightest clue what linguistics is. And this has an effect on everything else in the book, because they’ve never learned how make and support arguments about language. They instead adopt the classic prescriptive approach, which is just to make stuff up. They also misuse a number of technical terms that anyone doing grammar should know (like “person”). The confusion about linguistics, and generally about how to study language, comes up only three pages in:

“Right now the study of English grammar is undergoing a revolution. Experts like Noam Chomsky are rehabilitating our changing spoken language, making it respectable once more.” (p.3)

There is no rehabilitation going on. Linguistics is fundamentally descriptive: linguists study language as it is, and as it changes, without any value judgement whatsoever. This is something you would know if you read even a single work of Chomsky’s. On the second page of this book he wrote he describes his work pretty clearly: “The basic concern is to determine and characterize the linguistic capacities of particular individuals”. In other words, the goal is to understand how humans use language, and most certainly NOT to impose on people a way of speaking.

And the follow-up doesn’t improve things much:

“They tell us that sentences can’t be separated into nameable parts, because much of what we say is condensed from longer, more involved thought.” (p.3)

It is a complete falsehood to claim that sentences can’t be separated into nameable parts, and worse is to claim that linguists agree with this statement. Have the authors never heard of syntax? I guess not since they think linguistics is about language reform.

And that “because” clause doesn’t follow from the first part. It’s just a non sequitur for me. How do “involved thoughts” have anything to do with how parts of speech work? Parts of speech exist in English, and you determine them based on where words can appear in a sentence, and what kinds of affixes you can put on the word. I’m so sick of grammar authors getting this wrong, I wrote a whole post on this topic.

What really confuses me is that the Grammar Crammer itself has an entire chapter of parts of speech, so I guess even the authors don’t agree with themselves. I do not understand why this sentence was printed.

“They admit now even parts of speech aren’t easy to classify – something students have known since they struggled with the first grammar books.”(p.3)

Yeah. That’s it. Chomsky’s been working on syntax for more than 50 years, and he’s just suddenly realized that it’s too hard to name parts of speech. And the kids (on their first grammar books!) are like ‘yeah, we knew that all along you should have listened to us’. And Chomsky’s like ‘you kids are right, what have I wasted my time on!”

Of course students think it’s hard, they’re students. They don’t know the material yet. It gets easier after you finish a course on it. Linguists like Chomsky are expert on syntax; he fairly invented modern syntax theory himself. What he says something is “difficult” he doesn’t mean what students mean.

OK, let’s skip a few pages ahead, out of the introduction and into the middle of the book.

“In Spanish, German, Latin, and many other languages, lots of words change their endings to show such things as person (whether one or many males, females, or neuters), degree of comparison, and tense.” (p.31)

The term ‘person’ has a specific meaning in grammar, and this is not it. Grammatical ‘person’ refers to a participant in the conversation: first person (I,we) is the speaker(s), second person (you) is the listener(s), and third person (he, she, it, they) is anyone else. Nowhere is this mentioned. Instead, the authors mention three other categories: grammatical number (singular/plural), grammatical gender (‘neuter’), and biological sex (‘male and females’).

Do they have any idea what they are talking about? I’ve never seen such a confused mess. Even students in my intro classes don’t write garbage like this. In the future, the correct order to do things in is to learn something about language, then write a book on it.

“In English, aside from a few nouns (person: waiter, waitress) and modifiers (degree of comparison: fast, faster, fastest), the only words that change are the verbs, and most of them have only two big changes, for third person singular and past tense.”

The only words that change are the verbs? Are they mad? Did they even take 10 seconds to think about what they wrote before spewing ink on a page?

Adjectives can become:
nouns (e.g. red-redness)
adverbs (e.g. quick-quickly)
verbs (e.g. public-publicize)

Nouns can become:
adjectives (e.g. accident-accidental)
verbs (e.g. friend – befriend)
adverbs (e.g. friend – friendly)

And as for verbs…
English verbs have inflections for progressive (-ing), past (-ed, with many exceptions), perfect (-en, with many exceptions), and third person present (-s). There’s also the infinitive marker ‘to’ as in ‘to jump’, ‘to sing’, etc. That’s 5, and in the passive voice verbs take an inflection that looks like the perfect, so you could call that 6 different changes. Already three times as many as claimed in the Grammar Crammer.

But then, there’s a huge number of derivational affixes verbs can take. For example, there are at least 6 different ways that verbs can become adjectives that I can think of right now: agree-agreeable, rely-reliant, create-creative, relax-relaxing, confuse-confused, freeze-frozen. That’s now 12 different endings, six times as many as the grammar book claimed.

So to say that “most of them [verbs] have only two big changes” is a little misleading. Has either author ever taken a syntax class? Or did their education in “grammar” consist of reading and regurgitating this kind of tripe from other prescriptivists. Frankly, this is the kind of simple observation – words take affixes – that I would expect any competent grammar author to make even without having specifically learned about it in a class.

To finish off, some insanity about complex sentences from a little further along in the book:

“The complex sentence is a wonderful invention of modern writers.” (p.72)

This just makes no sense. My three year old utters complex sentences all the time. Just today she said “You made pancakes while I helped Mummy and we were in the living room”. I’m pretty sure that 3 year olds have been doing this for a long time now, and it’s totally absurd to pretend that complex sentences are a recent invention. But actually, this craziness about complex sentences goes back a few pages from here:

“Old English was similar to Biblical Hebrew in that it had ands, buts, and some either…ors, but complex sentences didn’t come into English until the Romans invaded England brining in their complex Latin language. Even some of the more complicated compound sentences are relative newcomers to English….” (p.69)

Hebrew is a Semitic language, and English is an Indo-European language, and those are two completely different families, with no known connections. I can see no way in which Old English could be said to be “similar” to Hebrew, any more than any two random languages could be similar.

As for the rest on sentence strucures…there are no words except WTF. How did this book get published? There’s no research here, no fact checking, just pure fiction.

The claim starts that Old English had conjunctions (“ands, buts, and some either…ors”), which the authors say didn’t allow for complex sentences. But this is obvious, since by definition conjunctions are not used to make complex sentences. Conjunctions are used for compound sentences. You know, the kind that are claimed not to show up until the Romans arrived.

I’m pretty sure that the authors of this book don’t know what the words “complex” and “compound” means. So let me do their job for them and explain the difference:

A complex sentence is an independent clause (a stand-alone sentence, like Frank ate a hotdog) with at least one dependant clause (something that isn’t stand-alone, like that his girlfriend bought him). The parts of the complex sentence are joined by words like that and which.

A compound sentence is two independent (stand-alone) sentences combined into one, as in “I took the bus and she drove”. Compound sentences are joined by conjunctions: and, or, etc.

As far as I know, both sentences types are attested in English as long as we have records of English existing. But I’m intrigued about their claim that some types only showed up with Romans. What evidence exists for this? This is an astounding claims at odds with fundamentals of linguistic theory, and probably everything ever published in the history of English linguistics. If anyone can find a reference for these claims, please post it in the comments.

Overall, this book manages to get a few things right, but mostly I imagine this is through parroting information you can find in any grammar book. The authors clearly have no education in language or linguistics. They should stay away from writing another word about English until they take the time to learn the rudiments of it.


Filed under Book Review, Prescriptive

6 responses to “Review of “Grammar Crammer”

  1. I’m resisting the urge to run screaming through the streets out of utter exasperation. It doesn’t do any good to hold book publishers accountable. They have no morals. But shouldn’t somebody somewhere along the way have noticed that the author is unqualified as an expert on language. And told someone else?!

    It will be depressing, but you can see from her bio page at that she’s made a career out of telling people how to write. She authored “12 Ways to Help You Wins A’s,” in Seventeen magazine and “How to Get a College Degree at Home,” in Playgirl. Her work (with a co-author) is listed as part of the Archive of American History at the University of Wyoming. Is it 5:00 somewhere?

    Keep fighting the good fight!


  2. Pingback: On being a writing specialist « Pros Write

  3. brilliant blog.
    You use to write with clear arguments and try to illuminate us pertaining to the vast field of linguistics.
    Well done


  4. So is this person(people?) really a prescriptivist or simply an idiot? I know a lot of lovely prescriptivists who would be mortified by this tripe… Anyway, thanks for exposing this!


    • It’s true I use “prescriptivist” in a pejorative sense on this blog. I’m not sure what else to say. I’m looking for a word that captures the type of person who is not only feels their manner of speaking is best, but also refuses to learn anything new about language analysis, rehashing the same tired old explanations (e.g. “a noun is a person, place, or thing”). A “prescriptivist”, in the sense of someone who “prescribes” a way of speaking, and as opposed to a “descriptivist”, seems to me the most appropriate term right now. But no offense intended! Any suggestions for a better word?


  5. I understand where you’re coming from. I think of prescriptivists as rigid and stubborn but not wholly bad or not curious about why language works the way it does.
    Maybe “pop-prescriptivist” might be more palatable to me although it’s kind of tedious. Like the type of person who smugly corrects people’s spoken language all the time because he cares about being “right” over being practical, curious, analytical, or courteous. The type of person who has a little knowledge and wants to use it as a bludgeoning tool.


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