Vol. 7. No. 2 R-1 September 2003
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A University Course in English Grammar

Angela Downing and Philip Locke (2002)
Pp. xx + 652
ISBN: 0-415-28810-X (paper)


2002 saw the publication of the second edition of Angela Downing and Philip Locke's English grammar A University Course in English Grammar (Routledge). This second edition, published 10 years after the original, is described as a comprehensive descriptive grammar for ESL graduate and undergraduate students with "an intermediate standard of knowledge and operational ability in the language" (Downing et al. 2002: XI). In the textbook, Downing and Locke focus their attention on sentence grammar and means of analysing texts in the aim of viewing English grammar in a larger context (rather than as arbitrary unrelated rules) and providing a means of understanding the relation of form to meaning and meaning to situation.

For the purposes of this review, we shall look at the methodological framework in which this grammar is written, its organisational structure and finally its content and its grammatical explanation.

Methodological Approach

In this 652-page volume, Downing and Locke take a functional approach to English grammar, basing their analysis on the works of Michael A. K. Halliday. Whereas the traditional, formal approach to language focuses mainly on grammatical form or structure and then comments on the meaning these forms express, the functional approach starts from a system of meaning (functions) and relates how these functions are realised, expressed through the language's grammar. Put in other terms, the functional approach starts with meaning and works towards grammatical form for expressing this meaning rather than starting with the grammatical form and working towards meaning.

The functional approach brings interesting insights to the study of a second language, specifically by highlighting the distinction between form and function, a distinction not always clearly made in other approaches. By identifying language functions and the many grammatical and structural ways of expressing these functions, it becomes clear that the relationship between grammatical from and meaning is not one-to-one. Making students aware of the functions of language allows them to focus on the meaning that they wish to convey and then to choose the proper grammatical / structural form best suited for the context rather than focussing solely on grammatical form. [-1-]

This approach, however, does present some limitations, especially in a North American context where the functional approach is not as well known or as frequently used as elsewhere. To extract the most from what this book has to offer, be it as a teacher or a student, several pre-requisites are needed. First, a knowledge of the functional approach to language is necessary. A University Course in English Grammar is not an introduction to the functional approach to language, so the authors assume that the reader is familiar with functionalism. For those readers unfamiliar with this approach, the text, at first, may be difficult to read. The use of such concepts as speech acts, illocutionary acts, theme, rheme, predicator and semantic roles within the first few pages of the text may inhibit or even prevent understanding of the content and discourage further reading. An introduction with a more detailed description of the functional approach and basic concepts, such as those in Graham Locke's Functional English Grammar (1996) or Talmy Givón's English Grammar: a Function-Based Introduction (1993) would make the book more accessible to curious readers unfamiliar with this approach without obliging them to seek out other introductory or supplementary sources on functionalism.

A second pre-requisite is knowledge of both grammatical structures and terminology. The authors state their objectives as the study of meaning and its relationship with grammatical forms as well as an analysis of the language. The authors' intent, therefore, is not to teach and explain, nor review, the formation of grammatical structures such as verb forms, question formation or the comparative / superlative. Aiming to address how meaning is expressed through grammatical structures, it is assumed that the reader has already mastered such forms and the terminology to describe them.

Structural Organisation

A University Course in English Grammar is divided into thirteen chapters, with each chapter subdivided into modules (60 in total) of class-length material. Downing and Locke (2002: XII) describe the break down of the chapters as follows: the first chapter gives an overview of the book as a whole, introducing and defining the basic concepts and terms used throughout the book. The following six chapters describe clause structures and clause complexes from a syntactic, semantic and functional point of view while the last six chapters deal with group units.

The break down of each chapter into modules allows for better management of content. At the beginning of each module there is a summery where the module's objectives, main points and other important information are stated. This offers two main benefits for the reader. First, by allowing the reader to know the important information found in the module before reading it, the reader is better prepared to understand its content before delving into the explanations and examples. Secondly, since the 652 pages of this text provide more material than can be adequately presented in a standard 45-hour course, material selection is necessary. The summaries, therefore, offer more information than can be found in a standard table of contents and, consequently, allow the reader to better identify any specific content or information they may be looking for. The summaries, therefore, facilitate identifying and selecting content deemed important, whether the text be used as the principal text for a course or as supplementary reference material.

Exercises are provided at the end of each chapter both for discussion of the material as well as application of the notions covered. Again, the exercises are grouped according to the modules with which they deal. [-2-]


In terms of content, the title A University Course in English Grammar is a little misleading, for Angela Downing and Philip Locke's textbook limits itself to syntax and text grammar. In another review of this same textbook, Viatcheslav Iatsko (2003) notes that this is not surprising, claiming that since English is not a morphologically rich language, there is a tendency in contemporary English linguistics to reduce grammar to syntax. Nevertheless, many university level grammar books for ESL students deal with morphology (cf. Master 1996) and some even include phonology (cf. Stageberg and Oaks 2000). Other grammar books written within the functionalist approach do deal with morphology and lexicology (Givón 1993).

The absence of morphology aside, the explanations provided in this textbook tend to push towards explaining "why" we use a certain grammatical form rather then the usual "when", thus giving greater insight to how English functions. We can illustrate this tendency by citing several examples. First is the use of a structure where a verb is followed by a non-finite verb complement, either the To-infinitive (To-V) or the gerund (V-ing). While many grammar textbooks treat this grammatical point by simply stating that one group of verbs take the To-infinitive, another group the gerund and yet another take both, without ever evoking any criteria for the classification of verbs, nor discerning any difference in meaning for a verb that accepts both structure, Downing and Locke give a more semantic explanation, stating a distinction between potential and actualised complements. For the To-infinitive, they write: "To-infinitive clauses tend to describe a situation which is potential in relation to the process represented by the verb" (2002: 82) and for the gerund: "Non-finite -ing clauses as complements tend to express a meaning of actualisation" (2002: 82). Attempting to explain "why" one form is used over the other is, it would seem, a better explanation than simply providing lists to memorize.

Another example that we can cite is the classification of will as a model verb instead of a future tense marker. While many grammar textbooks treat will as a future tense marker with many exceptions that are hard to understand and to justify, Downing and Locke treat it as a model verb that has both a modal function and a future function. This explanation gives a more in-depth understanding of how will functions and a more complete explanation with fewer exceptions.

Finally, we can cite their description of tense and aspect. Dividing time into two periods, two tenses (past and non-past), and relegating will to a modal verb, Downing and Locke provide a more compact and accurate description of the representation of time in English compared to other functionalist grammar textbooks (Graham Locke identifies three tenses (1996: 48) and Talmy Givón four (1993: 148)). And in terms of aspect, Downing and Locke make a link between grammatical and lexical aspect, a link many grammar textbooks fail to take into account. Citing a change in meaning in the verb or a conflict between the natural aspect of the verb (cf. Vendler) and the grammatical aspect, the explanation of why certain verbs are rarely found in the progressive comes over as more comprehensive.

The one minor draw back in terms of the textbook's content is the occasional weakness in the definitions of certain terminological terms. The terms are sometimes vaguely defined; however, this may be explained by the authors' assumption of the reader's familiarity with the methodological approach and, thus, the terminology within the methodology. Nevertheless, clearer definitions or a glossary would facilitate reading, especially for non-functionalist readers. [-3-]


Despite focussing principally on syntax and text grammar, A University Course in English Grammar offers interesting and useful insights on English grammar. However, a university level ESL grammar course with a wider scope (i.e. one including morphology or more on grammatical form) would require another textbook or supplementary reading. Nevertheless, be it used in conjunction with other textbooks or as a reference book, A University Course in English Grammar would be beneficial for advanced ESL learners or ESL teachers, especially those working within the functionalist framework.


Downing, Angela and Philip Locke. 2002. A University Course in English Grammar. Routledge.

Givón, Talmy. 1993. English Grammar: a Function-Based Introduction. vol. 1 & 2. John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Iatsko, Viatcheslav. 2003. Review: Language Description: Downing and Locke (2002). Last Updated: Jan. 9, 2003. Consulted: June 29, 2003. http://www.linguistlist.org/issues/14/14-667.html#1

Locke, Graham. 1996. Functional English Grammar: an Introduction for Second Language Teachers. Cambridge University Press.

Masters, Peter. 1996. Systems in English Grammar: An Introduction for Language Teachers. Prenctice Hall Regents.

Stageberg, Norman C. and Dallin D. Oaks. 2000. An Introductory English Grammar. 5th ed. Harcourt College Publishers.

Vendler, Zeno. 1967. "Time and the Verb" in Linguistics in Philosophy. Cornell University Press.

Douglas L. Rideout
Université de Montréal
Department of Linguistics and Translation

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