Vol. 8. No. 3 R-5 December 2004
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The Grammar Guide: Developing Language Skills for Academic Success

Nancy M. Ackles (2003)
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xiv + 246
ISBN: 0-472-08882-3

The Grammar Guide is a combined reference, resource and practice book aimed at "advanced bilingual and second language English students" of American English who are either in, or preparing for, higher education. As the title suggests, the main focus is the grammar of the language, grammar in this case conforming, for the most part, to the traditional notion of a collection of normative [1] 'rules' setting out guidelines for correct use (in this case of Academic American English), and supplemented with equally traditional controlled and freer practice activities.

After introductory letters to both Student and Instructor, the book is divided into fifteen chapters. The opening chapter, Tools for Language Learning, comprises two main sections. The first sets out to clarify some of the metalinguistic concepts/terminology employed in the rest of the book and the second explores a range of currently available dictionaries. Subsequent chapters are organised around specific grammatical concepts: Tenses, Modals, Passive Voice, Articles/Countability, Subject-Verb Agreement, Modifiers and Comparisons, Gerunds/Infinitives, Parallel Structure, Subordination and Transition, Adjective Clauses, Noun Clauses, Subjunctive Verb Forms and Participial Phrases. The final chapter comprises a small selection of readings and is followed by an Appendix which lists the academic words (viz. from Word Lists) employed in each chapter. A non-discursive, objective, answer key ends the book. There is no index.

In the opening Letter to the Student, Ackles clarifies some of the assumptions which underlie the elaboration of the book. She generalises learners into two camps: those who have learned in a naturalistic setting and those who have formally studied the language. Her advice to the former is to focus on grammar while the latter should aim to increase their knowledge of collocational patterns. As a gross generalisation, this is probably reasonably sound advice. What Ackles does not add, however, is that, being organised primarily within grammatical parameters, this book will likely be of more use to students in the first camp.

Not that lexical considerations have been ignored. Ackles has deliberately employed words from the University and Academic Word Lists, compiled by Xue and Nation (1984) and Coxhead (2000) respectively, whenever possible. This has interesting implications. At times the text comes across as a little contrived yet, while fuzzying notions of authenticity, the potential short term gains regarding lexico-grammatical awareness may justify the simplification. Most of the language of exemplification appears to be intuitively formulated as do the practice exercises, although there are occasional exceptions. In Chapter 12 (Noun Clauses), for example, extracts from the Declaration of Independence, from Kennedy's inaugural address and from King's 'I have a Dream' speech are used in practice exercises, although Ackles intriguingly adds that the punctuation has been modified in line with modern norms (p. 162). [-1-]

In the Letter to the Instructor, where she underlines the importance of both writing and grammar to academic students, Ackles acknowledges the impact of corpus linguistics on language description (p. ix). It is true that, at times, the influence of corpus research can be observed in the book. There is direct reference to The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Biber et al. 1999) for example (see pp. 54, 104, 145) and indirect reference can be assumed in observations such as that regarding the waning of the prescriptive rule regarding progressive tenses and stative verbs (p. 25), or of the incidence of the subjunctive (p. 181).

At other times, nonetheless, a corpus might have been useful to check the statistical likelihood of language used for modelling. As two random examples, the sentence 'I enjoy not having any homework' is given to exemplify negative gerund forms (p. 103, my italics) and the equally counter-intuitive structure be + no use to + INF is employed in one of the proverbs used to introduce the Passive: 'It's no use to lock the barn after the horse has been stolen' (p. 52, my italics). A quick check of the American section of Cobuild's Wordbanks On-line (10m words) [2] fails to produce a single example of either of these proposed models.

Regarding her choice of discussion and writing prompts, Ackles observes that as the composition of classes can often be wildly heterogeneous she has included a wide range of topics. Many of them are reminiscent of TOEFL TWE tasks and, as one can assume that many of the students will be preparing for this or similar exams, from that perspective they are well-designed. The extent to which they help a student prepare for real academic writing is debatable but this is neither the time nor the place.

At this point it might be interesting to observe that, although she encourages both Student and Instructor to be aware of the collocational patterns of words, Ackles does not explicitly talk about the situational and/or subject-specific implications of use. Nonetheless, the book is peppered with snippets of information which are potentially useful from this perspective. On technical terminology, for example, she notes:

Engineers tend to use a different group of expressions than historians use. You can learn to sound more like an engineer, a historian [ . . . ] by studying writing in a particular field. (p. 120)
On another occasion:
"In business and academic settings, noun clauses are often used to politely express irritations, worries or concerns." (p. 156) (e.g., What worries me is that ....)
Or, the possibly not quite so infallible:
If you use must [as a modal of necessity] quite frequently, people may think you have an unpleasant personality. (p. 40)

In the opening section of Chapter One, Ackles urges students to appreciate the worth of a little technical grounding: "Most people don't want to learn a lot of metalanguage, but learning a little is helpful" she claims and, of course, within the paradigms of explicit grammatical reference, it could be hard to avoid. There is much debate over the role of metalanguage in language learning. [-2-]

To what extent, however, should "You should leave generic noncount nouns bare" (p. 71) be considered an example of "a little" metalanguage? (To give Ackles her due, this is an extreme example.) Similarly the choice of the title Subjunctives for the chapter discussing conditionals and hypotheticals could be criticised as potentially confusing. Conversely, how user-friendly is it really to suggest that modals are used "to quickly change the meaning of a sentence" (p. 36, my italics) or that participle adjectives be considered "pieces of verbs" (p. 89)?

The core of the book is, of course, the grammatical modelling. Each chapter opens with an Introductory Focus, including a selection of proverbs/sayings intended to both stimulate discussion and serve as introductory exemplification of the focus point. These may serve a dual role in the case of newly arrived overseas students as they offer significant potential cultural insight. A couple of my personal favourites are: "If money could talk, it would say goodbye" (p. 166) and "An open mind is good, but a mind open at both ends is a wind tunnel" (p. 186).

The central component of each chapter is composed of information dealing with formal characteristics, semantic glosses, advice for use--sometimes incorporating "Troublesome" aspects, and extra observations usually headed "Notice" in bold. These are interspersed with a range of controlled practice exercises, such as sentence building and completion, transformations, cloze and editing (error correction). At the end of each section there are suggestions for discussion and/or writing.

The layout of the book, if not very exciting, is clear and readable. Explanations are broken down into manageable chunks, often numbered; tables and boxes are employed to clarify formal and meaning-based considerations; the use of different fonts and formats is consistent and will aid reader navigation.

The first half of the book is devoted to parts of speech, the second to parts of sentences--clauses, complements and phrases and their linking. The two parts sandwich a three page chapter entitled Parallel Structure and glossed as "a way to make your writing beautiful" (p. 116). One assumes that the more learners' attention is explicitly directed to such techniques, the easier they will find it to manipulate them.

Looking at the book as a whole, a certain opacity regarding notions of correctness becomes apparent. In most cases, examples which might usually be asterisked, such as 'a files cabinet' (p. 88) or 'I go to school for study English' (p. 110), are marked NOT ENGLISH. What should the reader therefore conclude when, dealing with transitivity, the sentences "Tom makes" and "Ann sleeps her dog" are branded "strange" (p. 4)? In a similar vein, "The dog she bit me" and "A lot of people in this school they like to study technical subjects" (p. 10) are labelled NOT ENGLISH although this subject-raising structure is often considered common in spoken"discourse; indeed McCarthy (1998, p. 77) considers the phenomenon, which he terms 'topic slots", "an act of consideration to the listener".

Regarding the essence of the grammatical descriptions in themselves, a detailed critique is beyond the scope of the current piece and arguably inappropriate. The more fascinated with grammatical description/modelling one becomes, the more its theoretical nature reveals itself. Although any grammatical description is unavoidably theory-based, the key question must be to what extent it is suitable for the target audience. The Grammar Guide is intended primarily as a student resource and it is as thus that this piece should address it.

Given what we now know about learner variables, the idea of a one-size-fits-all grammar has become something of a chimera. This book is an example of a synthetic approach--presenting the language in its component parts and encouraging the student to synthesise those parts into coherent language (see for example Richards, Platt and Platt 1992:370). It is also explicit and deductive. It should therefore be most useful to students who favour this kind of learning--of which there are many. [-3-]

The fact that the book opens with a Letter to the Instructor suggests that it is intended for use with groups of students yet the high proportion of objective practice exercises, and the answer key at the end, means that it could equally be used for self study. At the very least, it would probably make a useful addition to any library, resource room or self study center.


[1] I use the term here to imply a mixture of description, prescription and proscription

[2] http://www.collins.co.uk/Corpus/CorpusSearch.aspx


Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly 34: 2, 213-238.

Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. (1999). Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

McCarthy, M. (1988). Spoken Language & Applied Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richards, J., Platt, J., & Platt, H. (1992). Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Xue, G. & Nation, P. (1984). A University Word List. Language Learning and Communication, 3, 215-229.

Pat Moore
Universidad Pablo de Olavide, Sevilla

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