June 1995 — Volume 1, Number 4
A Teacher’s Grammar: An Approach to the Central Problems of English
R. A. Close (1992)
Hove, U.K.: Language Teaching Publications
Pp. ii + 166
ISBN 0-906717-48-5 (paper)
Billed as providing both a coherent explanation of English grammar and a reference for teachers, this book is really better at the former, being too short to serve adequately as the latter. A reprint of a volume originally published over 30 years ago, entitled English as a Foreign Language, it is practically unchanged, but still current and useful for the practicing teacher.
From reading the first heading (“Has English a Grammar?”), one suspects that first, the author’s primary concern is finding order in the vast system of English grammatical rules, and second, his point of view is quite British. Reading the book confirms both suspicions. In order to explain the English article, verb, and preposition systems, among others, Close uses the idea of English grammar as a system of marked and unmarked pairs, which are used in making a system of primary distinctions (concrete vs. abstract, unspecified vs. specified, etc.). For example, in his discussion of past tense, he says that the past tense is a signal of specification of past time, in the same way that the is a signal that the speaker is referring to a specified object. Thus, marked forms can be seen as having similar functions in very different fields. Seeing the system from Close’s viewpoint can give order to a language that is at times chaotic. This can be of invaluable benefit to the new teacher who feels occasionally overwhelmed by the complexity of the system as it is. Verb tenses in particular can be especially confusing, what with the contrast between completed action (represented in this book by O) and uncompleted action (represented by U); and with single acts (I) and a series of acts (S) often being described with the same tense. However, Close’s overview can give the system the glow of a well-tended backyard garden.
When attempting to use the book as a reference, however, that same teacher will open the chapter on tenses and find a confusing array of IO and IU combinations. Faced with a particular problem concerning the usage of present perfect continuous, for example, the teacher will then have to reread the entire chapter, even then getting a general overview, and not a specific answer to a specific question. As a reference book, it falls short, although it was clearly not intended as such. Comparatives, for example, are not even mentioned, and many other details are glossed over. Michael Lewis, in his introduction, says that “it is unusual among grammar books, in that it has been written so that, rather than being used only for reference, its chapters can be read” (p. ii). I would amend that to say that its chapters should be read, but that one shouldn’t [-1-] try to use it for reference, at least not in the conventional sense. In addressing the small details of grammar that concern advanced students, this book won’t be of much help.
Finally, I find Close’s philosophy of language to be somewhat insular, failing to consider the wide range of variation and usage that English has today. Though he cannot be called a prescriptivist in the strict sense, he repeats his earlier claim (it was the first line in English as a Foreign Language) that English is, “first and foremost,” a solid core of facts (p. 1). Certain verb forms and pronouns, concord of subject and verb, and basic use of present and past perfect, for example, are facts of usage that are “decided for us” (p. 1); beyond that, however, is a more nebulous area where we may have a choice between two forms, both right but different in the meaning they convey. Lewis calls this distinction (between “Grammar as Fact” and “Grammar as Choice”) “the author’s own original, and very powerful insight,” and calls it “one of the most remarkable features of this book” (p. iii).
The problem with this view is that in this world of Englishes, much of what Close and others may hold sacred as “fact” is being ignored or flaunted daily in mutually intelligible languages and dialects that, in many other ways, resemble standard English very closely, and are considered by their speakers to be English. Those who, like Close, cling to a definition of English as a set of facts find themselves ultimately in the predicament of deciding how many of these facts a dialect may ignore before it is no longer considered English. If the language is in fact defined by a core of mutually agreed-upon facts, one would expect these facts to remain somewhat constant, both through time and across the wide geographical range in which English is spoken. That, however, is not what is happening. English is growing and changing; it’s going to places where it’s never been before. A language can better be described as a contract, an agreement between speakers and listeners, writers and readers, renewed every time people communicate. Thus describing the language should entail describing what happens in these contracts most of the time, giving up claims to the unchangeable nature of any given rule or word form, and giving up censure of those who don’t adhere to a particular standard. Such a practical approach would not significantly alter the most useful parts of this book, that is, the explanations of the article, verb, and preposition systems of English. After all, it is not necessary to accept any part of these systems as fact before studying them as they are. It would, however, make Close’s philosophy more palatable to the increasing number of teachers who are teaching in quite different circumstances than those that he faced when he taught in China in the 1930’s, and later in Greece and South America.
Thirty years ago, English as a Foreign Language was valued by teachers in isolated outposts, who perhaps needed assurance that [-2-] there was an order to the system, and that some “facts” of English were truly indisputable. Today, though we still need the careful overview of the grammatical systems that Close provides, we need a different kind of assurance. Our students, far from being isolated, are often surrounded by variations of English that are quite different from what we teach them. Telling them, for example, that in subject-verb concord, “We have no choice,” runs counter to their experience and is counterproductive. As the difference between the dialects widens, we need a different kind of assurance: that the choices we make, hear, and teach are not “wrong”; that, on the contrary, they may be acceptable in some dialects; and that, though we may not be able to explain every dialect of English that is being spoken at any given moment, we are reasonably capable of showing our students the order and the beauty in the one we know best.
Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
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