September 2003 — Volume 7, Number 2
English grammar: Language as human behavior
Anita K. Barry, 2nd edition (2002)
Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.
Pp. xv + 256
ISBN: 0-13-032260-1 (cloth)
The study of English grammar has generally been a source of intellectual joy for English language educators. Regrettably, this joy has not traditionally been felt by the average person—and even by some English teachers—due to English grammar’s inherent complexity. While the study of English is, in and of itself, fraught with difficulties, more often than not, inadequate textbooks add little to students’ understanding of English grammar and frequently discourage them from further linguistic study.
Fortunately, Anita K. Barry’s English Grammar: Language as Human Behavior is available as a tool to help educators and non-educators, alike, get a better grasp of the formal aspects of English grammar. Unlike many other works, which read like reference materials rather than textbooks, Barry’s volume assumes little knowledge of English grammar outside of a reasonable level of fluency, and does not bombard students with jargon. Alternatively, she carefully explains and illustrates most grammatical terms.
While the book is quite clear in its explanations, it is also thorough, covering most essential parts of sentence-level grammar (nouns, verbs, adjective, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions), in addition to comparing and contrasting the various types of sentence structure (simple, complex, compound). Her presentation of these areas is traditional in that it includes prescriptive rules. However, she also shows how rules are applied by presenting them within chunks of authentic discourse. In the back of almost every chapter, for example, she includes a personal letter in which students are supposed to find the errors and correct them. Furthermore, many of the chapter discussion exercises utilize the writings of authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Toni Morrison, David Guterson, and columnist William Safire. Other activities feature pieces from a wide range of sources, including the Atlantic Monthly, the Dred Scott United States Supreme Court case, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the University of Michigan homepage.
Indeed, Barry discusses English grammar in both prescriptive and descriptive terms—something that only a handful of authors have done. Moreover, even before she specifically talks about grammar, she spends the first two chapters introducing students to basic linguistic concepts such as standard vs. non-standard dialects, dictionary usage, and language change. She briefly summarizes the history of rule formulation, and the concept of academic authority, as well. She then goes over the syntactic structure of English, hence giving students a small introduction to the fundamentals of universal grammar without overwhelming them with particularly thorny concepts and unnecessary terminology. Most notably, however, is that she devotes one whole chapter to explaining the discourse functions of various clause types. Among the areas she expounds upon are yes-no questions, wh-questions, tag questions, imperatives, and exclamatives.
However, what is most impressive about this text, now in its second edition, is the addition of a publisher-sponsored website that contains a summary of each chapter’s contents, in addition to multiple choice and short-answer practice questions, both of which students are able to complete independently, and have automatically corrected. There is also a message board and a chat room that put students into contact with peers from around the world who are using the text. Finally, the website reserves a separate section for teachers, which, among other things, offers suggestions regarding matters of syllabus construction and lesson planning.
While this volume is, in general, detailed and lucid, it nevertheless has a few shortcomings. First of all, the focus of most chapters is on American English, thereby potentially limiting the work’s application in other English-speaking countries. Moreover, in the preface, Barry claims that the text is primarily geared towards a one-semester course for native speakers in a university setting. In most universities, whether in the United States or abroad, courses revolving around the grammar of English are more often than not designed for teachers, whether they are native or non-native speakers. Nevertheless, Barry’s approach generally lacks an explicit pedagogical focus. More to the point, there is little discussion about how to actually teach the book’s concepts. This is problematic because even experienced teachers regularly complain of not knowing how to adequately transmit concepts to their students that they themselves can understand. Lastly, the format seems to be lacking in variety. Almost every chapter is solely comprised of explanations, examples, sentence-level exercises, discussion questions, and personal letters. While such elements are well presented and easy for both teachers and students to follow, they become repetitive and thus mirror the stereotypical grammar books that too often stifle learning and encourage negative reactions towards linguistic study.
In spite of these problems, Barry’s work would be valuable for both native and non-native speakers of English, as well as for teachers and non-teachers. In fact, the student-friendly website, combined with the text’s extensiveness and clarity, would enable a reasonably motivated student to develop a program of individualized study, regardless of their first language and professional goals. However, Barry’s emphasis on the rules, usages, and terminology of American English grammar would be particularly useful for grammar-phobic native speakers, whether they be students or professionals, who need to better their own writing. Moreover, the issues she covers frequently appear on state teacher certification exams, consequently giving the text a potential role to play in English education programs.
For EFL/ESL students who are not educators, the volume’s content appears best suited for those of an advanced level who have studied another variety of English. For such learners, it can help make them aware of dialectal differences, especially if they plan to work or study in the United States. For EFL/ESL teachers, the text offers them the opportunity to expose their students to one of the many global varieties of English. Finally, English Grammar: Language as Human Behavior offers an assessable instructional tool for teacher trainers, whether they are involved with native or non-native speakers of English. Regardless of the student population, teachers that find themselves lacking the time and/or knowledge to create their own grammar lessons and activities will find Barry’s work to be helpful. Not only is it full of practical teaching ideas, but the website also makes additional materials available. However, the ideas and materials contained in both the text and the website are still quite elemental. For that reason, they are inappropriate for graduate students in English or English-related fields.
Western Kentucky University
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