What is this book about?

Navigating English Grammar is a course in the fundamental concepts that are necessary for a solid understanding of English grammar. Unlike many books, it doesn't just tell you how things are in English. It also takes you through the logic that leads us to say that one way of analyzing language is more accurate or useful than others. By the end, you should, in principle, be able to analyze most English sentences, not just the artificially constructed examples of grammar books. Just as importantly, you should have developed the skills to analyze other people's assertions about grammar critically.

The basic attitude towards language that I hope to inculcate in this course is empirical. My goal is to help you use real-world evidence to think about language, basing your conclusions primarily on the way English actually works rather than on arbitrary assertions by so-called authorities who may or may not offer well-founded advice. On the other hand, I have tried to remain focused the needs of my primary intended audience: current and future classroom teachers, and so my emphasis is on analysis of written English, and I devote particular attention to those grammatical features that come up frequently when commenting on student writing. It is meant to equip you with a set of technical tools that will better allow you to guide your own students to become sophisticated readers and writers. Although not the work's main focus, I also devote some attention to considering how these grammatical topics appear on standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT.

Why are you saddling us with yet another grammar book?

This work began because I could not find a textbook that fit my needs for a particular course—a common problem for many instructors. The earliest versions were written for a college class titled The Structure of Modern English, designed to introduce future teachers to linguistics. Such courses are typical in teacher-training programs around the United States. In one semester, students receive a smattering of phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and other linguistic topics such as language acquisition or social attitudes towards language variation.

When I first began to teach this course, I followed the lead of the previous instructor and used an introductory linguistics textbook. It was a fine book, but it was designed for linguists, not K-12 teachers. It soon became obvious that large portions of this material were only marginally relevant to what these teachers would soon be doing in the classroom, and even where the material was applicable, its formal linguistic trappings made it hard for the students to see how they could use this knowledge in their own classrooms.

During the same period, I was also teaching writing and grammar to high school students in an after-school program, an experience that let me see first hand not only exactly what grammatical concepts high school students had actually retained from their regular school experience (usually not very much) but also how their teachers communicated grammatical ideas. I began to pay attention to the comments written in the margins of students' papers, comments that tried to explain the problems with the students' language but which did so in terms that were inaccurate or unhelpful. For example, they would flag as "passive voice" things that were not, in fact, passive.There were teachers who imposed draconian penalties based on surface features, such using more than two instances of BE in an essay. They would use generic annotations like awk or choppy, which indicated the teacher's disapproval without providing any precise indication of why the writer's wording was problematic.

To be clear, few of them were engaged in stereotypical grammar pedantry. Most weren't filling the margins of students papers with trivial corrections or prioritizing grammatical correctness over the expression of ideas. I could see that teachers were groping towards a language to talk about their students' writing. But when they did turn to grammar, as often as not they did so in ways that either had no effect—because the students didn't understand what the teacher meant—or were counter productive—because the students took away lessons that wound up making their writing worse.

Moreover, although they were under the impression they were using those concepts to enforce "standard" English and teach better writing, it was clear that they weren't all applying the same standard. They couldn't agree among themselves about what was an error or why, or which errors were most significant. And I saw little evidence that any attention at all was paid to the ways that knowledge of grammar could help direct a student's attention to the rhetorically significant aspects of the writing process.

I find it hard to blame these teachers. (OK, the guy who gave Fs for using more than two instances of BE in an essay was the worst sort of pedant. Him I blame.) They had learned a theory of language imperfectly and unsystematically, without even realizing that it was a theory and not a simple statement of truths, and without any principled way to distinguish between well-founded claims and silly ones. And they had been taught implicitly to regard grammar as merely the surface polish of language rather than a productive way to create meaning.

These experiences caused me to drastically reshape my course. I realized that in one semester I could never cover all the grammatical concepts that in-service teachers would actually need when confronted with the obligation to correct papers, prepare students for standardized tests, or satisfy content standards that mandate the teaching of certain grammatical concepts. What I could do, however, was to put in place an analytic framework that would help them navigate the welter of conflicting claims about English and figure things out for themselves. I wanted to give my students the tools necessary to think just as critically about grammar as they would about a literary or historical text.

What type of grammar is this?

I take it for granted that any description of grammar is inherently a theoretical enterprise. Because I'm primarily concerned with producing a pedagogically useful grammar, though, I attempt to wear my theory lightly. I've tried pare down the analytical apparatus to that which experience has suggested is necessary for the student to arrive at a reasonably accurate constituent analysis of authentic, unsimplified, written English without delving into so much detail that the analysis becomes intractable. I've avoided topics or approaches that are specific to particular linguistic schools such as minimalism or construction grammar, and I've tried to minimize the number of theory-internal reasons for adopting a particular analysis. I mean to inculcate in students the habit of using real-world evidence to judge the adequacy of grammatical claims, and therefore I try to practice what I preach.

I am particularly indebted to The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, whose analysis I follow in many respects. This monumental work caused me to significantly rethink my own understanding and teaching of grammar. Where I have departed from the CGEL, I have often been motivated by considerations pedagogical tractability rather than direct disagreement with the authors' analysis. In some cases I've presented a simplified account early in the course and a more refined one later on. These units can safely be skipped if you're looking only for a serviceable basic account. I find the advanced units particularly useful for two purposes: first, they give you guidance in dealing with certain difficult questions that more advanced or curious students tend to bring up. Second, they provide additional training in how to evaluate and revise our prior theories when we're confronted with evidence that complicates the story. It's important to realize that this more detailed material is almost certainly inappropriate for direct use with younger students.

Any errors are the result of my own inadequacies, and I welcome all corrections.

(Last updated 7 Jan 2020)