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Review of  The Structure of Modern English

Reviewer: Anja Wanner
Book Title: The Structure of Modern English
Book Author: Laurel J. Brinton
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 12.2821

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Brinton, Laurel J. (2000) The Structure of Modern English:
A Linguistic Introduction. John Benjamins Publishing Company,
xxi+355pp, paperback ISBN: 1-55619-662-8, $29.95 (includes CD-

Anja Wanner, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Laurel Brinton, Professor of English at the University of
British Columbia and best known for her work in historical
pragmatics (cf. Brinton 1996), has written a comprehensive
introduction to the structure of English. Her textbook is
directed at (advanced) undergraduates, especially those with an
interest in teaching English (as a first or second language), it
assumes no previous linguistic knowledge. There are two main
points that make this book different from comparable textbooks
that have been available for some time (e.g. Burton-Roberts
1997), or that have come out recently (e.g., Berk 1999, Lobeck
2000, Aarts 2001, 2nd. ed.): (i) Brinton does not focus on
syntax, but treats it on par with phonetics, phonology,
morphology, lexical semantics, and pragmatics (i.e. she's doing
for English what O'Grady et al. (1996) and Fromkin (2000) are
doing for general linguistics); (ii) The textbook (315 pages) is
accompanied by a workbook CD (352 pages).

The book is divided into 5 larger sections (called "units"),
which are subdivided into one to three chapters (11 chapters
altogether). After a general introduction to the linguistic
study of language (unit 1), the book moves from the analysis of
sounds (unit 2) and words (unit 3) to the structure of sentences
(unit 4) and their communicative function (unit 5). Every
chapter begins with a preview of its contents, has numerous
references to self-testing exercises on the CD, and finishes
with a summary ("Now you should be able to...") and suggestions
for further reading. The CD, which is in pdf-format, has 11
exercise sections, corresponding to the chapters in the book.
There are 2-9 exercises for each chapter, basically designed for
self-assessment (full answers are only a mouseclick away). The
CD also has an appendix on "Linguistics in Language Teaching",
written by Howard Williams, lecturer in applied linguistics at
Columbia University.

The first section in the book (ch. 1) introduces some basic
linguistic concepts (the sign, descriptive vs. prescriptive,
universals and innateness), and the "components of language"
(phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics). Unit
2 is divided into two chapters: "English Consonants and Vowels"
(ch. 2), focusing on articulatory phonetics and introducing IPA
transcriptions, and "English Phonology, Phonotactics, and
Suprasegmentals" (ch. 3), including a discussion of the
syllable. Unit 3 has 3 chapters, the first one dealing with "The
Internal Structure of Words and Processes of Word Formation in
English" (ch. 4), such as compounding, derivation, and

It is followed by a chapter on "Grammatical Categories and Word
Classes" (ch. 5), which -- in contrast to comparable textbooks --
does not only introduce the traditional parts of speech and their
classification according to distributional and inflectional
critera, but it also discusses "grammatical categories", such as
aspect, mood, tense, and definiteness. Contrary to common
procedure in generative grammar, these are not projected as
syntactic heads in the syntax unit of the book. (This is of
interest, as Brinton opts for a "primarily 'generative' approach"
(p. 165) in the syntax section of the book.) The last chapter in
unit 4 is called "Lexcial Semantics" (ch. 6) and deals with
semantic relationships (such as entailment) and semantic features
(such as animateness for nouns and or aktionsart for verbs)
within a componential analysis framework. Somewhat surprisingly,
this chapter also discusses figures of speech, as they can be
considered "interpretable" violations of selectional restrictions
(p. 154).

>From methaphors and synesthesia the book takes a sharp turn the
next three chapters, which make up the syntax unit. Ch. 7 is on
the basic structure of the clause; a great portion of this
chapter is devoted to writing phrase structure rules (the concept
of X-bar structure is only mentioned in a footnote on p. 189).
Ch. 8 discusses more complex structures (including adverbials)
and sentences other than declaratives, and ch. 9 deals with
embedded clauses. Finally, the unit on pragmatics is divided
into ch. 10 on "Sentence Semantics", introducing Thematic Roles
and the decomposition of predicates, and ch. 11 on "Information
Structuring and Speech Acts", the knowledge of which Brinton
subsumes under "communicative competence" (p. 289).

The layout of the book is very clear, references to the CD are
easy to find, there is a subject index at the end, but no

As somebody who has been experimenting with finding the ideal
textbook for classes on the structure of English for about ten
years, I truly welcome Brinton's contribution to this genre.
While other textbooks turn to a specific framework for syntactic
analysis (e.g. Haegeman/Gu�ron 1999), or include many "real
life" data from novels and magazine articles (Lobeck 2001), or
pursue a strictly descriptive, highly accessible approach (Berk
1999) to give their textbook some specific direction, Brinton
has chosen to include all fields of structural linguistics.
Simply from looking at the table of contents one can guess that
Brinton's introduction is more like a reference book for the
advanced student than a textbook for a first encounter with
linguistic analysis. Even though Brinton's style is engaging and
inviting, with the range of topics she discusses and the sheer
number of linguistic terms she introduces, the book cannot
obviously not allow the reader a very active role in developing
these concepts. The book is very much like a lecture hall, the
CD is the gym in which one practices, and the workout plan
changes with every unit.

As to the organization of the book, here are the two issues that
struck me most: The first one addresses the modular character
of the book. Basically, each unit is self-contained, which makes
it easy to leave out a chapter or two, should there be reason to
do so (e.g., if students are also taking an introduction to
phonetics and phonology class). The disadvantage of self-
contained chapters is that students might miss insightful links
and parallels between the study of, say, sounds and words, or
words and sentences. To give an example: When the terms "morph",
"allomorph", "morpheme" are introduced in the unit on morphology
(pp. 75ff.), there is no reference back to "phone", "allophone",
and "phoneme", which are introduced in an earlier unit. If the
whole textbook were on CD-rom, these thematic links could be
established as HTML links, truly connecting the chapters of this
book, without giving up their modularity. As it is, the CD is
basically a storage place for questions and answers. Apart from
pricing considerations, I do not see a compelling reason to
export all exercises - and only them - to another medium. It
leaves the textbook without any exercises, a circumstance that
will be deplored by those who like to make use of a textbook in
the classroom (am I wrong in assuming that not every classroom
is equipped for using CDs?). This is even more suprising as
Brinton points out that "some exercises will require explication
or elaboration by the instructor" (workbook section, p. vi).

The reverse effect awaits the student who is doing the exercises
at home. Since the textbook section is not part of the CD-rom, he
or she will have to go back and forth between book and computer
in order to answer the questions adequately. For instance, in
the exercise section on syntax, there is a question on "that"-
clauses (ex. 9.1. on the CD) in which students are asked to
bracket a "that"-clause and to classify its function (subject,
direct object, complement of adjective etc.). However, some of
the given examples do not have any "that" in them ("I know it's
late to be calling").

This is very confusing and is resolved only by going back to the
corresponding section in the book (p. 220), in which the student
will find the relieving information that "Sometimes 'that' does
not appear....In these cases, we assume that the Comp position
was originally filled and that there was then deletion of the
complementizer"). No such clue is given in the answer section on
the CD. There is no help function or tutor tool on the CD-rom,
nor is the textbook accessible via the workbook CD. The only
difference between this CD and a conventional workbook is that
the text appears on a screen here, but it's still simply the
picture of a printed text (a pdf- file), in other words, there
are no internal or external links (to a glossary, to a relevant
paragraph in the textbook, or to a website of interest), no
graphics, no acoustic samples (how valuable would this be in the
phonetics section!), no interactive quizzes (with evaluations and
comments on anticipated mistakes), one can neither highlight
anything nor take notes on this CD. This is very different from
a fully committed CD-based introduction to linguistics like
Handke/Intermann (2000), which has all of these features (and
more). As far as my own teaching experience goes, I would say
that students don't usually like to sit in front of a screen, if
it does not do anything for them that they could not also get
from a book, or, preferably, from in-class discussions. This CD
does less for them, they can't even scribble notes on the

Being a syntactician myself, I was disappointed to see that
Brinton has chosen a 1960s version of generative grammar, which
she characterizes as having "two types of rules, phrase
structure rules and transformations" as its foundation (p. 165).
This is not only dated, it also misses the point of generative
grammar, which lies in writing a grammar that creates an
infinite set of expressions based on a finite set of categories
and universal principles of combination. Even though I agree
with Brinton that recent developments of the theory are rather
abstract, I do not see why one would not at least introduce X-
bar theory as a universal model of syntactic structure, rather
than write category-specific phrase structure rules. Also, the
introduction of functional projections at the clausal level
(binary-branching CP/IP projections instead of ternary-branching
S/S' nodes) is something that students generally don't struggle
with (interestingly, in a footnote on p. 213 Brinton concedes
that the CP/IP format would have "the advantage of representing
S as having the same structure as all other phrasal

So is this the stuff that textbook dreams are made of? I'd say
it depends on the class that one is teaching (the target
audience for Brinton's book will mainly be found in English
departments). Brinton's textbook is unique in its combination of
density and breadth of topics, lecture style and self-
assessment, and its richness of data from contemporary English.
However, she leaves the responsibility to make connections
largely to the instructor. Perhaps she simply puts more trust in
us than in technology.

Aarts, Bas (2001, 2nd ed.): English Syntax and Argumentation.
Houndsmills: Macmillan/Palgrave.
Berk, Lynn (1999): English Syntax. From Word to Discourse.
Oxford: OUP.
Brinton, Laurel (1996): Pragmatic Markers in English:
Grammaticalization and Discourse Functions. (Topics in English
Linguistics 19). Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Burton-Roberts, Noel (1997, 2nd ed.): Analysing Sentences: An
Introduction to English Syntax. Boston: Addison Wesley/Longman.
Fromkin, Victoria (ed. 2000): Linguistics. An Introduction to
Linguistic Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.
Haegeman, Liliane and Jacqueline Gueron (1999): English Grammar.
A Generative Perspective. Oxford: Blackwell.
Handke, Juergen and Frauke Intermann (2000, 2nd ed.): The
Interactive Introduction to Linguistics. CD-Rom, Version 2.0.
Muenchen: Max Hueber.
Lobeck, Anne (2000): Discovering Grammar. An Introduction to
English Sentence Structure. New York/Oxford: Oxford University
O'Grady, William, Michael Dobrovolsky, and Francis Katamba
(1996, 3rd ed., 2nd impression): Contemporary Linguistics. An
Introduction. Boston: Addison Wesley/Longman.

- Assistant Professor of English Language and Linguistics,
University of Wisconsin-Madison
- Ph.D. 1997, University of Goettingen (Germany)
- Research Interests: Syntax and lexical semantics, verbs and
their arguments, scientific discourse
- Author of "Verbklassifizierung und aspektuelle Alternationen
im Englischen" (Verb Classification and Aspectual Alternations
in English), 1999, Tuebingen: Niemeyer
- Currently working on "quirky" passives in English and the
realization of agentivity in scientific discourse