help me understand English grammar.
June 28, 2007 7:19 AM   Subscribe

Best book for "learning" English grammar?

I am a native English speaker, and my grammar is pretty good, but I never learned much grammar in school and as such don't conceptually understand things like gerunds, dative case, accusative, reflexive, infinitive, etc. I would like to learn now, especially as I'm trying to learn a foreign language, and getting a grammatical explanation for a second language that doesn't make sense in the first makes for an interesting language lesson. Can anyone recommend a good book from which to learn English grammatical concepts and applications?
posted by the luke parker fiasco to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
Strunk & White's Elements of Style, hands down the best grammar book. It's small but mighty.
posted by tastybrains at 7:33 AM on June 28, 2007


I'm a big fan of The Transitive Vampire. Good explanations of concepts, using neat artwork and interesting examples.
posted by cosmicbandito at 7:45 AM on June 28, 2007


The Elements of Style is not a grammar book, and many dispute its usefulness as a style book. Anyway, it certainly doesn't answer the question, as it doesn't cover things like the dative case.
posted by grouse at 7:45 AM on June 28, 2007 [2 favorites]


To learn about the things you mentioned, get a book on syntax. English Syntax by Lynn M. Berk is a good starting point.
posted by phatkitten at 7:49 AM on June 28, 2007


Sorry, I skimmed the question and didn't see the issues with cases. Elements of Style has quite a bit of information on grammar, so I don't think it was really necessary to be so snippy about it, grouse.

Honestly, I never really grasped cases & the intricacies of English grammar until I studied Latin for two years. Sometimes learning another language is the best way to understand how your own works. Latin is extremely nitpicky and so will drill this shit into your head whether you like it or not.
posted by tastybrains at 7:53 AM on June 28, 2007


Strunk & White's Elements of Style, hands down the best grammar book. It's small but mighty.

Jesus Christ. It's not a grammar book, and it's terrible for what it is (a "style" book). Can S&W fans please refrain from dragging it into every single question about English?

English does not have gerunds, dative case, accusative case, or other paraphernalia of inflected languages like Latin. There are good scholarly grammars of English (this is a decent list; Jespersen, Fries, and Huddleston [in chronological order] are the successive standard reference works), but that's not really what you want, you want an introduction to grammatical terminology. This looks like it might be helpful. But really, what you need is to understand the language you're learning, and there's no point going all the way around the barn to get there. What language is it?
posted by languagehat at 7:56 AM on June 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


Fine, I take back my answers. Clearly I have upset some people who are probably smarter than me. Though it's worth noting, it's one thing to disagree, it's another to be a total ass about it to someone who was just trying to help.
posted by tastybrains at 8:01 AM on June 28, 2007


Honestly, I never really grasped cases & the intricacies of English grammar until I studied Latin for two years.

This is a complete misconception of what grammar is (not your fault, tastybrains, because it's extremely widespread). Latin grammar has nothing to do with English grammar and will not help anyone understand English; all it does is provide a bunch of confusing categories (like "gerund") that do not apply to English. If you're a native speaker of English, you already know all the English grammar you need, just as you know how to move your arms and legs; there's no particular need to learn the academic analysis of either unless you have a particular interest. The reason you have to study "grammar" for a foreign language is that you didn't have the chance to absorb it unconsciously for years as you did your own, but all those "rules" are not some divine revelation, they're just an attempt by fallible scholars to make sense of and organize patterns they find in the language so as to make it easier to learn.
posted by languagehat at 8:02 AM on June 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


ugh. by "get a book on syntax" i meant get THIS book on syntax (the berk one i mentioned, which is still a good book to look into). not all syntax books will be a sound reference in terms of case, but they will cover word classifications to varying degrees of helpfulness. the thing about syntax-only books is that they'll be more technical, linguistics-wise, and might not really suit your needs the way that english one would.
posted by phatkitten at 8:02 AM on June 28, 2007


it's one thing to disagree, it's another to be a total ass about it to someone who was just trying to help.

True, and I apologize for being so snarky, but you have no idea how frustrating it gets seeing every discussion of English immediately derailed into a bout of Strunk-worship. Christ, how I wish E.B. White (a fine writer) had never had the bright idea of expanding his teacher's little classroom handout and offering it to the world; he did more to set back understanding of English than entire squads of ignorant grade-school teachers.
posted by languagehat at 8:05 AM on June 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't think it was really necessary to be so snippy about it, grouse.

It doesn't answer the question. That's all I'm saying. Any snippyness is in your own mind.
posted by grouse at 8:10 AM on June 28, 2007


I used to teach EFL and the best grammar book I ever used was Murphy's Grammar in Use .
posted by juva at 8:12 AM on June 28, 2007


Purdue University Grammar page. Very complete but not the best presentation

http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/print/grammar/
posted by PowerCat at 8:27 AM on June 28, 2007 [2 favorites]


The map is not the territory and the grammar is not the language.
posted by atrazine at 8:28 AM on June 28, 2007


Google's actually pretty good here. Searching for gerund and dative I got a bunch of nice links, including wikipedia and the Perdue page PowerCat mentions above.

For very brief explanations, the dictionary's actually useful.
posted by lullabyofbirdland at 8:32 AM on June 28, 2007


Believe it or not, I found Grammar for Dummies to be useful for pretty much the same purposes as your own. It's a better book than the title implies.
posted by AV at 8:48 AM on June 28, 2007


At the school where I teach Freshman composition, we use A Writer's Reference by Diana Hacker. It is, by far, my favorite grammar handbook. It is a reference book, but it's highly readable. Just reading the basic grammar section will help clear up a lot of things that are likely fuzzy in your head. And you can chip away at the rest topic-by-topic in whatever order you like. It's comprehensive but concise.
posted by wheat at 8:53 AM on June 28, 2007


If you want a fascinating tour of English usage, I recommend Garner's Modern American Usage. This doesn't cover grammar, but it will give you a lot of insights into how English is used. You don't have to agree with Garner's opinions on the best usage in order to get a lot of benefit from the book. Your library probably has a copy in the reference section.
posted by wheat at 9:03 AM on June 28, 2007


Some online resources:

Guide to Grammar & Writing

Handouts for Grammar, Punctuation, and Spelling

Understanding English Grammar - William Harris, Prof. Em. Middlebury College

You might also enjoy some of John Broderick's online books.
posted by stungeye at 9:14 AM on June 28, 2007 [2 favorites]


Fowler's Modern English Usage (amazon) is lucid and thorough. May be slightly dated.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:14 AM on June 28, 2007


There's a grammar podcast from Grammar Girl that might help you. The episodes are short and sweet but focus on difficult areas of English grammar rather than overall grammar rules. It wouldn't work as a primary text but it would help you to stay interested in an otherwise dry (oh god so dry) topic.
posted by chairface at 9:18 AM on June 28, 2007


Oh, and for the curious:

The Elements of Style Online

This is the original version, no White just Strunk.
posted by stungeye at 9:45 AM on June 28, 2007


If you're a native speaker of English, you already know all the English grammar you need, just as you know how to move your arms and legs; there's no particular need to learn the academic analysis of either unless you have a particular interest.

I'm going to have to somewhat disagree with languagehat, as I feel understanding on a conscious level the "rules" by which our communication operates is useful. As someone who teaches composition to college fresh-people, I find that native speakers who have little or no understanding of English grammar are at a big disadvantage. I'm not a prescriptivist by any means; I think "rules" are only useful insofar as they allow for meaningful communication. That said, when a student understands how a sentence is put together and can manipulate that structure, they can communicate far more effectively. Students who understand not just the content of their writing but also its form are more concise, more direct, less ambiguous, and more exciting as writers. Those who don't understand how to put together a sentence on the page -- despite having ingested all the common rules of English just through growing up in an English-speaking country -- are often very hard to understand, and their formal "failures" inevitably affect the content of what they are trying to say. It's not merely that they often write "ungrammatical" sentences; even those statements that conform to standard English usage are not really very good at transmitting the meaning that they wish to transmit. It'd be like building a house where the front door opened into the closet and the window was right over the toilet, and the toilet was in the kitchen. Yeah, it works, it has all the parts, but it's probably not the best way to put them together.

Latin grammar has nothing to do with English grammar and will not help anyone understand English; all it does is provide a bunch of confusing categories (like "gerund") that do not apply to English.

I'm also going to slightly disagree with this. Yes, Latin and English are very different and cannot be equated. So learning Latin grammar does not directly help you understand English grammar (or vice versa), in that you can't simply apply rules from one language to the other. However, when I was studying Latin last summer (just for fun), I found that many of my fellow students had a lot of trouble learning Latin because they simply didn't understand the concepts behind the various categories. There is no accusative case in English, yes, but the placement of the direct object in the sentence and its relationship to the verb performs a similar function in terms of transmitting meaning. If you don't understand the concept of the direct object in English -- even if you use it in speech every day -- it does become difficult to understand how you would use the accusative case (and vice versa). I think learning another language is helpful in as much as it causes you to reflect not on what equivalent parts you can find in your native language ("What is the accusative case in English?") but instead on how your native language creates meaning ("What does the English language do that transmits the same/similar information as the accusative case, if anything? How is it different, and what does that say about the kind of statements I can make in English?"). I think this applies to all the other differences and rules: cases, verb tenses, pronouns, even genders. And personally, I found that considering the rhetoric of Latin composition and how word order affects meaning and emphasis was somewhat helpful for my own writing (in English).

Now, IANALinguist; IAALiterature PhD, so take them with a grain of salt, but these are my observations.

As for the OP, I second books like Deluxe Transitivie Vampire and Berk's English Syntax because I found them very interesting. Another book that I like is The Art of Styling Sentences. It is not really a grammar book per se, but in breaking down the way a variety of common sentence structures works you will learn some basic grammatical rules. Most importantly, though, you'll learn why and when and how you would use these rules and structures, and that rhetorical understanding of grammar is most important when it comes to communicating effectively.
posted by papakwanz at 11:26 AM on June 28, 2007 [4 favorites]


Me again. :) Papakwanz's final paragraph made me think of Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style:

"Virginia Tufte presents-and comments on-more than a thousand excellent sentences chosen from the works of authors in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The sentences come from an extensive search to identify some of the ways professional writers use the generous resources of the English language.

The book displays the sentences in fourteen chapters, each one organized around a syntactic concept-short sentences, noun phrases, verb phrases, appositives, parallelism, for example. It thus provides a systematic, comprehensive range of models for aspiring writers."
posted by stungeye at 11:40 AM on June 28, 2007 [1 favorite]


I had a lot of difficulty learning grammar and syntax as a student. The public schools do a poor job of teaching it. At least the ones I went to did, and that was 10 different schools. Most of the public education students I met in college also had a poor grasp of grammar.

Sentence diagramming is much maligned but I found it to be the most effective way to improve my own understanding and usage. My schools spent a week or two diagramming sentences and we never advanced past fairly simple structures. This pattern was repeated for two or three more grades and that was it. When I worked through a book of exercises much later, it was analyzing the more complex sentences that I learned the most from. Parsing a sentence might be even more effective, but I think when you are starting out there is a benefit to seeing a visual representation of the relationships between the parts of the sentence.

I did read a few of the books recommended above. They were all good but I didn't experience any improvement until I did the exercises.

Having a shaky grasp of grammar was a significant handicap in learning foreign languages. But it was also one in my college reading assignments in the humanities. Sometimes the more abstract a subject is the more important grammar can be in conveying meaning. Or at least that was my experience with some philosophy texts.

I agree with papakwanz, especially the first paragraph. My own writing suffers in exactly the way described but it has improved markedly. The prescriptivists may be mocked for their elitist, nit-picky view, but that approach helped to make grammar sensible.
posted by BigSky at 1:02 PM on June 28, 2007


If you want a fascinating tour of English usage, I recommend Garner's Modern American Usage.

I'm going to have to disagree with this as well. Garner is a great deal better than S&W (which is not saying much), but he's still basically a "stylist" rather than an actual expert: like White, like Fowler, like Bernstein, like all those guys, he's making recommendations based on his own gut feelings rather than on actual knowledge of how English works. The only style guide worth your money (and the only one recommended by actual linguists) is Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (or Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, which is slightly more up-to-date), and I can't recommend it strongly enough.

I feel understanding on a conscious level the "rules" by which our communication operates is useful.

Oh, absolutely, but the only way you're going to find out about them is to take a non-Chomskyan linguistics class, and the odds of that are not great. Reading a popular book on "grammar" and/or taking a class with a Chomskyan approach is just going to make things worse.

I found that many of my fellow students had a lot of trouble learning Latin because they simply didn't understand the concepts behind the various categories.

So they need to be taught the concepts in relation to Latin, with references to English when they seem helpful. It's not that studying one language is of no help at all with studying another, it's just a very inefficient way of going about it. Sure, the more languages you study the better grasp you have of how languages work, and I highly recommend it, but most people don't have the time or the inclination.
posted by languagehat at 1:07 PM on June 28, 2007


I think the green is for answering the OP's questions, right? The blue is for editorializing. You obviously don't have patience for any work that involves any element of prescription. We get that, languagehat. That's certainly one valid way of looking at language. But the OP asked for guidance--asked for a guide to grammar in the traditional sense. You can't just dismiss every work that doesn't fit your own prejudices/preferences/whatever.
posted by wheat at 7:20 PM on June 28, 2007


thanks for all the suggestions, everyone ... i'll be sending someone in the states to a bookstore after researching some more.

languagehat--the language i'm learning right now is romanian, which has some strong similarities to vulgar latin (as i understand, anyway), and it's terribly frustrating to not be able to put a sentence together correctly because i don't know how to use things like genitive and accusative and dative cases. (their propensity to make words like m-am and v-aţi doesn't help either, but that's neither here nor there ...)

i agree completely with what papakwanz said; i can communicate and, for the most part, write well in english, but when i find myself in a situation where the nuances of grammar really have the power to affect what's being said or how it's understood, i tend to have trouble. so while it may not be necessary to understand grammar in order to speak a language, i would still like to have a good grasp of the underlying principles of english grammar, and hope it will in turn help with other languages.

thanks, all!
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 2:25 AM on June 29, 2007


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