- The Oxford English Grammar by Sidney Greenbaum
Oxford, 652 pp, £25.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 19 861250 8
Grammar could once seem synonymous with all learning, including magic and astrology; hence French grimoire (book of spells) and English glamour. But as early as the 14th century its OED sense 1.a had emerged:
Vol. 18 No. 16 · 22 August 1996
From Scott Thornbury
In his review of The Oxford English Grammar (LRB, 18 July) Hugh Kenner betrays an ignorance of at least a century of developments in grammatical description, including Sidney Greenbaum’s own landmark collaboration, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985). As important and welcome as Greenbaum’s new grammar is, it is not, as Kenner suggests, the first to depart from what he ingenuously terms ‘the schoolmarm connotations of “grammar” ’. These are, I infer, a preoccupation with normative rules (as opposed to description), ‘accidence’ (as opposed to syntax) and written, as opposed to spoken, forms. Descriptive and syntactic grammars of English have been around for at least as long as the twenty years I have been teaching English (the language). Admittedly, their concern has been mainly with written English. Nevertheless, as long ago as 1761, Priestly premised his rudiments of English Grammar on the principle that ‘the custom of speaking is the original and only just standard of any language.’
Nor is Greenbaum’s grammar ‘unique’ by virtue of the fact that it draws on a corpus of authentic texts for its citations. In Jesperson’s A Modern English Grammar (1909-49) all the citations are taken from published books; The Collins COBUILD English Grammar (1990) draws on an enormous computerised database of both spoken and written English housed at the University of Birmingham. Nor, incidentally, is Greenbaum the first to use the terms ‘monotransitive’ and ‘ditransitive’, as Kenner suggests.
Finally, his contention that coherence ‘simply follows from cohesion’ is demonstrably false. The following text, while notionally cohesive, is clearly incoherent: ‘Hugh Kenner lives in Georgia. And I’ve got Georgia on my mind. Mind the gap. Gap has got three letters, therefore.’ Kenner’s review reminds us that, whereas specialists in English (the language) have written engagingly and with great scholarship about English (the literature) – witness Michael Halliday and Henry Widdowson – the reverse is sadly not the case.