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A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language: A Masterpiece of Descriptive Linguistics



A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language: A Review




A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) is a monumental work of descriptive linguistics that was published in 1985 by four eminent scholars: Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. It is widely regarded as one of the most authoritative and comprehensive grammars of English ever written, covering all aspects of the structure and usage of the language in over 1700 pages. In this article, I will provide an overview of the main features, strengths, and weaknesses of this grammar, and evaluate its significance and impact on the field of English language studies.




A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Randolph Quirk, 1985).32


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Introduction




What is A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language?




CGEL is a descriptive grammar of English that aims to provide a comprehensive and detailed account of the rules and patterns that govern the structure and use of the language. It is based on extensive research and analysis of various sources of data, including three large corpora (collections of texts) that represent different varieties of English: the Survey of English Usage at London, the Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen corpus, and the Brown University corpus. It also makes use of elicitation experiments, where native speakers are asked to judge the acceptability or preference of certain constructions or expressions.


CGEL covers all levels of linguistic analysis, from phonetics and phonology (the study of sounds) to morphology (the study of word formation) and syntax (the study of sentence structure). It also deals with semantics (the study of meaning), pragmatics (the study of context and communication), and discourse analysis (the study of text organization and coherence). It describes both the core grammar that is common to all speakers of English, as well as the variation that exists among different regions, social groups, styles, and functions.


Why is it important?




CGEL is important for several reasons. First, it is a monumental achievement in descriptive linguistics, providing a wealth of information and insight into the structure and use of English. It is based on rigorous empirical research and analysis, using both quantitative and qualitative methods. It offers a comprehensive description that covers all aspects of grammar, from sounds to texts. It also provides a great deal of information on variation, showing how English changes across time, space, situation, and purpose.


Second, it is a valuable resource for anyone interested in or working with the English language. It can serve as a reference book for students, teachers, researchers, writers, editors, translators, or anyone who wants to learn more about how English works. It can also serve as a source of inspiration and guidance for developing new grammars, textbooks, dictionaries, or software applications. It can help to answer questions, solve problems, or generate ideas related to the structure and use of English.


Third, it is a significant contribution to the field of English language studies, influencing and shaping the development of linguistic theory and practice. It has been widely cited, reviewed, criticized, and praised by scholars and experts from various disciplines and perspectives. It has stimulated further research and debate on various issues and topics related to English grammar. It has also set a high standard and a challenge for future grammars of English, as well as other languages.


How is it organized?




CGEL is organized into four main parts, each consisting of several chapters. The first part (Chapters 1-2) provides an introduction to the grammar, explaining its aims, scope, methods, and model. The second part (Chapters 3-16) deals with the core grammar of English, describing the units, classes, functions, and processes that make up the structure of the language. The third part (Chapters 17-20) deals with the variation in English, describing the regional, social, stylistic, and functional differences that affect the use of the language. The fourth part (Chapter 21) provides a summary and evaluation of the grammar, highlighting its main features, strengths, and weaknesses.


Main features of the grammar




The descriptive model




CGEL adopts a descriptive model of grammar that aims to describe how English is actually used by native speakers in various contexts and situations. It does not prescribe how English should be used or what is correct or incorrect. It does not impose any particular theoretical framework or formalism on the description. It does not attempt to explain why English is the way it is or how it evolved or changed over time. It simply tries to capture and account for the facts and patterns that are observable in the data.


Units and ranks




CGEL recognizes a hierarchy of five units or ranks that make up the structure of English: sentence, clause, phrase, word, and morpheme. A sentence is the largest unit that can stand alone as a complete utterance. A clause is a unit that contains a subject and a predicate (or verb phrase). A phrase is a unit that consists of one or more words that function as a single unit within a clause. A word is a unit that consists of one or more morphemes that function as a single unit within a phrase. A morpheme is the smallest unit that carries meaning or grammatical information.


For example, in the sentence "She gave him a book", there are five units: one sentence, two clauses (one main and one subordinate), three phrases (one noun phrase, one verb phrase, and one prepositional phrase), four words (one pronoun, one verb, one noun, and one preposition), and five morphemes (one free morpheme "she" and four bound morphemes "-ed", "-gav-", "-him", and "-a").


Classes and functions




CGEL makes a systematic distinction between classes and functions of units. Classes are categories based on the form or meaning of units. Functions are roles or relationships that units have within larger units. For example, in the phrase "a green table", "a" is a determiner with determinative function, "green" is an adjective (phrase) with modifier function, and "table" is a noun with head function.


The primary clause functions are S (subject), V (verb), O (object), C ([predicative] complement), and A (adverbial). The primary word classes are noun, adjective, full verb, adverb, preposition, pronoun, determiner, conjunction, modal verb, and primary verb (be, have, do). Corresponding phrase classes are recognized for noun, adjective, verb, adverb, and preposition.


Systematic correspondences and processes




CGEL does not make use of such theoretical formulations as transformational rules, talking instead of systematic correspondences between one structure and another. It also describes these correspondences in terms of processes that relate different structures to each other. For example, in the sentence "It seems that he likes her", there is a systematic correspondence between the subordinate clause "that he likes her" and the extraposed subject "it". The process that relates them is called extraposition, which moves the subordinate clause to the end of the sentence and replaces it with a dummy subject "it".


The treatment of variation




CGEL pays close attention to the variation that exists in English, showing how different factors affect the use of the language. It shows how English changes across time, space, situation, and purpose. It also explains the factors and reasons that cause or influence such variation. It distinguishes between three main types of variation: regional, social, and stylistic.


Regional and social variation




Regional variation refers to the differences in grammar that exist among different geographical areas or regions where English is spoken. For example, there are differences in grammar between British English and American English, such as the use of collective nouns (British: The team are playing well; American: The team is playing well) or the past tense forms of some verbs (British: He learnt his lesson; American: He learned his lesson).


Social variation refers to the differences in grammar that exist among different social groups or communities that speak English. For example, there are differences in grammar between different age groups, genders, ethnicities, or social classes, such as the use of multiple negation (Older: I don't know nothing; Younger: I don't know anything) or the use of tag questions (Female: It's a nice day, isn't it?; Male: It's a nice day).


Formal and informal variation




Formal and informal variation refers to the differences in grammar that exist among different levels of formality or informality in the use of English. For example, there are differences in grammar between written and spoken English, such as the use of contractions (Written: I do not like it; Spoken: I don't like it) or the use of ellipsis (Written: She went to the shop and bought some milk; Spoken: Went to the shop, bought some milk).


Stylistic and functional variation




Stylistic and functional variation refers to the differences in grammar that exist among different styles or functions of English. For example, there are differences in grammar between different genres or registers of English, such as the use of passive voice (Academic: The experiment was conducted by the researchers; Narrative: The researchers conducted the experiment) or the use of modal verbs (Legal: The defendant shall pay the damages; Advice: The defendant should pay the damages).


The use of corpora and elicitation experiments




CGEL makes extensive use of corpora and elicitation experiments as sources of data for its description of English grammar. Corpora are large collections of texts that represent different varieties of English. Elicitation experiments are tests where native speakers are asked to judge the acceptability or preference of certain constructions or expressions.


The sources of data




CGEL uses three main corpora as sources of data: the Survey of English Usage at London (SEU), the Lancaster-Oslo/Bergen corpus (LOB), and the Brown University corpus (BROWN). These corpora contain texts from various genres and registers of British and American English, such as newspapers, novels, essays, letters, speeches, etc. They cover both written and spoken English, although written texts predominate. They also cover both formal and informal English, although formal texts predominate.


CGEL also uses elicitation experiments as sources of data. These experiments involve asking native speakers to rate or rank certain constructions or expressions on a scale of acceptability or preference. For example, CGEL uses an experiment where speakers are asked to choose between two ways of expressing obligation: have to or must. The results show that have to is more common and preferred than must in both British and American English.


The presentation of data




CGEL presents its data in various ways throughout its description. It uses examples from the corpora and elicitation experiments to illustrate its points and arguments. It also uses tables and charts to summarize its findings and show patterns and trends. It also uses percentages and frequencies to quantify its data and show how common or rare certain constructions or expressions are.


For example, CGEL uses a table to show the distribution of modal verbs across different genres and registers of British and American English. The table shows that modal verbs are more frequent in spoken than written English, more frequent in informal than formal English, more frequent in American than British English, and more frequent in certain genres than others.


The interpretation of data




CGEL interprets its data in various ways throughout its description. It uses its data to support its claims and hypotheses about the structure and use of English grammar. It also uses its data to explain the reasons and factors that cause or influence variation in English grammar. It also uses its data to compare and contrast different varieties of English grammar.


For example, CGEL uses its data to explain why there is variation in the use of the past tense and the present perfect in British and American English. It argues that this variation is due to different views of time and aspect in the two varieties. It claims that British English tends to view time as a continuum, where past events can still be relevant to the present, whereas American English tends to view time as a sequence, where past events are separated from the present. It also claims that British English tends to view aspect as a matter of perspective, where the same event can be seen as completed or ongoing depending on the context, whereas American English tends to view aspect as a matter of fact, where the same event is either completed or ongoing regardless of the context.


Strengths and weaknesses of the grammar




Strengths




CGEL has many strengths as a grammar of English. Some of the main ones are:


Comprehensiveness and depth




CGEL is one of the most comprehensive and detailed grammars of English ever written. It covers all aspects of the structure and use of the language, from sounds to texts. It provides a wealth of information and insight into the rules and patterns that govern English grammar. It also provides a great deal of information on variation, showing how English changes across time, space, situation, and purpose.


Clarity and consistency




CGEL is written in a clear and consistent style that makes it easy to follow and understand. It uses a descriptive model that is simple and intuitive, without relying on complex formalisms or jargon. It uses examples, tables, charts, percentages, and frequencies to illustrate and support its points. It also uses cross-references, summaries, evaluations, and indexes to help the reader navigate and access its content.


Empirical basis and practical relevance




CGEL is based on rigorous empirical research and analysis, using both quantitative and qualitative methods. It uses corpora and elicitation experiments as sources of data, ensuring that its description reflects how English is actually used by native speakers in various contexts and situations. It also uses its data to explain the reasons and factors that cause or influence variation in English grammar. It also makes its description relevant and useful for anyone interested in or working with the English language.


Weaknesses




CGEL also has some weaknesses as a grammar of English. Some of the main ones are:


Lack of theoretical framework




CGEL does not adopt or propose any particular theoretical framework or formalism for its description of English grammar. It does not attempt to explain why English is the way it is or how it evolved or changed over time. It does not attempt to account for the underlying principles or mechanisms that govern English grammar. It does not attempt to compare or contrast English grammar with other languages or grammars.


Overgeneralization and inconsistency




CGEL sometimes overgeneralizes or simplifies certain aspects of English grammar, ignoring or glossing over exceptions or complications. It sometimes contradicts or conflicts with itself or with other sources of information on English grammar. It sometimes makes claims or judgments that are questionable or controversial.


Outdatedness and prescriptivism




CGEL was published in 1985, which means that some of its information and analysis may be outdated or inaccurate by now. It may not reflect the current state or trends of English grammar, especially in terms of variation and change. It may also contain some traces of prescriptivism or bias, especially in terms of value judgments or preferences for certain constructions or expressions over others.


Conclusion




In conclusion, CGEL is a monumental work of descriptive linguistics that provides a comprehensive and detailed account of the structure and use of English grammar. It is based on extensive research and analysis of various sources of data, including corpora and elicitation experiments. It covers all aspects of grammar, from sounds to texts. It also deals with variation, showing how English changes across time, space, situation, and purpose.


CGEL has many strengths as a grammar of English, such as its comprehensiveness and depth, its clarity and consistency, and its empirical basis and practical relevance. It also has some weaknesses as a grammar of English, such as its lack of theoretical framework, its overgeneralization and inconsistency, and its outdatedness and prescriptivism 71b2f0854b


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