Cambridge Grammar of English

Cambridge English GrammarRonald Carter and Michael McCarthy Cambridge University Press 2006

Interview/Review by Roger Hunt

Firstly let me say that I feel this is the most significant book to be published in the field of grammar for a very long time. Nothing compares with it; it is groundbreaking and in a word exceptional.

I was fortunate enough to be able to interview the authors (albeit by email) and include here, in full, their answers to my questions, as I believe their first hand account of the background, rationale and approach to the book is better than any second hand account that I could provide...

What was the motivation to write the book?

We have both spent many years of our professional lives looking at real spoken language and trying to find ways of describing it effectively, mainly with teachers and students of English in mind. We have always felt that it has never been accorded due significance in the study of grammar. Most grammars are either based entirely on written examples (sometimes only on invented examples) or we find that the spoken language only really gets attention towards the end of the book. We have put spoken grammar first on the grounds that speech is primary and on the grounds that most of our daily communication is through speech.

We also felt that you can never really get to the heart of language, especially spoken language, without the evidence that a large corpus can give you. The Cambridge International Corpus is now the largest in the world and totals nearly 900 million words. We spent a lot of time contributing to the spoken corpus elements of this computerised collection. It took a lot of time to build the corpus but we were motivated to stick with it because it does give us the evidence we need from speakers in a wide range of social contexts. And the software enables us to describe patterns and structures that are both frequent and salient in modern English.

The book is multifaceted in as much as it includes lexical, utterance, discourse level etc views of grammar – was this with a view to combine much of what has been written independently on these various facets into a whole?

Yes, we were conscious that a lot of grammars are structured on the basis of words and sentences only, with the sentence often the upper limit for description. There is thus a danger that you only look at language bottom-up, starting with the smallest units but never reaching through into discourse or context in any meaningful way. We have tired to write the Cambridge Grammar of English so that top-down and bottom-up descriptions sit alongside each other. We feel this gives a richer picture of the language. Of course, in writing the more top-down discourse-driven parts we have been massively influenced by existing work in discourse and conversation analysis, work in sociolinguistics and work in ELT on the importance of seeing lexis and grammar as interdependent.

The book seems weighted in favour of spoken language – was this intended?

Yes, we wanted this to be the first grammar that had more examples drawn from spoken varieties than written. But we also wanted to ensure that we didn't go too far. There is still a lot in the Cambridge Grammar that describes written English. For example, there is a long chapter on academic English; that is, on the kinds of very structures needed by students to study advanced level academic courses such as post-IELTS university courses in a range of subjects where the ability to manipulate highly formal written structures is crucial to success. But we do see the future of international communication through English depending more and more on successful spoken interaction, in both formal and informal contexts, and have tried to reflect this in our examples and in the way the book is structured. We are particularly pleased with the way the CD-Rom has turned out. It is vitally important that the emphasis on spoken language is backed up by learners having an opportunity to hear as well as read example sentences and utterances from the Grammar.

How did you work together? Did one of you take responsibility for a particular section or was all work collaborative?

It wasn't an easy book to write so we tended to pass chapters back and forth between us. The chapter on modality, for example, passed between us over thirty times in various drafts over a period of five years. It is an example of a chapter that brings together spoken and written examples, in the process trying to say something new about modality. It's perhaps no surprise that neither of us could do it on our own. And along with other chapters too, we benefited greatly from the advice and hands-on commentaries we received from the members of the Cambridge Grammar Panel.

What sources (apart from CANCODE) did you use in your collection of language examples and data?

CANCODE was a major source. But the Cambridge International Corpus as a whole was mined for information and we often looked at examples of American English in that corpus for purposes of contrast and comparison. We also drew on our own collection of examples from our own teaching over the years: examples of ads, literary examples, favourite newspaper stories, bits of data gathered here and there in the kind of way that all English teachers collect such examples magpie-like over the years.

What influence do you expect CGE to have on the way grammar is described in ELT course books and approached by teachers in the classroom (I realise this is asking you to predict the future!)?

That's not for us to say. Our only hope is that teachers will see the importance of rules being based on examples of real English, not invented English. We also hope that the book underlines strongly what all teachers of English know: that successful written and spoken communication depends on appropriacy. We hope the examples and evidence we provide will go some small way to reinforcing that vitally important stance.

If you had to start writing the book again would you do anything differently?

We would probably pay even more attention to the importance of clusters and chunks. Michael Lewis, John Sinclair and others have been very influential over the years here and clusters are a vital part of successful fluent use of English, in speech and in writing but especially of fluent conversations. We have devoted our first Appendix in the Grammar to this topic and have used corpus research to illustrate key features. We are still, however, not wholly clear about the theory and practice of these 'chunks', nor about how they function, how we most effectively describe them and how we use a corpus to attest them. But we feel this is a very big topic and would hope to make it more central to a second edition.

Perhaps one of the most significant features of this book is that it starts with authentic data – real speech and written text – as opposed to sentence level fabrications invented to exemplify a thesis. I was delighted, for example, to read the section on conditionals which starts with just under a page on the first, second and third traditional descriptions then follows with nine pages under the title 'Real Conditionals'. These nine pages, to my mind, destroy the first, second and third myth once and for all. I mention this as this book breaks 'rules' and replaces them with reality throughout.

All in all...

As a final word let me say that this must be the first time that I have read a grammar book cover to cover (and this one is 973 pages long including the glossary, index and appendices) and I found myself fascinated throughout. If this doesn't represent a very strong recommendation to you to read this book then nothing will!

I would like to thank the authors for their full and informative answers to my questions.


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