Adventures in English Syntax – an author’s perspective

Book cover of Adventures in English SyntaxBlog written by Robert Freidin, and was originally posted on The Cambridge Core blog

The seed for this book was planted almost 60 years ago when my 10th grade English teacher, taught us the elements of English sentence structure: prepositional phrases and relative clauses; finite vs. infinitival and gerundive clauses; compound vs. complex sentences (and thus the difference between coordination and subordination). For me, this was a revelation – leading to a 50-year career in linguistics as a syntactician. My high school understanding of English sentence structure allowed me to engage with my own writing at a fundamental level where I could view my sentences as syntactic structures that connected to other syntactic structures, and thus to different sentences for expressing the same thoughts – providing a basis for comparison/evaluation. From the 10th grade on, I had an intellectual tool for crafting inevitably imperfect first drafts into prose that presented my thoughts clearly. The process of writing became a way to clarify my thinking on the topic I was writing about – what Francis Bacon had in mind when he wrote in “Of Studies” (1625) that “writing [makes] an exact man”. Externalizing thoughts in black and white is perhaps the best way to discover what is unclear, illogical, or based on questionable assumptions – if you are paying attention. And as a result, writing is never surprise-free. It ceases to be a chore, and becomes instead fun and interesting – if you enjoy exploring your thoughts and how best to express them.

Today, regrettably, the elements of English sentence structure (syntax) are no longer taught in either the high school English curriculum or college writing programs, and haven’t been for decades. One goal of this book is to make a start at changing the situation by providing anyone who wants to improve both their writing and their experience of writing (especially high school and college students) with an essential tool. This book demonstrates how an understanding of sentence structure can also be used to evaluate various prescriptions about “good style” (e.g. avoid the passive voice and never end a sentence with a preposition) as well as to achieve a deeper appreciation of the linguistic artistry in great literature.

Another goal of this book is to construct a broad and detailed portrait of English in terms of its basic syntax from the perspective of modern linguistics—specifically generative grammar of the past six plus decades. Each chapter focuses on a specific example, building a progression from the simple to the complex. Together these chapters build a foundation for further exploration of English syntax.

In these ways, this book serves as a demonstration of the utility of the generative enterprise in linguistics for all users of English. In writing it, my hope has been that the understanding of English syntax it provides will equip you for your own adventures with the sentences you write and read.

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