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Book Review: Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar by David Crystal

Crystal against crystallization

by James Harbeck

(Oxford University Press, 2017) MAKING SENSE

How can we have crystal-clear language spoken by people with a crystal-clear understanding of how it works? For one thing, don’t try to crystallize it—just Crystal-ize. Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar, by David Crystal, is for anyone who wants to get Crystal clarity on the function and uses of English. Crystal is a world-renowned British linguist, academic, and author. He is one of the leading lights of popularizing linguistic understanding; he has written, co-written, or edited more than 120 books, including the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, The Stories of English, Language and the Internet, and, most recently, a series of books beginning with Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling, continuing with Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation, and now adding Making Sense, which gives us what is effectively an introductory course in English linguistics—syntax, morphology, semantics, pragmatics, and history—written for people who want something readable and usable. And he adds some extra details that you’re more likely to get in a course in effective writing.

It can be difficult to review a book that has nothing wrong with it. Honestly, in real life I would normally just say, “If you’re interested in grammar, read this book; if your work in any way involves grammar—and of course it does—read this book; even if you know a lot about grammar already, it will still be worth your time.” But let me give you some more details so you know why I’m recommending it.

Crystal starts by using his young daughter as a protagonist to follow a child’s acquisition of language, and in so doing he teaches us the building blocks of language and the basic tools for their analysis. At his daughter’s two-word phase, he shows the basics of subject and predicate. As her sentences become more complex, he shows the more involved mechanics of phrase structure. Next, she and we learn morphology (how words are put together and modified) and word classes (what words can be used where). On it goes, into more complex sentences, clauses, conjunctions, and then…

…into school. “When children arrive in school,” Crystal points out, “their spoken grammatical abilities are well advanced but their metalinguistic awareness of grammar is roughly—nil.” So how are they to be taught the anatomy of their language, like they learn of the anatomies of their bodies and of the body politic? For a time, especially in the 1800s, emphasis was on prescriptive teaching of specific imposed rules, often derived not from careful analysis of English but from the model of Latin. The teaching was rigid, authoritarian, and founded on rote learning. In the early to mid-1900s, the flaws in that approach were discerned, and it was replaced with…nothing. Generations of schoolchildren just weren’t taught how to analyze grammar.

Crystal is here to give something to replace that nothing. People want to know about grammar, but a lot of what’s available is worse than nothing: simple-minded rules that don’t take into account the effects on the readers. Crystal, having shown us the real basics of grammar, leads us into things that matter for clarity and effective communication, such as the effects of word weight, word order, and questions of style and pragmatics. He looks at how languages are often taught with examples that are useless in the real world. He gives a quick overview of the rules of genres—such as why sports commentators often put place and motion adverbials first (“Over at second base is Castro”), and why we address God as “our Father, who art in Heaven,” but don’t address our friend as “John, who gave me a lift to work this morning”—and when and how we can break those rules for effect. He considers why the ups and downs of bread and butter aren’t the downs and ups of butter and bread. Then he moves on into history and change: how, when, where, and why grammar changes and develops differences from one group of speakers to another. English, he shows us, has both standard and non-standard varieties, neither kind is homogeneous or unchanging, and everyone needs to be well versed in both kinds.

And, finally, he comes back around to the need for teaching all of this in schools and teaching it well. Crystal naturally advocates for a nuanced understanding, and he closes the book with “An appendix on teaching and testing.” He gives details of what has been shown to be effective, such as using clear and consistent structures that match real-world experience, swapping different words into the same location to show the effect, playing games, and trying out variations; we see how many ways there are to avoid simple disconnected rote learning. He also gives some cautionary examples of blockheaded pedagogical methods, such as sentences that are structurally ambiguous and tests where children are asked to fill in an appropriate adverb but then marked wrong for using one that a creative writing teacher would commend (“The sun shone dutifully in the sky”). When it comes to putting knowledge into practice, this “appendix” is the crown jewel of the whole book.

“They say the penalty of success is when your name is stolen by others for their own purposes,” Crystal writes in his epilogue. He’s referring to grammar—“virtually every subject has stolen it as a succinct way of describing its fundamental principles and operational structure”—but one is tempted to wonder if crystal became a byword for clarity in anticipation of David Crystal’s appearance on the scene. Read Making Sense and see for yourself.

James Harbeck is a web editor, print designer, and trained linguist. Read his blog at sesquiotic.wordpress.com and articles at TheWeek.com.

This article was copy edited Jeny Nussey.


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