Grammar Choices: What’s new in the second edition?

Grammar Choices (2nd edition coming January '19) | More information
Second Edition

The second edition of Grammar Choices has been published by the University of Michigan Press (available only directly from the press right now, and soon from Amazon). This is an exciting moment because it means enough people bought and liked the first edition to warrant a new one!

Why did we produce a second edition? The first edition of Grammar Choices was published in 2012, so it’s had a healthy life-span of 6 years, but of course academic English hasn’t changed much in that time! With any second edition, you have to strike a balance between adding and changing enough to justify a new edition, while not alienating users who liked the first edition. There’s always going to be a reading, exercise, or example that you’re angry at me for dropping (sorry).

My philosophy with this revision was to: Continue reading “Grammar Choices: What’s new in the second edition?”

To grammar and … beyond!


I’ve been invited to contribute articles to Cambridge University Press’s Grammar Teaching Newsletter, which is linked to their series Grammar and Beyond. (I had nothing to do with the series, although I rather like the textbooks: good, solid, corpus-informed grammar). You can read my first two posts on teaching count/non-count nouns and parallel forms, or subscribe to the newsletter. Now, the real question is which Toy Story character should I use as my avatar on the site …

Embed from Getty ImagesSuggestions for future columns would be very much appreciated. So far, I’ve used the last tricky question my students asked me. What questions would you like me to take a shot at?


Introducing “Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Students” (video)

Here’s a short video I made last week at the Symposium of Second Language Writing at Purdue introducing Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Writers and explaining how and I why I cross-referenced my  book with the new edition of Academic Writing for Graduate Students, both from the University of Michigan Press.

And yes, the piece of paper on the table was my cheat sheet (I don’t get a teleprompter!). It was actually quite easy to tie my book into AWGS because Swales & Feak’s approach to writing is inextricably linked to language (grammar and vocabulary), and they were already using a somewhat functional approach to grammar. In fact, the third edition has a wonderful expanded discussion of old-new information patterns, which I develop in the last unit of Grammar Choices (my students’ favorite part of the book, usually).

We put a lot of thought into how much new terminology to introduce in Grammar Choices, and on the advice of Chris Feak (as in Swales & Feak) and our mutual editor, Kelly Sippell, I tried to stick to terms (technically, a metalanguage) that would be familiar at least to North American readers and especially to those using AWGS. I also wrote an expanded introduction which explains concepts that are a little less frequently used here, as well as a glossary. I was greatly encouraged at the recent Genre 2012 conference to hear Jim Martin, no less, of Sydney University endorse teaching materials that simplify systemic functional grammar’s daunting metalanguage into familiar terms, so hopefully my attempt to use functional principles with more “traditional” (structuralist) terminology will help writers benefit from the major insights of functional grammar without me having to explain it or them having to learn it!

I welcome feedback from users or reviewers of Grammar Choices. You can leave a comment below or on the Michigan ELT blog or contact me directly. Exam/review/desk copies are available now from the publisher, and you and your students can buy the book directly from the Press, from, or in class sets from your university bookstore.

“Grammar Choices” — available now!

I just got word that my new textbook, Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Writers, has been printed and will be on show at the Symposium of Second Language Writing at Purdue this week (which is also when I’ll get my hands on an advance copy!).

You can also see it here on the University of Michigan Press website and download Unit 1 to whet your grammatical appetite!

Update (9/6/12): I just saw a pile of the books here at SSLW. Makes it all seem rather more real!

I welcome feedback from users or reviewers of Grammar Choices. You can leave a comment below or on the Michigan ELT blog or contact me directly. Exam/review/desk copies are available now from the publisher, and you and your students can buy the book directly from the Press, from, or in class sets from your university bookstore.

Fun facts about modal verbs!

… because there can be nothing more fun than a modal verb, right?

In doing research for my forthcoming grammar textbook for graduate student writers, I came across these interesting nuggets about the frequency of modal verbs, which I thought I’d share:

  • The most common modal verb overall in academic writing is can (I suspect because it has so many meanings!)
  • The most common modal verb for hedging (showing uncertainty or deference) is may
  • Both can and could are frequently used with passive infinitive verbs
  • Fewer than 5% of modal verbs in academic writing are followed by a perfect infinitive (might have done)
  • Just over 0.5% of modal verbs in academic writing are followed by a progressive infinitive (may be growing)
  • Help isn’t technically a modal, but it’s an awfully interesting verb because it can sometimes be followed by a to-infinitive (help to make) and sometimes by a bare infinitive (help make). I suspected that the shorter form (help make) should be more common in academic writing because academic writers tend to reduce the number of function words (little “grammar” words like prepositions) to increase the lexical density (number of content words per sentence). And my data supports that: only 16% of clauses with help are followed by the to-infinitive. Unfortunately, that turns out to be the highest proportion of all the registers in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, so actually academic writing is more likely to use to than spoken or other written registers, but still far more likely not to bother. Oh well, the advice still stands: the shortest form is usually the best. On which note …

Stay tuned for more tips on writing and more information about my new grammar textbook for graduate and research writers.

(All statistics are based on my searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English.)

Not … until

My class stumped me today with a GMAT sentence correction question involving not … until. I ended up delving into the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, and here is my tentative explanation:

Until marks the “endpoint” of an action or state, and it can be a preposition or conjunction:

(1) I played the piano until I was 12 years ago.
(=I stopped playing the piano when I was 12; you don’t know when I started.

(2) The cafeteria is open until 6pm.
(=The cafeteria closes at 6pm.)

It is not easy to move until 6pm to the  front of sentence (2) (?”from 6pm, the cafeteria is open”) because until 6pm completes the meaning of is open, and so has to come after it. To put it another way, until 6pm is an adverbial expression of time that modifies “is open”, not the entire sentence, so it needs to come after the verb.

However, when the clause is negative, the meaning is more complex. Here is the example from CGEL:

(3) I didn’t notice my error until later.
(=I only noticed my error later)

There is no positive version of this sentence (*”I noticed my error until later” is ungrammatical). The adverbial until later tells us “how long this negative state of affairs lasted.” That is, not … until tells us when something started happening. You can’t move it to the start of the sentence because is modifies the verb, by telling us when the negative (didn’t notice) stopped being true.

So, in the class example from the GMAT practice book (I’m paraphrasing):

(4) Scholars did not begin to study Native American poetry until 1900.
(=Scholars began studying Native American poetry in 1900.)

Since the adverbial (since 1900) is part of the verb “did not begin”, it cannot simply be moved to the start of the sentence. (On the other hand, we can say: After 1900, scholars began studying poetry because “after 1900” modifies the entire clause.)

However, it is possible to move any element to the front using an it cleft. The negative (not) needs to move with until because they create the meaning of a starting point together:

(5) It was not until 1900 that scholars began studying …

Please post questions or other examples!

Reference: Huddleston & Pullum, Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Adverbs in academic writing

My mind wandered to the question of frequent adverbs in academic writing today, especially for hedging and boosting (that is, making your claim stronger or weaker). A quick search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English reveals that some adverbs are considerably more frequent in academic writing that spoken English. For example:

  • perhaps (255 instances per million words vs 189)
  • clearly (177 vs 144)
  • presumably (27 vs 13)
  • significantly (203 vs 12) — probably because of the technical meaning of statistical significance
  • somewhat (76 vs 46)
  • theoretically (14 vs 4)

On the other hand, some adverbs are rather less frequent than in spoken English:

  • of course (143 instances per million in academic writing vs 414 in speaking)
  • obviously (42 vs 199)
  • maybe (31 vs 400)

That last word was more surprising: my guess is that writers use the modal verb  form (may + be) rather than the adverbial (maybe). It’s not surprising that academic writers use more tentative adverbs and fewer definitive ones, although it is interesting that words like of course, obviously, always, and never do occur with some frequency in the corpus. In Eli Hinkel’s study of undergraduate students’ texts, she found relatively little use of always, never, and ever in native-speakers’ writing, suggesting perhaps that these words are reserved for published experts who can more confidently assert that something always or never happens, or that it is obvious.

I’ll be posting more tricks of the academic writing trade like this in the coming months as I work on my forthcoming grammar textbook for graduate students. Stay tuned (but don’t hold your breath)!