A tale of two (actually three) English grammar texts

I had an interesting conversation with my friend Michael Franklin at the AMWA (American Medical Writers Association) conference in Columbus last month. He told me of a must-read grammar text, Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln and Robert Funk, that he had studied in graduate school. I nearly fainted when I saw the price at my favorite book dealer ($126.52), but I was able to find a really clean used copy of an earlier edition for a fraction of that price.

Now, when I say “a must-read grammar text,” understand the context: I’m a nerdy linguist at heart, always striving to learn “the systematic nature of language” (p. xv). This book excites me because it includes sentence diagramming, which can greatly clarify sentence structure for the lost and confused writer. Kolln and Funk provide 64 exercises (answers, too).

But I’d be the first to admit that I didn’t drop everything and read the book cover to cover, an indulgence that I rarely can afford no matter how compelling the book. I do keep it close at hand, however, and I have now adopted it as my first and most definitive grammar resource.

I feel a bit disloyal to my old favorite, A Concise Grammar of Contemporary English by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum, now out of print and also priced at a breathtaking $125.84.

My copy, bought for $14.25 and used lovingly in graduate school and to this day, has now completely disintegrated through the spine to leave me with 460 separate pages. The crumbly remnants of the spine fall into my keyboard and over the office floor whenever I open the text. I would replace my copy with a used one in better condition except that I have so many annotations that I cannot bear to leave behind (or copy over).

And now for that third grammar text, which I discovered while searching for Kolln and Funk’s book: Understanding and Using English Grammar by Betty Schrampfer Azar and Stacy A. Hagen. I found a copy at my local library and learned that this text is “a developmental skills text for intermediate to advanced students of English as a second or foreign language” (p. xiii). It is, as are the two books above, intended primarily as a classroom teaching text but also as a further reference. I was delighted to find a resource that I could recommend to my brilliant engineers for whom English is their second language. They are very motivated to improve their English and could study the book and work the exercises using the answer key and audio CDs.

If English is your first language and you are looking for a good, definitive resource to understand its structure, the first two titles above would probably help you. If English is your second language and you want to learn and understand the structure of English better, check out the third title. But if you are looking for answers to style questions (Should I capitalize this? Should I use “imply” or “infer” in this sentence?), consult The Gregg Reference Manual or the style guide of your choice.



One Response to A tale of two (actually three) English grammar texts

  1. I have this very book (Understanding English Grammar) on my desk at work! It was the text for a rigorous grammar course I took in college and I’ve had it ever since. It’s invaluable for those hard grammar questions our style references don’t address. I find it fun and relaxing to do a diagramming exercise now and then. My then-boss just shook her head when I told her that.

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