Sunday, 30 May 2010

Book Review: 'I Used To Know That: English' - (Michael O'Mara Books)

I Used To Know That: English
(stuff you forgot from school)

Patrick Scrivenor
Series editor Caroline Taggart
Michael O´Mara Books 2010
ISBN 9781843174776

From the blurb: "While it's true to say that the English language is full of traps and pitfalls for the unwary, an understanding of certain essential rules can make all the difference to spoken and written English. Succinct and accessible, I Used to Know That: English will teach you everything you should have learned at school..."



Hot on the heels (or should that be 'suffixes') of the wonderful My Grammar and I (or should that be 'Me'?), already reviewed here, comes another marvellous little English language opus from quirky publisher Michael O'Mara Books. And this time they are offering three lucky readers (3) of the ELT Resources Review Blog (that's you lot) a copy absolutely free - just comment on this review to take part!

So how, you may be wondering, does I Used to Know That: English - stuff you forgot from school (or should that be 'stuff you've forgotten...'?) differ from the similarly-named My Grammar and I (or should that be 'Me'?) - old-school ways to sharpen your english?

Well... the first obvious difference is that the former was co-written by Caroline Taggart, while the new volume is by a certain Patrick Scrivenor, with Ms Taggart named as the Series Editor.
" is at hand in the genial form of Patrick Scrivenor, whose mantra is, wherever possible, 'keep it simple'. He admires accuracy, but despises pedantry."
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The publicity material claims that I Used to Know That: English 'does for grammar what Eats, Shoots and Leaves did for punctuation, clearing up confusion with a light touch. The problem is that My Grammar and I also pretty much did the same thing!

In a desperate quest to distinguish usefully between these two worthy titles, I'm clutching at two reviewer's straws.
"Since you should avoid them but cannot, you might as well know what adjectives do."
The first is that I Used To... is slightly less jovial and a bit more instructive in its approach. I feel it takes the stance that prosepctive purchasers would genuinely like to hear what it has to say with a view to improving their daily utterances. My Grammar and I more firmly fell into the category of entertaining stocking-filler, as much to amuse (in an erudite way) as to educate. Evidence of this is that there is no learned pun or joke in the title of the present title.
This is not to say that I Used To... is dry or musty in its approach - far from it, and we'll be getting to that later.

The second difference I can find is quite simply as any writer would want it to be: English is such a deep, rich source of rules and their exceptions, weird word groups and viciously arcane spelling conventions, that a new author will necessarily bring a whole new bunch of fonohlojicul fun to the elucidation table... Hell, I reckon I could write my own book in this darn series too!

One of the delightful aspects of this book is (or should that be 'are' ;-) the constant examples and humorous quotation which illustrate the points being made. I've likewise punctuated, or 'pricked' this review with a few choice snippets from the book, not necessarily representative, to liven it up a bit!
 "Not all dogs are fierce, not all men are fat and not all women are beautiful - not, at least, until you reach the age of seventy, when this situation magically remedies itself."
The book is divided into six broad categories, and bookended by a very pleasant foreword by the aforementioned Ms. Taggart, a short scene-setting introduction by the author, and a telling afterword by the same. I say telling, because in it he justifies what I recognised as I perused the book as sometimes surprising pedantry and stubborness in terms of just what 'correct' English is. Surprising because we are these days used to people telling us that English 'just is' and that the rules are made to be broken because they're all fundamentally flawed anyway, and certainly not adhered to, what with regional differences and neologisms from the States and rap music and goodness knows what else.

And yet Mr. Scrivenor reminds us that without knowing the rules in the first place, it is very difficult to break them with any degree of sophistication or cleverness which would, after all, be much less satisfying from a clever-dick intellectual smart-arse (or should that be 'ass'?) point of view. That last point was in my words, not the author's, by the way.

"GRAMMAR. The science of speaking correctly'
- Dr Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language

'Let school masters puzzle their brain
With grammar and nonsense and learning,
Good liquor, I stoutly maintain,
Gives genius a better discerning'

- Oliver Goldsmith, 'She Stoops to Conquer'

Good liquor does not seem to have helped Goldsmith with his first line. Presumably the singular 'brain' is there solely to rhyme with 'maintain'.

The six chapters are as follows:

Parts of Speech: I shall probably be modifying my TEFL Certificate session on this topic to incorporate a few of the apposite examples given here about nouns, adjectives, conjunctions, the decidedly weird adverbs and all the other members of this boisterous bunch.

Grammar: A short section which nevertheless covers the chosen topics (phrases, clauses, sentences, subjects and objects...) in a certain depth.

Spelling and Pronunciation: Covering gems like the nine ways of pronouncing 'ough', the 'ize' or 'ise' dilemma, and where to stress multi-syllable words (good luck!).

Punctuation: A lengthier section, true to this book's mission to sort out our written English above all, covering traditionally scary stuff such as the comma, the apostrophe and the unexpected three lengths of dash (or should that be 'hyphen'?).

Clear Usage: Which at first reminded me of Fowler's Plain English, or even Gowers' Plain Words, but which ultimately distinguises itself, within the constraints of this volume, with a more modern treatment of wordiness, clichés, double negatives and using foreignisms, to name but a few.

Pitfalls and Confusions: This final section is an alphabetical list of short entries on easily misused words or commonly confused word pairs. Affect and effect, childish and childlike, egoism and egotism, factitious and fictitious, principal and principle, and sensual and sensuous would be examples. The school boys' favourite, organism and orgasm, alas, would not.

"They spell it Vinci and pronounce it Vinchy; foreigners always spell better than they pronounce."
   ~ Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad
The blurb's way of summarising the above is:

I Used To Know That: English includes:

Parts of speech, from nouns to conjunctions
Spelling and the traps you can fall into
Sentence construction
Punctuation, including those pesky apostrophes
Clear usage - and how to avoid common pitfalls
How to pick your way through jargon and gibberish

So, having now finished this review, I must admit I'm a bit nervous about publishing it, and thereby opening it up to the scholarly scrutiny of the Very Revered Mr. P. Scrivenor himself (not to mention the equally enthralling Ms. C. Taggart). Even that last sentence makes me cringe in anticipation of imminent eminent writers' wrath, and the number of anomalies I'll get slapped down for..!

Whatever the result, I offer up this humble commentary on this jolly little book, and hope it will be bought copiously and won thricely by you here good readers. Good Luck and, above all... Good Grammar (exceptions notwithstanding).


Hotch Potch English: 'The ELT Resources Review Blog' ~ Book Review: 'I Used To Know That: English'
Created & written by Sab Will
Copyright 2010 Sab Will / Hotch Potch English
Visit Hotch Potch English ~ The Unique English Teaching Website

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Book Review: 'My Grammar and I' - (Michael O'Mara Books)

My Grammar and I
(or should that be 'Me'?)

Caroline Taggart and J. A. Wines
Michael O´Mara Books 2008
ISBN 9781843173106

From the blurb: "Can you tell when a sentence contains more clichés than you've had hot dinners, or if it's tautological and pointlessly repetitive? Is a preposition necessarily a bad thing to end a sentence with? Are you able to immediately spot a split infinitive? Or understand how, being accidentally misplaced, you can wreak nonsensical havoc with your modifiers?"
If I only had a penny... sorry, I mean if I had only a penny... no, no, that's not it... ah! if only I had a penny for every book on the English language that has a schoolboyish giggle at the phrase ´dangling modifier´ I´d probably be a quid or two the richer by now.
'[It is] impossible at the present juncture to teach English grammar in the schools for the simple reason that no one knows exactly what it is.'
   ~ Government Report, 1921
My Grammar and I, a delightful recent discovery of mine, from the marvellous Michael O´Mara Books, is no exception (they refer to them in their chapter heading as 'Dangly bits') but in this case they are justified. The whole book takes a very pleasant tongue- (or should that be dangly bit?) in-cheek look at one of our most precious and least understood national institutions: the English grammar system (if, indeed, there actually is one - personally, I'm sceptical).

So, what a pleasure it is to hold this little volume in my hands. From the textured cover to the soft grain of the pages; from the well-chosen typeface to the inner front cover's 'A gift for... from...' nameplate; from the lovely musty aroma as you hold it to your nose (you do sniff your books, don't you?) to the gentle humour of the entries... everything is designed to offer you some enjoyably intellectual fodder from yesteryear with a modern twist: nostalgia.

Rules of yore rub avec-seriffed shoulders with decidedly up-to-date irreverence and cheeky asides. Right up our street, this is. (Try saying 'rules of yore rub shoulders' fast a few times, by the way, and I'll send my personal copy of the current title straight off to anyone who can prove they didn't get their tongues in a twist! See below, by the way, for an exclusive photo of My Gramar and I and Me, - totally grammatically correct, I assure you...)

What the authors have succeeded in doing is interweaving amusing quotes and examples with the actual guts of the book, which is English grammar and how to do it. I imagine My Grammar and I is the grammar book most grammarians of the not too dusty variety would secretly like to have written all along. I know it's certainly the sort I enjoy reading most.

The above quote from a government report of 1921 opens the introduction and sets the tone of the book. The snappy four page history of English grammar is quickly followed by a classic list of Grammar Rules (to avoid), including the following:
  1. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
  2. Remember to never split an infinitive.
  3. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
And seven others. I especially likes number 3 because to constantly include comments in brackets (as I do, however irrelevant) is one of my recognisable (if possibly irritating) trademarks.
Various devices keep the pages turning at a flurrying pace. Funny, punny or simply intriguing section headings guarantee a zappy intro to each new language point:
  • Say what? (or, Parts of Speech)
  • What a to-do (or, Verbs)
  • Thou and thee (or, Pronouns)
  • Kind of funny-looking (or, Adjectives)
  • Do I get time off for good behaviour? (or, Sentences)
  • A big no-no (or, Double negatives)
And, of course, the aforementioned Dangly bits (or, Misplaced modifiers).

Little boxes or highlighted sections scattered throughout the book variously contain apposite quotes,
"The English speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; (5) those who know and distinguish... Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by most of the minority classes."
   ~ H. W. Fowler, Modern English Usage, 1926
funny one-liners,
"We spent most of our time sitting on the back porch watching the cows playing scrabble and reading."
   ~ From 'So where does a comma go?'
and assorted oddities and words of wisdom:
Smart Alec: Since pronoun is a noun, why isn't proverb a verb?
Swot's Corner: Capital letters are sometimes referred to as 'upper case'. This is because manual typesetters kept these letters in the upper drawers of a desk - the upper type case. More frequently used letters were stored on a lower shelf, thus 'lower case' letters.
See Me After Class: Each comparison needs only one comparative: more better is bad, more betterer is even worser.
As you can see from these choice tidbits, the funny, often absurd side of English is never far from the fore, as well as the deliciously overriding temptation to play with our words. But let's make no mistake about it: the topic is grammar, and more than almost any other book I've seen recently, My Grammar and I really does help us understand the basics and more in a thoroughly accessible way.

It's true that most of the points are introduced briefly in a paragraph or so, followed immediately by plenty of examples in the place of wordy explanations, but hey! I know some people who think that's the best way to learn! And how many lay readers do you know who are ready to sit through a boring grammar lecture anyway? So I reckon Ms Taggart and the interestingly named J. A. Wines (does she really?) have got it about right. For this lay 'Me'-er (or should that be 'I') anyway.

And lest Ms Wines be offended, that name quip comes from someone who has suffered their fair share of 'hilarious' name-related jokes from an early age. Imagine having 'Will' as your last name growing up at a typical English school and all the jollity that can provoke...

Hotch Potch English: 'The ELT Resources Review Blog' ~ Book Review: 'My Grammar and I'
Created & written by Sab Will
Copyright 2010 Sab Will / Hotch Potch English
Visit Hotch Potch English ~ The Unique English Teaching Website

Friday, 21 May 2010

Book Review: 'Practical Grammar - Levels 1 & 2' (Heinle Cengage)

Practical Grammar
Level 1

by David Riley & John Hughes
Helbling Languages 2010
ISBN 9781424018086

Practical Grammar
Level 2

by John Hughes & Ceri Jones
Helbling Languages 2011
ISBN 9781424018055

Publisher's Website
From the Blurb:
"Practical Grammar is a three-level British English Grammar course for self study or use in the classroom. The series takes students through key aspects of English grammar from Elementary to Upper Intermediate levels.



Will Heinle's brand new Practical Grammar series finally be the one to dethrown the venerable (and long in the tooth?) Murphy from the top of the grammar exercise book ratings? Only time will tell. But if they fancy themselves as the ultimate Murphy-mashers they have some serious work to do.

At first glance, Practical Grammar looks to have a lot going for it: attractive, fresh approach; regular review units; ten progress tests; the almost obligatory full CD-ROM and on-line back up package.

A closer investigation reveals a stack of positive features counterbalanced by only a couple of points, probably subjective, which I'll mention just so you know. I'll tell you straightaway, unusually, that I like the look of this package so much I'm immediately going to show it to my teacher trainees and suggest they put it on their list of highly recommened grammar exercise books for their students.

Well let's get right back to the significant challenge any new grammar exercise book has to face these days: that of distinguising itself from the well-established and respected titles already on the market. How does Practical Grammar shape up against the competition?


No, I mean it shapes up well! It really does. To be honest, it follows a well-worn format too: left-hand page - introduction of grammar point through a usually visual context followed by a presentation of the structure; right-hand side - exercises to practise what was studied on the left-hand page.

This is not new. But I think it still works well, and Heinle obviously think there's life left in this type of essentially self-study volume. Indeed, as with English course books, they are simply evolving. There is an exercise in practically all of the 100 units which involves listening to the audio CD (no fancy multi-media shenanigans just yet), and a book purchase also gets you a code which allows you to access a special companion website.

I must  be very special because my copy of Practical Grammar 2 didn't have a special code where it said it should have, but level 1 did, and I duly went through the rather boring process of signing in and logging on for a series of exercises I'm never going to do - such is the dedication of this reviewer.

The on-line exercises themselves are not very spectacular, and to be honest I'd just stick with the book and the audio CDs unless you're a fan of the usual drag and drop rearranging of words, gap fills, and so on. What was interesting was a little glimpse I got of the teacher's area, where you can run entire classes and see how the students are progressing which seemed to have lots of potential. You might want to check it out here if you can suffer the EX-TREM-LY clear and slow Middle American narration.

Back to the book then, and let's just finish with highlighting a few more key features, as claimed by Heinle!

Real language in natural situations: it's true that some of the exchanges are refreshingly natural as opposed to awful unrealistic ELTese:

Sam! Telephone! - Who is is? - It's Greta. - Can I call her back? I'm having a shower. - Greta? Sam's having a shower. Can he call you back?

And that's in Unit 31 (Present continuous) of level 1.

Listening and pronunciation: the two audio CDs are well recorded and not spoken painfully slowly, but naturally, and provide a valuable aural element to the units.

Key vocabulary: most units have a 'Key vocabulary' box somewhere highlighting, well, you guessed it...

Tips: these regularly point out typical features of English and common mistakes.

Regular review and progress tests: as mentioned before, these are a boon for teachers and valuable for consolidating and testing progress.

Apart from that, let's mention the use of real pictures as well as those cute little cartoons, and thoroughly up-to-date icons of modern culture such as iPhones and blogs and shots which look suspiciously like Apple computer windows.

If I had to make a criticism, it's perhaps that there aren't so many crystal clear examples and diagrams for each grammar point. The intros to each unit are always eye-catching and illustrate the points in a non-condescending way, but the rest of the explanations are not always paragons of clarity in the way the established titles are. But this is the price you pay I guess for trying to introduce new approaches to people who will always be comparing you to the status quo. And change, as we all know, is both necessary and inevitable. I think another word for it is progress.

Curiously, as a sign of how far ahead of the times they are, the level 1 book, which I received way back in 2009, is copyrighted 2010. and the level 2 book, which has just been published, is copyright 2011, whereas I do believe I'm typing these words on the 20th of May, 2010. Can a friendly publisher tell me what that's about..? Not trying to make our books seem newer than they really are, are we? I'm sure there's a perfectly rational explanation!

So if you're looking for a very fresh new presentation of the major grammar points of English, for beginners and intermediate level students, I would certainly give Practical Grammar from Heinle a go. Level 3 will be coming out in a few months. And see below for our great new competition to win five copies of level 2, simply by leaving a comment here! Thanks for reading, and see you soon.



Hotch Potch English: 'The English Language Teaching (ELT) Review Blog" ~ Book Review: 'Practical Grammar'
Created & written by Sab Will
Copyright 2010 Sab Will / Hotch Potch English
Visit Hotch Potch English ~ The Unique English Teaching Website
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