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An Introduction to Word Grammar


  • 106 b/w illus. 12 tables
  • Page extent: 348 pages
  • Size: 247 x 174 mm
  • Weight: 0.7 kg


 (ISBN-13: 9780521721646)

An Introduction to Word Grammar
Cambridge University Press
9780521896900 - An Introduction to Word Grammar - By Richard Hudson


This book consists of three parts, each of which is an introduction to a separate discipline: cognitive science, linguistics (a branch of cognitive science) and English grammar (a branch of linguistics).

Part I, called ‘How the mind works’, is a very modest alternative to Steven Pinker’s bestseller of the same name (Pinker 1998a), and is a personal selection of rather commonplace psychological ideas about concepts and mental networks and the activation that flows round them, together with a few novelties such as default inheritance and node building. These ideas are selected so as to provide a foundation for the next part.

In Part II, ‘How language works’, I make a theoretical point that’s exactly the opposite of the one made famous by Pinker, following the mainstream Chomskyan tradition (Pinker 1994). Where Pinker finds a ‘language instinct’, I find ordinary cognition. Like other ‘cognitive linguists’, I believe that language is very similar to other kinds of thinking. I also believe that the fine details that we linguists find when looking at language tell us a great deal not only about language, but also about how we think in general. Every single phenomenon that I know about, as a linguist, is just as you’d expect given the way in which (according to Part I) the mind works.

Finally, Part III, ‘How English works’, gives a brief survey of English grammar. The chapter on syntax summarizes my little 1998 textbook English Grammar which supported my first-year undergraduate course on English grammar. The students seemed to enjoy learning to draw dependency arrows and appreciated the idea that this was a skill that they could apply to virtually any English sentence.

I should explain that the book’s structure is itself a little like the structure of thought: it’s a network. Admittedly, it doesn’t look like a network at first sight; if you look at the table of contents you’ll see the usual hierarchical structure of parts, chapters and sections. But if you look more carefully, you’ll find that most of the chapters and sections correspond across the three parts. For example, Section 2.2 discusses general principles of classification which are then applied in 6.3 to the principles of how we classify words, which in turn lead into the exposition of English word-classes in 10.1.

The structure based on parts and the one indicated by the cross-links between parts correspond to the two structures of the intellectual picture that I want to present. The hierarchical structure follows the academic divisions: Part I is the broad discipline of cognitive science, which includes linguistics (Part II), which includes English grammar (Part III). Each of these disciplines has its own logical structure, so the chapters and sections try to follow this logic. But the cross-links are the book’s main point because they show how various general ideas from cognitive science apply to language and explain its characteristics. It’s not just that there are some parts of language that are similar to other parts of thinking. What I’m claiming is that the whole of language can be explained in this way, so I have to justify the claim in detail with a link from every section in Part II to some section in Part I.

Fortunately, the corresponding sections in the three parts follow exactly the same order because they follow the same logic, which means that you can read the book either linearly or laterally. A linear reading takes you through a course in cognitive science, then through a course in linguistics and finally through a course in English grammar, each following its own internal logic. A lateral reading takes you from a section in Part I into its corresponding section in Part II and on into a section in Part III – or, if you prefer, in the opposite direction.

How you cope with this choice is, of course, up to you. One obvious solution is to combine the linear and lateral approaches. If you follow this strategy, you’ll start at the beginning of Part I, read the first section, then read the corresponding section in Part II, then the one (if there is one) in Part III, then back to the next section in Part I; and so on. This is how I hope more advanced students will read it, and to encourage them I’ve added a note at the end of most sections in Parts I and II recommending that they should stray into a section of the next part, where (to increase the temptation) they’ll also find a summary of this section. This is what I call the ‘advanced route’. But I accept that some readers will prefer to follow a purely linear route which takes them straight through the book, and don’t need sign-posts.

If you’re a teacher, you may like to know how I would use this book as a textbook for my undergraduate teaching. I would spread it across two years, with Part III for first-year students and Parts I and II for the second year. First-year undergraduates can certainly cope with the grammatical analyses of Part III, especially if they make use of the material on the website; indeed, these analyses aren’t much harder than those that are standardly taught in many countries to primary school children. The practical experience of exploring the ‘real language’ of texts is an excellent foundation for the more theoretical exploration in the first and second parts, and is probably especially important for students who have come through the more or less grammar-free schools of most English-speaking countries (Hudson and Walmsley 2005). I’ve mapped out a ‘novice route’ through the book which basically takes them through Part III, but with little excursions into the corresponding sections of Part II. The ‘advanced route’ should suit second-year students, who can obviously use their discretion about revisiting Part III.

If you’re a student, then I should explain my policy on bibliographical references. I assume that you’re a typical modern student with easy access to the internet and more IT skills than time. I also assume that you’d like to be able to follow up some of the research that I quote, but without having to cope with the dense technicalities of research literature. With these two thoughts in mind, I decided to make as much use as I could of two wonderful resources: Wikipedia ( and the second edition of the Elsevier Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (Brown 2006) which your university may well make available to you online.

Wikipedia is especially good for Part I as it gives easy access to the rather elementary research ideas that I discuss, but please remember to take it with a pinch of salt. As far as I can tell, the articles I recommend are, by and large, sensible and scholarly, but some of the claims are inevitably controversial, and occasional silliness is hard to avoid in a work that anyone can edit. If in doubt about something you find in Wikipedia, try searching in Google, and especially in Google Scholar and Google Books. For Part II, of course, the Encyclopedia is the main point of reference. The articles in both sources are written by experts with whom I can’t compete; my main contribution is simply to have put their ideas together in an unusual combination.

More material is available on the book’s website ( for those who want it, and especially for those who want to hone the skills that Part III tries to develop; it includes an encyclopaedia of English grammar and Word Grammar, but much more besides.

And of course, for those who want to know more about Word Grammar, there are plenty of publications, not least my most recent (2007) monograph, Language Networks: the New Word Grammar. There’s no better test for ideas than writing a book about them, whether it’s a monograph or a textbook, and this textbook is no exception. Consequently I have to report a number of points where I’ve changed my mind even since writing Language Networks: choice sets (3.3), best landmarks (3.4.3), the notation for coordination and dependencies (7.5) and the mechanism for resolving word-order conflicts (7.6). This is as you’d expect. After all, Word Grammar is a network of ideas in my mind, and as I explain in Part I, any cognitive network is forever changing as it tries to adjust to reality.

Where next?

Advanced: Part I, Chapter 1: Introduction to cognitive science

Novice: Part III, Chapter 9: Introduction to English linguistics

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