Book Review: English for the Natives

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Book Review: English for the Natives

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Book Title: English for the Natives: Discover the Grammar You Don’t Know You Know

Author: Harry Ritchie

Publisher: John Murray

Published: 2013

This was a pleasant book for a topic that can turn out to be quite dry.

It promised to tell me about the grammar I don’t know I know (that’s the tagline). I was intrigued, since I already knew that I knew more grammar than I did thanks to my linguistics class.

Also, since I started studying foreign languages and realised I love studying grammar and doing grammar exercises, my knowledge of grammar has improved.

The author, Harry Ritchie, is somewhat funny. I like that this was a book that was written by someone from the UK.

Not that I have anything against American English, but it’s nice to have an European perspective on English, which was rather foreign to me. It’s a refreshing change.

I agree with his view that it’s absurd to assign prestige to certain dialects over others and treat one as more “correct”. Unfortunately, that is the reality, because of social and political reasons.

However, there were probably just as many that disagreed with. One of the first was this:

That is why there are about a billion more people who have learned or are trying to learn English as a second, foreign language. Of course, no matter how hard they work or how super-intelligent they are, they will never speak English with anything like our unthinking command?

I was really rather taken aback by that. For someone who makes clear that he is against the “traditional” hierarchies and rule enforcement, who thinks all the traditional rules are rather silly, and who believes that Chomsky has got it all wrong with Universal Grammar, he seems quite taken by the view that only children can learn languages. Which, by the way, is really an old-fashioned one.

(I don’t know enough to comment about Chomsky’s work, unfortunately, though the other alternative theories that are mentioned near the end of the book do sound interesting enough for me to want to look into.)

As a result, I find some of his attempts at being funny in poor taste or condescending altogether. I don’t feel that he really is an expert who ought to be dispensing advice on the subject, though he does provide ample references to various examples and studies (that I am unfamiliar with).

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book. I wanted to borrow Etymologicon and this book was on the same shelf in the library.

The history of the English language was interesting, barring that first page from which I found that quote about learning languages.

There is one part that I want to talk in more detail. He explores Saussure’s idea that words are symbols.

I have heard this before in my linguistics class in university – the only one I ever took in my undergraduate life. (I later took a linguistics MOOC.)

There isn’t any reason why we (in English) call an apple an “apple”.

There isn’t a reason why the combinations of sound should be taken to mean that fruit. This is why in another language that particular fruit is called something else.

Ritchie infers that this is all relativist, and these relativist principles apply to other aspects, such as how it’s cultural that blue is ascribed to boys and pink to girls. (Which I agree. Colour associations are indeed cultural.)

We talk about things being beautiful or the best, we are making subjective judgment.

He then discusses writing and academic writing. He makes the case that this statement is not possible: “Shakespeare is better than Barbara Cartland.”

(Barbara Cartland being a romance writer with “a gazillion titles to her name”.)

Then, he talks about morality, and how good and bad have no basis in reality.

That was where he lost me.

How did a discussion about adjectives and their use evolve into a philosophical discussion about ethics and morals?

In any case, I didn’t find this particular conclusion of his convincing from his argument. There seemed to be too many missing gaps along the way.

I stand by my original view. I believe that there is an absolute standard of right and wrong. In terms of morality, there is an objective standard, one set by God. (I won’t delve into the details here, because it would be beside the point, though I wouldn’t mind discussing it with anyone who wishes to.)

It was a fun read. I don’t believe that there is anything that made the book really stand out. It wasn’t boring.

It is good for passing the time if you have time to spare or have an interest in these sort of things.

It’s not for people who already are grammar experts. The author does cover some interesting topics, and raises some interesting insights, though nothing really deep about grammar is covered. I enjoyed most of the example sentences that he employed to illustrate his points.