Matt Garley

This textbook began with the work of Karl Hagen, who published it under a Creative Commons license as “Navigating English Grammar” at his site Polysyllabic. As part of a project which started in Fall 2020, and is continuing as of Fall 2022, the textbook is intended to be read, annotated, and updated by ENG 270 courses at York College / CUNY, becoming a resource for future students, and ultimately becoming a textbook to be used by other students of the syntax of varieties of English.

Portions of Chapter 2, 8, 9, and 10 are adapted from assignments written by York students, who are credited according to their preference (by real name, pseudonym, or anonymous contribution). York students’ annotations on have also contributed to rewrites for clarity, to correct errors, or to add more information where desired.

This edition is edited and maintained by Matt Garley–if you have questions, comments, suggestions, or plan to use this in your course, please let me know at!


Adapted by Matt Garley from Hagen, Karl. Navigating English Grammar. 2020.

What is this book about?

This textbook introduces a set of fundamental concepts that are necessary for a solid understanding of English grammar. Unlike many books, it doesn’t just tell you how things are (or, worse, should be) in English. It also encourages you to consider a variety of Englishes, plural, and the sorts of rules we follow in these language varieties when we speak and write, without even thinking about them. By the end, you should, in principle, be able to analyze–break into components–most English sentences, not just the artificially constructed examples of grammar books. Just as importantly, you should have developed the skills to analyze other people’s assertions about grammar critically.

The basic attitude towards language that this course promotes is that language is a phenomenon to be studied, not an ideal or goal to be reached. This textbook will help you use real-world evidence to think about language, basing your conclusions primarily on the way English actually works rather than on arbitrary assertions by so-called authorities who may or may not offer well-founded advice.

On the other hand, this book is tuned to the needs of my primary intended audience: undergraduate students interested in journalism, classroom teaching, English, and a variety of other disciplines, and so my emphasis is on analysis of written English, and I devote particular attention to those grammatical features that come up frequently when commenting on student writing. It is meant to equip you with a set of technical tools that will better allow you to understand the varieties of English used by yourself and others.

Why another grammar book?

Karl Hagen: This work began because I could not find a textbook that fit my needs for a particular course—a common problem for many instructors. The earliest versions were written for a college class titled The Structure of Modern English, designed to introduce future teachers to linguistics. Such courses are typical in teacher-training programs around the United States. In one semester, students receive a smattering of phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and other linguistic topics such as language acquisition or social attitudes towards language variation.

When I first began to teach this course, I followed the lead of the previous instructor and used an introductory linguistics textbook. It was a fine book, but it was designed for linguists, not K-12 teachers. It soon became obvious that large portions of this material were only marginally relevant to what these teachers would soon be doing in the classroom, and even where the material was applicable, its formal linguistic trappings made it hard for the students to see how they could use this knowledge in their own classrooms.

During the same period, I was also teaching writing and grammar to high school students in an after-school program, an experience that let me see first hand not only exactly what grammatical concepts high school students had actually retained from their regular school experience (usually not very much) but also how their teachers communicated grammatical ideas. I began to pay attention to the comments written in the margins of students’ papers, comments that tried to explain the problems with the students’ language but which did so in terms that were inaccurate or unhelpful. For example, they would flag as “passive voice” things that were not, in fact, passive.There were teachers who imposed draconian penalties based on surface features, such using more than two instances of BE in an essay. They would use generic annotations like awk or choppy, which indicated the teacher’s disapproval without providing any precise indication of why the writer’s wording was problematic.

To be clear, few of them were engaged in stereotypical grammar pedantry. Most weren’t filling the margins of students papers with trivial corrections or prioritizing grammatical correctness over the expression of ideas. I could see that teachers were groping towards a language to talk about their students’ writing. But when they did turn to grammar, as often as not they did so in ways that either had no effect—because the students didn’t understand what the teacher meant—or were counter productive—because the students took away lessons that wound up making their writing worse.

Moreover, although they were under the impression they were using those concepts to enforce “standard” English and teach better writing, it was clear that they weren’t all applying the same standard. They couldn’t agree among themselves about what was an error or why, or which errors were most significant. And I saw little evidence that any attention at all was paid to the ways that knowledge of grammar could help direct a student’s attention to the rhetorically significant aspects of the writing process.

I find it hard to blame these teachers. (OK, the guy who gave Fs for using more than two instances of BE in an essay was the worst sort of pedant. Him I blame.) They had learned a theory of language imperfectly and unsystematically, without even realizing that it was a theory and not a simple statement of truths, and without any principled way to distinguish between well-founded claims and silly ones. And they had been taught implicitly to regard grammar as merely the surface polish of language rather than a productive way to create meaning.

These experiences caused me to drastically reshape my course. I realized that in one semester I could never cover all the grammatical concepts that in-service teachers would actually need when confronted with the obligation to correct papers, prepare students for standardized tests, or satisfy content standards that mandate the teaching of certain grammatical concepts. What I could do, however, was to put in place an analytic framework that would help them navigate the welter of conflicting claims about English and figure things out for themselves. I wanted to give my students the tools necessary to think just as critically about grammar as they would about a literary or historical text.

Matt Garley: I had been teaching ENG 270, Introduction to English Syntax and Grammar, for years at York College, and I had used a number of different books and combinations of books. As Karl says above, the common texts others used to teach this course were mainly prescriptive, and those that took a descriptive approach, i.e., a linguistically sound one, were often written at a level that assumed a lot about a student’s knowledge coming into the course, or were written with a great deal of jargon, or focused too much on this or that obscure feature of grammar that students would be unlikely to encounter or care about. I wanted a zero-cost, open-access text for this one-semester course that challenged students to think about English(es) and their grammars in a new way. Beginning in 2019, as part of several programs funded by CUNY grants to work on OER (Open Educational Resources) and ZTC (Zero-Cost Textbooks), and administered by the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Educational Technologies (CTLET) at York College, I began searching for a text to adopt and adapt for the course. Fortunately, I came across Karl Hagen’s excellent but unfinished ‘Navigating English Grammar’, and as it was published under a Creative Commons license, I was able to copy, adapt, update, and re-release it for my ENG 270 courses.

I am very grateful to Karl for the great amount of work that went into the starting point for this text, and I’m hoping with this and future editions to take it to the next level, and make it a complete resource that can be used by other instructors and other institutions. In lieu of a proper ‘Acknowledgments’ section (perhaps in a later edition!) I would like to thank Katherine Tsan, Greet Van Belle, and Joshelyn Vivas for organizing and delivering the OER and ZTC workshops that have provided the organization and funding needed to re-work and re-imagine this text for the course, and finally and most importantly the ENG 270 students, who over the past few years have drafted sections of the textbook, provided comments on the chapters, asked questions which caused me to pause and wonder what I *really* know about English, and who remain my main motivation for doing this work.

What type of grammar is this?

This textbook attempts to introduce just as much theory as is necessary for a solid basic model of English grammar–one which helps a student conduct a reasonably accurate constituent analysis of authentic, unsimplified, written English without delving into so much detail that the analysis becomes overwhelming. The textbook minimizes topics or approaches that are specific to particular linguistic schools such as minimalism or construction grammar, and we’ve tried to minimize the number of theory-internal reasons for adopting a particular analysis.

This text is particularly indebted to Huddleston and Pullum’s The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, whose analysis I follow in many respects. This monumental work caused me to significantly rethink my own understanding and teaching of grammar. Where I have departed from the CGEL, I have often been motivated by making grammar accessible to students, rather than by direct disagreement with the authors’ analysis. In some cases I’ve presented a simplified account early in the course and a more refined one later on. These units can safely be skipped if you’re looking only for a serviceable basic account. I find the advanced units particularly useful for two purposes: first, they give you guidance in dealing with certain difficult questions that more advanced or curious students tend to bring up. Second, they provide additional training in how to evaluate and revise our prior theories when we’re confronted with evidence that complicates the story.

This textbook almost certainly contains some errors or inadequacies, but it is a living document; if you’re a student in this course, bring it up, and let’s see if we can’t make it better!

(Last updated 27 Jun 2022)



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Collaborative Textbook on English Syntax Copyright © 2022 by Matt Garley; Karl Hagen; and The Students of ENG 270 at York College / CUNY is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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