Book review: 25 Rules of Grammar by Joseph Piercy

I sort of remember enjoying this book, but now that I write my review, it seems that I didn’t like it so much. I guess it’s good for the most part, but it looks like there are many problematic claims. This review is more-or-less in list format, but so is Piercy’s book so…

Let’s get started with some strange claims from the Intro. Piercy says that “the English language has lots of rules, over 2,000 to be imprecise.” (p. 15) Where is he getting that number? I’ve never seen something like that. On the next page we get:

In my opinion, the English language is under much less threat from sloppy usage or the influence from modern technology than it is from the language of modern marketing and commerce. The Greek term ‘pleonasm’ refers to unnecessary words placed next to each other to produce largely redundant phrases. Advertising is full of pleonasms such as ‘extra bonus’ and ‘free gift’ or even ‘extra bonus free gift’ just in case you didn’t grasp the concept first time round. (p. 16)

I mean, points for not complaining about sloppy usage or technology. But I’m going to need to know where you got those advertising ‘pleonasms’ because it sounds like you made them up. Also, gifts ain’t always free. Just ask the Greeks who come bearing them.

On page 42, Piercy claims that “fishes” is incorrect in the phrase “It’s a Sicilian message, it means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” (the famous line from The Godfather). I’m not sure how he thinks that fishes is incorrect. It’s been in use for over 800 years. And every dictionary that I checked says that the plural of fish is either fish or fishes. In fact, some seem to reserve the mass noun entry for “the flesh of fish as food” (Oxford Dictionaries, sense 1.1). But of course, that’s not what’s meant in the phrase “sleep with the fishes”.


Later, on p. 44, Piecry says that “transitive verbs appear in sentences that contain a subject noun and an object noun.” But that’s not correct. Transitive verbs don’t need subject nouns (other kinds of subjects will do, so will no subject in imperative clauses), nor do they need object nouns – any old object will do, it doesn’t have to be a noun or noun phrase. The example sentence he uses doesn’t help his case out either:

Dave (subject noun) looked (transitive verb) at the sea (object noun).

Why didn’t he pick a transitive verb that doesn’t need to be mediated by preposition (the “at” in the sentence above)? Also, there’s nothing about ditransitive verbs (ones need two objects), so don’t go looking.

Page 49 had me scratching my head when Piercy says “The tense have been working is formed by the auxiliary verbs have and been and the principal verb working […]” I didn’t know that was a tense. But then I flipped the page and saw this:

There are twelve tenses commonly used in English. (p. 50)

Ka-blooey. My brain has been exploded. 12 tenses?! I got past, present, future (kinda sorta but not really), and… I have no idea what the others are. Presenty-past? Paster than Past? The Almost Present? Back to the Future?

It turns out Piercy is confusing aspect with tense. So he calls the present simple (I swim) a tense, and the present continuous (I am swimming) a tense, and etc. etc. That’s kind of strange.

Rule 10 (pp. 80-84) is all about Which Hunting. *eye roll*

In talking about the rule of who vs. whom, Piercy says “In an entry in his diary, Russian writer Anton Chekov manages to skillfully use both forms in the same sentence.” (p. 89) I would assume that Chekov wrote his diary in Russian and not English, but okey dokey.

In a rule about the double negative in English, Piercy says that Chaucer and Shakespeare were fond of using double negatives. He fails to mention that the double negative was the normal way to do things up until about the 1700s. So it’s not that Chaucer and Shakespeare were fond of it – errrybody was. Nowadays, the double negative is just not (really) a feature of some standard varieties (although it does pop up and it does carry meaning).

Rule 14 (p. 102) on the differences in different from, different to, and different than is actually spot on. Good job!

Not gonna lie, I skipped/skimmed the stuff about punctuation. It looked ok?

Things really go off the deep end after this though. The “Essential Tools – Advanced Grammar” section starts on page 135 and it could use some work. Piercy says that “a prepositional phrase can function as a noun, adjective or adverb” (p. 136). Uhh… what? No. Is he mixing lexical categories and grammatical ones? Phrases (noun phrase, adjective phrase, etc.) don’t function as other phrases, they function as sentence elements – subject, object, etc.

Pages 140-143 offer some roundabout explanation of how phrasal verb supposedly work, but he could have just explained how they really work – some have prepositions, some have adverbs, some have particles – and there are rules for which ones can be split up and which ones can’t. It would’ve taken half the space.

Towards the end (p. 158), Piercy claims that “the case of a noun or pronoun is determined by what the word does in the sentence” (italics his). Hold up. Syntactic roles determine case? In English? You for real, bro? English only marks case on pronouns anymore. I mean we could stretch things a bit and say that English nouns can be in the genitive case, but not really. It’s more like a possessive form. But there is certainly no case marking on nouns when they are in the subject or object positions. This is weird.

And finally, the Selected Bibliography turns out to be a huge facepalm. Surprisingly, there are no grammars on it. *shruggie*

Unless you count Gwynne’s Grammar. (If you do, we’re not friends anymore and I’m not inviting you to my birthday party.)

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