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April 15, 2002

Cambridge Grammar takes aim at 'rules that don't exist'

By Ann Gibb

You can't afford to casually ignore this new book, especially if you've ever been cited for breaking traditional grammar rules--such as splitting infinitives.

Rules? What Rules?

Check out five common "grammar myths" debunked by The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language
UCSC professor of linguistics Geoffrey Pullum said he thought at first that the massive grammar project "would kill us all." Photo: Ann M. Gibb
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002), coauthored by UCSC professor of linguistics Geoffrey Pullum, is the first definitive grammar reference book of standard international English in more than 20 years. (The campus community is invited to a reception celebrating the publication of The Cambridge Grammar on April 18 at the Cowell Provost's House from 4 to 6 p.m.)

Pullum hopes that among other things, the book will help debunk what he dubs "grammar myths" that have long plagued the world's most widely used language.

"People have been living in fear of grammar rules that don't exist," said Pullum, who wrote The Cambridge Grammar with Rodney Huddleston of the University of Queensland, Australia.

"We're going into the 21st century carrying grammar books from the 20th century that haven't shaken off grammar myths from the 19th century," said Pullum.

Creating a truly modern grammar text took more than a decade of comprehensive and at times exhausting work by the coauthors and an international group of a dozen contributing linguists. Huddleston began the project in 1987 as a solo effort and Pullum joined the team in 1995.

When he learned of the undertaking, Pullum "thought it was too big a project, and it would kill us all."

Each of the book's 20 chapters was painstakingly researched, detailing the structure of words, phrases, clauses, sentences, and punctuation as actually used in English. "It was worth it for me because of how much I learned. I sometimes changed my mind over things I'd believed for 20 years," said Pullum. Controversial points were resolved through consensus--and sometimes scholarly struggle. "The expression 'That's good enough' doesn't exist for Rodney Huddleston," said Pullum. "If there was disagreement, we looked at the evidence and worked it out."

For several months prior to its publication, the sun never set on the draft of The Cambridge Grammar, as someone, somewhere in the world, was working on the new reference book. Main proofs were being checked in Australia while backup proofs were reviewed in California; editors were laboring in England and typesetters were working in India. Pullum traded five California summers for Australian winters to work with Huddleston in Queensland.

It isn't that Pullum and Huddleston expect to see The Cambridge Grammar on the desk of every student of English. At 1,842 pages, it's too heavy to be found in student backpacks. But they do hope it will become the standard reference for anyone writing or revising grammar texts that stock libraries and English classrooms across the grades and around the world. "Grammar books have got to be redesigned, the business of grammar has got to be updated, and The Cambridge Grammar provides a basis from which to start," said Pullum.


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