I was wondering what books about English grammar are:

  • the standard ones written for linguists or linguistics students, and
  • the standard ones written for people who are neither linguists nor linguistics students?
  • 1
    Are the people in your second category native speakers of English or English language learners?
    – Shoe
    Jul 23, 2023 at 16:43
  • 1
    (1) The word is "linguists" not "linguistists" (if there is ambiguity you can say "academic linguists", "linguistics faculty", etc). (2) Who are these "people who are neither linguistists nor linguistic students": are you looking for books for the interested general public like Pinker's The Language Instinct, or for some other subset e.g. children, writers, people working in AI/NLP/etc who need some knowledge of linguistic principles, language learners who need a basic knowledge of linguistic terminology, teachers of young children and professions like speech therapists, etc.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 23, 2023 at 19:01
  • @StuartF by the "people who are neither linguistists nor linguistic students", I mean those with the highest level of knowledge among them.
    – Tim
    Jul 23, 2023 at 22:42
  • Who is going to bother reviewing all that? Maybe a reference librarian.
    – Lambie
    Jul 27, 2023 at 18:12

2 Answers 2


For linguistics-oriented texts, most people here seem to be fans of Huddleston & Pullum (2002), McCawley (2nd ed., 1998), or Quirk et al. (1985). Expect a vigorous debate in the comments section about which is best.

I'm currently reading Huddleston & Pullum; I'm not a linguist-in-training, just a nerd with too much free time. I'm not sure if you're even meant to read it in its entirety; it's about 1800 pages and quite dense. Annoyingly, the Kindle edition isn't formatted properly for phone screens, so you have to keep zooming in and out. But it is interesting, if you enjoy extremely thorough discussions of seemingly minor details of syntax.

As for people uninterested in linguistics, it will depend on your goals. If you're looking to (say) become a more eloquent writer, I don't think grammar textbooks will help you much per se.

  • 1
    McCawley 1998 is intended to be read through, though the last 10 chapters or so deal with individual issues. The first few are intended to be an English syntax textbook at the college level (I can't imagine getting through them all in a yearlong class); that's why the title is The Syntactic Phenomena of English (he's got one about semantics, too, with a longer title), and it's intended to show what those phenomena are and how they relate to one another. Jul 23, 2023 at 17:13
  • @JohnLawler thanks. Do you like Quirk's book, and how much?
    – Tim
    Jul 25, 2023 at 1:31
  • I'm a generative syntactician, and neither Quirk nor CGEL is transformational, so I prefer McCawley, which is. Jul 25, 2023 at 2:42
  • @Tim It's an older grammar; I get the sense that most prefer the more recent Huddleston & Pullum, but occasionally people will cite Quirk et al.
    – alphabet
    Jul 25, 2023 at 2:47
  • @JohnLawler What is the name of the book, when you wrote "he's got one about semantics, too, with a longer title"?
    – Tim
    Jul 25, 2023 at 22:51
  • It's a college textbook on semantics, logic, and pragmatics, to go with his textbook on syntax. It's entitled Everything that Linguists have Always Wanted to Know about Logic . . . But Were Ashamed to Ask. Jul 25, 2023 at 22:58
  • @JohnLawler What linguistic schools do Quirk's and CGEL belong to, if not generative?
    – Tim
    Jul 27, 2023 at 16:09
  • @Tim: I wouldn't want to name names because they're the ones who decide, not me. Jul 27, 2023 at 18:03
  • @JohnLawler don't be afraid. you can name them, and delete your comment after I tell you I have seen it.
    – Tim
    Jul 27, 2023 at 23:16
  • No, I have no idea what, if any, name either book gives to its theory. Indeed, many such grammars claim not to have any theory (this is largely to avoid mentioning Chomsky), which means they can't pay attention to grammatical rules except occasionally. Jul 27, 2023 at 23:31
  • @JohnLawler It's worth noting that Pullum says Chomsky "has turned the discipline of syntactic theory into a personality cult." I'm willing to believe that CGEL was written purely to annoy those who consider generative approaches more modern.
    – alphabet
    Jul 27, 2023 at 23:45
  • @alphabet I'm no fonder of Chomsky's theories than Geoff is. But theories are to be used, and if they work, you don't need yet more. Generative grammar works, as McCawley's work shows; but it's free of most of Chomsky's later improvements and obiter dicta. Jul 28, 2023 at 1:57
  • @JohnLawler By "Geoff", did you mean "Geoffrey Leech" or "Geoffrey K. Pullum"?
    – Tim
    Jul 28, 2023 at 6:34
  • Geoff Pullum, an old colleague. Never met Geoffrey Leech. Pullum was the last quoted, in @alphabet's comment. Jul 28, 2023 at 14:44
  • @alphabet What approach does CGEL adopt, if not generative?
    – Tim
    Jul 28, 2023 at 15:35

@alphabet's answer covers professional grammars. The problem with the other category ("people who are neither linguists nor linguistics students") is that there are no "standard" grammar texts for them. That's like asking what is the standard text on vector calculus for people who have no prior math beyond multiplication tables and long division.

Anglophone education (excluding ESOL) does not teach students anything about the sounds of the language, nor its actual grammar and usage, because the systems all assume their students are native speakers, and therefore don't have to study that. Far more effort is devoted to "mastering" the complex English spelling system than to the equally complex sound system.

As for grammar, pseudo-Latin gobbledegook predominates, and teachers whose own teachers have never learned Latin make up their own paraphrases and create their own educational theories. All of this has to be left behind if you really want a book that teaches you something, so in fact you hafta study some linguistics just to be able to follow anything that tells the truth about English grammar, because Anglophone students are usually educationally deprived. Not your fault, of course.

For that purpose, I recommend either of David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedias: of Language, or of the English Language. Or both; there's little overlap. Both have good glossaries and references and cover everything, and they're cheap and fun to read.

  • 2
    I second your recommendation. Those are two wonderful books about language for the non-specialist.
    – Shoe
    Jul 25, 2023 at 7:56
  • @Shoe Are David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedias: of Language, or of the English Language for non-linguists?
    – Tim
    Jul 27, 2023 at 14:28
  • 1
    @Tim. Yes. The books were written for non-linguists, although they too will find much of interest in them. The layout of the books is very attractive with each topic typically covered in a two-page spread containing photos, diagrams, graphs or maps. Three two-page topics covered in the English Language book are: The Rise of Prescriptive Grammar, Canadian English and Verbal Humour.
    – Shoe
    Jul 27, 2023 at 16:05

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