SIEG begins with the distinctions between formal and informal and standard and non-standard language, and between prescriptive and descriptive grammar; this is followed by a rapid overview of basic linguistics and grammatical terminology. Chapters then look at verbs, clause structure, nouns and noun phrases, adjectives, negation, clause types, subordination, relatives clauses, grade and comparison, non-finite clauses, coordination, information packaging, and morphology.
This is extensively illustrated with examples and clearly laid out, with consistent and clear notation. A page or two of exercises are included at the end of each chapter: these are mostly simple tests of understanding. There are also occasional "prescriptive grammar notes" in side boxes — these are not prescriptive injunctions, but rather describe ways in which common prescriptivist rules are misguided or just plain wrong.
Huddleston and Pullum draw on the latest research, having "frequently found that pronouncements unchallenged for 200 years are in fact flagrantly false". They make no attempt to canvass the full range of modern syntactic theories, however, and they emphasize concrete structures over abstractions, so anyone who has studied traditional grammar will find most of SIEG familiar. One notable feature is a rigorous distinction between formal categories and functional roles, with single forms often having multiple functions ("fusion") and a rethinking of the classification of some prepositions, conjunctions, auxiliaries, and modals.
SIEG could be browsed or used as a reference, but it is organised pedagogically and makes most sense used as a textbook and worked through sequentially. Huddleston and Pullum believe "that every educated person in the English-speaking world should know something about the details of the grammar of English", but SIEG is aimed more narrowly, at students of English or linguistics. It doesn't assume any prior knowledge of grammar or linguistics, but it is pretty solid and those without any background at all in formal approaches to language (or possibly computer science or mathematics) are likely to find it daunting. It also assumes native or near-native levels of competence; it is not a text for second language learners.
SIEG is clearly and accessibly presented, however, and is difficult because English is complex. It is not as simple as the popular rants about usage that have had such a high profile recently, but it has a lot more substance to it. Those prepared to put in a bit of effort will find not just engrossing details but a coherent framework for understanding English.
- Related reviews:
- Geoffrey K. Pullum - The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax: And Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language
- books about the English language
- books about linguistics
- books published by Cambridge University Press