English 402, Descriptive English Grammar

or, Everything you wanted to know about the English language, but were afraid to ask . . .

Fall 2015

Instructor: Dennis BaronWelcome English Teachers. Can opener, $9.95; may opener, $19.95
office: 251 English
phone: 217-305-0067
email: debaron@illinois.edu
office hours: Tu Th 11 am - 12:00 pm, and by appointment

class meets Tu Th 2 - 3:15 pm; 104 English Building

This is a course in English linguistics. We will study the English language: how we use it; how it uses us. We will learn and practice techniques for describing English, both its words and sentences and larger elements of discourse in context. We will look at the social, historical, and political forces that shape language and its use. And we will suggest ways to use what we learn about language both in the classroom and in the professional world.


Class policies --


Attendance: This is a discussion course. Your presence is essential, as is your participation. Excessive absence and poor preparation will affect your final grade.


Assignments: first hourly, 25%; second hourly, 25%; final exam, 40%; class participation, 10% (attendance is not participation).

Text: Curzan, Anne, and Michael Adams, How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction. 3rd ed., New York: Pearson. (C&A in the syllabus)



Week 1

Tu Aug 25: Why do you watch Dr. Who, not Dr. Whom, or, What is grammar good for?

Watch: Sherlock Holmes, prescriptive grammarian

Sherlock Holmes

And this clip, from "The Book Group":

And don't forget "Flight of the Conchords":

And "The WIre," season 2:

And this, from "Take the Money and Run":


Th Aug 27: But there have to be rules, right?

Read the excerpt from The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Now, pedants have their own version of Twitter:

Tweet "whom" to follow

Oxford Dictionaries (not to be confused with the OED) add 1,000 new words in quarterly update: mkay?

Week 2

Tu Sep 1 What do you know about language?

Speech codes and language bans: are they legal? educational?

The NASA plaque.


Nasa plaque













and this from the Washington Post, on the record placed in Voyager 1 and 2

Here's what NASA has to say about the Golden Record:

Voyager golden record

And here's an update, from the UK, about what message to beam into space today.

Can you identify this mystery language: The language of Fug.

Th Sep 3 What have you been told about language? How do you know if it’s right? 

Read C&A ch. 1.

Slides for chapter 1: A language like English

Randy Cohen on Axe for ask

"Enough of this [expletive deleted]": cursing in the 21st century

George Washington on profanity

George Washington is shocked, shocked to discover
that soldiers swear and use profanity.

Taboo: Watch the swearing scene from The King's Speech

From the King's Speech

Week 3

Tu Sep 8:  Language and authority -- What is standard English, and who said so?

Read C&A ch. 2

Lets go Illini Old Navy t-shirt with no apostrophe

Back to school special: In 2011 Old Navy offered 30% off this "Lets go Illini" women's T-shirt -- apparently you only got the apostrophe in "let's go" if you paid full price. The company quickly replaced the defective shirts and offered anything still on the shelves in Old Navy Outlets as factory second's (sic). These t's with typos were "made in USA," not in some non-English-speaking third-world country by child laborers too poor to have apostrophes. To insure quality control, the retailer announced plans to hire unemployed English majors as clothing proofreaders. Or should that be ensure? Hey, it's better than driving a cab.

In further correctness news, Weird Al Yankovic (left) edits signs over express lanes in fine grocery stores everywhere, but at Whole Foods in Lincoln Park (right), less is always fewer:

Weird Al corrects 10 items or less to 10 items or fewer

Th Sep 10: Language and authority, continued: the nature of correctness

Slides for chapter 2: Language and authority

Read Grammar sticklers may have OCD

Then read, Why did 20,000 readers misread this?

Then read: Language lessons: It's time for English teachers to stop teaching that the world is flat

Sir Philip Sidney on the Double Negative

John Witherspoon on don't, an't.

Webster's Third New International Dictionary entry for ain't

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 11e, entry for ain't

American Heritage Dictionary 5e, entry for ain't

XKCD: I could care less

Week 4

Tu Sep 15: Phonology

Read C&A ch. 3 English phonology. How the sounds of English combine to make words.

Slides for Chapter 3: Phonology

Descent of the larynx: it allows for great variety of sounds, but increases risk of choking: human babies and dogs can swallow food while breathing through their nose; adult humans, whose larynx is descended, can't do this (don't even think about trying this!).

Descent of the larynx

Endoscopic view of the larynx at work:

Watch: X-ray movie of the speech organs:

X-ray of speech organss

Th Sep 17: Phonology, continued.

Week 5

Tu Sep 22: phonology, concluded: phonological rules. That nagging question about spelling


Week 6

Tu Sep 29: English morphology: forming words from meaning-bearing parts; C&A ch. 4.

Assignment: "New Word Exercise" for Thursday.  

Th Oct 1: Morphology, continued

Week 7

Tu Oct 6: Morphology, concluded

Th Oct 8: English syntax I: the grammar of words put together into utterances. Read C&A ch. 5

The parts of speech (the Greeks called them "pieces of speech").

When is a noun more than the name of a person, place or thing? 

Schoolhouse Rock has one way to view the parts of speech


A Noun is a Person Place or Thing

But sometimes things get more complicated:

Play the Noun Game to see how a simple grammar lesson leads to a clash of civilizations.

Week 8

Tu Oct 13: Syntax, Ch. 5, continued.

Acceptable v. grammatical

form v. function

characteristics of nouns, adjectives, and verbs

excerpt from Lowth's grammarTh Oct 15: Syntax, ch. 5, continued

verbs and adverbs

the closed classes of words

descriptive syntax v. prescriptive rules

Week 9

Tu Oct 20: Syntax II, Read C&A ch. 6: phrases, clauses, sentences.

universal grammar

generative and transformational syntax

sentence as a unit of structure

Crash blossoms

Syntax II powerpoint pdf.

Read "Smarter than you think"

Th Oct 22: Syntax II, continued

Phrase structure rules and tree diagrams

disambiguation and deep structure

relative clauses

tense and aux

Week 10

Tu Oct 27: Syntax II, continued

Transformations: questions; relative pronoun deletion; active/passive

Th Oct 29: Syntax II, concluded

Week 11

Tu Nov 3: Prep for Second Hourly

Review questions

Syntax 1 slides

Syntax 2 slides

Th Nov 5: Second Hourly

Week 12

Tu Nov 10: Semantics, What does it all mean?  Read C&A, ch. 7

Michael Rosen: In grammar, there isn't always one right answer

Semantics pdf.

Sir James A. H. Murray on, "the dictionary says..."


Dr. Johnson's definition of man (1755)

Th Nov 12: Semantics, concluded

Week 13

Tu Nov 17: How to do things with words: Read C&A ch. 8, Spoken Discourse

A Literal Paradox

When do speech acts count? Watch: Excerpt from Four Weddings and a Funeral

Four Weddings and a Funeral

And irregular speech acts occur in real life, not just in movies:

Chief Justice Roberts administers the oath of office to Barack Obama

Chief Justice Roberts administers the oath of office to Barack Obama

Read: Chief Justice flubs oath

Speech Analysis Powerpoint

Th Nov 19: Stylistics. C&A ch. 9 Word choice in literature and in life.

Is "Double Falsehood" really a play by Shakespeare?

Stylistics powerpoint

Thanksgiving Break

Week 14

Tu Dec 1: Language variation.  The more things change, the more they're different. C&A ch. 11.

Variation slides

Th Dec 3:

African American English:

Read James Baldwin, If Black English isn't a language, then tell me, what is?

Read Baron, Ebonics and the Politics of English

Tu Dec 8: There oughta be a law: Minority languages in the United States

Official English and the controversy over the Spanish translation of the "Star-Spangled Banner" 

Read, Baron, "English spoken here."

The English Language Unity Act (2015 version)

Final Exam:

The exam is a take-home, open-book test with three short essays, to be submitted via email attachment. Instructions for submitting your test appear on the exam link.

Click here for the Final Examination