How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction

Anne Curzan / Michael P. Adams  
Total pages
July 2013
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How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction
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This accessible introduction to the structure of English, general theories in linguistics, and important issues in sociolinguistics, is the first text written specifically for English and Education majors.

This engaging introductory language/linguistics textbook provides more extensive coverage of issues of particular interest to English majors and future English instructors. It invites all students to connect academic linguistics to the everyday use of the English language around them. The book’s approach taps students’ natural curiosity about the English language. Through exercises and discussion questions about ongoing changes in English, How English Works asks students to become active participants in the construction of linguistic knowledge.


  • Focuses on issues especially important to English majors, such as American dialects, descriptive and prescriptive approaches to English grammar, the history of English, English spelling, stylistics, language attitudes, and language education.
  • Current examples and exercises tie the linguistic material to students’ everyday experiences with the English language. Each chapter opens with a scenario that highlights key issues covered in the chapter.
  • Featuring a building block approach, the text begins with an introduction to the foundations of systematic language study and the relationship of language and authority in chapters 1 and 2, and then progresses “up” through the levels of language structure, from phonology through syntax and semantics to discourse and sociolinguistics.
  • Focuses on the social and political issues surrounding the English language.
  • Attention to the history of English throughout the text culminates in two final chapters focused on the past and future of English.
  • Includes a wealth of useful pedagogical material, clarifying or detailing text topics and prompting student participation: Discussion, Scholar Profile, and Linguistic Inquiry boxes; in-chapter exercises; end-of-chapter suggested readings; and a glossary of linguistic terminology.

New to this Edition

  • New and updated material on electronically-mediated communication such as texting and etiquette of instant messaging.
  • A major new section on literature and speech with tools for reading and analyzing literary works and speech acts.
  • A new explanation of where (some) contractions, like ain't , fit into English word formation
  • An extended discussion of attitudes about language focusing on the debate between those who believe English is decaying to those who feel language is change is natural.
  • An improved section on 'what makes good writing.'

Table of Contents

Brief Contents




Inside Front Cover  Dialect Map of American English, Consonant Phonemes of American English, Vowel Phonemes of American English

Inside Back Cover Brief Timeline for the History of the English Language

Detailed Contents

List of Symbols, Linguistic Conventions, and Common Abbreviations 

What’s New to This Edition  

Preface to Instructors   

Letter to Students   


Chapter 1     A Language like English 

Chapter 2 Language and Authority 

Chapter 3 English Phonology 

Chapter 4 English Morphology 

Chapter 5 English Syntax: The Grammar of Words 

Chapter 6 English Syntax: Phrases, Clauses, and Sentences 

Chapter 7 Semantics 

Chapter 8 Spoken Discourse 

Chapter 9 Stylistics 

Chapter 10   Language Acquisition 

Chapter 11   Language Variation 

Chapter 12   American Dialects 

Chapter 13   History of English: Old to Early Modern English 

Chapter 14   History of English: Modern and Future English 




Detailed Table of Contents



Inside Front Cover Consonant Phonemes of English, Vowel Phonemes of English, Phonetic Alphabet for American English

Inside Back Cover Brief Timeline for the History of the English Language

List of Symbols, Linguistic Conventions, and Common Abbreviations  xviii

What’s New to This Edition   

Preface to Instructors   

Letter to Students  


Chapter 1   A Language Like English 

The Story of Aks 

Language, Language Everywhere 

The Power of Language 

Name Calling 

Judging by Ear 

A Question to Discuss: What Makes Us Hear an Accent?

The System of Language 

Arbitrariness and Systematicity 

A Scholar to Know: Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) 




Human Language versus Animal Communication 

Birds and Bees 

Chimps and Bonobos 

Distinctive Characteristics of Human Language 

The Process of Language Change 

Language Genealogies 

A Question to Discuss: Can Your Language Peeves Be Rethought? 

Mechanics of Language Change 

Progress or Decay? 

Special Focus: Attitudes about Language Change 


Suggested Reading 



Chapter 2 Language and Authority 

Who Is in Control? 

Language Academies 

Language Mavens 

A Question to Discuss: Does the SAT Know Good Grammar from Bad? 

Defining Standard English

Descriptive versus Prescriptive Grammar Rules 

Case Study One: Multiple Negatives 

Case Study Two: Ain’t 

Case Study Three: Who and Whom<