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Parsing the English Language

Professor Christina Tortora (College of Staten Island, The Graduate Center, CUNY) has written a “DIY manual” for learning syntax and grammar. Understanding Sentence Structure appears as part of the textbook series Linguistics in the World, which is meant to help readers learn about language in practical ways. As Tortora explains in the introduction, “The reader I have in mind has never thought about syntax and doesn’t know anything about grammar.”

Beginning with the basics of analyzing — or parsing — sentences, Tortora moves through other topics like verb phrases, prepositional phrases, complex noun phrases, and simple and compound tenses. Writing about the complications of the present perfect tense, she says it’s “neither a present nor a past, but rather, it expresses a kind of hybrid between the two.” Take this sentence, for example: “Sue has always loved New York City.” What makes the tense “different from the present tense is that here, the present perfect expresses that the state in question (enjoyment, love, respect) started to hold at some point in the past,” Tortora writes.

Before assembling the textbook, Tortora used chapters to teach her own students. In fact, as she told SUM, “What I loved the most about designing this textbook was doing it in tandem with teaching the kind of class that I knew people would use the book for.” Rather than put exercises at the end of chapters — once students have studied several different points — she builds them throughout each section. It’s a method she employs in her classes. “I introduce a piece of the puzzle, but before moving on to the next, more complex concept, the students need to digest the bit we just covered on their own,” she explained. “This method turned out to work just as well in written form.”

Whether seasoned writers want a refresher, or new speakers of English need help with nuances, Understanding Sentence Structure offers a useful step-by-step journey through the English language. “This means it can be used in many different ways,” Tortora writes, adding, “teachers can use it to learn how to teach others; teachers can use it in the classroom with students; or students can use it to teach themselves.”

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Christina Tortora (Professor, English) | Profile 1 | Profile 2