Brown, David West. In Other Words: Lessons on Grammar, Code-switching, and Academic Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2009.
Brown’s book is a collection of lesson plans about nonstandard and standard language patterns, including discussions of “like,” “ain’t,” zero copula, and habitual "be." Though many English teachers might accuse Brown of teaching “bad English,” his stated goal is “to help students develop greater facility with Standard English and to help them improve their academic writing” (xi). As Brown explains, “In trying to achieve that goal, the materials in this book approach students’ existing competence with and knowledge of language as a resource to be drawn upon rather than an obstacle to be overcome. If students can become more aware of the linguistic choices they already make, if their inchoate knowledge of English grammar can become more conscious and intentional, their emerging awareness can be applied to the kinds of choices and tasks called for in academic writing” (xi). Students who are speakers of nonstandard varieties of English may find the exercises in Brown’s book useful for adjusting to standard English. Though the book is likely directed at students before they arrive at college, college instructors may find the book a valuable resource for helping students having trouble with writing at the college level, which often isn’t because they use “bad grammar,” but because they have learned the grammar of a different system of English and are having trouble adjusting to the new rules of another system. For, as Brown notes, “Grammar is far more than a well-defined, ageless set of prescriptive rules. It is a complex intersection of linguistic systems and social expectations that is sometimes ambiguous and always changing” (xviii). Furthermore, in addition to discussing the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar (xvi), the odd and often arbitrary historical background of some grammatical rules (xvii), and language variation (xviii), Brown also provides a handy introduction to ideas of functional grammar, similar to those of M.A.K. Halliday. For example, Brown discusses extensively such syntactic arrangements as topic/comment (72), theme/rheme (72), and known/new (85). These ideas for analyzing and understanding sentence and paragraph organization and meaning making will be useful to students who already have a firm grasp on standard English, and instructors may find the entire book eye-opening in its approach to language instruction. We hope soon to have a copy of the book available in our writing instruction library in the Ursuline Studies office, but in the meantime it can be ordered through OhioLINK.