Book of the Month
Painless Grammar
Publisher: Barron's
Author: Rebecca Elliot

ISBN 9780 7641 47128


This book can't decide whether 'normal' grammar is scary - as shown by the quivering 'scaredy cat' on the cover, or 'dull and boring' as the author says in the introduction. Either way, the writer says that it is time to think again. Yes, this is yet another textbook which claims to have found a whole new way to teach grammar so that it is exciting and interesting, but which is in fact a reasonably standard modern English grammar book. This does not mean that it is a bad book, especially if you are considering using it with the target reader, which is an American teenager. How other students take this book depends on how much they would like to enter the world of an American teen. For example, the description of words in a sentence as being like players in a football team is international enough, until the author goes on to say the words have different jobs just as linemen and quarterbacks do. However the American identity of the text gives it a particular flavour rather than interfering with its usefulness, and as with all flavours, whether you like this one is a matter of taste. Another thing to note is that the text assumes that readers will use English to communicate in the modern world, so it describes using the language in social media and in emails. The author has a Ph.D, so one assumes that the use of wrong examples in the text is deliberate. Even though the examples are clearly marked as 'wrong' in the text, many books (and this website) use such examples sparingly, because an example of bad English sticks in the mind as easily as a good example and sometimes the user forgets which is which.

The book is now in its third edition, so enough students like the approach for Barron's to keep republishing it. In this edition the pages had a rather 'recycled' feel which is very different from the glossy magazine-style pages of some textbooks. This may explain the very reasonable price of the book, and some people, including this reviewer, actually prefer this sort of page. There are line drawings rather than colour pictures illustrating the text, and these are appropriate and well-done, as is the overall layout. Little boxes giving tips on grammar and language use are scattered throughout the text. These have each a picture of a little cat's paw on them so as to continue the 'scaredy cat' theme on the cover. The early chapters take the student through the parts of speech - nouns, verbs and so on. The text uses examples more than theory. As we move through the book, the emphasis moves away from grammar into proper use of English, with later chapters dealing with pronunciation and 'cleaning up' messy sentences. To show poor writing style, we have for example 'Michael and David's fingers' which suggests that the boys have only one set of fingers between them. Furthermore, things like the difference between 'I like you better than he' and I like you better than him' are clearly explained. In fact the explanations throughout the book are clear, and the emphasis is on practical things the student can do with English, such as editing a school paper. As with a standard textbook, there are regular tests. These are called 'brain ticklers'. It is unlikely that this re-naming convinces many students or makes the tests more fun, but the tests themselves are a good check that the student has learned the material in the previous chapters. There is also an online app which students who have purchased the book can download on to their smart phones or tablets. We did not have the opportunity to test this and so cannot comment on the quality or discover how often it is updated.

Who is this book for? This book is designed as a friendly way of learning to use English. The theory of grammar is only briefly explained and instead students are encouraged to learn by looking at examples of good and bad usage. Though, as stated above, the target audience is an American teenager, the book is suitable for any student who is interested in the US lifestyle and likes to learn English by seeing the language in practical use in a modern setting. Not many teenagers today write 'thank you' notes to their hosts after a dinner party. In today's world, learning instead how to write a lively narrative email is much more useful and this book does that sort of thing well. This is not a suitable book for someone who needs to learn grammar, but is recommended for someone who wants to use and better understand grammar that has been already learned.

Verdict: Good with examples, poor with theory
Assessment 7/10
Previous book reviews