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English linguistics for semiliterates

By Domenico Pacitti

An Elementary Introduction to English Linguistics by Marcella Bertuccelli Papi. Published in 2001 by Edizioni ETS, Pisa, 244 pages, €13.43, ISBN: 88 467 0329 4.

Since Mrs Bertuccelli's text was published two years ago, it has been staple required reading for some 300 first-year Italian students of English who follow her courses and take her final examination. These students pay annual fees of  €1,100 for the privilege of studying at the University of Pisa's modern languages faculty but are they getting value for money?

Mrs Bertuccelli's book consists in a haphazard and rather disjointed attempt to re-state familiar descriptive material on a number of topics relating to English linguistics. These include (in order) spelling and pronunciation, morphology, syntax, semantics and some notes on the history of the English language. Mrs Bertuccelli also adds erroneous examples of 'model sentences' and misleading exercises that appear to be entirely original. The preface, which in customary Italian academic style contains no acknowledgements, expresses the author's hope that her book will prove stimulating. But although most of the facts appear to have survived their re-statement by Mrs Bertuccelli, the result is sloppy, confused and decidedly discouraging for students.

Mrs Bertuccelli seems to be ignorant of basic English sentence formation. This takes the form of consistently using commas instead of conjunctions to join main clauses, as in the following examples:

“Statement (1) is not explicit enough to be tested and therefore proven or disproven, it is verifiable." (p.1); "The sequence of words 'The dog bit the man' is a grammatical sentence of English, the sequence of words 'Dog the man bit the' is ungrammatical." (p.5).

It also takes the form of consistently failing to end a sentence in a full stop:

“English is easier than other European languages" (p.1); English is a more beautiful language than German" (p.5);

or else of combining both:

"English is genetically related to Swedish, it is not related to Finnish" (p.5).

Conversely, Mrs Bertuccelli erroneously uses full stops to punctuate phrases:

"Make frame from steel tubing." (p.8); "Attach handlebars to frame." (p.9)

Despite a chapter on spelling, Mrs Bertuccelli's own misspellings include the following:

"Hjelmeslev", "Andrè Martinet", "archaelogy", "cangaroo", "copyst", "embarassing" and "mimicing".

Nor does Mrs Bertuccelli fare much better at lexical choice:

"Time is what you do of it." (p.175)

or prepositions:

"[...] J.L. Austin [...] attracted the attention of linguists and philosophers on the fact that [...]." (p.177)

She also manages to confuse students on use of the apostrophe:

"When I go away next week, I'am taking the car" (p.127),

again, naturally, without the final full stop.

Not content with murdering English, Mrs Bertuccelli proceeds to murder French. In the course of a paragraph on loanwords she writes:

"deraciné", "maitre d'hótel", "cháteau", "soi-disan" and "esprit de corp" (p.225).

Perhaps in a last-ditch attempt to cut down on the howlers, Mrs Bertuccelli has decided to scrap a number of pages from her book altogether. Even the most determined student who has reached page 67 will hardly find it "stimulating" to see that page 68 has been completely omitted, as have pages 71, 74, 75, 78, 79, 82, 83, 86 and 216.

Given the large number of excellent textbooks on the subject, given Mrs Bertuccelli's conspicuous inability to produce anything of remotely similar quality and given the fact that Italian students deserve value for money rather than a course for semiliterates, one wonders exactly whose needs are being served here.

Following the publication of this book, Mrs Bertuccelli was officially recommended for a promoted post in English linguistics at the University of Pisa's faculty of modern languages.

Note: This review was first published by JUST Book Reviews on June 8 2003.