Volume 4 (2013) Issue 2 - Book Review Smith
JLLT Volume 4 (2013) Issue 2.pdf

Journal of Linguistics and Language Teaching

Volume 4 (2013) Issue 2 (PDF)

pp. 139-142

Martin Durrell: Hammer’s GERMAN Grammar and Usage. London: Hodder Educational 52011. 553 pages (ISBN 978 1 444 12016 5)

Years of language teaching have taught me that a good grammar is worth its weight in gold but that same experience has taught me that a good grammar is the last thing that students think of buying. For most, their school or university course book is the reference work of choice when problems arise, so a grammar has to be particularly useful and usable if it is going to persuade students to actually buy it. To be useful, it has to be a comprehensive and up-to-date presentation of the language concerned since the average learner will probably only buy one grammar in a lifetime. To be usable, it has to have an easily recognisable system of classifying grammatical features and, most important, a good, reliable index.

First published in 1971 and now in its fifth edition, Hammer’s German Grammar and Usage (HGG&U) has gained a reputation as a solid work of reference for the English-speaking learner who has already mastered the basics of German and is “serious about studying German” (blurb on the back cover). This popular and highly-praised volume has received a number of euphoric 5-star reviews on Amazon, which reveal quite a lot about the nature of the work: for instance that it is appreciated for its detail and its use of known terminology, that generations of the same family are still using it, both as learners and teachers of German and that it is considered indispensable for advanced study at a university. So, we can deduce that it covers German grammar as comprehensively as possible, that it takes a traditional approach using a well-known descriptive meta-language and that its continuity over the years is considered a merit. It is geared to the particular needs of the English speaker, or, as Durrell states in his preface (p. xiii), the learner using English as a lingua franca. In the latter case, a good command of English and insight into English grammar is certainly necessary.

As well as being descriptive, HGG&U also highlights the contrasts between English and German. The first chapter on nouns, for example, immediately plunges the student into a discussion of gender and why it will be a problem for the English-speaking learner. Later on, there are special sections on how to deal with those ubiquitous English –ing forms which have no direct equivalent in German or how to cope with forms which have no direct equivalent in English like the “subjectless” passive (“Es wird getanzt” p. 300), but which are equally ubiquitous in German. Hence, the reader will probably end up learning quite a lot about the workings of English as well as German.

In his preface, Durrell points out that HGG&U follows the traditional grammar organisational pattern based on parts of speech. This means that discourse structures beyond word and phrase level and functional views of grammar cannot really be accommodated. The approach to grammar does not fit in easily with current ways of learning a language, be they communicative, interactional or holistic, where the focus is on using, where possible, prefabricated units of discourse, “chunks”, which can be “slotted into” the appropriate context without the necessity for cognitive intervention, such as checking for gender, case, agreement, etc., which would slow down communication. The use of formulaic language is considered to permit learners to grow accustomed to language patterns which are highly frequent without having to analyse the grammar first. HGG&U originated during a different language learning paradigm and has a different goal: its strength lies in enabling the users to analyse German grammar and to form grammatically correct utterances from the smallest unit of grammar upwards.

Although attempts have been made to include spoken language, and Durrell emphasises this goal in his preface, the examples of spoken usage appear to have been largely drawn from TV and radio sources rather than every-day conversation. The author cites the corpus of German established by the Institut für deutsche Sprache (Mannheim, Germany), but it is not clear to what extent the spoken corpus served as a source for the examples of colloquial speech. In any case, the grammatical items are rarely embedded in stretches of discourse longer than a single line. This means that some items lack the context which would be appropriate for understanding the particular grammatical phenomenon better. Chapter 10 on modal particles is a case in point: as a predominantly spoken phenomenon, the modal particles lend themselves well to contextualisation to demonstrate their use. As they are presented here, however, they appear as a daunting list of items to be learned by heart rather than expressions that will add a really important dimension of meaning to an utterance. This shows once more that HGG&U would appear to be more appropriate for formal learning environments or self-study rather than communicative or task-based learning.

Durrell implies in his preface that he might have undertaken a more thorough re-write of the book, but preferred to limit revisions largely to bringing the examples up to date as many “potential” users might be confused by more radical changes. In fact, had Durrell taken the opportunity to rework the text more radically, it would no longer be “Hammer”! Clearly, this would not have been in the publisher’s interest.

HGG&U is organised in 23 chapters, each with various subdivisions. Chapter 1 starts with Nouns, covering gender, plural forms and “declension”. This division is intuitively helpful in some respects, but it is rather strange that the reader has to wait until Chapter 2, which is dedicated to the concept of case, in order to discover the function of declension and why the inflectional tables need to be studied carefully. Still, Chapter 1 demonstrates the procedure that will be adopted in all subsequent chapters: after naming the topic, it is described succinctly in non-technical language and sometimes accompanied by a learning tip, such as, under Gender, “Foreign learners are usually recommended to learn German words with their gender” (p. 1), and, under Plurals, “… to learn the plural of each noun with the noun” (p. 14), etc. Each chapter and section has a wealth of examples, as one would expect, given the complexity of German grammar, most of which are extremely useful, but one wonders if it is necessary to include examples like

In colloquial German this dative plural –n is sometimes omitted, and one may even see notices such as Eis mit Früchte. [sic] This is considered incorrect. (p. 26).

This is not an isolated example: HGG&U goes into this level of detail (albeit using a smaller font) at numerous points, but the question arises whether it would not be preferable to omit this type of detail since it may well be confusing for the intermediate student, while being obvious to the advanced student (cf. also p. 45 on confusing dative and accusative (…mit einer Tasse heißen Tee) or p. 97, the use of “wo” as a non-standard regionalism (… die Frau, wo jetzt kommt) or p. 233, Southern German regional variations omitting the umlaut (… sie schlaft)). Especially for less competent learners, a focus on the essential features, without mentioning unusual items which may occur in spoken German, but which many students will never encounter, would seem more useful.

Returning to the chapter overview, HGG&U continues with chapters related to the noun phrase. Chapter 3 on Personal Pronouns has a pertinent discussion on du and Sie, also including the archaic use of Er and Sie as pronouns of address. This could easily have been omitted, being another item that students are unlikely to encounter except in older literature where the meaning will be obvious. Translations into English of the examples under “impersonal es”, such as “es fehlt mir an Geld”, would have been more useful. Chapter 4, The Articles, covers the differences between English and German usage comprehensively, but then again, it is not clear why some examples are translated and others not. Chapter 5 deals with Other Determiners and Pronouns while Chapter 6 covers Adjectives and Chapter 7, Adverbs. Chapter 8 covers Comparison of Adjectives and Adverbs with Chapter 9 on Numerals, followed by Chapter 10 on Modal Particles and Chapter 11 on Expressions of Time.

Chapter 11 is partly a preview of Chapter 20 on Prepositions but also includes the adverbials (cf. Chapter 7) frequently used in time expressions, but its position in the table of contents appears to be unjustified on any logical grounds. Martin Durrell himself states that he had considered dividing the material between the adverbials and preposition chapters but, with the user in mind, decided in favour of retaining the chapter as originally conceived. From a learner's perspective, it is probably true that Expressions of Time are more usefully clustered in the manner given in Chapter 11 as learners are quite likely to need a complete overview of the topic, rather than leafing through different chapters. It might have been better, however, to shift this chapter in its entirety to the end of the book as an appendix, as it does not fit in well with the parts-of-speech organisation. The same could be said for Chapter 10 on Modal Particles, which is placed before any of the “verb” chapters. It seems strange to speak about speaker intentions and attitudes before clause structure has been discussed. Granted, some of these particles function as adverbs (cf. p. 176), but, generally speaking, their meanings become clearer when they are embedded in a longer stretch of discourse which includes clauses.

Chapter 12 deals with verb conjugation with of all the tenses and the principle parts of strong and irregular verbs. On p. 230, the option of omitting the “-e” in the imperative of “warte” is not given along with other examples of this phenomenon although this is quite frequent in spoken German. In this chapter, we find a definition of “separable” verbs but not before the concept of “inseparable” verbs has been slipped in, without comment. Both of these types of verb are dealt with in detail later (Ch. 22), but it would be worthwhile briefly defining the distinction when the “inseparables” are first introduced. At this point (p. 233), the typography, which is generally excellent, is somewhat confusing as the alphabetic listing gets entangled with the (Roman) numeric listing, so (i) (intended to be alphabetic) follows (iii) (as a numeral). A further confusion arises on p. 235: we learn here that the “past participle of the modal auxiliaries is rarely used”, which is true enough, only to learn on p. 269 that the past participle is “occasionally” used (“sie hat arbeiten gemusst”), but that such usage is regarded as incorrect. This attention to unnecessary detail has already been mentioned as confusing as well as a waste of space: the focus should be unambiguously on contemporary German, rather than archaisms, and certainly not on incorrect and infrequent usage.

Chapter 13 takes up the use of the infinitive and the ways of dealing with English –ing-forms. This is a complex topic for English-speaking students to come to terms with, but the presentation is clear and well-illustrated. The same can be said of Chapter 14, Uses of Tenses, where the lack of continuous / progressive tenses and differences in past tense use requires systematic study. Chapter 15 covers The Passive, while Chapter 16, on Mood, introduces the learner to the imperative and the subjunctive. Here students are warned to be on their guard (p. 316) as “even educated native speakers [of German] are often uncertain and insecure” about how to use the subjunctive. HGG&U sensibly adopts German terminology, Konjunktiv I und Konjunktiv II, to describe the use of the subjunctive rather than using the English terminology, which English speakers are unlikely to know, and so reducing the complexity of the topic without oversimplifying it. On the whole, this chapter presents the topic clearly, with a number of interesting examples drawn from the press.

As I started reading HGG&U at p. 1 and then continued to the end, rather than dipping in, I was possibly more sensitive than normal users to the order of the chapters. In Chapter 16, we learn on p. 324 that when the word dass is omitted in reported speech, the subordinate clause word order reverts to the main clause order. Although the appropriate cross reference is given, sentence patterns are not covered until Chapter 18, the Verb Valency chapter. Main and subordinate clause word order could surely have been mentioned earlier even if there are reasons to postpone the detailed analysis of word order in general (also in Chapter 21) towards the end of the book.

Chapter 18, Valency, and Chapter 21, Word Order, are key chapters for the English-speaking learner on account of the tricky verb complementation patterns with prepositions, the position of the finite verb in main and subordinate clauses and the order of verbs at the end of the sentence. Table 21.1, which gives a clear summary of basic German word order in sentences, could well have been placed in a more prominent position, or even as an appendix for quick and easy reference. Otherwise these two chapters are very clear and informative, especially the note on the time-honoured time-manner-place rule for the order of adverbials, which all learners are taught but which is actually misleading. As is often the case, simple rules of thumb do not stand up to a thorough examination.

For the sake of a complete overview, Chapter 19 covers Conjunctions and Subordination, Chapter 20, Prepositions and Chapter 22, Word Formation with helpful tips on neologisms, especially from English. Chapter 23 is a substantially revised chapter on Spelling, Pronunciation and Punctuation. This concludes the Grammar and fills the reader in on the controversies surrounding the spelling reform. Durrell succeeds in demystifying much of the confusion though capitalisation (or not) in preposition plus noun compounds (e.g. anhand vs. an Hand) still remains vague even to L1 speakers, as shown in various recently published sources. The alternative spellings of so dass and sodass have been noted, but the essential meaning difference is relegated to a totally different chapter since this is a conjunction rather than an adverb like the other so- compounds. Nevertheless it is retrievable with the help of the reliable cross-referencing. Punctuation rules are dealt with clearly and the L2 student following them may well fare better than many a German L1 student, if my experience with student texts in Austria is anything to go by.

My reading of HGG&U was influenced both by my role as a learner of German as well as that of a language professional. So I had a very close look at the section where I detect my own particular bugbear – the gender of nouns. While case (in Chapter 2) in German may be considered to be a problem for learners with an L1 such as English, which has relatively little morphology in comparison, the true problem in hitting the correct case ending is sorting out the gender in the first place so that the correct ending can be added. What appears to be a violation of the case system is, more often than not, the right case ending but the wrong gender. This does not help much, but analysing the cause is sometimes half of the solution.

Right on page one, Durrell informs us that in 80% of German nouns, the gender can be recognised by the noun’s meaning, form (esp. ending) or plural formation. This reassuring news led me to believe I would finally be able to crack the gender problem with Prof. Durrell’s help. You may not have thought about this before, but makes of cars are all masculine – analogy with der Wagen? Hence, if you encounter die BMW, it refers to a motorbike (das Motorrad). Then there are names of rivers. Rivers inside Germany are all feminine (p. 2), with a few exceptions (p. 3), whereas the rivers outside Germany are mostly masculine (p. 2), except for those that end in “–e”. But what about die Wolga or der Rhein? And then there are those rivers “in regions which are no longer in Germany, Austria or Switzerland” (Durrell 2011:3) – whatever that may mean – which have native German names, and hence are feminine, apart from quite a few exceptions. Here we see that assigning gender is far from easy and that the 80% “promise” will still involve a lot of cognitive effort. “Gender” continues for the next ten pages, which may not seem a lot, but could take a lifetime for me to digest. This, however, may have more to do with the German language itself rather than HGG&U’s presentation of it.

There are clearly different reasons for choosing a grammar. For many students, a well-designed textbook will suffice, obviating the need for any additional reference work, so the question arises as to how such a grammar will complement the textbook and how it will be used in the context of the learning situation. Current approaches to second language learning (irrespective of the language concerned) tend to foreground communication, allowing the learners to use the language in simple situations at an early stage in the learning process. In this context, HGG&U may well be considered too daunting, seeing that it requires a knowledge of the grammatical meta-language and plenty of time for study.

Nevertheless, it is certainly the case that if used exclusively as a reference grammar by students who know at least basic German, the main criterion is ultimately the usefulness of the index in finding what you need to know quickly. In this case, the index worked extremely well in my spot checks: it appears to be comprehensive and the typographical highlighting of the different types of entry is very helpful.

Weighing about 1200 grams, HGG&U is relatively light in comparison with the Cambridge Grammar of English, with just over half the number of pages, but this miracle has only been achieved by filling some pages to the very bottom (e.g. pp. 511-513), allowing virtually no space for margin notes. I mention this perhaps trivial detail because nowadays the obvious attraction of having a bound book rather than an electronic format is the possibility of adding one’s own examples or mnemonics. Apart from this problem of layout, the text is thankfully virtually so free of typos that it is almost ungracious to mention the missing “l” in “Henkel [sic] trocken” (p. 120]

Reading Hammer’s GERMAN Grammar and Usage has been a fascinating experience, taking me back to my first German lessons as I recognised some of the very example sentences that I encountered decades ago. A comparison of this with contemporary English grammar teaching, where rules are less prominent, shows how different approaches to the learning of grammar can be and probably need to be. Although I find the accumulation of “rules” rather intimidating and miss the contexualisation of examples, I realise that, for the teacher or learner who has few opportunities for communicating with German speakers, the wealth of detail is actually its strength. In a subversive kind of way, I find it difficult to escape the attraction of this grammar, and while I shan’t be keeping it under my bed, as one of the Amazon reviewers advocates, it will certainly find a prominent place on my reference shelf and I can heartily recommend it for grammar junkies.


Prof. Dr. Veronica Smith

Alpen-Adria Universität Klagenfurt

Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik

Universitätsstraße 65-67

A-9020 Klagenfurt

E-mail: veronica.smith@aau.at