Swan, M., Walter, C., How English Works. A grammar practice book.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997
(0-19-431457-X, 8.70, with answers: 0-19-431456-1, 8.95)

Geert Claeys, P. Karellaan 48, 8310 Assebroek-Brugge

How English works is announced as a grammar practice book with a difference. It is pitched at intermediate to lower-advanced level and can be used for self-study or for studying at school. It is one of the growing number of interesting grammar practice books published over the last ten to fifteen years such as:

Is How English works really different from these and other grammar practice books? Not at first sight. It explains grammar rules and provides exercises with answers. (The book is also available without the answers for classroom purposes.) Yet, there are some interesting aspects to be pointed out about this book.

Before starting the learners can test themselves on three levels: basic points, intermediate points and advanced points. The key to these test sentences refers to the page where each grammar item is explained and corresponding exercises can be found.

Some grammar practice books explain a grammar rule and then give examples. Other ones first give language data and derive rules from them. How English works has opted for yet another way of presenting grammar. In some cases it gives the rule straight away, followed by examples. In other cases it gives examples first and the learners are prompted to find the rules themselves. This appeal to the learners’ intelligence is stimulating.

The grammar is prescriptive, but without being too strict, which is typical of grammar books produced by native speakers of English. Rules are sometimes modified by adverbs such as generally, mostly, often, usually, (not) normally etc.

A few grammar points are worth noticing. ‘To have’, used as an ordinary verb (with ‘to do’), is seen as a perfect alternative of ‘have got’, when meaning possession. Future tenses are linked to modality.

Yet some grammar rules covering the use of the tenses seem ambiguous or vague. A few examples.

1. Regular activities in the present can both be expressed by the present simple and the present continuous tense. The present continuous tense is used for unplanned activities.


When Alice comes, I always meet her at the station. (planned)
I’m always meeting Alice at the station. (unplanned)

But consider this example:

Granny is always giving us little presents. (unplanned?)

2. We often announce a piece of news with the present perfect. (What exactly is a piece of news?)

e.g. Lucy has had a baby girl. (If this is ‘a piece of news’ which statement is not ‘a piece of news’?)

When we give more detail, we usually change to the simple past. (What exactly is more detail?)

e.g. The firm has lost 3 million pounds. (Is 3 million pounds not ‘more detail’?)

3. A difference is made between ‘actions ‘ and ‘situations’.

4. Where were you last week? (is called an action)

Alex has worked here all his life (is called a situation)

5. The simple present perfect is used especially for finished actions that are important now. They have results now.

e.g. You’ve passed your exam. (Does ‘I passed my exam yesterday.’ not have ‘results now’?)

6. We can often change a present perfect sentence into a present sentence with more or less the same meaning.

e.g. He’s gone = He isn’t here. (What about: ‘He went home a few minutes ago.’ = He isn’t here.)

The exercises are varied. There are traditional exercises containing 10 to 15 sentences with gaps to be filled in, correct forms to be chosen and so on. But there are also cartoons to be matched with captions, pictures to be described, words to be combined. And there are exercises with consistent contents: they tell a little story or describe a situation.

However, there are two types of exercises which occur quite often - also in other exercise books - and which create artificial problems.

1. Gaps have to be filled with a verb taken from a list in jumbled order.

2. Beginnings of sentences have to be completed with endings which are given in jumbled order.

Such exercises seem somehow contrary to what language is basically about. Normally the speaker has a message he or she wants to convey. In the exercises of the type mentioned above, the speaker (in this case the person doing the exercise) only knows what the message is after excluding all the other possibilities.

e.g. She was a fool

to buy that car. (?)
to start a business. (?)
to get angry. (?)

Yet, How English Works is an excellent tool to learn English or to brush up your English. Of course you have to look for exercises covering your particular needs, some of which are caused by mother tongue interference. A grammar and exercise book produced in Britain will try to cover problem areas which are typical of speakers of various language backgrounds. You also have to understand grammar explained in English. A list of ‘useful (grammar) words’ can be found at the end of the book.