I am coming to linguistics from a completely non-linguistic background; I was a mathematician. Next year I will start taking some serious (Master's level) linguistics courses and I would like to have considerable background in the topics that will be covered so that I can be as best prepared as possible. The courses will be on syntax, semantics and phonetics/phonology. Below, I am providing brief descriptions of the courses:

Syntactic Analysis: This course is an introduction to basic goals and methods of current syntactic theory through a detailed analysis of a range of phenomena, with emphasis on argumentation and empirical justification. Major topics include phrase structure and constituency, selection and subcategorization, argument structure, case, voice, expletives, and raising and control structures.

Semantics and Pragmatics: This is the first in a two-course sequence designed to provide a foundation in the scientific study of all aspects of linguistic meaning. The first quarter focuses primarily on pragmatics: those aspects of meaning that arise from the way that speakers put language to use, rather than through the formal properties of the linguistic system itself, which is the domain of semantics. However, a central goal of the course will be to begin to develop an understanding of the relation between pragmatics and semantics, by exploring empirical phenomena in which contextual and conventional aspects of meaning interact in complex but regular and well-defined ways, and by learning analytical techniques that allow us to tease these two aspects of linguistics meaning apart.

Phonological Analysis: This course introduces cross-linguistic phonological phenomena and methods of analysis through an in-depth examination of fundamental notions that transcend differences between theoretical approaches: contrast, neutralization, natural classes, distinctive features, and basic non-linear phonological processes (e.g., assimilation, harmony, dissimilation).

I would be most grateful if you could suggest textbooks (and, more generally, resources — including, but not limited to, lecture notes, websites, software) that would help me get a good grasp of this material. Textbooks that have become mainstream in the postgraduate study of these subjects will be especially helpful!

  • What books will be best to start out with might depend on the school/professor. Are they into field linguistics? Mainly analysis? Translation? Textbooks and starting points are more or less skewed to what somebody found interesting. You can always branch out to get the big view later but finding the right angle for where you're attending might speed things up in the beginning.
    – kaleissin
    Commented Mar 10, 2013 at 11:53
  • This question fits what SE describes as "'list of X' questions that contain enough value to avoid deletion." So, I'm converting it to Wiki. Commented Mar 10, 2013 at 13:30

9 Answers 9


It looks as if the courses you intend to take are introductory courses, so it's not likely that you need too much background knowledge. If so, you should be set just reading one introductory book to linguistics, which will cover the basics of all the subdisciplines in linguistics. There are many books to choose from here. Some of them are:

a) Edward Finegan: Language: Its Structure and Use.

b) William O'Grady et al.: Contemporary Linguistics.

c) Victoria Fromkin et al.: An Introduction to Language.

My personal recommendation is Fromkin et al. "Linguistics: An Introduction" from 2001. It's not printed anymore, but you can get it at Amazon. It covers only the main fields of linguistics: Syntax, Semantics & Pragmatics, and Phonology. And it does so very well. It aims a little higher than the basic introductory textbooks mentioned above.


This is what they recommend at Oxford as introductory textbooks to students starting a Masters' in Linguistics.

Background and reference:

  • Macaulay, Monica. (2006) Surviving Linguistics: A Guide for Graduate Students. Cascadilla Press.
  • *Matthews, P. H. (2007) Oxford Concise Dictionary of Linguistics. Oxford University Press.
  • Pinker, Steven. (2000) The Language Instinct: the New Science of Language and Mind. Morrow.
  • Robins, R.H. (1997) A Short History of Linguistics. Longman.

Introductory texts:

  • Ashby, M. & Maidment, J. (2005) Introducing Phonetic Science. Cambridge University Press. Bach, E. (1989) Informal Lectures on Formal Semantics. Albany, NY. State University of New York Press.
  • Chapman, S. (2011) Pragmatics. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Fromkin, V., Rodman, R., and Hyams, N. (2010) An Introduction to Language. 9th edition. Thomson Heinle.
  • Gussenhoven, C. & Jacobs, H. (2011). Understanding Phonology. Arnold.
  • Haspelmath, M. & Sims, A. (2010) Understanding Morphology. Arnold.
  • Kearns, K. (2011) Semantics. 2nd edition. Palgrave-Macmillan.
  • Meyerhoff, M. (2011) Introducing Sociolinguistics. Routledge.
  • McMahon, A. (1994) Understanding Language Change, Cambridge University Press.
  • Tallerman, M. (2011). Understanding Syntax. Arnold.

Skim "The Linguistics Wars" by Harris to get a bit of political history for the field. Then you'll be aware that you might be served only a very small slice of the pie. For a bit of culture/humor, read the "Speculative Grammarian". The more linguistics you know, the more funny it gets.

For phonetics, phonetics is great fun if you go in for actually being able to pronounce it all. Will there be any articulatory phonetics? Try to load the entirety of the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) into your head anyway. Find a private space with a mirror so you can see what you mouth is doing. There's lots of online more-or-less good resources for learning the IPA, bookwise have a look at the "Handbook of the International Phonetic Association", and "Phonetic symbol guide" by Pullum. Handy reference works. Phonology is, naturally, less hands-on and come in several schools: optmality theory, autosegemental theory etc. etc., I haven't kept up.

Semantics/pragmatics: "Understanding utterances" by Blakemore, and "Women, Fire and Dangerous Things" by Lakoff. Then look up Montague-semantics.

Syntax: Now that's the tricky one. There are several frameworks for doing this. If it is claimed that no framework is being used it's probably a variation on Basic Linguistic Theory. See books by RMW Dixon. If there's lots of binary trees it's probably Minimalism. See Chomsky. If boxes, lots of set theory and unification: LFG, HPSG or something else ending in G. See Pollard & Sag, Bresnan, Dalrymple. If matching the same analysis to several languages at once in order to map out the possibilities it's probably some Construction Grammar. Croft's "Radical Construction Grammar" is fine but he is not a good writer so be prepared to struggle a little. There's no doubt lots of new frameworks, it seems there's a new one at least twice a decade.

Hmm. Skim Dixon's books, that should give a good overview of all the latinate terms. Analysis goes on top of those. On that note, also get "A Dictionary of Grammatical Terms in Linguistics" by Trask.

  • 2
    Any course that claims to teach "basic goals and methods of current syntactic theory" is going to acquaint you with a whole bunch of irrelevant formal philosophy that was hot shit when the instructor got their PhD but is now totally obsolete and unrecognizable. Don't bother. If you want to know how syntax works, read McCawley 1998, which should be available in college libraries.
    – jlawler
    Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 18:59
  • A couple of remedial study guides, on Logic and the Verb Phrase, may help you get up and running.
    – jlawler
    Commented Mar 11, 2013 at 19:01
  • 2
    I second @jlawler's recommendation above for McCawley's The Syntactic Phenomena of English. It's a great book -- but it's not an easy book.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Feb 20, 2016 at 4:47

If i had to recommend just a couple of textbooks for syntax, semantics/pragmatics and phonology respectively, they'd be the following:


  • Syntactic Argumentation and the Structure of English (Perlmutter & Soames, 1979).
    Not easy to get a hold of, and a lot of the theoretical machinery is quite dated, but for the purpose of learning how to actually do syntax, as opposed to just learning a bunch of `facts', this can't be beaten. One of the best textbooks i've used, full stop. There are a few used copies on amazon.
  • Thinking Syntactically (Haegeman, 2005).
    Another textbook more focused on how one actually does syntax, focusing on developing a tool-kit for doing syntactic analysis, as opposed to just learning a bunch of theory-dependent facts. More up-to-date than Perlmutter & Soames.

Semantics & Pragmatics

  • Everything that linguists have always wanted to know about logic (but were ashamed to ask (McCawley, 1993)
    Given your background in maths, you'll find a lot of this very easy, but i can't think of a better introduction to how logical tools can be used to illuminate aspects of meaning in natural language. I'm also guessing that more formally rigorous approaches to meaning will appeal to you, given your background. If you can handle this no problem, there's also the following...

  • An introduction to meaning in natural language (Cann et al, 2009) This provides an introduction to Montague grammar amongst other things, an approach which currently dominates the literature on linguistic semantics. This is bang up-to-date, and provides you with pretty much everything you need to dive straight into the literature.


  • Understanding phonology (Gussenhoven & Jacobs, 2011)
    I'm by no means an expert, but i found this to be a concise and reasonably comprehensive introduction to phonology, complete with problem sets and solutions - by far the most important part.

Just to declare myself, i was taught linguistics in a formalist department, which has no doubt coloured my suggestions. For suggestions focused more on functionalist linguistics, see @Taneko's answer.


I am currently doing a course on stylistics, which includes a lot of syntactical analysis, although I am "just" an undergraduate. Our lecturer swears by names such as Toolan, Halliday and Hasan and Simpson.

A couple of specific books we're encouraged to acquire are 'Language in literature' (1998) Michael Toolan 'Language through Literature: an introduction' (1997) Paul Simpson 'Cohesion in English' (1976) M.A.K. Halliday and Ruqaiya Hasan

Particular the Toolan book is an excellent introductory text, in my (and my lecturer's!) opinion. I believe that these are used across both graduate and postgraduate. In any case, they will be a good place to start, even if they are not as comprehensive as more specialised texts!

I'm afraid I don't have much to offer on the other two courses, I've only done basic introductions to those myself. If you're as foundation-less as you say, more basic introductory texts like 'The Study of Language' by George Yule and 'An Introduction to Language' by Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman might be a good place to start. They obviously do not only cover the topics that you're interested in, but offer a broader base.

Hope some of this helps!


As for Semantics and Pragmatics, once you've gotten caught up in Logic, some good books are:

  • Linguistic Semantics, by William Frawley. Study guide and Classes of entities.
  • Metaphors We Live By, by Lakoff and Johnson. Short introduction. Review.
  • Pragmatics and Human Communication, by Georgia Green. Short introduction.
  • Pragmatics, by Stephen Levinson. The book on pragmatics. Including Presuppositions.

There's lots more, but this'll get you started on semantics and pragmatics.


As an introductory text for phonology, I can recommend English Phonology: An Introduction. Although it's only for English, it's well divided, has plenty of examples, and should give a good introduction to phonology in general.


Generally speaking, I think you should prefer things written by people who have actually done some linguistics over the work of people who are sure they know what it's all about, even though they've never actually done it. Because maybe those people don't actually know.

I have a somewhat offbeat recommendation -- a book I used as a text for a beginning linguistics course for several years, and I think it worked very well. It's especially good for people approaching linguistics from ground zero. Don't know what a paradigm is? Never saw a declension?

This might be for you. The Decipherment of Linear B, by John Chadwick. It's a short little book. It's a detective story.


If you are comming from the non-linguistics environment, the best book is to start with Is Fromkin, Introduction to language. It provides a general introduction to syntax, morphology, phonology, semantics, pragmatics and brain and language. It is easy to read. I really advise you to start with it.

For syntax, you can read Andrew Carnie's Syntax: a generative introduction. Hageman's introduction to government and binding. Redford's Minimalist syntax. I have benefited from these books a lot and I advice you to read them in this order.

For phonology, you should read Oddey's Introducing phonology.

Good luck.

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