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“A Grammar of Contemporary Polish” by Oscar E Swan Posted by on Jan 28, 2009 in Grammar

A couple of weeks ago Ron asked about my thoughts regarding “A Grammar of Contemporary Polish” and to tell you the truth, I’ve been struggling how to honestly evaluate this book.

There are so few Polish grammar books out there so I feel that just for existing alone I should give it a high rating. But… there’s always a “but.” So, here we go:

  • 1. The language.

The author, Oscar E. Swan is a professor of Slavic Languages at the University of Pittsburgh. And unfortunately, it shows. (explanation – it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with Prof. Swan’s command of Polish, heck his Polish is better than most native Polish speakers I know, but that he talks like a specialist in his field forgetting that the little people are not.)

Even though the book claims to “be accessible to the non-specialist,” I get the feeling that Professor Swan and I have a vastly different understanding of this phrase. True, he does make an effort to explain stuff for those who don’t have advanced degrees in linguistics, and it may have worked even if it had been any other language, like Swedish. But unfortunately, we’re talking Polish here.

Take this sentence, for example:
“With natural accomplishment and logical-result verbs, the structurally and semantically basic form of the verb is almost always the perfective, whether prefixed or not, and the imperfective form will be derived from it by suffixation.”

Yeah, right. Like non-specialists will get that. Totally. But if you can put up with and understand that sort of stuff, then this is an excellent book. It does have a glossary of grammatical terms at the very end, where you can look up all those fancy words you don’t know. But that glossary brings us to:

  • 2. Poor organization.

This is indeed a very comprehensive grammar book, but why is it so poorly organized? Wouldn’t it be more convenient for the dummies among us to stick the definitions right in the chapters that actually cover that stuff?

  • 3. Tables and examples.

Excellent all around. That alone makes this book worth looking for. And most likely, if you want to buy it, you will have to dig around on-line, because it’s out of print. I found it in a second-hand book shop in Washington state.

What could make it better?
Simplifying the language in which stuff is explained – ideally by assuming that the reader knows nothing, or very little about grammar, in any language. But until someone comes up with “Polish Grammar for Dummies” this is what we have to work with. And as far as grammar books go, it could be worse.

ISBN: 0-89357-296-9
Publisher: Slavica, Indiana University

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  1. Ashley Moran:

    By sheer coincidence the copy of another of Oscar E Swan’s books I ordered was delivered today. Have you seen that one?

    I’ve flicked through and it looks fairly accessible. (Hower, Polish is my second second language.) However, I got a strange feeling about it when I read the introduction, which has the bizarre sentence “[Polish] attained full maturity as a language fulfilling all social functions in the 17th and 18th century”…

    I don’t intend to use it as a primary study aid, but it looks like it should be a good reference.

    This post was really useful to me. More reviews of Polish learning material would be a great addition to the site. I’ve noticed that everything I’ve bought (two Teach Yourself, and two Collins book(let)/CD sets) was published in the last three years. Polish must be suddenly getting more popular.

  2. Barb Lomnicki:

    Czesc Aniu:

    This is the on-line first year university polish grammar course that I wrote to you about by e-mail. Comprehensive as far as I’m concerned (but what do I know). The best part is it’s free!!
    I’m slogging through it slowly, very slowly.

    Na razie,

    Here is the course:

    I think this is the e-version of the above book:

  3. DeeAnn:

    I’m not an expert on Polish for the English speaker grammer books, but I really don’t like the Swan book. (At least the version I got in 1990) It didn’t flow well for me, to put it simply.

  4. Larry Stempnik:

    Suggest you discuss how to use an ATM in Polish. Bank of America has 7 languages on their ATM.
    None of the 7 are Polish. Tried using a Polish dictionary but could not decide which word to use.
    Examples: Pin number, deposit, balance inquiry, cash withdrawl, print reciept, return card,
    cancel, enter, checking account, savings account.
    I have written to my bank suggesting they offer Polish on their ATMs.
    Also belong to a Polish credit union, but they do not offer Polish on their ATM.
    Does anyone in the US offer Polish on their ATMs?

    Larry Stempnik
    Milford MI USA

  5. David Piekarczyk:

    I used Prof. Swan’s book early in my learning of Polish. I don’t think it’s fair to say that “The author, Oscar E. Swan is a professor of Slavic Languages at the University of Pittsburgh. And unfortunately, it shows.” What does than mean? Isn’t it possible for a non-Pole to have command of the Polish language? You can also download the complete course from the Univesity of Pittsburg at………..http://polish.slavic.pitt.edu/.
    There are other grammar books such as Dana Bielec’s, Basic Polish-Grammar with Workbook and Barbara Bartnicka’s-We learn Polish.

  6. Anna:

    David – I simply meant that Prof. Swan TALKS in this book like a professor and hence the text is not very accessible to non-highly educated people.
    It’s like reading a scientific paper written by specialists. What I meant by “unfortunately” is that those specialists lost the ability to communicate with the average person. that’s all.

    DeeAnn, it still doesn’t flow well, I think it’s because it’s so poorly organized.

    Ashley, what did you think of “Teach Yourself”? Did you like it?

  7. Garrett Ferguson:

    I used swan in my beginning of learning Polish. Honestly, I started doing the first few exercises, and moved on. There are some real treasures in there, but you have to kind of skip a lot of the filler to get to it.

  8. Anna:

    I know that a citibank branch in Brooklyn, NY used to have Polish on their ATMs. I will try to find out who and where else might have it.

    the e-version of the book is slightly more compact, from what I see. Actually, it was the ebook that convinced me to buy the full length version 🙂

  9. Basia Lomnicka:


    e-book: 498 pages is compact?? 🙂

    Did you need a wheel barrow for the published version?


  10. Anna:

    hehehe! OK, that means they have the whole enchilada on-line now. I downloaded mine a couple years back and it was only 200 something pages.

    So, if it’s the full version, and it’s free, then DOWNLOAD it, people! You have nothing to lose! And a lot of fancy new words to learn, both in Polish and in English. LOL!

  11. Ashley Moran:

    Anna – not worked through the Teach Yourself or Collins stuff yet, only had a flick through. I want to work through them soon, and I’ll probably blog/tweet reviews about them as I do. Keep you posted.

  12. pinolona:

    I really recommend Dana Bielec’s books (although recently I’ve been too lazy to look stuff up in them and resorted to guessing – a very dangerous game).

    I ordered ‘Teach Yourself’ before arriving for the first time but Amazon (or my boss’s credit card) screwed up so I re-ordered Colloquial Polish by Bolesław Mazur (Routeledge). It’s not enough to learn Polish by itself – the grammar is introduced very quickly and then you’re on to the next thing – but it’s quite useful for listening practice. You get two CDs to go with the book and they start from simple conversations and move up to more complicated stuff. To start with I found it hard finding stuff I could listen to and have an outside chance of understanding, so from that perspective it’s very helpful.
    It’s also much easier than trying to watch iTVP or Londynczycy on YouTube…

  13. David Honley:

    Hi Anna!
    Hope you enjoyed your trip to Antigua… You really ought to visit the dear old UK properly – haha. Anyway, re Oscar E Swan’ ‘A Grammar of Contemporary Polish’ (I got my new copy about 3 years ago for about £25 – lucky me – and I find the book very useful) at present there are five copies available on Amazon.co.uk, new and used copies, from about £50 to £75!! But of greater interest there are 2 brand new copies for $25-$30 on Amazon.com (postage free). Anyone wanting a copy of this book should grab a copy from Amazon.com immediately!
    Pozdrawiam serdecznie, David

  14. Anna:

    Hi David!
    I’m so glad that you found the book useful! I have to admit, I use it too, and I’d be lost without it, but it could be better. And yes, I am planning to visit the UK, maybe in March or April for a couple of days, I want to go to Wincanton. LOL! 🙂

    I ordered the Dana Bielec book, but it got lost in the mail and Amazon didn’t want to give me a refund. They wouldn’t send me another book either. So that one is still on my list.

  15. Ronald Small:

    Hi Ana,
    Thank you for revue of Contemporary Polish,
    For me it is a good reference and definitely worth the money for the $35 it probably costs. Im pretty
    sure you can obtain them from one of those crazy
    University of Pittsburgh websites. I intend to write a review of Wsrod Polakow I & 2, Right now I will be going on vacation for a week.
    Regards Ron,

  16. David:


    Reading through the above, I would like to mention the Universitas series, the first books of which, by Władysław Miodunka, are excellent imho.

    These two books –

    Cześć, jak się masz, part one Spotykamy się w Polsce and
    Cześć, jak się masz, part two Spotkajmy się w Europie

    are the same books used in the Polish courses taught at Jagiellonian University in Krakow and elsewhere in Poland (for immigrants).

    All cases and elementary grammatical points are covered, leaving certain subjects for more advanced works. The series includes about 10 more books on various topics.

    http://www.universitas.com.pl is their site. For New York students, these books can be found in bookstores in Greenpoint.

    As for Swan, true, he is a bit technical, but most of the time, these explanations can be hopped over. It’s not easy to reword the ideas in nontechnical language, and after a couple of years of study, when the points begin to become important, often you’ve picked up much if not all of that vocabulary anyway. Polish is difficult!


    David B.