Grammar – how to understand it

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Grammar – definition

grammar The term ‘grammar’ refers to the structure of language.

redbtn This can be applied to a whole language or to any smaller unit of that language.

redbtn Grammatical study is often a systematic account of the rules of sentence structure, syntax, and semantics.


redbtn The study of grammar in any language focuses on:

tense concerning time sequence
person reference to people or things
syntax how parts relate to each other

redbtn A grammatical study of the following brief statement focuses on the same issues:

The cats drank the milk

The cats Subject – third person plural
drank Verb – past tense
the milk Object – third person singular

redbtn Notice that the statement follows normal English syntax (word-order)

Subject — Verb — Object


redbtn An awareness of grammar or the structure of language can result in more efficient writing and speaking.

redbtn An understanding of the mechanics or workings of language is far more useful and more easily acquired than memorising technical terms.

redbtn You can understand the mechanics of language by studying utterances and their:

audience — form — function

redbtn The study of grammar in any language focuses on:

tense John ran up the stairs
[past tense of the verb]
person Joanna approached him
[third person singular]
syntax The dog bit the man
[subject – verb – object]

redbtn NB! Most people are not conscious of grammatical rules — but they use them quite naturally when speaking.

redbtn It is useful to be able to distinguish between the more grammatical items in a statement and those which have a mainly lexical function.

redbtn The grammatical items are the working parts of the statement, whilst the lexical items carry content or meaning.

redbtn There is no absolute distinction between grammatical and lexical items. However, it is possible to think of a continuum, with lexis at one end and grammar at the other.

redbtn For instance, the items in in the following statement can be seen as lexical, grammatical, and a combination of both:

‘Dorothy likes to come to our house every Tuesday and have tea with us.’

lexical Dorothy, house, Tuesday, tea
grammatical to, and, with

redbtn The terms ‘our’, ‘every’, and ‘have’ are between these two categories because they perform both a lexical and a grammatical function.

redbtn The study of English grammar study has developed over hundreds of years. The objective has generally been to find a set of rules which accurately and comprehensively define, describe, and explain the workings of the language.

redbtn In the past, grammar study was very prescriptive. Rules were laid down as to how English must be used. Many of these prescriptive rules were based on the rules of the Latin language which historically had strong religious and cultural ties with English.

redbtn Latin was regarded as the perfect language and as such was used as a model for English. However, it was a blueprint which didn’t fit, and the struggle to make it fit has left us with such prescriptive rules as ‘Never end a sentence with a preposition’.

redbtn In the past, the study of grammar was thought to be a series of rules and regulations:

  • Rules for writing good English
  • Learning to analyse sentences grammatically

redbtn The most significant development this century has been the move towards a descriptive and functional approach to understanding of the workings of English. That is to say, the emphasis currently is on observing how the language is actually operating in practice. Changes are charted and variations noted, with a neutral attitude.

redbtn A language is best seen as a living organism which is constantly in the process of evolution. The nature of its changes reflect and affect its users. As Latin has been a dead language for hundreds of years, its imposition on English is at best interesting and at worst ludicrous.

redbtn Every language has a basic structure. This is composed of its essential grammatical features, which are its working parts. It also has more superficial features such as its vocabulary, which changes and develops in accordance with cultural and social phenomena.

redbtn A good example of this can be seen in the recently acquired technological terms associated with the advent of the computer. The terms ‘hard disk’, ‘floppy drive’, ‘Web site’, ‘Internet’, ‘mouse’, and ‘downloading’ simply didn’t exist thirty years ago. Indeed, the World Wide Web – for many people the centre of the Internet – was only invented as recently as 1993.

redbtn Noam Chomsky perhaps made the most significant impact on the study of grammar by his Innateness Theory, which is now universally accepted as basically valid.

redbtn The Innateness theory of grammar is based on the notion that humans are genetically programmed to acquire language. The Language Acquisition Device (LAD) is a function which equips us for speech, just as other genetic features equip us for walking or breathing.

redbtn The prerequisite for language acquisition is what Chomsky calls comprehensible imput – which is hearing people around us use language.

redbtn Thousands of different languages exist, and the developing child acquires the language of its own culture. The vocabulary and content has to be learnt, but the fundamental grammatical workings are innate.

redbtn Evidence of this LAD at work can be observed in the so-called mistakes which young children make. These are utterances such as ‘I comed home’ or ‘I wented over there’ or ‘those two sheeps’ and ‘those three mouses’.

redbtn What is happening here should be celebrated as evidence of the child’s capacity for grammatical analysis. That is, the rule has been learned but over-applied.

redbtn The expression ‘I comed’ is evidence that the child has internalised the rule for forming the past tense, which is – add ‘—ed’.

redbtn ‘Sheeps’ and ‘mouses’ show that the rule for forming a plural has been learnt — add ‘—s’.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2003

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