What is Grammar?

A simple definition of grammar is that it describes how language works.

The term grammar can mean different things to different people; in fact, Mark S. LeTourneau in English Grammar (3-5) lists five definitions of grammar.

Usage Grammar

(outside classroom or school) the grammatical rules of Standard English, the variety of English taught in schools and used for communication—especially written communication—in public spheres, such as industry, business, academia, government, and the professions

School Grammar

the grammar taught in schools in language arts and English classes, describing the structure of Standard English. It has its roots in 18th C with the creation of Royal and Language Societies and the rise of the middle class which created demand for “correctness.”

Stylistic Grammar

“teaches students how grammatical choices can be manipulated in writing to create more varied and stylistically mature sentences.”  A primary technique is through sentence combining, “a well-known and proven method of using grammar to teach style.”

Cognitive Grammar

the “internalized system of rules of the native speaker of a language.” Our knowledge of English is unconscious or implicit that we cannot articulate, at least without help.  We often cannot explain why we know what we know—we just know it.

Grammarian’s Grammar

the model developed by experts whose task to explain what it is that native speakers know in a systematic way. They base these models of grammar competence by looking at linguistic performance.

For the blog’s purposes, we look both at Usage Grammar (the rules of Standard English) and at stylistic grammar.

Understanding usage grammar and its rules is important for writers of academic or business/government papers, as well as writers of other nonfiction or fiction works intended for publication. These rules and “errors” or variations have taken up much of the space here.

When we discuss the structure of the sentence, as we did in the previous blog, parsing the English sentence, we focus on stylistic grammar. By describing how language works, we can learn “how grammatical choices can be manipulated in writing to create more varied and stylistically mature sentences” (LeTourneau 4). For instance, the post on sentence structure and rhythm does this.

Implicit knowledge of grammar

Let’s look at what we learn from Cognitive Grammar about implicit knowledge of grammar.

Native English speakers follow the rules of English grammar mostly unconsciously.  This implicit knowledge is what enables native English speakers to identify the correct sentences in these examples.

  Jan ran up a hill.

  Jan ran up a bill.


  Up a hill ran Jan.

*Up a bill ran Jan.

Our implicit knowledge of grammar is why we know that both sentences in the first pair of are correct, while only one in the second pair is correct.  The second is incorrect–an asterisk is used to mark incorrect or ungrammatical sentences (which we’ve used in other posts before).

Let’s look at another pair of sentences from linguist Noam Chomsky’s famous quote on grammar of sentences.

1.  Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

2.  Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

(Qtd in https://www.chronicle.com/forums/, July 2, 2012.)

It is fair to assume that neither sentence 1 nor 2 has ever occurred in an English conversation. However, we know that sentence 1, though nonsensical, is grammatical, while 2 is not.

Grammar & Word Order

When we were examining sentence construction in the post on parsing the English language, we mentioned the importance of word order in English. For meaning, Modern English depends first on word order.

Word order is not as important in other languages. For instance, consider Latin:

Caesarem interfecit Brutus.

Brutus interfecit Caesarem.

Someone who didn’t know how Latin works, may be tempted to write these sentences in  

English in this way:

Caesar killed Brutus.

Brutus killed Caesar.

However, Latin sentences derive their meaning more from inflectional endings in words than from word order. Caesarem interfecit Brutus says the same thing as Brutus interfecit Caesarem.

In English, Caesar killed Brutus is very different from Brutus killed Caesar.  Anyone who knows history, or even the Shakespearean play Julius Caesar, knows what really happened.

Let’s look at another set of sentences in English:

The cat ate the mouse.

The mouse ate the cat.

In the English sentence, The cat ate the mouse, word order is important to convey what happened, what the cat did. If the word order is switched–as in The mouse ate the cat–then the cat is in trouble.

Grammar tells you a lot about a sentence even if you don’t know all the meanings of all the words. Look at this sentence:

The rumfrums prattly biggled the pooba.

Even without knowing the meanings of the words, you can infer that some things called rumfrums did something to a pooba. Rumfrums is in the subject position and pooba is in the object position. The –s ending means that there is more than one rumfrum.

They biggled it . . . in a prattly way.

Two other grammatical clues tell us that this sentence is like the one below it:

The students easily passed the test.

The endings on the words biggled and passed are inflections indicating that the verbs are in the past tense. The ­–ly on the end of prattly and easily, tells a native English speaker that those words are most likely adverbs, which describe or modify the verbs in the sentences.

The implicit or unconscious knowledge of Cognitive Grammar may help us recognize a sentence and its constituent parts, even if we don’t know the meaning of the words (as we saw above), or even if we do not know the terminology used to describe the parts of speech that make up a sentence. Studying grammar will help you learn the terms so that you can describe what is happening in the sentence and in your writing, particularly if you want to arrange those words and sentences for rhetorical purposes. In a future post, we’ll consider the reasons and benefits for studying grammar.

(Material derived and adapted from a number of resources, including English Grammar and The Little, Brown Handbook.)

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