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What is Grammar?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Grammar is a field of linguistics that involves all the various things that make up the rules of language. Subfields of linguistics that are considered a part of this field include syntax, phonetics, morphology, and semantics. Grammar is also used as a term to refer to the prescriptive rules of a given language, which may change over time or be open to debate.

This topic is often divided into two common broad categories: descriptive and prescriptive. Both views are in wide use, although in general, linguists tend towards a descriptive approach to grammar, while people teaching a specific language — such as English — might tend towards a more prescriptive approach. Usually, there is a bit of give and take in any approach, with a prescriptivist being at least somewhat descriptive, and a descriptivist having some prescriptivist tendencies.

A descriptive approach tries to look at the grammar of any spoken language or dialect as it actually exists, judging whether a sentence is grammatical or not based on the rules of the speech group in which it is spoken, rather than another, arbitrary set of rules. For example, in many speech communities, a sentence such as "He done got thrown off the horse," would be entirely grammatical, and an entire set of language rules can be deduced that explain why that formation is grammatical. In another speech community, however, this sentence might be considered ungrammatical, while a version such as "Him isa throwned offa horse," would be the grammatical version. In yet another speech community, both would be considered ungrammatical, with only a version such as "He was thrown off of the horse," being considered acceptable.

A prescriptive grammar looks at the norms of speech as given by authoritative sources, such as an upper-class or academic subculture, and creates strict rules by which all speech within that language must abide to be considered grammatical. Few linguists take a prescriptive approach in the modern age, preferring to describe language as it exists in a given speech community. Many teachers, grammar mavens, and pedagogues in general still have a prescriptive approach, however, holding to standardized rules as being the only proper way to speak.

In some cases, a prescriptive approach is also used in teaching a language to non-native speakers. When teaching English, for example, it can be useful to employ a "standard" form of English as a baseline to teach from, to help reduce confusion among students. Once the language has been acquired, of course, a less-prescriptive approach will necessarily take over, as the non-native speaker learns regional rules and new dialects that may not conform to the version that he or she originally learned.

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Discussion Comments

By Oceana — On Feb 18, 2013

I always use grammar check as well as spell check when I'm typing a document. I have fair grammar skills, but when I'm in the flow of typing something, I sometimes go too fast and use improper English.

By lighth0se33 — On Feb 17, 2013

@nasturtium – I definitely think that teachers need to adhere to traditional English grammar rules. This doesn't just go for English teachers, either.

Even teachers of science, history, and math need to use proper grammar when talking in front of the class. Teachers are the examples, so if students hear them saying something incorrectly, they are likely to copy it and never know that it was wrong.

Text messaging and email language has done terrible things to the English skills of young people. It's important to always expect grammatical excellence from your students when they write papers, because we need to have a zero tolerance policy for text message grammar in schoolwork.

By cloudel — On Feb 16, 2013

Prescriptive English grammar is really hard for some people to learn and to grasp. I know many adults who still can't write a letter without making a few grammatical errors.

It's something that you need to really pay attention to in school. If you don't, then you will pay for it for the rest of your life. You could be turned down for job interviews because of grammatical issues on your resume, and if you can't speak properly, you could be turned away from jobs that involve talking to customers.

By healthy4life — On Feb 16, 2013

I don't see how either of those examples of descriptive grammar could ever be considered correct grammar. I understand that people in certain communities have their own way of speaking, but wouldn't that fall under dialect instead of grammar? I thought that grammar was all about rules and not about common slang.

By anon254240 — On Mar 12, 2012

Why is grammar a problem in writing?

By anon213346 — On Sep 10, 2011

A grammar is a system of rules governing composition, where a rule is a set observations about the way things are supposed to hang together.

By anon127379 — On Nov 16, 2010

what is the process of language understanding?

By anon36370 — On Jul 12, 2009

As an ALS instructor, do you feel descriptive grammar is acceptable? give your view and justification

By anon35807 — On Jul 07, 2009

why is grammar a problem in writing?

By nasturtium — On Apr 06, 2008

Grammar is suffering greatly because everyone is now used to instant messaging and text messaging, where it seems more appropriate to use bad grammar. The problem is that young people are now growing up without an understanding of grammar and think that the grammar they use in their text messages is acceptable in other types of writing.

Also, as a teacher I know that we do not teach grammar like we used to so many children really don't know what good grammar is.

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