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What is Structural Grammar?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 23, 2024
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Structural grammar is a means of analyzing written and spoken language. It is concerned with how elements of a sentence such as morphemes, phonemes, phrases, clauses and parts of speech are put together. Under this form of linguistic analysis, it is how these elements work together that is most important, as the relationships between the elements typically have a greater meaning than any of the single elements. The study of this method therefore is an important tool for improving clarity in communication.


The study of the selection and arrangement of sentence elements is relatively new in comparison to other language study. It developed in the early 20th century, particularly from 1930 to 1950. Linguists generally consider Ferdinand de Saussure to be the father of the analysis. He believed that individual units within spoken and written communication were largely arbitrary, such as the same item having many different titles under different languages. His concept therefore was that the best way to study language was to look at its systematic structure, which was really the link between thought and sound.

Key Principles

Structural grammar operates under the assumption that what is seen on the surface is also the straightforward meaning behind the words of a sentence. Everything is accepted literally and at face value, and no attempt to identify implied meanings is made. The fact that the choice and arrangement of sentence elements creates absolute meaning makes structural grammar a foundation for being understood. Once a person has the absolute meaning, he can look beyond it to implied meaning if desired.

Experts accept that the way to change what is communicated is to alter the elements and their arrangement in the sentence. They stress that proper sentence structure makes it possible to communicate without confusion and to conform to community norms. In this sense, structural grammar can be seen as a major tool for bringing and holding people together.


People begin to learn how to choose and arrange sentence elements extremely early in life. As babies, people learn how to make the basic sounds of their language, which enables them to express rudimentary needs and wants. This expands into entire words, and finally, children master the basics of sentence construction and learn how to use specific words in a particular fashion. The more sounds and words a child learns, and the better he gets at putting them together, the more complex ideas he can convey.

Most individuals naturally employ their language’s rules by adulthood. They easily understand collections of sounds and words. Adults become pickier about how they put sentences together, as they want to be efficient, appear intelligent and avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings. They think ahead and often avoid sounds, words or placement of words that could be misconstrued or seen as politically incorrect within the current social context.

Linguists have recognized the sequence of language structure acquisition for many years. They still are not quite sure exactly how a person’s brain acquires language and gains absolute meaning from it, however. Research in this area is still ongoing in hopes of improving language development.


Some language professionals look at how sentences are put together in linguistic research, as they can garner some clues about how a person is learning a language according to the sounds and arrangements he selects. This type of research provides vital information on what a person can and cannot understand at different age levels. It can alter how an individual communicates based on his audience and has a strong link to both education and marketing.

Those who are studying a second language also find analysis of sentence construction useful. They use it in a method called comparative analysis, in which they see how the elements and structures of the two languages are the same or different. It is important because a person sometimes has to abandon the engrained structural rules of his native language to properly employ the second language. In English, for example, adjectives precede the words they modify. In French, they generally follow the modified words. Using the proper words but under the wrong arrangement is a telltale sign that someone is not a native speaker.

Teachers also use structural grammar in language and composition classes. In the past, educators taught people how to improve sentences and communication through techniques such as sentence diagramming. Academic professionals still employ these methods. The trend, however, is for teachers to combine structural and transformational grammar and to teach language with other techniques, such as having students rephrase given sentences.


People often confuse the study of sentence elements and arrangement with transitional and transformational grammar. The transitional method does look at the arrangement of sentence elements, but it is concerned primarily with moving from one idea or phrase to another in a logical, clear way. The transformational approach looks beneath the surface of the words used in the sentence. It seeks to identify any implied as well as expressed meanings in the arrangement of the words. This approach also usually considered to be the logical progression in comprehension of the written and spoken word, taking the process of analysis one step beyond the boundaries of structural grammar.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including Language & Humanities, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.
Discussion Comments
By widget2010 — On Apr 18, 2011

I teach English in Europe, and our students have a class entirely devoted to structural grammar. While it is valuable,many of our kids struggle with seeing why this is really valuable English help and not just a waste of time. We also require them to study literature in English every year as well, and I think that they probably learn at least as much English, if not more, through those classes.

By recapitulate — On Apr 16, 2011

I think structural grammar is important, but it is not very useful overall for students learning English as a second language when they are struggling with understanding English grammar. A lot of the rules do not make a lot of sense at first, and have so many exceptions. I think a lot of students would benefit from some structural grammar, but what helped me most as a kid was learning things like the transformational grammar through reading and listening to others speaking.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
Learn more
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