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What is Transformational Grammar?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 23, 2024
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Transformational grammar is an approach to the use of grammar in communications that involves a logical and analytical process to fully grasp the meaning behind the words selected. From this perspective, it goes beyond the process of structural grammar, which tends to focus on the proper construction of sentences as the device for communication. Along with sentence structure, this type of grammar will also attempt to explore the thought behind the words.

Sometimes referred to as TG, transformational grammar attempts to apply logic to the task of looking into the deeper meanings of the structure of sentences, and to analyze both the surface and the underlying intent of the words used. This means employing more than just a visual approach to the words that make up the sentence. Syntax also plays a role in the logical process of transformational grammar, as will context. To a degree, this type of grammar calls upon most of the tools of linguistics in an attempt to fully analyze the spoken or written word.

One of the main proponents of the idea of transformational grammar was Noam Chomsky. During the middle portion of the 20th century, Chomsky worked to develop a logical approach to analyzing the syntax of structural grammar within the setting of the English language. As a result of his efforts, Chomsky developed and promoted the concept of grammar as being a broader theory regarding language structure, rather than simply defining a method for developing the structure for sentences. This approach had been inherent for centuries in the broader concepts of universal grammar. But due to the work of Chomsky, linguists and grammarians began to understand transformational grammar as a discipline all its own.

People engage in the task of approaching grammar from a transformational approach every day. In some cases, it is a matter of employing grammar as a means of comprehending a grouping of words within the setting or context, rather than focusing on the actual structure of the words. At other times, this type of grammar is utilized as a means of conveying more than one meaning. The double-entendre may be thought of as a limited example of transformational grammar, as the device provides both a surface and a hidden conveyance of ideas.

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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 anon305985 — On Nov 28, 2012

An example would be: 1. The cat was chased by the dog.

2. The dog chased the cat.

The two sentences convey the same idea yet they differ somehow. That's transformational grammar.

By titans62 — On May 14, 2012

I think understanding transformational grammar is extremely important for anyone who writes, especially for novelists or people writing fiction.

If you are trying to write a great book, the words you choose can make or break the atmosphere. I've read some books that had subpar plots, but the writing was so vivid and exciting that I wanted to keep reading. On the other hand, there have been a lot of books that, reading the blurb, I thought would be great. After I started, though, the writing was so stilted and dull that it ruined a great plot idea.

I like, too, that the article mentioned using transformational grammar in double entendres. As I was reading the article, I started thinking about how important having a good grasp of word connotations can be in making good puns or writing jokes.

By Izzy78 — On May 14, 2012

@cardsfan27 - It sounds like you were probably wise enough to understand the connotation of words, but I have run into some people who don't completely understand the importance of transformational grammar. I used to work as a teacher's aide at a high school for a couple of years. Whenever I would grade papers, it was obvious that someone just used the synonym feature on Word without fully recognizing what impact that word would have on the sentence.

I have heard about Noam Chomsky before, but never really knew what he did. It is interesting that it took so long for anyone to push for the importance of transformational grammar as something that should be its own field of study.

By cardsfan27 — On May 13, 2012

@jcraig3 - I would say that could be good example. Basically, I think a good transformation grammar definition might be something like the study of the connotations of words. There would be thousands of examples if you just sat down and thought about it long enough. It has always been interesting to me how words can project different feelings depending on how they are used. Like in your example, someone in the field of forestry would immediately object to that use of the word, but a normal person might think nothing of it.

I've often been in similar situations to that, as well. I guess part of it may be that I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so I always try to find the right word. Whenever I was writing important papers, I would sit and think about what word to use for several minutes sometimes. Unfortunately, back in those days, we didn't have the internet, so I had to thumb through a thesaurus or brainstorm with my roommate.

By jcraig — On May 12, 2012

@Denha - I think the gist of transformational grammar is that certain words have very precise meanings in certain circumstances even though they might be able to be thought of as synonyms.

I run into the issue quite often when I am writing scientific type papers. One example that I ran into recently was the use of the verb "exploit." Depending on the context, to exploit something can just mean to get use out of it. I work in the field of forestry, though, where exploiting a forest usually means that someone is just cutting trees wrecklessly.

A paper I was proofreading used the phrase "exploiting forests" to mean getting benefit out of them, but the first thing most professionals in the field would think of reading that phrase is destroying a forest, so it was important to change the word to something more suitable like "utilizing."

By Denha — On Feb 21, 2011

From this article, I am still a little confused about what transformational grammar does, exactly. I would be interested to find out more particularly because I teach English abroad, and anything to help me understand grammar more fully could be transferred to helping my students understand.

By anon104313 — On Aug 16, 2010

It would be helpful to have more examples.

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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