What is Grammar, How Does It Change . . . ?

This is a lightly edited repeat of a contribution I have made to a discussion elsewhere.

Grammar is the set of rules that tells us how morphemes, the smallest units of meaning, may be combined to form words (morphology) and how words may be combined to form sentences (syntax). One rule of English grammar, for example, tells us that regular verbs form their past tense and past participle by the addition of -ed. We have to say, in modern Standard English, he walked and not *he wolk. Another tells us that determiners precede nouns. We have to say my house and not *house my. If you want something a little less obvious, then consider the fact that in English an anaphor may not both precede and command its antecedent.

These are real rules, which no normal adult native speaker of English will break. That’s why grammar is a matter of fact. It contrasts with style, which is a matter of opinion. There is no rule of English grammar that prohibits what is known inaccurately to most people as a split infinitive. It follows that whether a writer chooses to write ‘to suddenly realise’ or ‘to realise suddenly’ is a matter of style, of opinion. Nor is there any rule of English grammar that requires ‘that’ to introduce a restrictive relative clause. So an American president may choose to say ‘a day which will live in infamy’ or ‘a day that will live in infamy’ (and we know what he did choose). Both choices in each case are grammatical.

The rules of Standard English are codified in scholarly works of grammar. The early ones were little more than a reflection of the writer’s own preferences, but the past 30 years have seen the publication of grammars that go far beyond that approach, and they have been enormously improved by the availability of the evidence found in vast electronic corpora. The three monumental works during this period are ‘A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language’ by Quirk and others, ‘The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ by Biber and others and ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum. They are based on a thorough examination of the way modern English is actually used, for, as Henry Sweet wrote in 1891:

In considering the use of grammar as a corrective of what are called ‘ungrammatical’ expressions, it must be borne in mind that the rules of grammar have no value except as statements of facts: whatever is in general use in a language is for that very reason grammatically correct.

The same thought has been expressed in our own day by the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’:

Grammar rules must ultimately be based on facts about how people speak and write. If they don’t have that basis, they have no basis at all.

As long ago as the early sixteenth century, John Colet saw that this was also true of Latin, as indeed it is of any language:

In the beginning men spake not Latin because such rules were made, but, contrariwise, because men spake Latin the rules were made. That is to say, Latin speech was before the rules, and not the rules before the Latin speech.

It would take a major piece of research to compare these three very long (and expensive) books, although all three have shortened versions.  The authors of the ‘Cambridge Grammar’, at least, do have a different approach to some topics. They use the terms ‘integrated’ and ‘supplementary’, where others use ‘restrictive’ (or ‘defining’) and ‘non-restrictive’ (or ‘non-defining’) to describe the two types of relative clause. They do not consider what most others call the ‘were-subjunctive’ to be subjunctive at all, giving it instead the term ‘irrealis were’. Where most other linguists recognise only two English tenses, present and past, they speak of the perfect as ‘a past tense that is marked by means of an auxiliary verb rather than by inflection’. They class as prepositions words that other grammars class as adverbs or subordinating conjunctions.

The ‘Longman Grammar’ draws heavily on evidence from the Longman Spoken and Written English Corpus, and concentrates particularly on the grammatical differences between the four registers of Conversation, Fiction, News and Academic Prose. The stripped-down version, the ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ is one of the best general introductions to English grammar.

I suspect that there is much more agreement than disagreement in all three. They are concerned only with Standard English, and, as Huddleston and Pullum have written:

[There is] remarkably widespread agreement about how sentences should be constructed for such purposes as publication, political communication, or government broadcasting. This widespread agreement defines what we are calling Standard English.

So much for the rules of grammar themselves. The answer to the question ‘How are they changed?’ the answer is that, unlike style, they generally change very slowly. The erosion of inflections, for example, has been going on for centuries, and it continues. Our pronouns are pale shadows of their former selves, and it looks as if the remaining inflections will reduce further, with the growing merging of I and me, for example, and the loss of  whom in all but the most formal contexts. The subjunctive, too, at least in British English, is all but extinct. These changes are not to be regretted. They are part of the very essence of language, and they occur because the needs of a language’s speakers change. Like the Sabbath, language was made for man, and not man for language. As Michael Halliday, the linguist most closely associated with Systemic Functional Linguistics, has written, ‘Language is as it is because of what it has to do’.

There is no single Standard English, but each major English-speaking state has its own standard. Any changes to those standards following the technological developments of the past few decades are likely to be in vocabulary rather than in grammatical structures. At the same time, the English used in computer mediated communication is developing its own grammatical forms. John McWhorter describes one aspect here. I would say that the most likely outcome is that the language of the web and texting, where it has its own identity, will grow alongside other varieties, rather than replace them.



Filed under English Language, Grammar, Language, Standard English

10 responses to “What is Grammar, How Does It Change . . . ?

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  3. I must say I much prefer the EFL/ESL twelve tense system (three times, four aspects) to the standard two tense system. In English, we give our verbs time senses largely with the use of auxiliaries, not through inflection, so I don’t really understand why grammarians use inflection as a basis for tense definition.

    And how do those who say ‘there is no future tense’ explain the similarities in meaning (with only a time difference) between what I would call the three continuous tenses – ‘At this time yesterday, I was working’ (around a time in the past), ‘Right now I’m packing’ (around now), and ‘This time tomorrow, I’ll be lying on the beach’ (around a time in the future).

    And the same for perfect tenses – ‘I had already finished dinner by the time he came in’ (before a time in the past) , ‘It’s OK, we’ve already finished dinner’ (before now), and ‘We’ll have already’ finished dinner by the time you arrive’ (before a time in the future).

    In the twelve tense system, it all makes perfect sense.


    • It might be time to consider an entirely new terminology for verb forms. Meanwhile, you might like to see what I’ve said previously on tenses here and here .


      • There are perhaps two different approaches here, the analytical and the pedagogic. Reference grammars like the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language and The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, are very much part of the former, and totally beyond the reach of people like me, both financially and linguistically.

        On the other hand we already have a well-tried grammatical approach in TEFL and ESL, as linguist Richard Hudson writes – ‘The demand for EFL books, including descriptive grammars, is what drives grammar-writers and publishers, so English is very heavily codified for non-native learners.’

        Sorry, but the last thing I want in grammar teaching is another new set of terms. It’s bad enough that phrasal verbs, which everyone understood, even if they hated them, have now become multiword verbs. It might please the intellectuals, but I doubt whether it benefits the students much.

        There is one set of business English books which teaches the twelve tense system through Intermediate and Upper-intermediate levels, and suddenly in their Advanced book baldly announce ‘There are only two tenses etc’, no explanation about the sudden change. Nothing. What the students are meant to think, heaven knows. No, we already have a system that works well, is logical, and is relatively easy to understand and teach, and as a teacher, that’s all I need.

        I strongly believe that if non-specialist native speakers were taught grammar the same way as foreign learners are, we wouldn’t see so many stupid ideas going round the web of certain songs being ‘ungrammatical’, like Joan Osborne’s ‘One of us’ (What if God was one of us?) and Snow Patrol’s Chasing Cars (‘If I lay here …Would you lie with me?’). On forums it is sometimes foreign learners (who know about something we call Second conditional) who have to explain that last one to the native speakers (who get all hung up on the lay/lie thing).


        • I can’t say that in my limited TEFL experience I ever had a problem with tenses, but I didn’t teach beginners, and that, I suppose, is where the approach is particularly critical.

          Are you familiar with ‘An A-Z of English Grammar’ by Leech and others, and the ‘Cambridge Grammar of English’ (not the same as the CGEL) by Carter and McCarthy? Both are aimed at foreign learners, and both speak of two English tenses, present and past.


  4. I’m afraid I don’t know either of them, but having read a review of the latter, and looking at the catalogue of other works by the same author, it seems to me they come very much from a linguistics background, rather than a TEFL background and are more geared towards teachers than students.

    But the main thing is that students (and probably most TEFL teachers too) don’t learn grammar from grammar books, but from their course books. Students then might use books like the Grammar in Use series, Murphy being the most famous, and teachers who qualified at the much the same time as me probably use Swan as a reference. Other grammar books that both might use include one of my favourites, Grammar and Vocabulary for CAE and CPE by Side and Wellman (Longma), and the Cambridge Grammar for FCE, and CAE / CPE series.

    These may not specifically mention a twelve tense system, buy that’s what it boils down to. In the TEFL world we regularly talk of present tenses and past tenses, in the plural. Some writers, like Murphy, prefer to avoid the word tense altogether, but the forms they list are exactly the same. Swan (my bible) talks, for example, about the simple past tense, the past progressive tense, the simple present perfect tense (but admittedly, future continuous and future perfect, without the word tense).

    One of the newest grammar books for students is MyGrammarLab from Pearson, probably the biggest TEFL publisher. Unit Five of the Advanced book is titled ‘Tenses’, under which it lists Present simple, Present continuous, Past simple and continuous, Past perfect simple and continuous, and Present perfect simple and continuous, which I make eight tenses, although they admittedly list the other four under ‘Future forms’. This, however, is not surprising, as we use other forms to express the future as well as the four ‘future tenses’ – simple, continuous, perfect and perfect continuous.

    Unit 1 of the Side and Wellman book is entitled ‘Problem tenses’, where they list Present perfect, continuous forms and the future. What’s more we regularly talk of narrative tenses (the four past tenses), and ‘narrative tenses’ is one of the most Googled search terms used by people who land up on my blog – I have my own version of Little Red Riding Hood – Ruddy Wee Hoody.

    Some may prefer to talk about future forms rather than tenses, but as we have the same four aspects, from the student’s point of view, it’s much the same. And as I pointed out before, Future continuous and Future perfect sometimes work in exactly the same way as their present and past equivalents, so it seems to me to make sense to treat them in much the same way.

    In fact, I’m not too bothered whether we call them tenses or not, as long as we keep the system. I prefer not to call them forms as we use that word for the different inflections. So we talk about 2nd form (preterite), 3rd form (past participle) and -ing forms. What foreign learners need (and perhaps native speakers too) is a nice easy logical system that reflects the way people speak, and which the majority of publishers follow, and I think we have that. The needs of linguists may well be different, but that’s not really my concern.

    And lastly, teaching tenses is important at all levels. Many languages, Polish for example, have no equivalent of Present perfect, and this gives them problems at all levels, even for so-called professional translators. And as for Future perfect continuous … but if I don’t stop soon, I’ll have been writing this for more than an hour.


    • I’ve just had a quick look at another TEFL book, ‘Oxford Practice Grammar’ by John Eastwood, and see that he, too, mostly dodges the issue by speaking of, for example, ‘the past continuous’ and ‘the present perfect’, thus avoiding the word ‘tense’. Of the latter, he says it’s ‘the present tense of “have” + a past participle’.

      If you tell students that ‘I’ll walk’ is the future tense, what do you tell them that ‘I’m going to walk’ is?


  5. This book certainly seems to be more mainstream TEFL. I can only assume that when he talks of present perfect as being the present of ‘have’ + past participle, he is merely talking of how it is constructed. It certainly doesn’t tell us anything of its use. Does he similarly say that the negative of present simple is the present of do + base form, or that the present continuous is the present of be + -ing form?

    Yes, the future is more complicated, but English is not unique here. Both French and Spanish use ‘going to’ and present tenses for the future, but that doesn’t stop them to referring to a future tense. Some of us may use the term Future simple for ‘will’ but students learn very early on that there are several ways of expressing the simple future – ‘will’, ‘going to’ (sometimes called the ‘will’ future and the ‘going to’ future), present continuous and present simple.

    In fact I don’t think what we call them or whether we call them tenses or not is that important to students, as long as we are all saying broadly the same thing. It’s rather the linguists and grammarians who want nice neat descriptive names. It’s the language students are interested in, not grammar; learning grammar is simply a means to that end. And my impression is that the less grammatical terminology that involves, the better. I think perhaps it’s not that John Eastwood is dodging the issue, but that he recognises this, as does the doyen grammar exercise writers, Raymond Murphy.

    All this has inspired me to finish off a post I had already started about the twelve-tense system, which I hope to get up and running in the next few days.


  6. I notice that Murphy, at least in ‘English Grammar In Use’, doesn’t always use the word ‘tense’ when he’s discussing verb forms such as the present or the perfect. It doesn’t appear at all in Appendix 3 on ‘The future’.

    Perhaps we have to learn to live with more than one definition of ‘tense’, just as we have to live with more than one definition of ‘grammar’.


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