Grammar Basics: What Is Grammar?

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If you are a native speaker of English, you will already know a vast amount of the language’s grammar. You will know how to use a finite number of grammatical resources to express an infinite number of thoughts and feelings in an infinite number of ways. What you may not know is how it all works. These posts may just give you enough of an idea to want to pursue the subject.

For many people grammar seems to be anything at all to do with language. That isn’t very helpful. Among professional linguists, there is broad agreement about what grammar is, as the following quotations show:

Grammar is concerned with the structure of words (morphology) and of phrases and clauses (syntax). (Bas Aarts, ‘Oxford Modern English Grammar’,)

The rules for constructing words and sentences in a particular language, or the branch of linguistics studying this.  (R L Trask, ‘Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts’)

A grammar of a language describes the principles or rules governing the form and meaning of words, phrases, clauses, and sentences. (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum, ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’)

1. The study of sentence structure, especially with reference to syntax and morphology, often presented as a textbook or manual. 2. A systematic account of the rules governing language in general, or specific languages, including semantics, phonology, and often pragmatics. (David Crystal, ‘The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language’)

It all adds up to saying that grammar is the branch of linguistics that describes the way in which a language allows units of meaning to combine to make words (morphology), and the way in which words can then be put together to make sentences (syntax). The word itself is ultimately from the Greek word for something written, and in classical times the word described the study of literature. The meaning of something written survived in telegram, which etymologically means ‘distant writing’, and it is also found in anagram, programme, diagram and epigram. It later came to mean Latin grammar, and grammar schools were so called because they taught Latin grammar. The word was extended at one point to mean learning in general, which included magic and astrology, and then all that was esoteric and hence, with a slight sound change  . . .  glamorous. Eventually it settled down to mean, among other things, those particular aspects of any language as defined above. Some dictionary definitions still reflect a more general use, but here I will be using it to mean morphology and syntax.

Finally, these posts are concerned only with British Standard English. The grammar of other dialects shows a number of variations.

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6 responses to “Grammar Basics: What Is Grammar?

  1. Pingback: Grammar Basics: Introduction | Caxton

  2. Jill

    Bravo for tackling this Barrie, I’m getting sick of the pop-up so-called grammar tests that are proliferating on the net. I shall follow this with interest and recommend it to interested friends.


  3. Pingback: my Weebly content Grammar self-study | Surfing Notes

  4. Could I ask you some question teacher?
    How is difference between present simple and present perfect in future time clause in sentence below and when to use them?
    – I will go out when I have finished my assignment.
    – I will go out when I finish my assignment.


    • I am not a teacher, and this site is not primarily intended for foreign learners, so I can only answer your question very briefly. Both sentences mean much the same, but the choice between them would depend on what had gone on previously in the conversation.


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