Ignorant people think it is the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain’t so; it is the sickening grammar that they use.—Mark Twain

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Grammar—A Linguistic Perspective

Soldiers reading in a YMCA library.

Soldiers reading books in a YMCA library, circa 1920. Image courtesy US Library of Congress.

Grammar is the study of rules governing the use of language. The set of rules governing a particular language is also called the grammar of the language; thus, each language can be said to have its own distinct grammar. Grammar is part of the general study of language called linguistics.

The subfields of contemporary grammar are phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Traditional grammars include only morphology and syntax.

Types of Grammar

  • A prescriptive grammar presents authoritative norms for a particular language, and tends to deprecate non-standard constructions. Traditional grammars are typically prescriptive. Prescriptive grammars are usually based on the prestige dialects of a speech community, and often specifically condemn certain constructions that are common only among lower socioeconomic groups, such as the use of “ain’t” and double negatives in English. Though prescriptive grammars remain common in pedagogy and foreign language teaching, they have fallen out of favor in modern academic linguistics, as they describe only a subset of actual language usage.
  • A descriptive grammar attempts to describe actual usage, avoiding prescriptive judgments. Descriptive grammars are bound to a particular speech community, and attempt to provide rules for any utterance considered grammatically correct within that community. For example, in many dialects of English, the use of double negatives is very common, though ungrammatical from the point of view of a prescriptive English grammar. A descriptive grammar of a speech community where “I didn’t do nothing” is acceptable will treat that sentence as grammatical, and provide rules that account for it. A prescriptive grammar of formal English would rather provide rules for “I didn’t do anything.”
  • Traditional grammar is the collection of ideas about grammar that Western societies have received from Greek and Roman sources. Prescriptive grammar is usually formulated in terms of the descriptive concepts inherited from traditional grammar. Modern descriptive grammar aims to correct the errors of traditional grammar, and generalize them, so as to avoid shoehorning all languages to the model of Latin. Nearly all materials used in teaching language, however, are still based on traditional grammar.
  • A formal grammar is a precisely defined grammar, typically used for computer programming languages.

Development of Grammars

Grammars evolve through usage and human population separations. With the advent of written representations, formal rules about language usage tend to appear also. Formal grammars are codifications of usage that are developed by observation. As the rules become established and developed, the prescriptive concept of grammatical correctness can arise. This often creates a gulf between contemporary usage and that which is accepted as correct. Linguists normally consider that prescriptive grammars do not have any justification beyond their authors’ aesthetic tastes. However, prescriptions are considered in sociolinguistics as part of the explanation for why some people say “I didn’t do nothing,” some say “I didn’t do anything,” and some say one or the other depending on social context.

The formal study of grammar is an important part of education from a young age through advanced learning, though the rules taught in schools are not a “grammar” in the sense most linguists use the term, as they are often prescriptive rather than descriptive.

Constructed languages (also called planned languages or conlangs) are more common in the modern day. Many have been designed to aid human communication (such as Esperanto or the intercultural, highly logic-compatible artificial language Lojban) or created as part of a work of fiction (such as the Klingon language and Elvish languages). Each of these artificial languages has its own grammar.

It is erroneously believed that analytic languages have simpler grammar than synthetic languages. Analytic languages use syntax to convey information that is encoded via inflection in synthetic languages. In other words, word order is not significant and morphology is highly significant in a purely synthetic language, whereas morphology is not significant and syntax is highly significant in an analytic language. Chinese and Afrikaans, for example, are highly analytic and meaning is therefore very context dependent. (Both do have some inflections, and had more in the past; thus, they are becoming even less synthetic and more “purely” analytic over time.) Latin, which is highly synthetic, uses affixes and inflections to convey the same information that Chinese does with syntax. Because Latin words are quite (though not completely) self-contained, an intelligible Latin sentence can be made from elements placed in largely arbitrary order. Latin has a complex affixation and a simple syntax, while Chinese has the opposite.

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