What Is Grammar?

This one’s for the grammar police.

This is probably a question you rarely ask yourself. Grammar is the foundation for how we all communicate with each other, so it’s something we should have all mastered at this point, right? Well, we’re here to tell you that it’s much more complex than it may appear. Whether you’re learning a new language or just thinking more about your first one, there’s always more to learn about grammar. Primarily, it’s important to understand that grammar is not just about spelling and punctuation. Most importantly it allows us to have clear and concise communication with one another. Grammar lets us adequately and precisely express ourselves and our ideas, without it we’d be lost in translation with one another. 

Before we get into the nitty gritty of grammar rules, let’s look at a brief history of it. What is considered “traditional grammar” was first developed by the early Greeks, along with the first alphabetic system. This led to the creation of the first literary works, and from this a necessity for a grammar system so that people could thoroughly understand and respect what was written. However, these rules were created more to establish a “correct” usage of language in writing and less a replication of the way language functioned in daily life. 

Let’s bring it back to a basic level. By definition, grammar is a language’s system of rules that defines the structure of words and how they’re used. It involves the modification and combination of words to create different sentences and phrases. These rules are adaptable based on the language, region and even slang. You may hear that slang isn’t “grammatically correct” because it defies the laws of traditional grammar. Yet just like language, grammar is always evolving and arguably shouldn’t be held to traditional limitations. Similarly, grammar changes based on the language one is speaking. For example, in Spanish, the adjective comes after the noun, but in English it’s the opposite. Both create the same meaning.

That being said, here we’ll focus on these concepts through the lens of English grammar, rather than bringing in grammar in other languages. When you’re learning a new language, however, it’s important to keep in mind that the other language’s rules may be different from what you expect.

The Elements Of English Grammar

Syntax

Syntax refers to the specific arrangement of words and phrases to make sensical and coherent sentences. The placement of every word in a sentence reveals new meaning and can be instantly changed with just one move. For example, in English we follow subject-verb-object order when organizing our sentences, such as “I [subject] love [verb] hotdogs [object].” Other languages have different orders — subject-object-verb, verb-subject-object and some even have a freer word order — but each has some sort of rules that it sticks to.

Morphology

Morphology has to do with the formation of words and the the different elements that complete their structure. More specifically, every word is made up of morphemes which are the smallest units of meaning that exist in language. Some words are single morphemes — you can’t break down “cat” any further — but there are many built up from several pieces. Examples of morphemes include prefixes, suffixes, roots, inflections or bases. Let’s break up the word “reaction” into its morphemes as an example: re (prefix) – act (root/base) – ion (suffix). 

Grammar Categories And Rules

Languages have grammar categories that every word falls into, such as nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions and conjunctions. Each category also has its own set of grammar rules that defines its usage and purpose. Some examples of these rules are verb tenses, subject-verb agreement, punctuation and different sentence types (declarative, exclamatory, imperative and interrogatory). 

Semantics And Pragmatics 

Semantics involves the study of meaning in language and how we interpret signs and symbols and develop them into intelligible ideas. Additionally, it delves into how words, phrases and sentences convey meaning and how they can change based on context. This brings us to pragmatics which covers how context can change the understanding and meaning of language. Specifically it refers to rhetorics, implications and tone, as well as social and cultural influences on language. 

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar 

Prescriptive grammar deals with the traditional grammar rules studied in schools that command “correct” language usage. For many, this is the first kind of grammar they encounter, and it explains why people grow up to be somewhat rigid about things like “don’t split an infinitive” or “don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” Descriptive grammar takes a different approach, describing how grammar is used naturally used in everyday life. Most books about grammar are probably prescriptive — telling you how to speak and write — while linguists are more likely to be descriptive, because they want to see how people actually use language.

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