English grammar in context
English grammar in context

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English grammar in context

2 Developments in grammatical description

2.1 Different types of grammatical description

Activity 2

0 hours 10 minutes

As a way of helping you to consider what we mean by ‘grammar’, look at the following sentences and see how many meanings of the word ‘grammar’ you can identify.

  1. It's a really complicated area of grammar.
  2. Why don't you look it up in a grammar?
  3. Her spelling is good, but her grammar is almost non-existent.
  4. Children don't do enough grammar at school.
  5. We had to do generative grammar on the course.
  6. He needs to work on his grammar and punctuation.
  7. Systemic functional grammar is generally associated with the work of Michael Halliday.
  8. I've always had problems with German grammar.
  9. It's a grammar for learners of English as a foreign language.
  10. Oh no! We're doing grammar again today!

(Based on Hewings and Hewings, 2004)


There is clearly overlap in these uses, but I have grouped them into five meanings.

  1. In 1 and 8, it refers to the way in which words are organised in a language in order to make correct sentences; here ‘grammar’ is the description of the way in which words combine into larger units, the largest being the sentence.
  2. In 2 and 9, it refers to a book in which these organising principles are laid out. Sometimes these are given as a set of rules.
  3. In 4 and 10, it refers to the study of these rules.
  4. In 3 and 6, it refers to whether a person follows the ‘rules of grammar’.
  5. In 5 and 7, it refers to a particular theory of language description.

Different theories of language result in different types of grammatical description based on different premises and with different purposes. The first complementary grammatical description we are going to look at is sometimes referred to as traditional or structural grammar, a grammar that divides language on the basis of parts of speech, units such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives. In looking at parts of speech, or word classes as they are also called, grammarians divide up sentences or smaller units into their constituent parts; for example:

David played his guitar in the concert
noun verb possessive determiner noun preposition determiner noun

Don't worry if you are not familiar with terms such as ‘possessive determiner’; you do not need to understand them to work through this course. In addition to this type of description, grammarians and others can also concentrate on how words combine to make meanings and this gives rise to a functional grammar which uses a different descriptive vocabulary. Functional grammar is another key approach to describing language. In a functional grammar the emphasis is on describing words or groups of words according to the function they are fulfilling in a sentence.

Both traditional grammars and functional grammars are largely descriptive grammars, that is, they set out to account for the language we use without necessarily making judgements about its correctness. However, the word ‘grammar’, as we have seen, can be used to indicate what rules exist for combining units together and whether these have been followed correctly. For example, the variety of English I speak has a rule that if you use a number greater than one with a noun, the noun has to be plural (I say ‘three cats’, not ‘three cat’). Books which set out this view of language are prescriptive grammars which aim to tell people how they should speak rather than to describe how they do speak. Prescriptive grammars contain the notion of the ‘correct’ use of language. For example, many people were taught that an English verb in the infinitive form (underlined in the example below) should not be separated from its preceding to.

So the introduction to the TV series Star Trek

…to boldly go where no man has gone before

is criticised on the grounds that to and go should not be separated by the adverb boldly. We are not arguing that one form is better than another. Rather, we are going to analyse examples of English as it has been used and look at the different choices that have been made and the factors that might influence those choices.

The final type of grammar is a pedagogic grammar. These grammars are generally based on descriptions of ‘standard’ English and are designed to help people learn English if they are not native speakers of the language. Pedagogic grammars often give some of the ‘rules’ of English and lots of examples and practice material. They thus combine elements from descriptive and prescriptive grammars. Your reference grammar is a pedagogic grammar, but it relies on description rather than prescription to explain how English works.


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