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In linguistics, grammar (From Greek: γραμματική) is the set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field includes phonology, morphology, and syntax, often complemented by phonetics, semantics, and pragmatics.


Use of the termEdit

For linguists, grammar refers to cognitive information underlying language use. Speakers of a language have a set of internalized rules[1] for using that language. These rules constitute grammar, and the vast majority of the information in the grammar is—at least in the case of one's native languageacquired not by conscious study or instruction, but by observing other speakers. Much of this work is done during early childhood; learning a language later in life usually involves a greater degree of explicit instruction.[2]

The term "grammar" can also be used to describe the rules that govern the linguistic behaviour of a group of speakers. The term "English grammar", therefore, may have several meanings. It may refer to the whole of English grammar, that is, to the grammars of all the speakers of the language, in which case, the term encompasses a great deal of variation.[3] Alternatively, it may refer only to what is common to the grammars of all, or of the vast majority of English speakers (such as subject–verb–object word order in simple declarative sentences). Or it may refer to the rules of a particular, relatively well-defined variety of English (such as standard English for a particular region).

A specific description, study or analysis of such rules may also be referred to as a grammar. A reference book describing the grammar of a language is called a "reference grammar" or simply "a grammar" (see History of English grammars). A fully explicit grammar that exhaustively describes the grammatical constructions of a language is called a descriptive grammar. This kind of linguistic description contrasts with linguistic prescription, an attempt to discourage or suppress some grammatical constructions, while promoting others. For example, preposition stranding occurs widely in Germanic languages and has a long history in English. John Dryden, however, objected to it (without explanation),[4] leading other English speakers to avoid the construction and discourage its use.[5]

Outside linguistics the term grammar is often used in a rather different sense. In some respects, it may be used more broadly, including rules of spelling and punctuation, which linguists would not typically consider to form part of grammar, but rather as a part of orthography, the set of conventions used for writing a language. In other respects, it may be used more narrowly, to refer to prescriptive grammar only and excluding those aspects of a language's grammar that are not subject to variation or debate. Jeremy Butterfield claimed that, for non-linguists, "Grammar is often a generic way of referring to any aspect of English that people object to."[6]


The word grammar is derived from Greek γραμματικὴ τέχνη (grammatikē technē), which means "art of letters", from γράμμα (gramma), "letter", itself from γράφειν (graphein), "to draw, to write".[7] The same Greek root also appears in graphics, grapheme, and photograph.


The Babylonians made some early attempts at language description,[8] but the first systematic grammars, of Sanskrit, originated in Iron Age India, with Yaska (6th century BC), Pāṇini (4th century BC) and his commentators Pingala (c. 200 BC), Katyayana, and Patanjali (2nd century BC). Tolkāppiyam, the earliest Tamil grammar, is mostly dated to before the 5th century AD.

In the West, grammar emerged as a discipline in Hellenism from the 3rd century BC forward with authors like Rhyanus and Aristarchus of Samothrace, the oldest extant work being the Art of Grammar (Τέχνη Γραμματική), attributed to Dionysius Thrax (c. 100 BC). Latin grammar developed by following Greek models from the 1st century BC, due to the work of authors such as Orbilius Pupillus, Remmius Palaemon, Marcus Valerius Probus, Verrius Flaccus, and Aemilius Asper.

A grammar of Irish originated in the 7th century with the Auraicept na n-Éces. Arabic grammar emerged with Abu al-Aswad al-Du'ali in the 7th century. The first treatises on Hebrew grammar appeared in the High Middle Ages, in the context of Mishnah (exegesis of the Hebrew Bible). The Karaite tradition originated in Abbasid Baghdad. The Diqduq (10th century) is one of the earliest grammatical commentaries on the Hebrew Bible.[9] Ibn Barun in the 12th century compares the Hebrew language with Arabic in the Islamic grammatical tradition.[10]

Belonging to the trivium of the seven liberal arts, grammar was taught as a core discipline throughout the Middle Ages, following the influence of authors from Late Antiquity, such as Priscian. Treatment of vernaculars began gradually during the High Middle Ages, with isolated works such as the First Grammatical Treatise, but became influential only in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. In 1486, Antonio de Nebrija published Las introduciones Latinas contrapuesto el romance al Latin, and the first Spanish grammar, Gramática de la lengua castellana, in 1492. During the 16th-century Italian Renaissance, the Questione della lingua was the discussion on the status and ideal form of the Italian language, initiated by Dante's de vulgari eloquentia (Pietro Bembo, Prose della volgar lingua Venice 1525). The first grammar of Slovene language was written in 1583 by Adam Bohorič.

Grammars of non-European languages began to be compiled for the purposes of evangelization and Bible translation from the 16th century onward, such as Grammatica o Arte de la Lengua General de los Indios de los Reynos del Perú (1560), and a Quechua grammar by Fray Domingo de Santo Tomás.

In 1643 there appeared Ivan Uzhevych's Grammatica sclavonica and, in 1762, the Short Introduction to English Grammar of Robert Lowth was also published. The Grammatisch-Kritisches Wörterbuch der hochdeutschen Mundart, a High German grammar in five volumes by Johann Christoph Adelung, appeared as early as 1774.

From the latter part of the 18th century, grammar came to be understood as a subfield of the emerging discipline of modern linguistics. The Serbian grammar by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić arrived in 1814, while the Deutsche Grammatik of the Brothers Grimm was first published in 1818. The Comparative Grammar of Franz Bopp, the starting point of modern comparative linguistics, came out in 1833.

Development of grammarsEdit

Grammars evolve through usage and also due to separations of the human population. 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 repeated documentation over time, and by observation as well. As the rules become established and developed, the prescriptive concept of grammatical correctness can arise. This often creates a discrepancy between contemporary usage and that which has been accepted, over time, as being correct. Linguists tend to view prescriptive grammars as having little justification beyond their authors' aesthetic tastes, although style guides may give useful advice about standard language employment, based on descriptions of usage in contemporary writings of the same language. Linguistic prescriptions also form part of the explanation for variation in speech, particularly variation in the speech of an individual speaker (an explanation, for example, 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 for children 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, particularly as they are often prescriptive rather than descriptive.

Constructed languages (also called planned languages or conlangs) are more common in the modern day than they used to be, although still extremely uncommon compared to natural languages. Many have been designed to aid human communication (for example, naturalistic Interlingua, schematic Esperanto, and the highly logic-compatible artificial language Lojban). Each of these languages has its own grammar.

Syntax refers to linguistic structure above the word level (e.g. how sentences are formed)—though without taking into account intonation, which is the domain of phonology. Morphology, by contrast, refers to structure at and below the word level (e.g. how compound words are formed), but above the level of individual sounds, which, like intonation, are in the domain of phonology.[11] No clear line can be drawn, however, between syntax and morphology. 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 have 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 that are placed in a largely arbitrary order. Latin has a complex affixation and simple syntax, while Chinese has the opposite.

Grammar frameworksEdit

Various "grammar frameworks" have been developed in theoretical linguistics since the mid-20th century, in particular under the influence of the idea of a "universal grammar" in the United States. Of these, the main divisions are:


Prescriptive grammar is taught in primary and secondary school. The term "grammar school" historically refers to a school teaching Latin grammar to future Roman citizens, orators, and, later, Catholic priests. In its earliest form, "grammar school" referred to a school that taught students to read, scan, interpret, and declaim Greek and Latin poets (including Homer, Virgil, Euripides, Ennius, and others). These should not be confused with the related, albeit distinct, modern British grammar schools.

A standard language is a particular dialect of a language that is promoted above other dialects in writing, education, and broadly speaking in the public sphere; it contrasts with vernacular dialects, which may be the objects of study in descriptive grammar but which are rarely taught prescriptively. The standardized "first language" taught in primary education may be subject to political controversy, because it may sometimes establish a standard defining nationality or ethnicity.

Recently, efforts have begun to update grammar instruction in primary and secondary education. The primary focus has been to prevent the use of outdated prescriptive rules in favour of more accurate descriptive ones and to change perceptions about relative "correctness" of standard forms in comparison to non-standard dialects.

The pre-eminence of Parisian French has reigned largely unchallenged throughout the history of modern French literature. Standard Italian is not based on the speech of the capital, Rome, but on the speech of Florence because of the influence Florentines had on early Italian literature. Similarly, standard Spanish is not based on the speech of Madrid, but on that of educated speakers from more northerly areas like Castile and León (e.g. see Gramática de la lengua castellana). In Argentina and Uruguay the Spanish standard is based on the local dialects of Buenos Aires and Montevideo (Rioplatense Spanish). Portuguese has for now two official written standards, respectively Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese.

The Serbian language is divided in a similar way; Serbia and the Republika Srpska use their own separate standards. The existence of a third standard is a matter of controversy, some consider Montenegrin as a separate language, and some think it is merely another variety of Serbian.

Norwegian has two standards, Bokmål and Nynorsk, the choice between which is subject to controversy: Each Norwegian municipality can declare one of the two its official language, or it can remain "language neutral". Nynorsk is endorsed by a minority of 27 percent of the municipalities. The main language used in primary schools normally follows the official language of its municipality, and is decided by referendum within the local school district. Standard German emerged from the standardized chancellery use of High German in the 16th and 17th centuries. Until about 1800, it was almost entirely a written language, but now it is so widely spoken that most of the former German dialects are nearly extinct.

Standard Chinese has official status as the standard spoken form of the Chinese language in the People's Republic of China (PRC), the Republic of China (ROC) and the Republic of Singapore. Pronunciation of Standard Chinese is based on the local accent of Mandarin Chinese from Luanping, Chengde in Hebei Province near Beijing, while grammar and syntax are based on modern vernacular written Chinese. Modern Standard Arabic is directly based on Classical Arabic, the language of the Qur'an. The Hindustani language has two standards, Hindi and Urdu.

In the United States, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar designated March 4 as National Grammar Day in 2008.[12]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Traditionally, the mental information used to produce and process linguistic utterances is referred to as "rules". However, other frameworks employ different terminology, with theoretical implications. Optimality theory, for example, talks in terms of "constraints", while construction grammar, cognitive grammar, and other "usage-based" theories make reference to patterns, constructions, and "schemata"
  2. ^ O'Grady, William; Dobrovolsky, Michael; Katamba, Francis (1996). Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. Harlow, Essex: Longman. pp. 4–7; 464–539. ISBN 9780582246911. 
  3. ^ Holmes, Janet (2001). An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (second ed.). Harlow, Essex: Longman. pp. 73–94. ISBN 9780582328617. ; for more discussion of sets of grammars as populations, see: Croft, William (2000). Explaining Language Change: An Evolutionary Approach. Harlow, Essex: Longman. pp. 13–20. ISBN 9780582356771. 
  4. ^ Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, 2002, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press, p. 627f.
  5. ^ Lundin, Leigh (September 23, 2007). "The Power of Prepositions". On Writing. Cairo: Criminal Brief. 
  6. ^ Jeremy Butterfield, (2008) Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare, Oxford University Press, Oxford. 978-0-19-923906. p. 142.
  7. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Grammar". Online Etymological Dictionary. Retrieved April 8, 2010 
  8. ^ McGregor, William B. (2015). Linguistics: An Introduction. Bloomsbury Academic. pp. 15–16. ISBN 978-0567583529. 
  9. ^ G. Khan, J. B. Noah, The Early Karaite Tradition of Hebrew Grammatical Thought (2000)
  10. ^ Pinchas Wechter, Ibn Barūn's Arabic Works on Hebrew Grammar and Lexicography (1964)
  11. ^ Gussenhoven, Carlos; Jacobs, Haike (2005). Understanding Phonology (second ed.). London: Hodder Arnoldd. ISBN 9780340807354. 
  12. ^ "National Grammar Day: Brought to you by Grammar Girl and the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar". 


  • American Academic Press, The (ed.). William Strunk, Jr., et al. The Classics of Style: The Fundamentals of Language Style From Our American Craftsmen. Cleveland: The American Academic Press, 2006. ISBN 0-9787282-0-3.
  • Rundle, Bede. Grammar in Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. ISBN 0-19-824612-9.

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