Grammar – A Short Run-Through

Posted on 25. Nov, 2009 by in Language & Culture

What is grammar? Is it different from semantics? Or is it the same as linguistics? This short run-through on grammar and some of the details will walk you through some important but unfamiliar terms, names, and other items related to grammar and linguistics.

Grammar is actually a branch of linguistics dealing with the form and structure of words (called morphology) and their inter-relations in sentences (called syntax). The study of grammar reveals how language works.

Kinds Of Grammar

There are two kinds of common categories of grammar: descriptive and prescriptive. Both of these are in wide use, although linguists tend towards a descriptive approach to grammar.

Those who are teaching English tend to go for the more prescriptive approach. Usually, however, there is a bit of give and take in both approaches.


A descriptive grammar looks at the grammar of any language (or dialect for that matter) as it actually exists. A sentence is judged grammatical based on the rules of the speech group in which it is spoken, and not from the arbitrary set of rules.

An example “He done got thrown off the horse” would be grammatical and it can be defended with an entire set of rules of grammar that would explain why that sentence is indeed grammatical. Other versions of the sentence might also be judged grammatical in other communities, and with only a version “He was thrown off of the horse” considered acceptable by all.

Prescriptive Grammar

On the other hand, a prescriptive grammar looks at the norms of speech as given by authoritative sources (upper-class groups or the academics) and creates strict rules by which all speech within that language must abide to be considered grammatical.

Nowadays, only a few linguists would take a prescriptive approach to grammar in the modern age. They prefer to describe language as it exists in a given speech community.

However, many teachers, grammarians, and pedagogues in general still have a prescriptive approach towards grammar. They hold to standardized rules as being the only proper way to speak the language.

Prescriptive grammar is used in teaching a language to non-native speakers. When teaching English, for example, it is deemed important to use a “standard” form of English as some form of basis to teach from. It had been declared that these also help reduce confusion among students.

Once the language has been acquired, of course, a less-prescriptive approach will necessarily take over. Today, the movies and television, plus some books are the places where non-native speakers learn the regional rules of the sample English language. Some of the rules may not conform then to the prescriptive grammar the student originally learned the English from.

There are other approaches to the study of grammar aside from the prescriptive and the descriptive kinds. They are the historical, comparative and functional kinds, too. They usually focus on word building and word order, concerned mainly with the structure of the language.

These types are also distinct from phonology (the linguistic study of sound) and semantics (the linguistic study of meaning or content).

The American linguistic scholar Noah Chomsky approached grammar as a theory of language. Language here means the knowledge that men have that allow them to acquire a language.

The man on the streets would argue that grammar is how one person uses a set of rules of any language to communicate to another. So far, this short run-through of grammar has not as yet ascertained which set of rules to follow: that of the prescriptivists or the descriptivists?

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