What is grammar?


Language incorporates the three constituent parts (“sides”), each being inherent in it by virtue of its social nature. These parts are the phonological system, the lexical system, the grammatical system. Only the unity of these three elements forms a language; without any one of them there is no human language in the above sense.

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The phonological system is the subfoundation of language; it determines the material (phonetical) appearance of its significate units. The lexical system is the whole set of naming means of language, that is, words and stable word-groups. The grammatical system is the whole set of regularities determining the combination of naming means in the formation of utterances as the embodiment of thinking process.

Analyzing the language from the viewpoint of the information it carries we cannot restrict the notion of information to the cognitive aspect of language. Connotative aspects and emotional overtones are also important semantic components of linguistic units.

The components of grammatical meaning that do not belong to the denotation of the grammatical form are covered by the general term of connotation most obviously relevant to grammatical aspects of style.

Grammatical forms play a vital role in our ability to lend variety to speech, to give “color” to the subject or evaluate it and to convey the information more emotionally.


Text grammar as a part of text linguistics

I will be using the word grammar in this work to refer to the set of rules that allow us to combine words in our language into larger units. Another term for grammar in this sense is syntax.

Some combinations of words are possible in English and others are not. As a speaker of English, you can judge that Home computers are now much cheaper is a possible English sentence whereas Home computers now much are cheaper is not, because you know that much is wrongly positioned in the second example. Your ability to recognize such distinctions is evidence that in some sense you know the rules of grammar even if you have never studied any grammar. Similarly, you operate the rules whenever you speak or write (you can put words in the right order) and whenever you interpret what others say (you know that Susan likes Tom means something quite different from Tom likes Susan). But knowing the rules in evaluative and operational senses does not mean that you can say what the rules are.

You acquire a working knowledge of your native language simply through being exposed to it from early childhood: nobody taught you, for example, where to posi­tion much. You study grammar, however, if you want to be able to analyze your language. The analytic grammar makes explicit the knowledge of the rules with which you operate when you use the language. There is a clear difference between the operational grammar and the analytic grammar. After all, many languages have never been analyzed and some have been analyzed only relatively recently. People were speaking and writing English long before the first English grammars appeared at the end of the sixteenth century.

Grammar deals with the structure of languages, English grammar with the structure of English, French grammar with the structure of French, etc. Language consists of words, but the way in which these words are modified and joined together to express thoughts and feelings differs from one language to another.

In a language description we generally deal with three essential parts known as phonology, vocabulary, and grammar. These various ranges, or levels, are the subject matter of the various branches of linguistics. We may think of vocabulary as the word-stock, and grammar as the set of devices for handling this word-stock. It is due precisely to these devices that language is able to give material linguistic form to human thought.

Practically speaking, the facts of any language are too complex to be handled without arranging them into such divisions. We do not mean to say, however, that these three levels of study should be thought of as isolated from each other. The affinities between all levels of linguistic organization make themselves quite evident. Conceived in isolation, each of them will always become artificial and will hardly justify itself in practice. It is not always easy to draw precise boundaries between grammar and vocabulary. Sometimes the subject matter becomes ambiguous just at the borderline. The study of this organic relationship in language reality seems to be primary in importance.

For a complete description of language we have to account for the form, the substance and the relationship between the form and the situation. The study of this relationship may be referred to as contextual level of analysis.

Grammar, whose subject matter is the observable organization of words into various combinations, takes that which is common and basic in linguistic forms and gives in an orderly way accurate descriptions of the practice to which users of the language conform. And with this comes the realization that this underlying structure of the language (as system) is highly organized. Whatever are the other interests of modern linguistic science, its center is surely an interest in the grammatical system of language.

Grammar and other aspects of language

Linguistic communications are channeled mainly through our senses of sound and sight. Grammar is the central component of language. It mediates between the system of sounds or of written symbols, on the one hand, and the system of meaning, on the other. Phonology is the usual term for the sound system in the language: the distinctive sound units and the ways which they may be combined. Orthography parallels phonology in that it deals with the writing system in the language: the distinctive written symbols and their possible combinations. Semantics is concerned with the system of meanings in the language: the mean­ings of words and the combinatory meanings of larger units:

  • Phonology
  • Grammar Semantics
  • Orthography

Three other aspects of language description are often distinguished: phonetics, morphology, and pragmatics. Phonetics deals with the physical characteristics of the sounds in the language and how the sounds are produced. Sounds and letters combine to form words or parts of words. Morphology refers to the set of rules that describe the structure of words. The word computer, for example, consists of two parts: the base compute (used separately as a verb) and the suffix -er (found in other nouns derived from verbs, e.g. blender). Pragmatics is concerned with the use of particular utterances within particular situations. For example, Will you join our group? is a question that, depending on the speaker’s intention, is either a request for information or a request for action.

For descriptive purposes, it is convenient to deal with the components of language separately, but because of the central place of grammar in the language system, it is sometimes necessary to refer to the other components when we discuss the grammar.

The grammar of each language constitutes a system of its own, each element of which stands in a certain relation to, and is more or less dependent on, all the others. No linguistic system, however, is either completely rigid or perfectly harmonious, and we shall see in some of the subsequent chapters that there are loopholes and deficiencies in the English grammatical system.

Language is nothing but a set of human habits, the purpose of which is to give expression to thoughts and feelings, and especially to impart them to others. As with other habits it is not to be expected that they should be perfectly consistent. No one can speak exactly as everybody else or speak exactly in the same way under all circumstances and at all moments, hence a good deal of vacillation here and there. The divergences would certainly be greater if it were not for the fact that the chief purpose of language is to make oneself understood by other members of the same community; this presupposes and brings about a more or less complete agreement on all essential points. The closer and more intimate the social life of a community is, the greater will be the concordance in speech between its members. In old times, when communication between various parts of the country was not easy and when the population was, on the whole, very stationary, a great many local dialects arose which differed very considerably from one another; the divergences naturally became greater among the uneducated than among the educated and richer classes, as the latter moved more about and had more intercourse with people from other parts of the country. In recent times the enormously increased facilities of communication have to a great extent counteracted the tendency towards the splitting up of the language into dialects—class dialects and local dialects. In this grammar we must in many places call attention to various types of divergences: geographical (English in the strictest sense with various sub-divisions, Scottish, Irish, American), and social (educated, colloquial, literary, poetical, on the one hand, and vulgar on the other). But it should be remembered that these strata cannot be strictly separated from, but are constantly influencing one another. Our chief concern will be with the normal speech of the educated class, what may be called Standard English, but we must remember that the speech even of “standard speakers” varies a good deal according to circumstances and surroundings as well as to the mood of the moment. Nor must we imagine that people in their everyday speech arrange their thoughts in the same orderly way as when they write, let alone when they are engaged on literary work. Grammatical expressions have been formed in the course of centuries by innumerable generations of illiterate speakers, and even in the most elevated literary style we are obliged to conform to what has become, in this way, the general practice. Hence many established idioms which on closer inspection may appear to the trained thinker illogical or irrational. The influence of emotions, as distinct from orderly rational thinking, is conspicuous in many parts of grammar—see, for instance, the chapters on gender, on expanded tenses, and on will and shall.

The nature of grammar as a constituent part of language is better understood in the light of explicitly discriminating the two planes of language, namely, the plane of content and the plane of expression.

The plane of content comprises the purely semantic elements contained in language, while the plane of expression comprises the material (formal) units of language taken by themselves, apart from the meanings rendered by them. The two planes are inseparably connected, so that no meaning can be realized without some material means of expression. Grammatical elements of language present a unity of content and expression (or, in somewhat more familiar terms, a unity of form and meaning). In this the grammatical elements are similar to the lingual lexical elements, though the quality of grammatical meanings, as we have stated above, is different in principle from the quality of lexical meanings.

On the other hand, the correspondence between the planes of content and expression is very complex, and it is peculiar to each language. This complexity is clearly illustrated by the phenomena of polysemy, homonymy, and synonymy.

In cases of polysemy and homonymy, two or more units of the plane of content correspond to one unit of the plane of expression. For instance, the verbal form of the present indefinite (one unit in the plane of expression) polysemantically renders the grammatical meanings of habitual action, action at the present moment, action taken as a general truth (several units in the plane of content). The morphemic material element -s/-es (in pronunciation [-s, -z, -iz]), i.e. one unit in the plane of expression (in so far as the functional semantics of the elements is common to all of them indiscriminately), homonymically renders the grammatical meanings of the third person singular of the verbal present tense, the plural of the noun, the possessive form of the noun, i.e. several units of the plane of content.

In cases of synonymy, conversely, two or more units of the plane of expression correspond to one unit of the plane of content. For instance, the forms of the verbal future indefinite, future continuous, and present continuous (several units in the plane of expression) can in certain contexts synonymically render the meaning of a future action (one unit in the plane of content).

Taking into consideration the discrimination between the two planes, we may say that the purpose of grammar as a linguistic discipline is, in the long run, to disclose and formulate the regularities of the correspondence between the plane of content and the plane of expression in the formation of utterances out of the stocks of words as part of the process of speech production.