grammar, description of the structure of a language, consisting of the sounds (see phonology); the meaningful combinations of these sounds into words or parts of words, called morphemes; and the arrangement of the morphemes into phrases and sentences, called syntax. School grammars for the speakers of a standard language (e.g., English grammars for English-speaking students) are not descriptive but prescriptive, that is, they are rule books of what is considered correct. Such grammars have popularized many unsound notions because they often fail to take into account common usage and they do not differentiate language styles and levels, such as formal or colloquial; standard, nonstandard, or substandard; or dialect differences.


Morphemes may have lexical meaning, as the word bird, or syntactic meaning, as the plural -s (see inflection; etymology). Words are minimal free forms, but a word may contain more than one morpheme. For example, treatment contains two, treat and the derivational noun-forming suffix -ment. In traditional grammar, parts of speech are defined semantically, i.e., a noun is a person, place, or thing; but in linguistic morphology, parts of speech are defined according to their syntactic function: The difference between nouns and verbs is that they cannot appear in the same environment in a sentence. One method of language classification is based on structure; languages are classified according to the degree of synthesis, or the number of morphemes per word. Analytic languages, such as Chinese, have only one morpheme per word, while in synthetic languages one word represents more than one morpheme; in the case of some Native American languages, a single word may have so many morphemes that it is the equivalent of an English sentence. The list of morphemes and their meanings (see semantics) in a language is usually not part of a grammar but is isolated in a dictionary or vocabulary.


In syntax, units larger than morphemes, such as phrases and sentences, are isolated in manner that reflects a hierarchical structure; thus the sentence "My sister Mary slowly took the cake from the shelf" would have as primary constitutents "My sister Mary" and "slowly took the cake from the shelf." Each primary constituent then may be broken down into a series of hierarchical secondary constituents. The analysis of syntax is also concerned with the ordering of the grammatical sequences within the phrase, with agreement between concomitant entities (i.e., agreement of number and gender between subject and verb, noun and pronoun), and with case, as mandated by the position and function of a word within a sentence. Other aspects of syntax include such sentence transformations as negativization, interrogation, coordination, subordination, passivization and relativization.


The first attempts to study grammar began in about the 4th cent. B.C., in India with Panini's grammar of Sanskrit and in Greece with Plato's dialogue Cratylus. The Greeks, and later the Romans, approached the study of grammar through philosophy. Concerned only with the study of their own language and not with foreign languages, early Greek and Latin grammars were devoted primarily to defining the parts of speech. The biblical commentator Rashi attempted to decipher the rules of ancient Hebrew grammar. It was not until the Middle Ages that grammarians became interested in languages other than their own. The scientific grammatical analysis of language began in the 19th cent. with the realization that languages have a history; this led to attempts at the genealogical classification of languages through comparative linguistics. Grammatical analysis was further developed in the 20th cent. and was greatly advanced by the theories of structural linguistics and transformational-generative grammar (see linguistics).


See N. Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965) and Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin and Use (1986); R. W. Langacker, Language and Its Structure (2d ed. 1973); F. J. Newmeyer, Grammatical Theory (1983); V. C. Cook, Chomsky's Universal Grammar (1988).

Rules of a language governing its phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics; also, a written summary of such rules. The first Europeans to write grammar texts were the Greeks, notably the Alexandrians of the lst century BC. The Romans applied the Greek grammatical system to Latin. The works of the Latin grammarians Donatus (4th century AD) and Priscian (6th century) were widely used to teach grammar in medieval Europe. By 1700, grammars of 61 vernacular languages had been printed. These were mainly used for teaching and were intended to reform or standardize language. In the 19th–20th centuries linguists began studying languages to trace their evolution rather than to prescribe correct usage. Descriptive linguists (see Ferdinand de Saussure) studied spoken language by collecting and analyzing sample sentences. Transformational grammarians (see Noam Chomsky) examined the underlying structure of language (see generative grammar). The older approach to grammar as a body of rules needed to speak and write correctly is still the basis of primary and secondary language education.

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Finite set of formal rules that will produce all the grammatical sentences of a language. The idea of a generative grammar was first definitively articulated by Noam Chomsky in Syntactic Structures (1957). The generative grammarian's task is ideally not just to define the interrelation of elements in a particular language, but also to characterize universal grammar—that is, the set of rules and principles intrinsic to all natural languages, which are thought to be an innate endowment of the human intellect. Seealso grammar, syntax.

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Grammar is the field of linguistics that covers the rules governing the use of any given natural language. It includes morphology and syntax, often complemented by phonetics, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics. Each language has its own distinct grammar. "English grammar" is the rules of the English language itself. "An English grammar" is a specific study or analysis of these rules. A reference book describing the grammar of a language is called a "reference grammar" or simply "a grammar". A fully explicit grammar exhaustively describing the grammatical constructions of a language is called a descriptive grammar, as opposed to linguistic prescription which tries to enforce the governing rules how a language is to be used.

Grammatical frameworks are approaches to constructing grammars. The standard framework of generative grammar is the transformational grammar model developed by Noam Chomsky and his followers from the 1950s to 1980s.


The word "grammar," derives from Greek γραμματική τέχνη (grammatike techne), which means "art of letters," from γράμμα (gramma), "letter," and that from γράφειν (graphein), "to draw, to write.


The first systematic grammars originate in Iron Age India, with Yaska (6th c. BC), Panini (4th c. BC) and his commentators Pingala (ca. 200 BC), Katyayana, and Patanjali (2nd c. BC). In the West, grammar emerges as a discipline in Hellenism from the 3rd c. 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 (ca. 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, Aemilius Asper.

Tamil grammatical tradition also began around the 1st century BC with the Tolkāppiyam.

A grammar of Irish originated in the 7th century with the Auraicept na n-Éces.

Arabic grammar emerges from the 8th century with the work of Ibn Abi Ishaq and his students.

The first treatises on Hebrew grammar appear in the High Middle Ages, in the context of Mishnah (exegesis of the Hebrew Bible). The Karaite tradition originates in Abbasid Baghdad. The Diqduq (10th century) is one of the earliest grammatical commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. Ibn Barun in the 12th century compares the Hebrew language with Arabic in the Islamic grammatical tradition.

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 begins gradually during the High Middle Ages, with isolated works such as the First Grammatical Treatise, but becomes 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).

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 grammars

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 believe that prescriptive grammars do not have any justification beyond their authors' aesthetic tastes; however, prescriptions are considered in sociolinguistics as part of the explanation 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, as they are often prescriptive rather than descriptive.

Constructed languages (also called planned languages or conlangs) are more common in the modern day. 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.

No clear line can be drawn 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 frameworks

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 USA. Of these, the main divisions are:


Prescriptive grammar is taught in primary school (elementary school). The term "grammar school" historically refers to schools teaching Latin grammar to future priests. The standard language taught contrasts with dialects or vernaculars which may be the objects of study in descriptive grammar but which are not taught prescriptively. The standardized "first language" taught in primary education may be subject to political controversy, since it establishes a standard defining nationality or ethnicity.

The pre-eminence of Parisian French has reigned largely unchallenged throughout the history of modern French literature. In British English, the standard Received Pronunciation is based on the language of the upper classes in the London area, and is based on the sociolect that comes out of the British private boarding schools. In the United States, there are variations of American English throughout but the General American accent is considered unofficially standard because it is perceived as accentless by most Americans; it is based on Midwestern English and is closest to the accent of Omaha, Nebraska.

Standard Italian is not based on the speech of the capital, Rome, but on the speech of Florence due to the influence of Florentines had on early Italian literature. Similarly, standard Spanish is not based on the speech of Madrid, but on the one by educated speakers from more northerly areas like Castile and León. In Argentina and Uruguay the Spanish standard is based on the local dialects of Buenos Aires and Montevideo (Rioplatense Spanish). Portuguese has two official written standards, respectively Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese. 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% 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 out of the standardized chancellery use of High German in the 16th to 17th centuries, until about 1800 almost entirely a written language but now so widely spoken that most former German dialects are near-extinct.

Standard Mandarin 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. Pronunciations of Standard Mandarin is based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin Chinese, while grammar and syntax are based on modern vernacular 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 USA, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar has designated March 4, 2008 as National Grammar Day.

See also

Notes and references

  • 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 0978728203.
  • Rundle, Bede. Grammar in Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. ISBN 0198246129.

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