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What is Grammar?

Updated on March 1, 2013

Grammar is the branch of learning dealing with language and its analysis from several points of view. The term includes the study of the pronunciation of a language, its inflections or other means used to express the relations of words to each other in sentences, syntax, and the principles of word formation. It is also applied to the purely descriptive study of the phenomena presented by a given language at a given moment; to the historical treatment of these, showing the changes which take place in a language from age to age; and to a study based on a comparison of the phenomena existing in several languages sprung from a common ancestor.

Where did grammar come from?

Thanks to the work of Henry Sweet, philologists have become fully alive to the fact that a language consists primarily of spoken sounds, and only secondarily of written words. An example of the distinction between spoken and written grammatical forms is the fact that the written words "back" and "bag" both form their plural by adding the letter "s"; but the spoken words form their plurals by adding the sounds "s" and "z" respectively. But this aspect of grammar can only be studied to a limited extent with reference to any but presently or recently spoken language; and it in effect forms a separate science, which should be studied together with the other aspects of grammar.

Comparative and historical grammar is again a highly specialized study which, for general and practical purpose, is chiefly of value for such of its results as have been unquestionably established. It has explained, for example, how such apparently irregular plural forms as "geese", "mice", etc., are actually due to perfectly normal and regular changes.

The term grammar, in its limited but most usually understood meaning, is applied to the methods by which, in a given language, words are made to adapt themselves to certain changes of meaning (as of number or time), and are arranged in a recognizable relationship to one another so as to form sentences. It is precisely in this, its commonest aspect, that the study of grammar has, until recently, been shackled by the grammarians' attempts to force all languages to conform with, the grammatical structure of Latin, simply because that was the only language whose grammar was completely understood. Latin is of the greatest value as a basis for grammatical study, but it does not contain every grammatical possibility within its limits. Latin grammar may profitably be taken as a type, so long as it is not taken as a universal type, of grammar.

Parts of Speech

The words of a language obviously cannot always fulfil the same function, they are classified into various "parts of speech", of which the following are recognized in English, as in Latin:

  • Nouns. The names of things, persons, or qualities.
  • Adjectives, which limit or qualify the meaning of a noun or pronoun.
  • Verbs, which express existence or action, and by which it is affirmed that a noun is, does, or suffers something.
  • Adverbs, which modify the meaning of a verb, adjective, or other adverb.
  • Pronouns, which take the place of a noun already mentioned or understood.
  • Prepositions, which show how one word stands in relationship to another.
  • Conjunctions, which join words or clauses together.
  • Interjections, exclamations, having no grammatical relation to other words.


Each of these (except, perhaps, the last) is open to more or less sub-classification, for which the reader is referred to any good book on English grammar.

The grammatical inter-relationship of words in a sentence is shown by two main methods: (i) the order in which the words are placed; (ii) inflectional changes in the words themselves. The inflectional endings which are added in many languages, tor example, to nouns, may be a survival of independent words which existed in the ancestral language; but their use, as inflections, characterizes an earlier stage of linguistic development than that which depends upon word order and subservient words to determine the meaning of a sentence.

Thus the English language, which originally was highly inflected, is now only slightly so. and has become mainly analytic; that is. its grammatical relations are analyzed out into separate words. We can say either, inflectional, the King's son, or analytically the son o\ the King, whereas in French it is only possible to say le frls du roi. The Indo-European and Semitic families of languages have the most highly developed inflectional systems; and the classes of words which are chiefly inflected are nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. All these are still to some extent inflected in modern English, which, however, has lost its inflections more than any other Indo-European language. The typical Indo-European noun, pronoun, or adjective is subject to formal variation depending upon its gender, number, and case.

The gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter) of a noun has (except in English, which is unique in having substituted natural for grammatical gender) no necessary relation to the sex or absence of sex of the object named by the noun. Thus the German Madchen (girl) is neuter. But certain case-endings (declensions) are typical of each gender.

The numbers were originally three: singular (one thing), dual (two things), and plural (more than two things). The dual number has only a partial survival in ancient Greek, a very few relics in Anglo-Saxon, and some traces in a few living languages, e.g., Russian. But the inflectional distinction between singular and plural has survived even in English.

Case inflections present a more intricate problem, because there are more of them. The case of a noun, pronoun, or adjective is determined by its grammatical relation to the rest of the sentence in which it occurs. English nouns have retained only one case inflexible, the possessive, as in "boy's" and "boys'", meaning "of boy" and "of boys"; but the personal pronoun;, have kept both an objective and a possessive (he - him - his).

Latin nouns have regularly six cases: Nominative, the subject case; Vocative in which a person is directly addressed; Accusative, the object case; Genitive, the possessive case; Dative, the "giving" case; and Ablative, the "taking away" case. Certain Latin nouns have also a Locative, or "place" case. O:her languages have other cases to which various names have been assigned (Finnish, for example, which is not an Indo-European language, has 15 cases).

The functions of the six Latin cases may be illustrated in the following sentence, where each of the italicized words would, in Latin, appear in the cases, in their order as given above.

distinct forms, representing six cases each: masculine, feminine, and neuter, in both singular and plural, whereas the corresponding English adjective has but one fixed form for all these. Adjectives and adverbs are also subject to inflectional change to indicate their degree, as in the English- rich, richer, richest; soon, sooner, soonest.

The inflexible of the verb, of which there are many survivals in English, depends upon four considerations: voice, mood, tense, and person. Latin has two voices: active, in which the subject does something, and passive, in which the subject has something done to him.

In English the passive voice is expressed analytically by means of auxiliary verbs.


The mood of a verb indicates the degree of certainty, probability, possibility, etc., of the action stated. Thus, in Latin, the indicative mood is used to state facts; the subjunctive to indicate possibilities, wishes, etc.; the imperative for commands. Such moods were distinguished in Old English, and the subjunctive even yet survives in certain uses. Tense determines the time of an action, whether present, past, or future. English still has an inflected past tense. There are three persons, both singular and plural: (i) the person who speaks; (ii) the person spoken to; (iii) the person spoken about. All these originally had typical and distinct inflections; but in English, apart from archaisms, only the third person singular of the present tense retains a separate inflection. It is to a very great degree true that the grammar of a language is practically synonymous with its inflectional system. It follows, then, that bad grammar, even in English, consists largely in the misuse, misplacement, or omission of grammatical inflection, or to confusion between different but similar forms.

Examples, commoner than may be imagined, are: "between you and I", "I know who you mean", "I'm going to lay down", "He rung the bell"- mistakes which are by no means confined to the confessedly uneducated.

The fact that the function of many parts of speech can be performed by a phrase or clause containing many words leads to the various complications and intricacies of syntax, and incidentally opens up a very much wider field for possible error.


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    • UdeyJohnson profile image


      6 years ago

      Fascinating! George Bernard Shaw was once trying to illustrate the grammatical difficulty of English and said we could just as easily spell the word "Fish" as "ghoti". Take the 'gh' sound from 'enough'; take the 'o' sound from 'women'; take the 'ti' sound from 'nation'. Put them all together - and lets eat some ghoti cakes tonight! ( ;Great lens. Thanks.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Really interesting and accurate!


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