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How Grammar Works

Updated on March 13, 2012

Grammar is the systematic analysis of a language. The purposes for which the analysis is undertaken and the lines along which it is carried out may vary considerably.

Descriptive grammar deals with the analysis of a given language at a given period. It may cover the whole field of a language, or be restricted to a certain sector of it, for example, a regional variety or dialect, or the speech of a social group, or the literary language of a given writer or writers. It is concerned with the forms of the language (morphology) and with the way the forms are organized in meaningful utterances (syntax) and also, if the analysts is not restricted to a written form of the language, with the sounds in so far as they serve a functional purpose. In so far as grammar is purely descriptive, it does not set out to prescribe what is 'correct' or to condemn certain attested pronunciations, forms, or constructions as 'incorrect': a complete descriptive grammar of modern English would list both 'Whom did you see?' and 'Who did you see?', both 'He did it' and 'He done it', both 'As I said' and 'Like I said', and would discuss the levels of speech characterized by these different usages, probably concluding that the first member of each pair is typical of a more formal or more cultivated kind of speech than the second, but that 'Who did you see?', for example, is widely used in circles that do not use 'He done it'— although there would be no attempt to say that the first member of each pair is more 'correct' than the second. There are various techniques for the descriptive analysis of a language, but to be valid, any such technique must start from the language in question and not try to force it into a framework originally devised for another language: for example, the grammar of English must not (as has so often been the case in the past) be analyzed on lines more appropriate to Latin, nor must various non-Indo-European languages be expected necessarily to have the same 'parts of speech' as the Indo-European languages.

Structural grammar, a system of grammatical analysis describing defined, natural language; another term for descriptive grammar. Structural linguistics also refers to the method developed by the so-called Prague Circle of linguists.

Transformational grammar, system of language analysis involved with the relationship between the elements of a sentence and the sentences possible in a language, using a system of rules or 'transformations' to express the relationships. Transformational analysis recognizes a surface structure, and a deep structure, and asserts that in deep structures, all languages are basically similar. Because of this, it attempts to discover ways in which sentences of all languages are alike. The system was proposed by Noam Chomsky.

Transformational grammar can also be generative grammar, in that it can use transformational analysis to predict all the grammatical possibilities of a language.

Stratificational grammar, the system of grammatical analysis which views language as a series of interlocked relationships involving several layers of linguistic structure which can be divided into phonology (sound), grammar (forms of words and sentence structure), and semiotics (semantics). Components of one layer combine into larger units to form units on the next layer; for example, a unit of grammar, such as a word, is made up of units from phonology, and so on. Stratificational grammar developed from the work of Sydney LAMB, and was itself a development from glossematics.

Generative grammar, system of linguistic analysis which sees language as a defined set of rules by which every possible kind of sentence in any natural language can be produce*!. Its main objective is to generate, or predict, all the grammatical constructions which may occur in a language; it also aims to predict formations which are ungrammatical, or which fail to make sense, and to provide a structured description for every possible grammatical construction.

Normative or prescriptive grammar, a type of descriptive grammar that expresses value judgments on linguistic data, seeking to classify observed grammatical usages as 'correct' or 'incorrect' according to certain standards that are often based on the usage of those who are considered to be the best writers. Such standards are in certain circumstances considered to be right and necessary in an advanced society; the danger is that the standards adopted are sometimes quite arbitrary or over-conservative, seeking to conform to usages that were once current but have largely ceased to be so in the ordinary, familiar speech of even the most cultivated sections of the community.

Historical grammar traces the development of a language over a period of time.

Comparative grammar seeks to form some idea of early, unattested stages of language by comparing various languages that have a common origin. In this way, it is possible to theorize, for example, about Indo-European grammar on the basis of a comparative study of the historically attested Indo-European tongues. However, it must be emphasized that the most that can be achieved is an hypothesis, the probable validity of which must be assessed according to the amount of evidence available and the reliability of the method adopted; there can never, contrary to the views of some 19th-century comparatists, be any question of 'reconstructing' Indo-European or any other unrecorded state of language.


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    • Parks McCants profile image

      Parks McCants 

      6 years ago from Eugene Oregon U.S.A.

      Well Mr Know-it-all... My head is spinning; as to the acceptable ins and outs of english based gramatic delivery.

      I especially appreciate your slant as to regionalism.

      Would you be kind enough to share this view with my editors@ Examiner.Com? L.O.L.

      Perhaps a follow up piece written on the art of punctuation would be welcomed here...

      Well done!


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