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Comparative linguistics
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Grammar is the set of rules that allow a speaker to form an intelligible communication. In linguistics, the grammar of a natural language is its set of structural constraints on speakers' or writers' composition of clauses, phrases, and words. The term can also refer to the study of such constraints, a field that includes domains such as phonology, morphology, and syntax, often complemented by phonetics, semantics, and pragmatics. There are currently two different approaches to the study of grammar: traditional grammar and theoretical grammar.


The word grammar is derived from Greek γραμματικὴ τέχνη (grammatikḕ téchnē), which means "art of letters," from γράμμα (grámma), "letter", itself from γράφειν (gráphein), "to draw, to write."[1] The same Greek root also appears in the words graphics, grapheme, and photograph.


Grammar can refer to a range of concepts. For example, the term "English grammar" could refer to the whole of English grammar (that is, to the grammar of all the speakers of the language), in which case the term encompasses a great deal of variation.[2][3] At a smaller scale, it may refer only to what is shared among the grammars of all or most English speakers (such as subject–verb–object word order in simple declarative sentences). At the smallest scale, this sense of "grammar" can describe the conventions of just one relatively well-defined form of English (such as standard English for a region). The term "grammar" can also describe the linguistic behavior of groups of speakers and writers rather than individuals.

A description, study, or analysis of such rules may also be referred to as grammar. A reference book describing the grammar of a language is called a "reference grammar" or simply "a grammar" (see History of English grammars). A fully explicit grammar, which exhaustively describes the grammatical constructions of a particular speech variety, is called descriptive grammar. This kind of linguistic description contrasts with linguistic prescription, an attempt to actively discourage or suppress some grammatical constructions while codifying and promoting others, either in an absolute sense or about a standard variety.

One example is prescriptivists who maintain that sentences in English should not end with prepositions, a prohibition that has been traced to John Dryden (April 13 1668 – January 1688) whose unexplained objection to the practice perhaps led other English speakers to avoid the construction and discourage its use.[4][5] Yet preposition stranding has a long history in Germanic languages like English, where it is so widespread as to be a standard usage.

Fluent speakers of a language variety or lect have effectively internalized these constraints,[6] the vast majority of which – at least in the case of one's native language(s) – are acquired not by conscious study or instruction but by hearing and mimicking other speakers. Much of this internalization occurs during early childhood. Learning a language later in life usually involves more explicit instruction.[7] On this view, grammar is understood as the cognitive information underlying a specific instance of language production.

Outside linguistics, the term grammar is often used in a rather different sense. It may be used more broadly to include conventions of spelling and punctuation, which linguists would not typically consider as part of grammar but rather as part of orthography, the conventions used for writing a language. It may also be used more narrowly to refer to a set of prescriptive norms only, excluding those aspects of a language's grammar which are not subject to variation or debate on their normative acceptability. Jeremy Butterfield claimed that, for non-linguists, "Grammar is often a generic way of referring to any aspect of English that people object to."[8]


The first systematic grammar of Sanskrit, originated in Iron Age India, with Yaska (sixth century B.C.E.), Pāṇini (sixth–fifth century B.C.E.[9]) and his commentators Pingala (c. 200 B.C.E.), Katyayana, and Patanjali (second century B.C.E.Tolkāppiyam, the earliest Tamil grammar, is mostly dated to before the fifth century C.E. The Babylonians also made some early attempts at language description.[10]

Grammar appeared as a discipline in Hellenism from the third century B.C.E. forward with authors such as Rhyanus and Aristarchus of Samothrace. The oldest known grammar handbook is the Art of Grammar (Τέχνη Γραμματική), a succinct guide to speaking and writing clearly and effectively, written by the ancient Greek scholar Dionysius Thrax (c. 170–c. 90 B.C.E.), a student of Aristarchus of Samothrace who founded a school on the Greek island of Rhodes. Dionysius Thrax's grammar book remained the primary grammar textbook for Greek schoolboys until as late as the twelfth century C.E. The Romans based their grammatical writings on it and its basic format remains the basis for grammar guides in many languages even today.[11] Latin grammar developed by following Greek models from the first century B.C.E., due to the work of authors such as Orbilius Pupillus, Remmius Palaemon, Marcus Valerius Probus, Verrius Flaccus, and Aemilius Asper.

The grammar of Irish originated in the seventh century with the Auraicept na n-Éces. Arabic grammar emerged with Abu al-Aswad al-Du'ali in the seventh century. The first treatises on Hebrew grammar appeared in the High Middle Ages, in the context of Mishnah (exegesis of the Hebrew Bible). The Karaite tradition originated in Abbasid Baghdad. The Diqduq (tenth century) is one of the earliest grammatical commentaries on the Hebrew Bible.[12] Ibn Barun in the twelfth century compares the Hebrew language with Arabic in the Islamic grammatical tradition.[13]

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 began gradually during the High Middle Ages, with isolated works such as the First Grammatical Treatise, but became 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 sixteenth-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). The first grammar of Slovene was written in 1583 by Adam Bohorič.

Grammars of some languages began to be compiled for the purposes of evangelism and Bible translation from the sixteenth century onward, such as Grammatica o Arte de la Lengua General de Los Indios de Los Reynos del Perú (1560), a Quechua grammar by Fray Domingo de Santo Tomás.

From the latter part of the eighteenth century, grammar came to be understood as a subfield of the emerging discipline of modern linguistics. The Deutsche Grammatik of Jacob Grimm was first published in the 1810s. The Comparative Grammar of Franz Bopp, the starting point of modern comparative linguistics, came out in 1833.

Theoretical frameworks

A generative parse tree: the sentence is divided into a noun phrase (subject), and a verb phrase which includes the object. This is in contrast to structural and functional grammar which consider the subject and object as equal constituents.[14][15]

Frameworks of grammar which seek to give a precise scientific theory of the syntactic rules of grammar and their function have been developed in theoretical linguistics.

  • Dependency grammar: dependency relation (Lucien Tesnière 1959)
    • Link grammar
  • Functional grammar (structural–functional analysis):
    • Danish Functionalism
    • Functional Discourse Grammar
    • Role and reference grammar
    • Systemic functional grammar
  • Montague grammar

Other frameworks are based on an innate "universal grammar", an idea developed by Noam Chomsky. In such models, the object is placed into the verb phrase. The most prominent biologically-oriented theories are:

  • Cognitive grammar / Cognitive linguistics
    • Construction grammar
      • Fluid Construction Grammar
    • Word grammar
  • Generative grammar:
    • Transformational grammar (1960s)
    • Generative semantics (1970s) and Semantic Syntax (1990s)
    • Generalized phrase structure grammar (late 1970s)
      • Head-driven phrase structure grammar (1985)
      • Principles and parameters grammar (Government and binding theory) (1980s)
    • Lexical functional grammar
    • Categorial grammar (lambda calculus)
    • Minimalist program-based grammar (1993)
  • Stochastic grammar: probabilistic
    • Operator grammar

Parse trees are commonly used by such frameworks to depict their rules. There are various alternative schemes for some grammar:

  • Affix grammar over a finite lattice
  • Backus–Naur form
  • Constraint grammar
  • Lambda calculus
  • Tree-adjoining grammar
  • X-bar theory

Development of grammar

Grammars change through usage. Historically, with the advent of written representations, formal rules about language usage also generally appear. Such rules describe writing conventions more accurately than conventions of speech.[16] Formal grammars are codifications of usage which are developed by repeated documentation and observation over time. As rules are established and developed, the prescriptive concept of grammatical correctness can arise. This often produces a discrepancy between contemporary usage and that which has been accepted, over time, as standard or "correct." Linguists view prescriptive grammar as having little justification beyond their authors' aesthetic tastes, although style guides may give useful advice about standard language employment based on descriptions of usage in contemporary writings. Linguistic prescriptions also form part of the explanation for variation in speech, particularly variation in the speech of an individual speaker (for example, why some speakers 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 schooling from a young age through advanced learning, though the rules taught in schools are not a "grammar" in the sense that most linguists use the term, as they are prescriptive in intent rather than descriptive.

Constructed languages (also called planned languages or conlangs) are more common in the modern-day, although still extremely uncommon compared to natural languages. 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.

Syntax refers to the linguistic structure above the word level (for example, how sentences are formed) – though without taking into account intonation, which is the domain of phonology. Morphology, by contrast, refers to the structure at and below the word level (for example, how compound words are formed), but above the level of individual sounds, which, like intonation, are in the domain of phonology.[17] However, no clear line can be drawn between syntax and morphology. Analytic languages use syntax to convey information that is encoded by inflection in synthetic languages. 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 are examples of highly analytic languages. Meaning is very context-dependent. (Both have some inflections, and both have had more in the past. 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 totally) self-contained, an intelligible Latin sentence can be made from elements that are arranged almost arbitrarily. Latin has a complex affixation and simple syntax, whereas in Chinese it is reversed.


Prescriptive grammar is taught in primary and secondary school. The term "grammar school" historically referred to a school (attached to a cathedral or monastery) that teaches Latin grammar to future priests and monks. It originally referred to a school that taught students how to read, scan, interpret, and declaim Greek and Latin poets (including Homer, Virgil, and Euripides among others). These are related, but distinct, from modern British grammar schools.

A standard language is a dialect that is promoted above other dialects in writing, education, and, broadly speaking, in the public sphere. It contrasts with vernacular dialects, which may be the objects of study in academic, descriptive linguistics but which are rarely taught prescriptively. The standardized "first language" taught in primary education may be subject to political controversy because it may sometimes establish a standard defining nationality or ethnicity.

Recently, efforts have begun to update grammar instruction in primary and secondary education. The main focus has been to prevent the use of outdated prescriptive rules in favor of setting norms based on earlier descriptive research and to change perceptions about the relative "correctness" of prescribed standard forms in comparison to non-standard dialects. A series of metastudies have found that the explicit teaching of grammatical parts of speech and syntax has little or no effect on the improvement of student writing quality in elementary school, middle school or high school. Other methods of writing instruction had far greater positive effect, including strategy instruction, collaborative writing, summary writing, process instruction, sentence combining and inquiry projects.[18][19][20]

The preeminence of Parisian French has reigned largely unchallenged throughout the history of modern French literature. Standard Italian is based on the speech of Florence rather than the capital because of its influence on early literature. Likewise, standard Spanish is not based on the speech of Madrid but on that of educated speakers from more northern areas such as Castile and León (see Gramática de la lengua castellana). In Argentina and Uruguay standard Spanish is based on the local dialects of Buenos Aires and Montevideo (Rioplatense Spanish). Portuguese has, for now, two official standards, respectively Brazilian Portuguese and European Portuguese.

The Serbian variant of Serbo-Croatian is likewise divided; Serbia and the Republika Srpska of Bosnia and Herzegovina use their own distinct normative subvarieties, with differences in yat (the 32nd letter of the old Cyrillic alphabet) reflexes. The existence and codification of a distinct Montenegrin standard is a matter of controversy. Some treat Montenegrin as a separate standard lect, and some think that it should be considered another form of Serbian.

Norwegian has two standards, Bokmål and Nynorsk, the choice between the two is subject to controversy: Each Norwegian municipality can either declare one as its official language or it can remain "language neutral." Nynorsk is backed by 27 percent of municipalities. The main language used in primary schools, chosen by referendum within the local school district, normally follows the official language of its municipality. Standard German emerged from the standardized chancellery use of High German in the 16th and 17th centuries. Until about 1800, it was almost exclusively a written language, but now it is so widely spoken that most of the former German dialects are nearly extinct.

Standard Chinese 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. Pronunciation of Standard Chinese is based on the local accent of Mandarin Chinese from Luanping, Chengde in Hebei Province near Beijing, while grammar and syntax are based on modern vernacular written 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 United States, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar designated March 4 as National Grammar Day in 2008.[21]


  1. Douglas Harper, "Grammar," Online Etymological Dictionary. Retrieved February 18, 2023.
  2. Janet Holmes, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (Harlow, Essex, U.K.: Longman, 2001, ISBN 978-0582328617), 73-94. Retrieved February 18, 2023.
  3. For more discussion of sets of grammars as populations, see: William Croft,Explaining Language Change: An Evolutionary Approach (Harlow, Essex, U.K.: Longman, 2000, ISBN 978-0582356771), 13–20. Retrieved February 18, 2023.
  4. Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0521431460), 627f.
  5. Leigh Lundin, "The Power of Prepositions," "On Writing," Criminal Brief (2007): 216. Retrieved February 18, 2023.
  6. Traditionally, the mental information used to produce and process linguistic utterances is referred to as "rules." However, other frameworks employ different terminology, which has theoretical implications. Optimality theory, for example, uses the term "constraints," while construction grammar, cognitive grammar, and other "usage-based" theories make reference to patterns, constructions, and "schemata."
  7. William O'Grady, Michael Dobrovolsky and Francis Katamba, Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction (Harlow, Essex, U.K.: Longman, 1996, ISBN 978-0582246911), 4–7, 464–539. Retrieved February 18, 2023.
  8. Jeremy Butterfield, Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0199574094), 142.
  9. "Ashtadhyayi, Work by Panini," Encyclopædia Britannica, 2013: Ashtadhyayi, Sanskrit Aṣṭādhyāyī ("Eight Chapters"), Sanskrit treatise on grammar written in the sixth to fifth century B.C.E. by the Indian grammarian Panini. Retrieved February 18, 2023.
  10. William B. McGregor, Linguistics: An Introduction, 2nd. ed. (London, U.K.: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, ISBN 978-0567583529), 15–16.
  11. Lionel Casson, Libraries in the Ancient World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001, ISBN 978-0300097214), 45. Retrieved February 18, 2023.
  12. G. Khan and J. B. Noah, The Early Karaite Tradition of Hebrew Grammatical Thought (Leiden, N.L.: Brill, 2000, ISBN 978-9004119338).
  13. Pinchas Wechter, Ibn Barūn's Arabic Works on Hebrew Grammar and Lexicography (Philadelphia, PA: Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning, 1964).
  14. Roland Schäfer, Einführung in die grammatische Beschreibung des Deutschen 2nd ed. (Berlin, DE: Language Science Press, 2016, ISBN 978-1537504957). Retrieved February 18, 2023.
  15. Christopher S. Butler, Structure and Function: A Guide to Three Major Structural-Functional Theories, part 1 (Amsterdam, N. L.: John Benjamins, 2003, ISBN 978-1588113580), 121–124. Retrieved February 18, 2023.
  16. Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy, "Spoken Grammar: Where are We and Where are We Going?" Applied Linguistics (38) (2017): 1–20.
  17. Carlos Gussenhoven and Haike Jacobs, Understanding Phonology 2nd. ed. (London, U.K.: Hodder Arnold, 2005, ISBN 978-0340807354). Retrieved February 18, 2023.
  18. S. Graham and D. Perin, "Writing next: Effective strategies to improve writing of adolescents in middle and high schools – A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York," Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education, 2007.
  19. S. Graham and D. Perin, "A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students," Journal of Educational Psychology 99(3) (2007): 445–476.
  20. S. Graham, D. McKeown, S. Kiuhara, and K.R. Harris, "A meta-analysis of writing instruction for students in the elementary grades," Journal of Educational Psychology 104(4) (2012): 879–896.
  21. "National Grammar Day," Quick and Dirty Tips. Retrieved February 18, 2023.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Butterfield, Jeremy. Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0199574094
  • Butler, Christopher S. Structure and Function: A Guide to Three Major Structural-Functional Theories, part 1. Amsterdam, N.L.: John Benjamins, 2003. ISBN 978-1588113580
  • Casson, Lionel. Libraries in the Ancient World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0300097214
  • Croft, William. Explaining Language Change: An Evolutionary Approach. Harlow, Essex, U.K.: Longman, 2000. ISBN 978-0582356771
  • Gussenhoven, Carlos, and Haike Jacobs. Understanding Phonology 2nd. ed. London, U.K.: Hodder Arnold, 2005. ISBN 978-0340807354
  • Holmes, Janet. An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Harlow, Essex, U.K.: Longman, 2001. ISBN 978-0582328617
  • Huddleston, Rodney, and Geoffrey K. Pullum. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0521431460
  • Khan, G., and J. B. Noah. The Early Karaite Tradition of Hebrew Grammatical Thought. Leiden, N.L.: Brill, 2000. ISBN 978-9004119338
  • McGregor, William B. Linguistics: An Introduction, 2nd. ed. London, U.K.: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. ISBN 978-0567583529
  • O'Grady, William, Michael Dobrovolsky, and Francis Katamba. Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. Harlow, Essex, U.K.: Longman, 1996. ISBN 978-0582246911
  • Rundle, Bede. Grammar in Philosophy. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1979. ISBN 0198246129
  • Schäfer, Roland. Einführung in die grammatische Beschreibung des Deutschen 2nd ed. Berlin, DE: Language Science Press, 2016. ISBN 978-1537504957
  • Wechter, Pinchas. Ibn Barūn's Arabic Works on Hebrew Grammar and Lexicography. Philadelphia, PA: Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning, 1964.

External links

Link retrieved February 18, 2023.


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