Definitions, Examples, and Discussions of English Grammar

Grammar terms written on chalkboard

VikramRaghuvanshi/Getty Images

The word grammar comes from Greek, meaning "craft of letters," which is an apt description. In any language, grammar is:

  1. the systematic study and description of a language. (Compare with usage.)
  2. a set of rules and examples dealing with the syntax and word structures (morphology) of a language. 

Without grammar, a language wouldn't work, because people couldn't communicate effectively. The speakers and the listeners of any exchange need to both function in the same system in order to understand each other. The grammar of a language includes basic axioms such as the existence of tenses of verbs, articles and adjectives and their proper order, how questions are phrased, and more.

We Learn Grammar From Birth

Author David Crystal tells us in "The Fight for English" that "grammar is the study of all the contrasts of meaning that it is possible to make within sentences. The 'rules' of grammar tell us how. By one count, there are some 3,500 such rules in English" (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Intimidating, to be sure, but native speakers don't have to worry about studying them all. Grammar, in fact, it's actually something that's begun being learned by every person in their first days and weeks of life, through interaction with others. All native speakers when they're born and start learning it as they hear it spoken around them, such as how sentences are put together (syntax), and the pieces that make them up (morphology).

"A preschooler's tacit knowledge of grammar is more sophisticated than the thickest style manual," writes Steven Pinker in "Words and Rules." "[Grammar should not] be confused with the guidelines for how one 'ought' to speak" (Harper, 1999).

Uses of Grammar

Understanding the basics of grammar is needed to make us proficient speakers and writers, of course.

As Sidney Greenbaum and Gerald Nelson write in "An Introduction to English Grammar":

"There are several applications of grammatical study: (1) A recognition of grammatical structures is often essential for punctuation; (2) A study of one's native grammar is helpful when one studies the grammar of a foreign language; (3) A knowledge of grammar is a help in the interpretation of literary as well as nonliterary texts, since the interpretation of a passage sometimes depends crucially on grammatical analysis; (4) A study of the grammatical resources of English is useful in composition: in particular, it can help you to evaluate the choices available to you when you come to revise an earlier written draft." (2nd ed. Pearson, 2002)

Study beyond the basics increases our skills, and the ability to communicate clearly and effectively is necessary in any profession where there's interaction with other human beings, whether you're giving or receiving directions with other employees, discussing goals of your company on a particular project, or creating marketing materials for a nonprofit—the ability to properly communicate matters. Even if you don't know all the lexicographical terms and pedantic nit-picks involved in the study of grammar, take it from Joan Didion: "What I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence."

Types of Grammar

Whereas students of English mainly have to deal with just the nuts-and-bolts prescriptivetraditional type of grammar, such as making sure verbs and subjects agree and where to put commas, linguists have many more types to examine different aspects of the language, from how different languages compare to each other (comparative grammar) or use grammatical parts (descriptive grammar) to how the words and their usage interact to create meaning (lexicogrammar). They study how people acquire language and debate whether every child is born with a concept of universal grammar. Teachers instructing English language learners follow a method of pedagogical grammar for their students.

Other areas of study for linguists include: