Grammar’ is not an easy word to use. In order to understand one of the problems associated with it try the following activity:
Fill in the gaps.
1. Linguistics is the study of _________.
2. Phonetics is the study of _________.
3. Semantics is the study of _________.
4. Grammar is the study of _________.
The generally accepted answers to the first three are ‘language’, ‘pronunciation’ (or ‘speech sounds’) and ‘meaning’, though you may not know the last one unless you have studied linguistics. As for sentence 4, you may have written something like ‘structure’ or ‘rules’, but these apply to other areas as well as to grammar; pronunciation has rules and structure, for example. Another possible answer is ‘morphology and syntax’ but these are also unfamiliar terms (see below). The best answer is that grammar is the study of ‘grammar’. In other words grammar is both the name of the study (a branch of linguistics) and the object of study (a part of language). So while elsewhere we can distinguish the study from the object (e.g. phonetics and pronunciation) we cannot with grammar.
This is just one of the problems associated with the of the word ‘grammar’. But there are more, as the next activity shows:
Consider the word ‘grammar’ in the following sentences. Is the meaning the same? If not, what is the difference?
1. I make too many mistakes in grammar.
2. Many grammars of English are published every year.
3. Traditional grammar relied heavily on the concept of ‘parts of speech’.
Sentence 1 relates to the distinction discussed above. But sentences 2 and 3 are something new. The former refers to books about grammar while the latter implies one particular theoretical approach to it, in other words suggesting that there is no one correct way to study grammar.
There is also no absolute agreement about the scope of grammar, i.e. what it includes. In the past it could mean the whole of language study, not just a part. Even nowadays it is common to find books with ‘grammar’ in their title which deal with subjects such as spelling, punctuation, pronunciation and style. In addition there is no clear agreement on whether topics such as word-formation should be included. We can summarise all these competing meanings in terms of a number of distinctions. Is grammar:
a) a part (level) of language OR the study of that part (compare ‘pronunciation’ and ‘phonetics’)
b) the study of that part OR the study of all of a language (e.g. including punctuation etc.)
c) the study OR an account of that study, as contained in a book (e.g. ‘Greenbaum’s Grammar’)
d) the study OR a theory about that part of language (e.g. ‘generative grammar’)?
For some it can be any or all of these. To reflect this confusion there is a distinction in the grammar of grammar’, in that one of the meanings is count (we can say ‘a grammar’ or ‘grammars’ when talking about books) while the others are noncount (‘grammar’).