This Article involves several of the options listed above. It aims to show how to study grammar and it also involves, inevitably, some theory. Principally, however, it is about the first part of distinction a) above: one particular part of language. But what part is that? Let’s attempt a definition.
The first attempt below tries to define grammar in terms of its component parts:
1) Grammar = morphology (how words are made up) + syntax (how sentences are made up)
This does not help much, of course, since morphology and syntax are more abstract concepts than grammar; if you know what they mean then you are likely to already know what grammar means. And this approach to definition does not give the whole story. It is not very helpful to know that a bike is composed of two wheels, a frame, a saddle, handlebars, etc. We need also to ask what grammar ‘does’ – what its purpose is.
Let’s try an illustration. Imagine that you are going to a foreign country and you want to learn the language. Unfortunately, there are no speakers of that language around and no courses for learners; the only resource available is a bilingual dictionary. Diligently, day by day, you work your way through it, and at the end of a year you feel you know it by heart. Confidently you travel to the country where this language is spoken. How successful at communicating do you think you will be?
Well, you can probably communicate basic ideas using single words, but most of your hard-won vocabulary is useless; how could you ever use a word like ‘scorn’ on its own? You are probably even able to put two words together e.g. ‘drink water’, but this could mean many things, and there is no consistent distinction between this and ‘water drink’. (This in fact is what very young children are able to do.) This is before we consider whether your pronunciation is intelligible and whether you can understand what people say back to you. Despite your vast knowledge of vocabulary, there is something very important missing: grammar. So we might attempt a second definition as follows:
2) Grammar is what turns words into language.
For me this is insightful, but it is slightly problematic; for most linguists there is a level of grammar below the word (just as for some, there is a level above the sentence, the normal limit of grammar). But the basic idea is sound, so let’s try to develop it. There are a number of factors we need to consider:
- Language is essentially a means of meaningful communication
- Grammar is the means by which linguistic forms (words, parts of words, the relationships between words, and so on) express that meaning
- Grammar is composed of rules that operate systematically
- Grammar operates in both directions: from meaning to form (production) and form to meaning (comprehension)
So here is a third definition:
Types of grammar
Now that we have defined our ‘subject matter’, we still need to consider different approaches to it, or different types of grammar. We can make three distinctions:
1) primary (operational) vs secondary (analytic)
When we say we know the grammar of a language it could mean one of two things. Either we know it perfectly because it is our first language (our L1) and we have learnt all the rules unconsciously, or we know about the grammar because we have been given rules by teachers or read about them in books. The two are not the same. Someone can have an extensive (secondary) knowledge of grammar but be unable to use those rules when speaking. To take one example: many learners of English ‘know’ consciously the rule about third person ‘-s’ but do not apply it when they speak, which leads to errors such as ‘he think’. The difference is not simply between knowing an L1 unconsciously and studying a second language (L2) consciously. In the past it was common for schoolchildren hand, many people learn an L2 without studying it consciously and even those who do learn it in a formal situation may acquire some primary knowledge as well as secondary; in other words, they have intuitions about the grammar. Very often these intuitions may contradict what they have read or been told; the primary and secondary grammars do not agree. In this book you are encouraged in the activities to apply your intuitions, your primary grammar, even though it may be limited. The choice of terms here is deliberate. Primary grammar comes first, before a secondary knowledge of grammar; there are many languages, whose secondary grammar has not been described, but of course they still have (primary) grammar, otherwise their speakers could not use them to communicate. And secondary grammar is usually (but not always – see below) an attempt to capture the rules of primary grammar. But these attempts are incomplete; even the longest grammars of English (which nowadays come to almost 2,000 pages) cannot cover all the rules that are inside a native-speaker’s head.
2) descriptive vs prescriptive
This distinction refers to two approaches to secondary grammar: should we, in our grammatical accounts, describe how English is used by its speakers (descriptive), or offer rules on how some people think it should be used (prescriptive)? In the past many prescriptive rules were made up about English which bore no relationship to native speakers’ primary grammar; they were influenced by the grammar of Latin (which is very different to English). Although prescriptive rules are less commonly found nowadays, and are mainly an obsession for native speakers of English, you may have heard some in your studies, for instance the ‘rule’ that you should not say ‘If I was rich . . .’ but instead ‘If I were rich . . .’. This is nonsense; native speakers say ‘If I was rich . . .’ all the time, though if they want to sound very formal they may say ‘If I were rich . . .’. While prescriptive rules offer an illusion of ‘correctness’, descriptive rules tend to be not so black and white; they may talk about tendencies or something being appropriate in one situation but not in another. So do not always expect to find absolute certainty in grammar.
3) pedagogic vs scientific
This distinction is to do with the target audience of the grammar. Is it for learners and teachers in the classroom (pedagogic) or for linguists who are studying it (scientific)? The rules that learners are given by teachers tend to be simplified into a form that can be easily understood; they are also isolated from another (i.e. they do not form a system, as described above). Scientific grammar is much more complex and extensive, but it is systematic; this course is an introduction to it. While pedagogic and scientific grammar are both types of descriptive, secondary grammar, pedagogic grammar has some prescriptive influence. Learners want guidance and so a teacher may simplify the facts; for example, she might tell students not to use want in the progressive. Sometimes, however, the simplification goes wrong and has little connection to the scientific ‘facts’, as the next activity shows.
Consider this rule of pedagogic grammar:
‘You should use “any” in negatives and questions and “some” in positive sentences.’
Is it true? Can you think of exceptions?
While this ‘rule’ may help to understand sentences such as
I’ve got some money and
I haven’t got any money
It is not hard to find exceptions:
Would you like some tea? (as an offer; it would be strange to say any)
I haven’t stolen some of the money, I’ve stolen all of it (with some stressed; if we say I haven’t stolen any of the money the meaning is completely different)
Any teacher can tell you that ‘any’ can be used in positives. In other words, some can be used in questions and negatives and any in positives, and both can be used in the same context with a different meaning, which makes this a fairly useless rule. A refinement of the pedagogic rule says that when we ask a question expecting the answer yes, we can use some. This is an improvement but it is still far from the scientific rule which talks about ‘asserting’ the existence of something (with some), or not (with any), and relates this to other pairs of words which share this distinction (sometimes and ever, already and yet); see the reading in D3. The point is that the difference between some and any is to do with meaning, not grammar.