The grammar of a language includes basic axioms such as verb tenses, articles and adjectives (and their proper order), how questions are phrased, and much more. Language cannot function without grammar. It would simply make no sense—people require grammar to communicate effectively.
Speakers and listeners, authors and their audiences must function in like systems in order to understand one another. In other words, a language without grammar is like a pile of bricks without mortar to hold them together. While the basic components are present, they are, for all intents and purposes, useless.
Fast Facts: Grammar Word Origin and Definition
The word grammar comes from the Greek, meaning “craft of letters.” It’s an apt description. In any language, grammar is:
We Learn Grammar From Birth
British linguist, academic, and author David Crystal tells us 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.”
Intimidating, to be sure, but native speakers don’t have to worry about studying each and every rule. Even if you don’t know all the lexicographical terms and pedantic minutiae involved in the study of grammar, take it from noted novelist and essayist Joan Didion: “What I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence.”
Grammar is actually something all of us begin to learn in our first days and weeks of life, through interaction with others. From the moment we’re born, language—and the grammar that makes up that language—is all around us. We start learning it as soon as we hear it spoken around us, even if we don’t fully comprehend its meaning yet.
Although a baby wouldn’t have a clue about the terminology, they do begin to pick up and assimilate how sentences are put together (syntax), as well as figure out the pieces that go into making up those sentences work (morphology).
“A preschooler’s tacit knowledge of grammar is more sophisticated than the thickest style manual,” explains cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author Steven Pinker. “[Grammar should not] be confused with the guidelines for how one ‘ought’ to speak.”
Real-World Uses of Grammar
Of course, anyone who wants to be an effective speaker or writer must have at least a basic grasp of grammar. The further beyond the basics you go, the more effectively and clearly you’ll be able to communicate in almost any situation.
“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.”
—From An Introduction to English Grammar by Sidney Greenbaum and Gerald Nelson
In a professional setting, having advanced knowledge of grammar can help you interact efficiently and easily with your colleagues, subordinates, and superiors. Whether you’re giving directions, getting feedback from your boss, discussing the goals of a particular project, or creating marketing materials, the ability to communicate effectively is extremely important.
Types of Grammar
Teachers follow a course of pedagogical grammar when instructing English language learners. While students mainly have to deal with the nuts-and-bolts of prescriptive, traditional grammar (such as making sure verbs and subjects agree and where to put commas in a sentence), linguists focus on the infinitely more complex aspects of language.
They study how people acquire language and debate whether every child is born with a concept of universal grammar, examining everything from how different languages compare to each other (comparative grammar) to the variety of permutations within a single language (descriptive grammar) to the way in which words and usage interrelate to create meaning (lexicogrammar).
More Grammar to Explore
- Crystal, David. The Fight for English. Oxford University Press, 2006.
- Pinker, Steven. Words and Rules. Harper, 1999.
- Greenbaum, Sidney, and Nelson, Gerald. An Introduction to English Grammar. 2nd ed., Pearson, 2002.