What is Grammar?
Languages have rules. The word "rules" suggests that somebody somewhere at sometime created the rules first and then spoke the language, like a new game. But languages did not start like that. Languages started by people making sounds which evolved into words, phrases and sentences. No commonly-spoken language is fixed. All languages change over time. What we call "grammar" is simply a reflection of a language at a particular time.
The rules of a language that dictate how words are put together into sentences and other utterances make up its grammar. Although the words "syntax" and "grammar" are used interchangeably, "grammar" in strict linguistics terms is an umbrella concept which has several components. These can be described as follows:
We are concerned in this lesson specifically with the syntax of the structure of sentences.
What is syntax?
Syntax is the discipline that examines the rules of a language that dictate how the various parts of sentences go together. While morphology looks at how individual sounds are formed into complete words, syntax looks at how those words are formed into complete sentences.
Here it might be pertinent to mention a couple of other definitions of the term grammar that are widely used. Grammar may be separated into two common broad categories: descriptive and prescriptive. Recall that we were first introduced to these concepts in module 1.
1. A descriptive grammar is a description of the structure of a language in all its aspects--morphology, syntax, phonology--which attempts do portray the language as accurately as possible in terms of how it is naturally used by speakers.
2. A prescriptive grammar assigns value judgments to the ways native speakers form words or sentences. Prescriptive grammars do not attempt to describe the language as it is naturally spoken but rather to tell the speakers how they best should speak it.
When thinking of grammar in the general, descriptive sense, remember that there is no absolute division between syntax, morphology, and phonology. Even in the same language these so called levels of language are not completely separate.
What do we already know about grammar?
We already know a lot about grammar. As native speakers of a language, we assimilated these rules subconsciously while we learned the language as a children.
1. We know that some sounds or array of sounds belong to English while others don't
2. We know that some words go together while others don't
3. We can understand sentences we've never head before
4. We can understand sentences of prodigious length
5. We can understand nonsense sentences if they have clear syntax
6. We know that words fall into classes (called lexical categories)
7. We know that certain sentences are structurally related to others while others are not related
8. We know that languages don't have the same grammar rules
9. We know that sentences can have more than one meaning (called ambiguity)
10. We know that an expression doesn't have to be a complete sentence to be grammatically correct
11. We know that the order of words in English sentences is important (We'll look at more about word order in an upcoming lesson.)
Why do we need grammar rules? Because Words + Rules = Creativity
The reason for grammar rules is that a person needs to be able to speak an indeterminately large number of sentences in a lifetime. The effort would be impossibly great if each sentence had to be learned separately. Speakers of any language are able to effortlessly take words and combine them into novel, meaningful sentences.
By learning the rules for connecting words, it is possible to create an infinite number of sentences, all of which are meaningful to a person who knows the syntax. Thus it is possible to construct sentences that the speaker has never heard before.
A finite number of rules facilitates an infinite number of sentences that can be simultaneously understood by both the speaker and the listener.
In order for this to work with any degree of success, the rules have to be precise and have to be consistently adhered to. These rules cover such things as:
Do we need to study grammar to learn a language?
The rules of grammar do not have to be explicitly understood by the speaker of the language or the listener. Most native speakers of a language have no formal knowledge of the grammar of a language but are still capable of speaking the language grammatically to a great degree of accuracy.
Do we need to study grammar to learn a language? The short answer is "no." Very many people in the world speak their own native language without having studied its grammar. Children start to speak before they even know the word "grammar." But if you are serious about learning a foreign language, the long answer is "yes, grammar can help you to learn a language more quickly and more efficiently." It's important to think of grammar as something that can help you, like a friend. When you understand the grammar (or system) of a language, you can understand many things yourself, without having to ask a teacher or look in a book.
So think of grammar as something good, something positive, something that you can use to find your way - like a signpost or a map.
Ling 102/WI Introduction to the Study of
Language, University of Hawai'i - Leeward Community College
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