What Is English Grammar? More Importantly, What Isn't English Grammar?

The Split Infinitive:  “To really error is human.”

One of my senior colleagues was taken aback when I, a tenured professor of English and Comparative Literature, volunteered to teach a course on Applied Grammar.  Teaching grammar was not at the top of the prestige ladder.  “Are you sure you are ready to start teaching about split infinitives?” he asked me.  I thought he was pulling my leg, but I wasn’t sure, so I photocopied a page from Steve Pinker’s The Language Instinct and slid it under his door.  He never responded.

[. . .] ‘don’t split infinitives,’ ‘don’t end a sentence with a preposition’ can be traced back to these eighteenth-century fads. Of course, forcing modern speakers of English to not split an infinitive because it isn’t done in Latin makes about as much sense as forcing modern residents of England to wear laurels and togas. (The Language Instinct 374)

I would like to emphatically reiterate what Pinker is pointing out.  (Did you notice that I just split the infinitive and ended the sentence with a preposition?) The notion that there is something wrong with  putting a word between the “to” and “reiterate” (as I have done) or ending a sentence with a preposition comes from the ludicrous but long-lasting notion that the English language should follow the rules of Latin grammar. (In Latin you cannot split the infinitive because the infinitive is one word, nor can you end a Latin sentence with a preposition.)

According to Bill Bryson, in The Mother Tongue:  English and How It Got that Way, the source of the notion that we shouldn't end an English sentence with a preposition "was one Robert Lowth, an eighteenth-century clergyman and amateur grammarian whose A Short Introduction to English Grammar, published in 1762, enjoyed a long and distressingly influential life both in his native England and abroad." As Bryson points out, Lowth was never adamant about this "rule," but thought it preferable in "solemn and elevated" writing. In later years, literal-minded academics would insist, on the grounds the Latin root of the word "preposition" was "place before," that a preposition must be placed before something.

Definitions of grammar:  theirs, yours and mine

Surfing the internet for definitions of grammar, I was surprised to discover that there are even more definitions than I had anticipated, and most of them are even less helpful than I suspected. I think it would be useful to talk about grammar according to what most people think the word means.  Experts and pseudo-experts talking about grammar almost invariably include areas of language under the category of “grammar” which make grammar a lot more complicated and difficult to grasp.  A helpful starting point (at least for you and me) would be to eliminate much of what gets included with but really isn’t English grammar.

What isn’t English grammar

If you have ever studied English grammar, chances are you used a textbook with a title like “Grammar and Usage” or “Grammar and Composition.”  What you may not have stopped to realize is that “usage” isn’t “grammar”; “composition” isn’t “grammar.”  You may have seen “grammar” defined as “a study of the language.”  “Linguistics” is “the study of language,” though “grammar” might turn out to be the product of that study.  Perhaps the hardest distinction to make is between “semantics” and “grammar”; that is, between meaning and the rules for putting words together.  If a student writes “A dozen is twenty-one” or “The Earth is the largest body in the Universe,” these statements are wrong and may not even be what the student meant to say, but they are not ungrammatical.  There are no errors in grammar in these sentences.

Grammar in the everyday world

When people usually ask about English grammar it is because they want to know “is this right?” or more pointedly “is this a mistake?”  The kind of grammar they are asking about is more precisely known as “prescriptive grammar”; that is, the language as people are supposed to speak and write it. "Prescriptive grammar," how people should use English, is typically contrasted with “descriptive grammar,” how people actually do use English.  Prescriptive grammar has developed a bad reputation and gone out of fashion because, among other things, it has been held responsible for absurdities like the split-infinitive and no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-sentence rules. However, if we want to talk about grammar in the sense that most people have in mind when they use the word, then we need to focus on prescriptive grammar.

Errors in grammar

With descriptive grammar, since its intention is simply to describe usage, the concept of an error hardly exists.  To point out a mistake is to invoke prescriptive grammar. If we keep to this precise and strict definition of grammar, what grammar is becomes much clearer.  In fact, there are only four different types of errors in grammar:

  1. Errors of word order (syntax)
  2. Errors of word type (adjectives versus adverbs for example)
  3. Errors of agreement (eg, yesterday requires the past tense of the verb)
  4. Errors of word form (morphology, actually a sub-category of “agreement” and  "type”)
There are many other ways that we can make mistakes in English—spelling, punctuation, vocabulary, vague pronoun reference, faulty parallelism, redundancies, dangling modifiers and so on—but they are not, strictly speaking, errors in grammar.  And speaking strictly is exactly what I am trying to do here. If you want to reverse the direction and speak of English grammar in the affirmative: it is the rules for putting words in the right order, using the correct word type in each position, and ensuring that the parts are in agreement or concordance with each other.

Grammar versus discourse

Grammar is a collection of those rules that apply within a complete sentence.  How the sentences and parts of sentences are connected together is called “discourse.” The rules of discourse are generally more difficult to specify, but they are what you are being taught if you are studying writing or composition or rhetoric.

Spoken versus written English

It is an exaggeration to claim that grammar does not apply to spoken English but, in fact, moving outside of complete sentences it becomes increasingly difficult to apply the rules of syntax, word type and agreement.  People do not speak English in complete sentences.  A lot of spoken language is just grunts and nods. 

Steve Pinker observes:
The Watergate tapes are the most famous and extensive transcripts of real-life speech ever published.  When they were released, Americans were shocked. [ . . . .] one thing that surprised everyone was what ordinary conversation looks like when it is written down verbatim.  Conversation out of context is virtually opaque. [. . . .] even when transcribed perfectly, conversation is hard to interpret.  People often speak in fragments, interrupting themselves in midsentence to reformulate the thought or change the subject. (The Language Instinct 224)

People remain generally unaware of the degree to which written and spoken English are different kinds of discourse. The rules of grammar still apply but only in about the same degree as the rules of the NHL (National Hockey League) apply to street hockey or the rules of golf apply to most of the guys I play with.

The Latin origins for the parts of speech in English grammar.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Nice Article.Thanks for sharing this interesting article with us. Grammar is a collection of those rules that apply within a complete sentence. People remain generally unaware of the degree to which written and spoken English are different kinds of discourse. Keep Posting and sharing your thoughts.


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