Why Study Grammar?
This is adapted from a free online study course offered by Open University
Other education courses are also available.
1. The Power of Grammar
Has any teacher ever made a similar remark about your work? In this unit let’s look at some of the factors that contribute to the differences between speech and writing and at ways of describing them.
You need to discover that grammar is not a boring system for labelling parts of a sentence, but rather something that can give you an insight into how we present ourselves and our view of the world to other people. Our choices within the grammatical system together with our choices of vocabulary are our most powerful ways of putting together the meanings that we want to communicate. An advanced, sophisticated method of communication is what makes human beings so special, so a study of grammar is a way of exploring how these meanings get made.
The key terms in this unit are listed below and are highlighted in bold throughout the text.
|descriptive, prescriptive||question tag|
|and pedagogic grammars||sociocultural context|
|functional grammar||traditional grammar|
|lexicogrammar||word class [part of speech,|
2. The Importance of Grammar
You should start thinking about what exactly is meant by a term like ‘grammar’ and how and why grammar differs in speech and writing. Activity 1 is a way of raising questions in your mind and you will find some answers or explanations in the rest of the unit.
Activity 1 (10 minutes)
Write down a few sentences which explain what you think grammar is about and why it is important. What do you expect to learn by studying English grammar?
In answering these questions you need to expand your own knowledge of the variety of interpretations of grammar and the applications of grammatical analysis. Many years ago, teachers used a form of grammatical description which highlighted ‘correct’ usage such as knowing when to say “I have gone” and when to say “I went”. More recently, in academic writing, there is a different model of grammar, one which foregrounds the idea of grammar as choosing forms to express different types of meaning. There are also other grammatical systems and applications. You might be surprised to realise how many different areas of life utilise an understanding of grammar.
Computer scientists involved in creating voice-recognition software need to understand grammar and the frequency of the likely patterns of the language; police experts need to trace typical language patterns used by individuals if they are to detect lies and forged documents; doctors and specialists in language disorders in children or in patients with head injuries need to know the typical grammar associated with particular contexts in order to understand where disruption or dysfunction is taking place.
Of course, knowing grammar is a basic part of language learning and teaching and is also necessary in professions such as translating and lexicography.
Many of the uses to which a knowledge of grammar is put are also starting to rely on the application of computer technology to language analysis. The new computational tools are changing the way we describe and understand language.
Developments in Grammatical Description
1. Different Types of Grammatical Description
Activity 2 (10 minutes)
To help you consider what is meant by “grammar”, look at the following sentences and see how many meanings of the word “grammar” you can identify.
1. It’s a really complicated area of grammar.
2. Why don’t you look it up in a grammar?
3. Her spelling is good, but her grammar is almost non-existent.
4. Children don’t do enough grammar at school.
5. We had to do generative grammar on the course.
6. He needs to work on his grammar and punctuation.
7. Systemic functional grammar is generally associated with the work of Michael Halliday.
8. I’ve always had problems with German grammar.
9. It’s a grammar for learners of English as a foreign language.
10. Oh no! We’re doing grammar again today!
There is clearly overlap in these uses, but they can be grouped into five meanings.
1. In 1 and 8, it refers to the way in which words are organised in a language in order to make correct sentences; here ‘grammar’ is the description of the way in which words combine into larger units, the largest being the sentence.
2. In 2 and 9, it refers to a book in which these organising principles are laid out. Sometimes these are given as a set of rules.
3. In 4 and 10, it refers to the study of these rules.
4. In 3 and 6, it refers to whether a person follows the ‘rules of grammar’.
5. In 5 and 7, it refers to a particular theory of language description.
Different theories of language result in different types of grammatical description based on different premises and with different purposes. The first complementary grammatical description we are going to look at is sometimes referred to as “traditional” or “structural grammar”, a grammar that divides language on the basis of parts of speech, units such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives. In looking at parts of speech, or word classes as they are also called, grammarians divide up sentences or smaller units into their constituent parts; for example:
In addition to this type of description, grammarians and others can also concentrate on how words combine to make meanings and this gives rise to a functional grammar which uses a different descriptive vocabulary. Functional grammar is another key approach to describing language. In a functional grammar the emphasis is on describing words or groups of words according to the function they are fulfilling in a sentence.
Both traditional grammars and functional grammars are largely descriptive grammars, that is, they set out to account for the language we use without necessarily making judgments about its correctness. However, the word “grammar”, as we have seen, can be used to indicate what rules exist for combining units together and whether these have been followed correctly. For example, one variety of English has a rule that if you use a number greater than one with a noun, the noun has to be plural (I say “three cats”, not “three cat”).
Books which set out this view of language are prescriptive grammars which aim to tell people how they should speak rather than to describe how they do speak. Prescriptive grammars contain the notion of the “correct” use of language. For example, many people were taught that an English verb in the infinitive form should not be separated from its preceding to. So the introduction to the TV series Star Trek “...to boldly go where no man has gone before” is criticised on the grounds that to and go should not be separated by the adverb boldly. We are not arguing that one form is better than another. Rather, we are going to analyse examples of English as it has been used and look at the different choices that have been made and the factors that might influence those choices.
The final type of grammar is a pedagogic grammar. These grammars are generally based on descriptions of ‘standard’ English and are designed to help people learn English if they are not native speakers of the language. Pedagogic grammars often give some of the ‘rules’ of English and lots of examples and practice material. They thus combine elements from descriptive and prescriptive grammars. Your reference grammar is a pedagogic grammar, but it relies on description rather than prescription to explain how English works.
2. The History of Grammatical Description
Of these approaches, prescriptive grammars are probably the best known. Originally associated with describing ancient Greek, a system of labelling parts of speech developed into a way of laying down rules on the socially correct usage of language. Because of their origin in the ancient languages, prescriptive grammars introduced rules into English which arguably imposed labels and expectations that had not evolved within the living language.
Descriptive grammars in the USA and Europe have a more recent history. Linguists, and particularly grammarians, take examples of language that they have read, heard or invented to work out the rules underpinning our language use. The rules underlying actual practice are the structure or grammar of the language. The most notable attempts to make thorough descriptions of language occurred in the USA at the beginning of the 20th century when anthropologists sought to describe North American Indian languages which were disappearing as English became more powerful. There was no written record relating to these languages so careful description of speech patterns was necessary.
At approximately the same time, a European anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, was working among islanders in the Pacific. The importance of his work lies in his understanding that it is not enough to translate words into their rough equivalents in English or another language. In order to understand a language it is necessary to understand the contexts in which language is used and the cultural significance of different choices of words and grammar. Words and their meanings are not independent of their culture or of the situation in which they are being used.
3. Using Grammatical Description in Context
Malinowski’s anthropological work illustrates a more dynamic approach to the study of language which is still influential today, particularly in functional approaches to grammar. Many linguists are exploring ways of grounding their description of language in the cultural, geographical, social and economic conditions stressed by Malinowski. These factors are seen as influencing how language is used in context; that is, how variations in what we are doing, who we are communicating with (whether we are face to face or separated in time and space from our listener/reader and so on) affect the grammatical and other language choices we make. This is a wide definition of context, and is sometimes called socio-cultural context. This term is to distinguish it from a narrower meaning of context which refers to the words in the immediate textual environment of the word or grammatical feature that you are looking at. So in the following sentence we might be looking at how, for example, the word wide is used. This is a wide definition of context.
All the words that surround it form its immediate context, as does the whole paragraph. The notion of context and its influence on grammatical choice is important in this unit. You will have opportunities to reflect on how the local textual context affects grammar and how the wider context of the local culture and the particular situation of people communicating influence the variations that you will observe in grammatical choices.
Activity 3 (10 minutes)
Before you continue reading, think about what the contextual factors are that might be influencing the writer typing this unit. What would be affecting them in the wider socio-cultural context and in the immediate textual context surrounding each word they write?
If we are using context in its broader sense, then wider influences on the selection of grammar than simply textual context can be considered. The choices of language would reflect one’s evaluation of the social relations between the writer and the reader. The writer’s wish to create a feeling of friendliness and dialogue within the text, of helping the reader to understand more about grammar will try to overcome the gap between “strangers”. So words will be selected and put together in sentences which will hopefully convey the point the writer is trying to make, they must make themselves clear just by the ordering of the words on the page. Such contextual factors can be described and accounted for in a comprehensive description of grammar and such a grammar can also help the writer think about how to make their meanings more clear.
to be continued