What is grammar? Rules for sentences, not for comma use
Being able to answer the question, "What is grammar?"
is essential to those of us who teach writing, although the definition
doesn't matter much to teachers whose focus is grammar for speaking
or for scoring well on bubble tests.
Each language has its own rules for generating
sentences. Those rules are the language's grammar.
There is no one universal set of rules for generating sentences.
Grammar is about relationships
To study grammar means to study the structural relationships
between wordsand word components within a particular
The importance of knowing grammatical relationships becomes clear
when you see people attempting to learn a new language; they have
less difficulty learning new words than they have getting the
structural relationships right.
Grammar's two aspects
Grammar comes in two styles, one descriptive and one prescriptive.
Descriptive grammar tells what happens
Descriptive grammar identifies the basic way people put
words together to form sentences in a particular language
and how they modify the basic pattern to express more complex ideas.
Every language has basic ways of putting words together that
constitute a "lowest common denominator" for that language.
Native speakers learn their language's basic grammar by seeing
and hearing language without having formal training.
In English the basic way of forming a sentence is to follow the
order subject verb object. A language could
just as easily order the elements in other ways:
Subject Object Verb.
Verb Subject Object.
Verb Object Subject.
Object Subject Verb.
Object Verb Subject.
Each of those distinctive patterns represents what is the grammarthe
rules for forming sentencesof a particular language.
In societies with written languages, there are also more
complex ways of using language that are considered superior,
educated, or high class. Descriptive grammar records both the
basic and the complex ways of forming sentences. It does not say
anything about whether one is preferable to the other.
Prescriptive grammar says what ought to be
When most of us try to answer the question, "What is grammar?"
we talk about prescriptive grammar, the picky, critical set of
rules most of us associate with the boredom of English class.
Prescriptive grammar is an attempt to tell people how they
ought to form words and how they ought to form sentences.
Questions about prescriptive grammar make up a significant portion
of items on standardized tests of grammar knowledge.
Prescriptive grammar is derived from studying how the educated,
affluent, high-social status people in a culture use language.
Native speakers of a language can make themselves understood without
knowing the rules of prescriptive grammar.
People who want to advance socially and economically must master
at least the rudiments of their language's prescriptive grammar.
In this regard, see Maxine Hairston's
research into grammar errors that annoy professional people.
What is grammar not?
you hear a complaint about students' "bad grammar,"
the gripe may not be about grammar. The public has a tendency
to lump all sorts of mechanical aspects of writing under the heading
Punctuation is not part of grammar. People can put sentences
together orally without using any punctuation at all. Punctuation,
however, does have a close relationship to grammar. Grammar determines
where punctuation goes, and punctuation reveals how the words
are to be interpreted grammatically.
Usage is not part of grammar either. Usage refers to the
way a particular speech community uses words; it is not about
entire sentences. Some English usages that have been used by educated
people for a long time have acquired status of rules. However,
unlike grammar, which is systematic, usage is unsystematic and
Correct spelling of words is not part of grammar. The
text messaging abbreviations that many folks call misspellings
are not part of grammar either.
Formatting such rules for citing sources and use of lists
or subheads is not part of grammar.
Knowing what is grammar and what is not grammar can help you
decide how to teach these various types of writing mechanics that
often get thrown in with grammar.
Individual mastery plan really works
Help each student make an Individual Mastery Plan to get rid of specific
errors in his or her writing during a term or year.
IMPs take time to set up, but reduce
grading time later.
And IMPs really do work.
Methods give confidence
Your writing methods have given me the self-confidence to successfully teach
even the most reluctant writers.