Introduction to Grammar
Introduction to Grammar
Grammar is used to refer to a number of different things: it can be used to refer to books that
contain descriptions of the structure of a language; it can be used to refer to the knowledge that a
native speaker has of his or her language and to descriptions of that knowledge; it can be used to
refer to a set of rules developed to control certain aspects of the usage of native speakers; and it
can be use to refer to a set of rules typically taught in school about “appropriate usage” and
We’re concerned with three of these kinds of grammars: descriptive grammar which has as its
goal a description of the usage of native speakers of a language; prescriptive grammar which
has as its goal to control the usage of native speakers of a language; and school grammar which
is primarily the simplified subset of prescriptive grammar taught in school.
As described above, descriptive grammar attempts to describe the usage of native speakers.
Descriptive grammar assumes that the only authority for what is exists in a language is what
its native speakers accept and understand as part of their language. A speaker who says “I
ain’t doing nothing,” intending to say just that, has produced a sentence which is grammatical
in the dialect and register in which he or she is speaking. This utterance is “grammatical” (i.e.,
produced by the grammar of a native speaker) for speakers of several different dialects of
English and appropriate in different registers for those dialects.
A descriptive grammar therefore will specify many rules for structures in which no native
speaker will ever produce anything except a single form, for example, rules like (1) – (3) below.
1. In English, the article precedes the noun and any adjectives modifying the noun.
a. The short people moved.
b. *Short the people moved.1
c. *Short people the move.
2. In English, demonstratives agree in number with the nouns they modify: that and this go
with singulars; those and these go with plurals.
a. That dog is surprisingly fond of these bones.
b. *Those dog is surprisingly fond of this bones.
3. Use only one question word at the beginning of an English sentence.
a. Who said what?
b. *Who what said?
c. *What who said?
1 before a sentence means the sentence is ungrammatical in the sense that the sentence is not produced by the
grammar of a native speaker of English; ? before a sentence means the sentences is questionable – it sounds weird,
but not as bad as a *’d sentence; % before a sentences means that some speakers would accept a sentence while
others would not.
A descriptive grammar will also specify rules which allow variation in structures which
speakers use variably. What does that mean? (4) is an example of a rule that varies in different
Speakers of more or less standard dialects of American English
4. typically use objective pronouns after copular verbs;
a. That is me.
b. It’s him.
c. The guy in the front row with the red hat is him.
5. use subject case pronouns after copular verbs with very short subjects in formal contexts;
a. %That is I.
b. %It is he.
c. ?That guy in the front row with the red hat is he