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1. The systematic study and description of a LANGUAGE, a group of languages, or language in general in terms of either SYNTAX and MORPHOLOGY alone or these together with aspects of PHONOLOGY, ORTHOGRAPHY, SEMANTICS, PRAGMATICS, and WORD-FORMATION: universal grammar, comparative Indo-European grammar, Spanish grammar, the grammar of American English. The study of the grammar of a language may be restricted to the STANDARD variety or cover the standard and aspects of other varieties. Grammars of English have tended to deal mainly with either standard BrE or standard AmE, but in recent years have increasingly covered both main varieties, sometimes with notes on other varieties.

2. A set of rules and examples dealing with the syntax and morphology of a STANDARD LANGUAGE, usually intended as an aid to the learning and teaching of that language. A distinction is often drawn between descriptive grammar, which attempts to present an accurate description of the rules for actual usage, and prescriptive grammar, which prescribes certain rules for usage and often proscribes others: see DESCRIPTIVE AND PRESCRIPTIVE GRAMMAR. In practice, a grammar book or grammar may contain both kinds of rules. Prescriptive grammar is evaluative, distinguishing between good grammar (correct, approved usage) and bad grammar (incorrect, disapproved usage). A grammar may overtly or covertly downgrade regional and social dialects (implying that they either do not have ‘proper’ grammar or have no grammar at all). Such books have often been part of the equipment of formal education in Western countries and have tended to reflect (and endorse) middle-class values. As a result, reminders to offenders have often been couched in such terms as: Mind your grammar–no double negatives! A distinction is often made between a reference grammar (intended, like a dictionary, for individual reference) and a pedagogical grammar (intended chiefly for class use under the guidance of a teacher).

3. In LINGUISTICS, a term for the syntactic and morphological system which every unimpaired person acquires from infancy when learning a language: a native-speaker's grammar. In this sense, grammar is part of a Janus-faced psychological and neurological process: each person learns and uses a private system which blends into a social consensus. All speakers of a language like English ‘know’ this grammar in the sense that they use it to produce more or less viable utterances. Their knowledge is implicit, however, and it is not usually easy to think about and report on it. Formal education may help in some areas (especially in relation to LITERACY) and higher education in language studies may extend this ability, but the use of this natural grammar does not depend on the acquisition of descriptive or prescriptive grammar. English, for example, was used for a thousand years before the first rudimentary grammar books were written, and no grammar book (however large) is ever fully comprehensive.

Classical grammar

The analytical study of language began in the second half of the first millennium BC in both Greece and India. In Greece, it began as the study of the written language, whereas in India it was concerned as much with the transmission of recited SANSKRIT as with its written forms. The present-day study of grammar descends from the Greek tradition, in which it was linked with LOGIC and RHETORIC. Both Plato and Aristotle took a close interest in language and, among other things, helped provide the foundation for the discussion of the PARTS OF SPEECH. Grammar was first developed as a formal system, however, by Greek scholars in Alexandria (Egypt). The foremost of these was Dionysius Thrax, author of Hē grammátiké tékhné (The Art of Letters: c.100 BC), a brief discussion in 25 sections on the nature of LETTERS, SYLLABLES, WORDS (according to form, function, and meaning), and SENTENCES.

When Thrax wrote his treatise, students of reading and writing learned their letters in a strict order, aided by mnemonic hexameter verses. The letters were crucial for all learning, because each was simultaneously letter, number, and musical note. After their alpha-betas, students were taught syllables of increasing length, then simpler and more complex word forms, then specimen texts. In the texts of the period, there were no spaces between words, punctuation was meagre, and reading depended on a capacity to see patterns in the unbroken lines. Once this skill was acquired, an appreciation of the arrangement (súntaxis) of words was necessary, as well as their complex inflections, so as to see what was happening in a text. For this, the guidance in Thrax's treatise was crucial. It was in fact the prototype for grammars of all European and many other languages.

Thrax defined grammar as technical knowledge of the language of poets and writers. His interest did not extend to other kinds of GREEK, to any other language, to language as a general phenomenon, or to spoken language except insofar as it might help in learning to write. It was the job of the grammatikós to use brush and papyrus, to copy and to edit, and, if fortunate and able enough, to analyse and improve the texts of such works as the epics of Homer. Writing was a mystery to the population at large, which associated scrolls with knowledge and power. As a result, in classical and medieval times, grammarians were sometimes taken to be sorcerers, but the craft was so laborious that the sorcerers' apprentices were often frustrated by it. Ancient attitudes to grammar still survive: many people are in awe of it, know little about it, tend to fear or dislike it, often find it baffling and boring if exposed to it at school, and yet a minority is fascinated by it: a field in which precise scholarship and nit-picking pedantry have coexisted for centuries.

The Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro was a contemporary of Thrax's. Where the Alexandrian was brief, the Roman was copious, producing 25 volumes of De lingua latina (On the Latin Language). Of these, only Books 5–10 survive. Varro had studied the Greek debates on language, especially as to whether it was by nature regular or chaotic. He concluded that it is both regular and irregular, with a tilt towards the regular. He was the first comparative grammarian, looking at LATIN and Greek side by side and, although he focused on writing, moved the discussion beyond it. Grammarians such as Varro converted the technical terms of Greek into Latin, and adapted Greek-based rules to serve their own tongue. A great advantage in describing Latin more or less in terms of Greek was the similarity of the two languages: both are highly inflected, with complex verb and noun structures.

Medieval and Renaissance grammar

In the 4c, Aelius Donatus taught in Rome and wrote an elementary text known as the Ars grammatica (Art of Letters), the title a translation of Thrax's. He was the teacher of St Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, and was so influential that for a thousand years his name was given not only to a basic grammar book, but to any textbook or lesson. In Old FRENCH and MIDDLE ENGLISH, all of these were donets. In the 6c, a native of Mauretania, Priscianus Caesariensis (Priscian), taught in Constantinople and wrote the Institutiones grammaticae (Grammatical Foundations), the only complete surviving grammar of Latin. The texts of Donatus and Priscian became the basis of medieval grammatical studies, Priscian's texts being integrated into the framework of Scholastic philosophy in the 13c and 14c. It is a testimony to his importance that around 1,000 manuscripts of parts or all of his Institutiones survive. Just as Thrax focused on Greek, so medieval grammarians such as Peter Helias (12c) and Petrus Hispanus (13c) focused on Latin. However, as the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, as printing spread, and as new nation-states became more conscious of their languages, grammarians in the mould of Varro began in the 16–17c to write descriptions of their own mother tongues by comparing them with the grammatical descriptions of Latin.

The first grammar of a modern European language described SPANISH: Antonio de Nebrija's Gramática de la lengua castellana (Grammar of the Castilian language, 1492). The first grammar of FRENCH was written in England: John Palsgrave's Lesclarcissement de la Langue Françoyse (1530). An early grammar in one language but about another was in English: Richard Percivall's Bibliotheca Hispanica, Containing a Grammar, with a Dictionarie in Spanish, English, and Latine(1591). Like their predecessors, the creators of such works focused on the usage of the ‘best’ writers, establishing a tradition which lasted until the 19c and which still exerts considerable influence. Just as Thrax did not look beyond Greek and the medieval grammarians did not look beyond Latin, so the early modern grammarians hardly looked beyond a level of usage heavily influenced by Greek and Latin. On those occasions when they did so, they saw what seemed to be a barbarous mass of material lacking all grammatical order.

Early grammars of English

Most of the writers of grammars of English have been teachers, but some early grammars were written by men in other walks of life: in 1634, the playwright Ben Jonson wrote his English Grammar; in 1762, the Bishop of London, Robert Lowth, brought out A Short Introduction to English Grammar; in 1761 and 1762, the scientist Joseph Priestley, better known for discovering oxygen, published two grammars and a number of essays on language. James Harris, whose grammar appeared in 1751, was an amateur philosopher and a Member of Parliament. The American lawyer Lindley Murray grew rich outfitting the British troops who captured New York during the American Revolution, then retired to England and wrote a best-selling English grammar in 1795. In 1784, his compatriot Noah WEBSTER turned to spelling, grammar, and LEXICOGRAPHY as a last resort after failing to thrive as a lawyer or a teacher. Before 1800, at least 272 grammars of English were published and there have been countless since. From the 17c to the 19c, the vast majority of these works contained little more than Thrax's basic formula: lists of the letters and syllables of English, with comments on their pronunciation; definitions of the parts of speech illustrating their inflections; some elementary syntax, usually taught through the presentation of imprecise examples; and a section on punctuation and versification. Some grammarians have been speculative and philosophical in nature, in the late medieval tradition: James Harris in Hermes (1751) took language as something to be discussed and analysed rather than outlined for rote learning. Few attempted an exhaustive description of English. Goold Brown, in his encyclopedic Grammar of English Grammars (1851), refers to almost every extant treatise on English grammar, well-known or obscure, establishing himself as the grammarian's grammarian.

Latin and English

In the main, the aims of the grammarians were pragmatic and educational rather than philosophic: to introduce foreigners to English, to teach students their own language, or to prepare them for Latin. The early textbooks were influenced by the Latin grammar of William Lily (1540), grandfather of the dramatist John Lyly. Lyly declined English nouns as if they were Latin. Just as a noun in Latin has a nominative (dominus), vocative (domine), genitive (domini), etc., so he had in English a nominative (master), vocative (O master), genitive (of a master), etc. Sometimes, even its indeclinable adjectives had their cases: nominative singular masculine wise and accusative feminine plural wise, etc. See CASE. For centuries, English remained in the shadow of Latin and Greek as a school subject and as a vehicle of learning. Samuel JOHNSON shared the common 18c opinion that English was a copious and disorderly tongue which had only recently come under the sway of grammar. His own grammar fills 13 double-column folio pages in his two-volume dictionary. Of these pages, however, he devotes only 11 lines to syntax, explaining: ‘Our language has so little inflection, or variety of terminations, that its construction neither requires nor admits many rules.’ In his Rudiments of English Grammar, Joseph Priestley attributes this ‘paucity of our inflections of words’ to the barbarism of the Anglo-Saxons, from whom the language was inherited, ‘the severity of whose climate, and difficulty of subsistence, left them little leisure for polishing, or indeed using, their language’ (1761, p. v).

The rules of good English

So close-mouthed were the ancestors of English that, according to Johnson, the modern form of the language inherited only four syntactic rules: the VERB agrees with its SUBJECT; ADJECTIVES and PRONOUNS are invariable in form; the possessive NOUN is the GENITIVE CASE; transitive verbs and PREPOSITIONS take objects in the ‘oblique’ case. Priestley added four others: on pronoun agreement; on the concord of COLLECTIVE NOUNS (which may take a SINGULAR or PLURAL verb); on ELLIPSIS (most notably, deletion of the RELATIVE PRONOUN that); and on WORD ORDER (adjectives precede nouns; subjects precede verbs, and OBJECTS follow verbs). It would not have been easy for anyone to learn English from such a grammatical basis, even when expanded to 21 rules of syntax in Lindley Murray's English Grammar (7th US edition, 1837). Most 18c and 19c grammarians were prescriptive in their approach, presenting grammar as the art or science of correct speech and writing. Although many paid homage to the dictum of the Roman poet Horace that usage is the norm by which correctness is judged, few believed that the speech and writing of masses or élites should constitute standard English. For them, instruction in correct English consisted largely in having students memorize and recite definitions and rules. Many texts were arranged as dialogues or catechisms to facilitate this task. More advanced texts allowed students to parse a SENTENCE whose topic was morally uplifting. Examples from Murray include: I learn; Thou art improved; The tutor is admonishing Charles. Rosewell C. Smith, in his English Grammar on the Productive System (1843), emphasized the practical in his examples: The business will be regulated; John is living within his income; He taught me grammar.

The unpopularity of grammar

The grammarians' attitude toward language, combined with the mechanical instruction in grammar required by the texts, made the subject feared and despised by pupils and teachers alike. The 19c American commentator Richard Grant White, still smarting from a punishment he had received from his tutor many years previously for not knowing his grammar lesson, called grammar rules medieval. He preferred to criticize usage and particularly opposed the coining of new words. When grammar became a required subject in many US schools in the mid-19c, teachers objected that they knew no more about the subject than the students did. Since then, grammar has cycled in and out of favour in educational circles. In the early 1900s, progressive US educational groups called for an end to grammar instruction because it did not contribute to facility in writing. In Britain, the Newbolt Report (1921), which strongly favoured the teaching of English, advised against instruction in the science of language, because it interfered with the appreciation of literary art. In recent years, a conservative ‘back-to-basics’ movement in education, coinciding with a Conservative government, has encouraged a restoration of grammar drill as a way of solving the language problems of the schools in both the US and the UK.

Whether grammar has been in or out of favour, grammarians early on developed a negative image, both personally and professionally. Johnson called Harris a prig; Lowth was described as melancholy; and Lindley Murray was accused by his detractors of committing the errors he warned against. Although most dictionaries (with the exception of the OED) ignore this development, grammarian has come to mean someone whose concern for correctness in language is excessive or pedantic. According to Chambers's Cyclopaedia (1727–41, 1779–86), the formerly honourable title of grammarian had become a term of reproach: ‘a person wholly attentive to the minutiae of language, industriously employed about words, and phrases; and incapable of perceiving the beauties, the delicacy, finesse, extent, &c of a sentiment’. Nowadays, not all students of grammar wish to be identified as grammarians. Serious academics who have produced comprehensive grammars of English, such as Otto JESPERSEN, formerly philologists, are now generally referred to as linguists.

Scholarly grammars of English in the twentieth century

There have been a number of 20c scholarly grammars of English characterized by a decidedly descriptive approach and a focus on syntax. The two largest works, both reference grammars, are by foreign speakers of the language. The Dutch grammarian Hendrik Poutsma published A Grammar of Late Modern English in five volumes at intervals (with revised versions of the first part) between 1904 and 1929. His grammar is historical (drawing on quotations from earlier periods) and comparative (contrasting the grammars of English and Dutch). The Danish grammarian Otto Jespersen produced his most important work, the seven-volume Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles, between 1909 and 1949. As the title indicates, Jespersen's grammar is also historical. This work continues to be consulted for its range of data and insights into grammatical phenomena.

The American structural linguist Charles C. FRIES published two works on English grammar that influenced the teaching of English in schools in the US and elsewhere: American English Grammar (1940) and The Structure of English (1952). In 1972 and 1985, two large reference grammars were published by a team associated with the SURVEY OF ENGLISH USAGE: the British scholars Randolph QUIRK, Sidney GREENBAUM, Geoffrey Leech, and the Swedish scholar Jan Svartvik: A Grammar of Contemporary English (1972) and A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (1985). Like the works of Fries, these are strictly synchronic. They take account of stylistic variation and the differences between BrE and AmE. Their derivatives are used in the teaching of English in universities and colleges throughout the world: A University Grammar of English, by Quirk and Greenbaum (1973), A Communicative Grammar of English, by Leech and Svartvik (1975), and A Student's Grammar of the English Language, by Greenbaum and Quirk (1990). In the last three decades there has been a noticeable increase in research publications (monographs and scholarly papers) on English grammar, stimulated by a ferment of ideas from competing theoretical approaches, the availability of several large corpora of English (now in computerized form, concordanced, and often grammatically coded), and the growth of importance of English as an international language. In 1996 Greenbaum brought out his Oxford English Grammar, in the breadth of its coverage perhaps the first grammar of international standard English.


See also the grammar sections of entries for major varieties of English, such as CANADIAN ENGLISH.


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186. Grammar

See also 236. LANGUAGE ; 247. LINGUISTICS

the aspect of grammar that deals with inflections and word order.
Medicine. a neurological defect resulting in an inability to use words in grammatical sequence.
1. an ambiguity of language.
2. a word, phrase, or sentence that can be interpreted variously because of uncertainty of grammatical construction rather than ambiguity of the words used, as John met his father when he was sick. Also amphibologism, amphiboly. amphibological, amphibolous, adj.
a lack of grammatical sequence or coherence, as He ate cereal, fruit, and went to the store. Also anacoluthia. anacoluthic, adj.
a repetition of words to resume the sense after a long parenthetical digression. See also 354. RHETORIC and RHETORICAL DEVICES .
the substitution of one grammatical case for another, e.g., use of the nominative where the vocative would normally occur. antiptotic, adj.
the clause that expresses the consequence in a conditional sentence. Cf. protasis.
1. the study of the principles by which a language or languages function in producing meaningful units of expression.
2. knowledge of the preferred forms of expression and usage in language. See also 247. LINGUISTICS . grammarian, n. grammatical, adj.
1. Rare. the principles of the study of grammar followed by a grammarian.
2. excessive emphasis upon the fine points of grammar and usage, especially as a shibboleth; dedication to the doctrine of correctness; grammatism.
a principle or a point of grammar.
excessively pedantic behavior about grammatical standards and principles. grammatist, n.
arrangement of thoughts by subordination in grammatical construction. Cf. parataxis. hypotactic, adj.
Rare. a word or phrase that violates the rules of grammar. ingrammatically, adj.
1. a declension, conjugation, etc. that provides all the inflectional forms and serves as a model or example for all others.
2 . any model or example. paradigmatic, paradigmatical, adj.
arrangement of thoughts as coordinate units in grammatical construction. Cf. hypotaxis. paratactic, adj.
referring to the ability in some languages to use function words instead of inflections, as the hair of the dog for dogs hair. periphrasis, n.
a clause containing the condition in a conditional sentence. Cf. apodosis . See also 127. DRAMA ; 422. WISDOM AND FOOLISHNESS . protatic, adj.
a violation of conventional usage and grammar, as I are sixty year old. solecist, n. solecistic, solecistical, adj.
the use of a word or expression to perform two syntactic functions, especially to apply to two or more words of which at least one does not agree in logic, number, case, or gender, as in Popes line See Pan with flocks, with fruits Pomona crowned. sylleptic, sylleptical, adj.
the practice of using a grammatical construction that conforms with meaning rather than with strict regard for syntax, such as a plural form of a verb following a singular subject that has a plural meaning.
the grammatical principles by which words are used in phrases and sentences to construct meaningful combinations. syntactic, syntactical, adj.


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grammar One of the principal ways of specifying an infinite formal language by finite means. A grammar consists of a set of rules (called productions or rewrite rules) that may be used to derive one string from another by substring replacement. The strings of the specified language are obtained by repeated application of these rules, starting from some initial string. A grammar however has the additional feature that the alphabet is divided into a set T of terminal symbols and a set N of nonterminal symbols (or variables). While productions may be composed arbitrarily of terminals and nonterminals, the specified language contains strings of terminals only.

A grammar G can therefore be defined as comprising two sets of symbols T and N, a semi-Thue system over the union T N, and a distinguished member S of N. The language generated by G is the set of all strings over T that can be derived from S by a sequence of substring replacements (see semi-Thue system); S is known as the start symbol or sentence symbol. As an example, let T be {b,c}, N be {S,A} and let the productions be (1) SSA(2) SA(3) Abc

Then, for instance, starting from S we can derive bcbcbc via the following sequence (among others):


by production 1


by production 1


by production 2


by production 3


by production 3


by production 3

The language generated is {bc, bcbc, bcbcbc, …}

These are the only strings of bs and cs in {b,c}* derivable from the start symbol S by the three production rules. A string such as SAbcA, which is derivable from S but still contains nonterminals, is referred to as a sentential form.

This is the most general form of grammar. Typically however some restriction is placed on the form that productions may take (see regular grammar, context-free grammar, context-sensitive grammar). The syntax of programming languages is usually specified by context-free grammars; the example given above is context-free, although the language can be specified by a regular grammar.

A slightly different way of generating a language is by means of an L-system (or Lindenmeyer system). A different approach altogether is to define a machine that tests any string for membership of the language, i.e. an automaton.


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grammar Branch of linguistics that studies the structure of words (morphology) and how words combine into phrases, clauses and sentences (syntax). Sometimes it also includes semantics. Prescriptive grammar is a value-based subject that establishes conventions of ‘correct’ usage. Descriptive grammar describes actual usage patterns. In 1957 Noam Chomsky developed the concept of generative grammar, which aims to provide a formal description of the finite set of linguistic rules that generate the infinite number of grammatical sentences in a language. Transformational grammar is a form of generative grammar which seeks to explain the structural relationship between words in a sentence and sentences themselves.


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gram·mar / ˈgramər/ • n. the whole system and structure of a language or of languages in general, usually taken as consisting of syntax and morphology (including inflections) and sometimes also phonology and semantics. ∎  a particular analysis of the system and structure of language or of a specific language. ∎  a book on grammar: my old Latin grammar. ∎  a set of actual or presumed prescriptive notions about correct use of a language: it was not bad grammar, just dialect. ∎  the basic elements of an area of knowledge or skill: the grammar of wine. ∎ Comput. a set of rules governing what strings are valid or allowable in a language or text.


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grammar the whole system and structure of a language or of languages in general, usually taken as consisting of syntax and morphology (including inflections) and sometimes also phonology and semantics; grammar was one of the seven liberal arts.

Recorded from late Middle English, the word comes via Old French and Latin from Greek grammatikē (tekhnē) ‘(art) of letters’, from gramma, grammat- ‘letter of the alphabet, thing written’.


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grammar XIV. — AN. gramere, OF. gramaire (mod. grammaire) — L. grammatica — Gr. grammatikḗ, sb. use of fem. of grammatikós pertaining to letters (whence, through L. and F., grammatical XVI), f. grámma, grammat- (see -GRAM).
So grammarian XIV. — OF. gramarien (mod. grammairien), f. gramaire.

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