September 25, 2012

It’s All Grammar—So What?

It’s a frequent complaint among linguists that laypeople use the term grammar in such a loose and unsystematic way that it’s more or less useless. They say that it’s overly broad, encompassing many different types of rules, and that it allows people to confuse things as different as syntax and spelling. They insist that spelling, punctuation, and ideas such as style or formality are not grammar at all, that grammar is really just the rules of syntax and morphology that define the language.

Arnold Zwicky, for instance, has complained that grammar as it’s typically used refers to nothing more than a “grab-bag of linguistic peeve-triggers”. I think this is an overly negative view; yes, there are a lot of people who peeve about grammar, but I think that most people, when they talk about grammar, are thinking about how to say things well or correctly.

Some people take linguists’ insistence on the narrower, more technical meaning of grammar as a sign of hypocrisy. After all, they say, with something of a smirk, shouldn’t we just accept the usage of the majority? If almost everyone uses grammar in a broad and vague way, shouldn’t we consider that usage standard? Linguists counter that this really is an important distinction, though I think it’s fair to say that they have a personal interest here; they teach grammar in the technical sense and are dismayed when people misunderstand what they do.

I’ve complained about this myself, but I’m starting to wonder whether it’s really something to worry about. (Of course, I’m probably doubly a hypocrite, what with all the shirts I sell with the word grammar on them.) After all, we see similar splits between technical and popular terminology in a lot of other fields, and they seem to get by just fine.

Take the terms fruit and vegetable, for instance. In popular use, fruits are generally sweeter, while vegetables are more savory or bitter. And while most people have probably heard the argument that tomatoes are actually fruits, not vegetables, they might not realize that squash, eggplants, peppers, peas, green beans, nuts, and grains are fruits too, at least by the botanical definition. And vegetable doesn’t even have a botanical definition—it’s just any part of a plant (other than fruits or seeds) that’s edible. It’s not a natural class at all.

In a bit of editorializing, the Oxford English Dictionary adds this note after its first definition of grammar:

As above defined, grammar is a body of statements of fact—a ‘science’; but a large portion of it may be viewed as consisting of rules for practice, and so as forming an ‘art’. The old-fashioned definition of grammar as ‘the art of speaking and writing a language correctly’ is from the modern point of view in one respect too narrow, because it applies only to a portion of this branch of study; in another respect, it is too wide, and was so even from the older point of view, because many questions of ‘correctness’ in language were recognized as outside the province of grammar: e.g. the use of a word in a wrong sense, or a bad pronunciation or spelling, would not have been called a grammatical mistake. At the same time, it was and is customary, on grounds of convenience, for books professedly treating of grammar to include more or less information on points not strictly belonging to the subject.

There are a few points here to consider. The definition of grammar has not been solely limited to syntax and morphology for many years. Once it started branching out into notions of correctness, it made sense to treat grammar, usage, spelling, and pronunciation together. From there it’s a short leap to calling the whole collection grammar, since there isn’t really another handy label. And since few people are taught much in the way of syntax and morphology unless they’re majoring in linguistics, it’s really no surprise that the loose sense of grammar predominates. I’ll admit, however, that it’s still a little exasperating to see lists of grammar rules that everyone gets wrong that are just spelling rules or, at best, misused words.

The root of the problem is that laypeople use words in ways that are useful and meaningful to them, and these ways don’t always jibe with scientific facts. It’s the same thing with grammar; laypeople use it to refer to language rules in general, especially the ones they’re most conscious of, which tend to be the ones that are the most highly regulated—usage, spelling, and style. Again, issues of syntax, morphology, semantics, usage, spelling, and style don’t constitute a natural class, but it’s handy to have a word that refers to the aspects of language that most people are conscious of and concerned with.

I think there still is a problem, though, and it’s that most people generally have a pretty poor understanding of things like syntax, morphology, and semantics. Grammar isn’t taught much in schools anymore, so many people graduate from high school and even college without much of an understanding of grammar beyond spelling and mechanics. I got out of high school without knowing anything more advanced than prepositional phrases. My first grammar class in college was a bit of a shock, because I’d never even learned about things like the passive voice or dependent clauses before that point, so I have some sympathy for those people who think that grammar is mostly just spelling and punctuation with a few minor points of usage or syntax thrown in.

So what’s the solution? Well, maybe I’m just biased, but I think it’s to teach more grammar. I know this is easier said than done, but I think it’s important for people to have an understanding of how language works. A lot of people are naturally interested in or curious about language, and I think we do those students a disservice if all we teach them is never to use infer for imply and to avoid the passive voice. Grammar isn’t just a set of rules telling you what not to do; it’s also a fascinatingly complex and mostly subconscious system that governs the singular human gift of language. Maybe we just need to accept the broader sense of grammar and start teaching people all of what it is.

Addendum: I just came across a blog post criticizing the word funner as bad grammar, and my first reaction was “That’s not grammar!” It’s always easier to preach than to practice, but my reaction has me reconsidering my laissez-faire attitude. While it seems handy to have a catch-all term for language errors, regardless of what type they are, it also seems handy—probably more so—to distinguish between violations of the regulative rules and constitutive rules of language. But this leaves us right where we started.

Grammar, Semantics, Usage, Words 9 Replies to “It’s All Grammar—So What?”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


9 thoughts on “It’s All Grammar—So What?

    Author’s gravatar

    I think the main problem is that the linguistically-inclined among us are forced to define our terms if we want to talk to people about “grammar”. It’s a pain and often results in some mutual confusion, but it’s an unfortunate necessity. I do think that technical terms need narrow definitions, but I also realize that it’s impossible to prevent technical terms from being used in more general senses by laypersons. After all, technical terms are often culled from everyday language in the first place.

    Author’s gravatar

    A definition like “The linguistic and social codes affecting all aspects of language use” sounds tolerably technical, though very broad; if that is not a definition of the word “grammar”, then is there a word for it?

    Author’s gravatar

    I think the only way to really understand grammar is to learn a foreign language. Though even then, I guess there are people who never do understand what is going on under the hood.

    The analogy to the word fruit is a good one. Mostly, I would contend that grammar is a concept of the study of English* and not a category of linguistics at all. So it would be like the word vegetable for a botanist.
    *I don’t actually know what words are used in other languages for the concept of grammar.

    Author’s gravatar

    There’s a similar situation in music. To a layperson, orchestras play classical music. To a musician or musicologist, classical music comes specifically from the Classical era, which includes Mozart but not Mahler, Brahms, Bach, or Tchaikovsky.

    If nothing else, this post has me questioning whether I even know what grammar is. I know better than to mistake spelling, style, and punctuation for grammar, but what else have I been lumping under that category that doesn’t belong there?

    Author’s gravatar

    The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language–written by card-carrying, practising linguists–has an entire chapter on punctuation.

    Author’s gravatar

    George: Exactly. Differing technical and popular definitions are common, but I think it’s especially a problem here because grammar is often a subject (or part of one) in school. Imagine if mathematicians and school teachers used the term “arithmetic” differently. But you’re right that we can still have discussions if we define our terms well enough.

    Vasha: Aside from “grammar”, there isn’t a good word for it, and that’s precisely the problem.

    Tricia: Learning a second language certainly is one of the best ways to learn what grammar really is, which is presumably why most linguistics programs require students to take at least one foreign language.

    Andy: Part of the problem is that the boundaries are kind of fuzzy. A lot of usage deals with grammar—part of speech, complement types, and so on—but even nonstandard usage is usually still grammatical.

    Ian: Interesting. I’ll have to check that out sometime.

    Author’s gravatar

    Personally? I think it’s all bollocks. If two people are communicating, then why should we be concerned about what quality of grammar they’re using? Provided person A understands person B, there is no need to interfere. Right?

    As for your situation with the word “funner”; I sympathise with the inner pedant in you. However, the English language is one of the few that still exist that change dramatically between pockets of time: if you tried to sit down and listen to two well-educated English speakers 100 years ago, you’d go nuts. Calling someone a punk in the 1920’s was perfectly fine since it just meant they were inexperienced, but later in the same century became somewhat more offensive.

    Words change their meaning about as often as they change their underwear. What matters – what really should matter – is that you understand what is said and can process a response if required. Your initial derision at the word funner aside, I would ask if you knew what the person meant immediately, or if you were truly confused as to their meaning? If you understood, job well done, communication established. If not.. then we have more to talk about.

    Author’s gravatar

    @Don: What other language DOESN’T change dramatically over time? I get tired of the English exceptionalism which seems to press that only English is free to change over time. Compare something written in ANY language 100 years ago to something written today and you will find changes just as significant. Even in languages with Academies trying in vain to hold back change (which, in the grand scheme of things, is a minuscule number of the world’s languages).

    Author’s gravatar

    Don: I’m not exactly sure who you’re responding to. I have no derision for the word “funner”, even though I acknowledge that it’s highly colloquial and informal. And GAC is right in saying that English is not particularly special in the realm of language change.

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