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Getting Smarter through Language

Grammar Series | Part 1

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What is grammar (for a linguist)?

For a linguist, grammar is far more than how to put sentences together. To understand the grammar of a language from the ground up, linguists understand the phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics of the language.


For most of us, our understanding of grammar comes from our experiences in school or learning a new language. In these contexts, grammar consisted of rules that told us what was “correct” in the language. These rules were often unintuitive or simply did not make much sense, and they sometimes forced us to memorize endless lists of information. It is no wonder that such a narrow view of grammar put a bad taste in most students' mouths.

For a linguist, grammar is a set of rules shared by the members of a linguistic group that tells speakers how to put sounds together to create words, and how to organize words into meaningful sentences.

If the members of a linguistic community did not share such a set of rules, they would not be able to understand each other. In English, for example, the typical sentence word order is subject first, then the verb and the object. If someone said, “Has bitten dog my girl the,” you would say the sentence is ungrammatical (meaning that it violates the internal grammar rule of the language, not that the speaker is “wrong.”) You should note that not all languages have an SOV word order. (You may see Figure 1 below for other word order types in other languages.)

Here is the word order typology of various world languages:

  • SOV (he her sees) - subject-object-verb: Japanese, Turkish, Farsi.
  • SVO (he sees her) - subject-verb-object: English, Chinese, Italian, Dutch.
  • VSO (sees he her) - verb-subject-object: Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Berber.
  • VOS (sees her he) - verb-object-subject: Fijian, Malagasy.
  • OVS (her sees he) - (fairly rare) Apalaí, Hixkaryana
  • OSV (her he sees) - (very rare) Xavante, Warao.

For many languages (for example, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Turkish, Korean, Japanese), the word order is not as strict as it is in English. The components in sentences are marked for their syntactical role, which allows the word order to be more flexible.

That is why you can still understand “her he sees,” which is ungrammatical in English, because the subject (he) and object (her) are marked for case (he-him, she-her). This does not work well in English, however, because nouns are unmarked; in most cases, you have no idea who did what to whom unless the sentence respects the SOV word order of English.

Types of Grammar

We tend to think of grammar as a unified entity. However, there are different ways of understanding how language is structured. Indian grammarian Panini, described Sanskrit as far back as around the 5th century BCE, (Bronkhorst; François).

Along with the prestige associated with languages such Latin and Greek in medieval Europe, the study of grammar took on the role of preserving the “purity” of the language, which gave rise to what is known as “traditional” or “standard” grammar today. In that sense, grammar rules are based on what is believed to be “correct” or “incorrect” rather than how people actually use the language. (You may see Figure 2 below for how an emphasis on prescriptive grammar led to a “grammar rule” in English.)

In Old English, it was impossible to split an infinitive because the language was highly inflectional. The verb “to love,” for example, was a single word, “lufian.” As Old English evolved into Middle English and Modern English, inflections were lost, and it became possible to insert words between “to” and the verb.

When people started putting adverbs between “to” and the main part of the verb (as in “to boldly go where no man has gone before”), grammarians saw it fit to preserve the original form of the language and prescribe split infinitives as improper. Though this may be apocryphal, it is believe grammarians also favored the structure of Latin (the language of the educated), in which “amare” (to love) cannot be split.

Although the rule against splitting infinitives does not reflect modern use, many respected writers, publications, and English teachers still choose to vehemently enforce it (or rather, to enforce it vehemently).

Early in the 20th century, Ferdinand de Saussure analyzed language as a series of forms he called signifiants that create contrasting meanings signifiés. Saussure proposed that speech segments are defined by the words they compare with. In that sense, “The dog chased the cat” has meaning because of the contrast between “cat” and “dog” as well as how they differ from “person,” “elephant,” “fish,” and so on (François). Such structuralist analysis gave rise to a descriptive analysis of language, which could be applied to any human language.

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