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Getting Smarter through Language

Grammar Series | Part 1

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What is grammar (for a linguist)?

This continues the lesson from the previous page.

Types of Grammar (continued)

As you saw in the previous page, what we understand as grammar has evolved over time. Two major approaches still prevail today, each with its funtion and role.

Prescriptive and Descriptive Approaches

The traditional approach is said to be prescriptive, that is, it prescribes what is considered correct or incorrect in the language. Linguistic innovation is seen as a “corruption” of norms.

Particularly in linguistics, the approach to understanding grammar is said to be descriptive, that is, it simply describes how speakers draw on their internal grammars to use the language and communicate ideas. Language variety is considered simply an object of study rather than a corruption of language norms.

For example, take the following sentence: “Each student received a card with their name on it.” Most English speakers would consider this to be an acceptable, easy-to-understand sentence. Yet, a prescriptive analysis of the sentence would point out that it is ungrammatical because the plural possessive pronoun “their” (underlined in the example) refers to “each student,” which is singular.

The prescribed solution would be to make the subject plural (thus, “The students received a card with their names on it”) or to make the pronoun singular (thus, “Each of the students received a card with his or her name on it”).

A descriptive analysis would indicate that “they” and its pronouns can be used as a single pronoun and explain under certain circumstances such use occurs. Whether or not the sentence “needs fixing” is irrelevant to such an analysis; after all, what matters is that speakers of the language follow an internal, shared grammatical rule for the sentence.

Grammar and the Linguistic Perspective

In general, linguists try to understand language as its speakers use it. The definition of the grammar of a language is based on the notion that all human languages follow principles that determine how sentences are put together to communicate ideas. Grammar rules are the limits that a particular language puts on how words and sentences are formed.

To understand language fully, linguists focus on the following components of language:

Phonetics (how sounds are produced). Phonology (how the sound inventory of a language is combined to produce words). Morphology (how words are formed). Syntax (the structure of sentences and utterances). Semantics (how speakers produce meaning in and extract meaning from sentences and uttrances). Pragmatics (how the context influences meaning).

Note that the focus of traditional, prescriptive grammar is generally on syntax and on formal, written language. Many prescriptivists believe that the same rules that apply to such a variety of the language should apply to spoken language. For a descriptivist, grammar rules are a reflection of what speakers know about the language as they use it to produce meaning; understanding such rules must include all the components mentioned above.


Activity 1: Watch What is Grammar? (for a linguist) on YouTube and take good study notes.

Activity 2: Based on what you learned on this page and in the video in Activity 1, answer the following questions.

QUESTION 1. What would a descriptivist say about the following sentence? “We ain’t got no time to waste.”

Sorry! This is incorrect.See details below.

Tip. Remember that a prescriptive analysis of the language prescribes standard usage.

Please try again.

Sorry! This is incorrect. See details below.

Tip. Remember that a descriptive analysis of the language simply seeks to understand the structure of a sentence or utterance; therefore, there would be no judgement of a structure as correct or incorrect. Besides, there is insufficient information to even guess whether or not the speaker speaks English as a second language.

Please try again.

Excellent! This is the correct answer! See details below.

Explanation. “Who” is the subject of the verb. You would say “he or she” needs the tickets, so “whoever” is the subject of the verb (whoever needs the tickets).

QUESTION 2. For a morphologist, how do you create regular plurals in English?

Sorry! This is incorrect.See details below.

Tip. Remember that sometimes morphology also uses phonology to describes how words are formed.

Please try again.

Excellent! This is the correct answer! See details below.

Explanation. Although regular plurals are spelled with an S or ES, these morphemes are realized differently depending on the sound they follow.

Sorry! This is incorrect. See details below.

Tip. Do not confuse spelling with morphology and phonology.

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QUESTION 3. Sometimes I can say, for example, “It’s hot. Crack the window open, will you?” where I’m asking you to open (not break) the window. Which branch of linguistics studies such a phenomenon, where a word or sentence can take on different meanings depending on its context?

Sorry! This is incorrect.See details below.

Tip. Morphology studies how words are formed.

Please try again.

Excellent! This is the correct answer! See details below.

Explanation. Semantics studies how meaning depends on the context, which can be a situational or cultural context.

Sorry! This is incorrect. See details below.

Tip. Syntax studies how the parts of a sentence (e.g., subject, verb, objects, adjectives and adverbs) are put together to create grammatical sentences in a language.

Please try again.

Works Cited

Bronkhorst, Johannes. A Śabda Reader Language in Classical Indian Thought. Columbia University Press, 2019.

François, Alexander, M. Ponsonnet. “Descriptive Linguistics,” in R. J. McGee, and R. L. Warms (eds.). Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: an Encyclopediai. Sage Publications, 2013.