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What is Grammar (for a Linguist)?

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For most of us, what we understand as “grammar” comes from our experiences in school and in our own language.

We learned how to read using texts that we did not always understand because they were written differently from the way we spoke.


When we wrote our own ideas, we were told to use “proper grammar” even though we had already learned an “intuitive grammar” as children. This new grammar was not necessarily the same as the grammar we used in everyday language. We had to follow strict grammar, punctuation, and style rules that did not always make sense to us.

If we learned a new language (or languages), we had to learn yet another grammar. Depending on the language, we had to memorize tables of verb conjugations, long lists of idioms, or a number of grammar rules that made even less sense than the formal rules in our native language.

Given these early experiences with grammar, it is no wonder that many people say they hate it.

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Two Types of Grammar

What we learned in school about our native language and about our new languages was the standard grammar of the language. However, did you know grammar means something else for linguists? How can that be? Isn’t the grammar of a language always the same?

In fact, linguists and grammarians (experts in study of standard grammar) can each have a very different understanding of grammar.

Standard Grammar

A language comes in many varieties. In English, for example, you use certain constructions and vocabulary when you speak that you would not use in writing—and the other way around.

In some languages, spoken language varieties can be so different that their speakers don’t always understand each other.


Yet, one variety of the language is often selected, which everyone must then use in school, government, broadcast, and media. Along with its grammar, the chosen variety of the language is referred to as “the standard.” The problem is that if you grow up speaking a non-standard variety, you end up having to use a grammar you are not familiar or comfortable with.

Linguistic Prestige

In general, politics and history determine which variety of the language is selected as the standard. It is usually the variety of the language that has the most “prestige” or economic and political power.

In Italy, for example, many dialects are spoken throughout the country. When you learn Italian, you learn “standard Italian,” which is based on the Tuscan language of Florence of the 14th century (Marien). Much literature was written in the Tuscan dialect, which led to the adoption of that variety of Italian as the standard. Leon Battista Alberti wrote a manuscript in 1454 to describe the language, and that variety of Italian was accepted as the standard.

Standard Grammar is Not about Good and Bad Grammar

Basing standard Italian on the Tuscan dialect is just how history went. It could have been any other dialect if historical conditions had been different. That variety of Italian was no “better” than any other. Yet, if you want to speak Italian “correctly” today, you are expected to follow the rules of standard Italian.

This happens in most languages very frequently. A standard variety is chosen, and speakers end up attaching a value judgment to it. They consider the as a “better” or “correct” form of the language even though, objectively, it is not better or worse than any other variety of the language.

Grammar for Linguists

Linguists want to understand how language works. In order to do so, they must understand one of the components of the language: its grammar. However, linguists approach this task quite differently from the traditional grammarian.

As we saw, the “correct” form of a language is generally a choice among its many varieties. In addition, the standard language generally reflects written, literary use rather than how people actually use the language in all situations. You cannot truly understand a language, as a linguist, unless you understand all forms of the language. In fact, you could say that, rather than accurately explain the language, standard grammar creates an idealized version of some “pure form” of a language that its speakers do not really use. (For a linguist, there is no such a thing as a “pure” form of any language.)

Descriptivism: An Approach to Understand Grammar

To understand a language, linguists use an approach known as descriptivism. They take samples of the language (not only from literature but also from everyday spoken situations) and analyze it to understand the rules people use to form sentences that convey meaning.

In this descriptive approach, linguists study the following main components of the language:

  • phonetics (the sound inventory used in the language),
  • phonology (how the sounds are put together to create words),
  • morphology (how words are formed or changed to create new meaning),
  • syntax (how words are put together to form grammatical sentences),
  • semantics (how speakers extract meaning from utterances),
  • pragmatics (how meaning is created and can change in different situations).
Grammar or Syntax?

Syntax is the component that is closest to what we know as grammar. However, traditional grammar establishes the “correct rule” for sentences. Linguists try to understand the rules that speakers follow to create meaningful sentences whether or not their internal, intuitive rules are the same as those in standard grammar.

For example, if you say “There’s a lot of people in the store,” standard grammar would tell you the sentence is ungrammatical because the verb must be plural to agree with “people.” So you must say “There are a lot of people in the store.”

In a purely linguistic analysis, you would say that many people use “there’s” (or “there was” and “there’s been”) as a fixed expression to express existence, so the verb does not have to agree with what follows it. Interestingly, some languages do the same. For example, in standard Spanish, “hay” (there is or there are) is a singular verb form. It is always used regardless of the number of things that exist. The same phenomenon seems to happen for some speakers in English, even though standard grammar will tell you that “there’s a lot of people” is incorrect, or “bad English.”

Do Linguists Not Care about Grammar?

People so readily accept the idea that “there is only one correct grammar” that they are appalled by the idea that linguists do not judge what speakers say as “correct” or “incorrect.” They think that linguists want to make standard grammar obsolete.

That comes from a misunderstanding of the work linguists do. Their job is not to validate standard grammar. Rather, their goal is to understand how language works, including its grammar. Grammarians already study standard grammar, so let’s leave that job up to them.

In fact, many grammarians are also linguists, and there is no conflict of purpose there.

Linguists use the descriptive approach to understand language because language is a natural phenomenon. The written, literary version is only one part of a language. As a result, to understand how language as a whole works, you must understand how speakers use the language naturally.

”Do Linguists Use ‘Descriptive Grammar?’"

There is no such a thing as “using descriptive grammar.” Linguists use descriptivism as an approach to understand and describe the grammar people use in a language. When you say, “there’s a lot of people there,” you are not “using descriptive grammar.” You are simply using the grammar that is commonly used in spoken English.

After using this descriptive approach, linguists write their research papers using standard grammar so they can publish their results. Linguists know standard grammar is appropriate for that because they want a large number of people to read and understand their papers. Besides, publishers expect writers to use standard grammar.

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Marien, Catherine. “Languages of Italy.” Slow Italy, Slow Italy,