What Is Grammar?

Grammar is more than just the rules typically taught in English classes, and those supposed rules are always changing, anyway. So what even is grammar?

Grammar means the set of rules that explain how to use a language. Two major approaches are descriptivist and prescriptivist.

  1. Descriptive grammar. Descriptive grammar (as its name suggests) describes how fluent speakers use a language. According to descriptivists, the rules of a language are the ones a young child learns subconsciously while gaining mastery of his or her native language.

  2. Prescriptive grammar. When many people think of grammar, they think of prescriptive grammar, or a set of rules based on how people think a language should be used. The rules often attempt to label certain aspects of common usage as “incorrect.” These rules are not always intuitive, so they’re more likely to be the rules you had to learn in grammar class.

So, for instance, a prescriptivist might say that “I want to quietly do this puzzle” is incorrect because of the split infinitive (“to quietly do”). A descriptivist might argue that since fluent speakers of English frequently say things like “I want to quietly do this puzzle,” it is an acceptable sentence.

However, descriptivists and prescriptivists would agree that “Quietly puzzle I to this do want” is an incorrect English sentence. The sentence “Quietly puzzle I to this do want” violates both prescribed rules for using English and also rules that are intuitive to fluent speakers. The two types of grammar are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Prescriptive grammar sometimes adds arbitrary rules to a language. However, prescriptive grammar is often based on the descriptive grammar of a particular dialect of a language – usually the one spoken by the people with the most power in a society.

Origins of Prescriptive Grammar

Every language has always had a descriptive grammar, but prescriptive grammar exists only as an accident of history. It arises when the form of the language used by the people in power (the government, the military, religious authorities) is established as the “correct” way to speak the language, simply because the people in power happen to speak it. Following different grammatical rules, having a different accent, and using different vocabulary become both markers of and contributors to lower social status.

Prescriptivism gained traction in Europe beginning in the Early Modern Era. Scholars point to three main goals for these prescriptivist movements, influenced by Enlightenment ideals and changing socioeconomic realities:

  1. To reduce grammar to a set of rules and eliminate apparent linguistic chaos

  2. To remove what they viewed as errors

  3. To ensure that the language would remain “fixed” in the desired form – that it would not evolve, or in their view, deteriorate

The earliest major sign of this shift toward prescriptivism was the 1583 establishment of the Accademia della Crusca – their goal was to set forth the conventions of the Florentine dialect as the “proper” rules for Italian. Prescriptivism in England blossomed later, in the eighteenth century, for two reasons:

  1. English was gaining power as an international language, which made people start thinking about it seriously.

  2. There were more opportunities for upward mobility – but many people spoke less-prestigious dialects of English, which would hurt their chances of success. Therefore, many people wanted to learn to speak the dialects of the powerful.

Thus began the sense that there had to be one “correct” type of English. To establish this supposedly proper English, people came up with rules about the language. Some were based on the dominant dialects, which were not objectively better in any way than the lower-class ones. Other rules were more like new inventions. Some of the rules have faded away over time, while others are still with us today.

Alicia Holland

Alicia Holland has a B.A. in creative writing from Binghamton University and an M.A. in teaching of English from Teachers College, Columbia University. She loves to play with language and literature.

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