Saturday 4 March marks National Grammar Day (henceforth, for brevity, NGD). Time to move into top grammar gear.
Are you a tad hazy about the difference between a conjunction and a preposition? And what exactly are parts of speech? Looking grammatical terms up is one possible way to celebrate NGD. And the Collins Dictionary site provides plentiful further guidance: Easy Learning grammar, grammar patterns and teaching resources. You never know; a quick brush-up might stand you in good stead if your offspring are being taught grammar at school and cry for your help.
Where is the word grammar from?
Grammar comes directly from Old French gramaire (Modern French grammaire). French, in turn, had adapted the Latin grammatica, which derives from the Greek grammatikē tekhnē (γραμματική τέχνη), literally, ‘art of writing’. The adjective grammatikos (γραμματικός) meant ‘knowing one’s letters well’, and derives from gramma (γράμμα) ‘a letter’, as in diagram, and ultimately from the verb ‘to write’, graphein (γράϕειν).
In Classical Greek and Latin culture, grammar referred to the study of literature in the broadest terms, but in the Middle Ages it became restricted to the study of Latin. In fact, when it first appeared in English in the first quarter of the fourteenth century, it was in the meaning ‘Latin’. And because knowledge of Latin was confined to the learnèd few, grammar often stood for learning in general. (And whisper it softly, grammar was often spelled grammer.)
So much for the word’s history. But what exactly is ‘grammar’?
NGD was established in 2008, to ‘help students with their grammar’ by the person who also founded The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, Martha Brockenbrough.
That phrase ‘Good Grammar’ in the name of the society inevitably raises the question ‘Which grammar?’ Even ‘Whose grammar?’
Clearly, grammar means different things to different people. Which is hardly surprising, given it’s a word with several different meanings, a word which is, in lexicographer- and linguist-speak, polysemous.
I invite you to join me in this brief quest to explore what grammar ‘really’ means.
What does grammar mean?
Here the Collins Cobuild Dictionary comes in handy, dividing grammar’s meanings into four categories or ‘senses’, as lexicographers tend to call them.
First off, ‘grammar is the way…words can be put together…to make sentences.’ The examples given are ‘basic rules of grammar’ and ‘differences between Sanskrit and English grammar’.
Interestingly, the definition says nothing about sentences having to make sense. It would therefore cover Chomsky’s famous ‘colourless green ideas sleep furiously’. That sentence illustrates perfectly certain rules of English grammar, specifically, English syntax – adjectives usually come before nouns, adverbs of manner may follow verbs, etc., – but is meaningless, or, at least, extremely difficult to assign a meaning to.
Grammar in this first sense is something we all make use of automatically all the time to communicate. It is ‘in our heads’, even if we can’t explain its rules. Our inherent knowledge of it makes us smile at Star Wars Yoda’s bending the rules and reversing the normal word order in sentences such as ‘Nothing more will I teach you today’ or ‘Much to learn you still have.’
A definition lower down in the Collins entries defines grammar as ‘the branch of linguistics that deals with syntax and morphology’.
Syntax dealswith the arrangement of words, phrases and clauses into meaningful sentences. Syntax comes via Latin syntaxis from Greek suntaxis (σύνταξις), meaning ‘arrangement, organization; specifically the grammatical arrangement of words’. The syn– part, meaning ‘together, with’, appears also in synonym, synchronise and many rather more technical words.
The rules of syntax state, for example, that He did really well and He did well, really mean different things. They state that ?He me gave the book is not a grammatically well-formed sentence – though its equivalent in other languages would be.
Morphology, in contrast, deals with the forms and structures of words. The word morphology* is based on the Greek for ‘shape’, morphē (μορφή), as in metamorphosis and one thing morphing into another, plus –ology for ‘the study of’.
The rules of English morphology dictate, for instance, that the plural of dog is dogs and the plural of child, children. They tell us that the in– of incomprehensible has nothing to do with in, the preposition.
‘If the English language made any sense, a catastrophe would be an apostrophe with fur.’
Quipped Doug Larson. Though it raises a smile, it cannot be literally true, because it infringes a rule of English morphology: there is no morphological element (morpheme) ‘?astrophe’ that can be attached to ‘cat’.
The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg (1368–1437) was ticked off by a cardinal for making the Latin noun schisma (‘schism’) feminine instead of the neuter prescribed in Priscian’s Latin Grammar. He brought the house down by cleverly punning on the cardinal’s name in Latin and then stating: An non ego sum Rex Romanus, et supra Priscianum et eius grammaticam? ‘Am I not indeed the King of the Romans [Holy Roman Emperor] and above Priscian and his grammar?’
Nobody is ‘above grammar’ in the meaning just discussed, not even King Charles, not President Biden.
So …, grammar in that sense can’t, surely, be what National Grammar Day is all about, can it?
And indeed, it isn’t. NGD is largely about the second Cobuild definition:
‘Someone’s grammar is the way in which they obey or do not obey the rules of grammar when they write or speak.’
One of the examples for that meaning is ‘…a deterioration in spelling and grammar among teenagers’.
Ah, now we seem to be getting somewhere. ‘Poor grammar’ or ‘bad grammar’ is usually a fault that someone else commits, and often that someone is from a different age group, region or social class than the judger.
Other definitions on the Collins site are ‘the use of language with regard to its correctness or social propriety, esp in syntax’ and ‘one’s manner of speaking or writing as judged by prescriptive grammatical rules’.
‘Prescriptive’ is a key word there. In general, there is an intellectual gulf or chasm between linguists, who are content to describe the varieties of language they study and prescriptivists, who wish to prescribe (some would say ‘dictate’) how others should write and speak.
For instance, there are online groups of people who delight in picking up other people’s ‘grammatical’ mistakes, such as the Facebook group ‘I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar’ which had 350,000 members and from which a book was derived.
Examples from that book include the plural ‘?knifes’ instead of knives and ‘?common curtesy’ for common courtesy. (A question mark before a word is a sign in linguistic writing that a form so prefixed is dubious.) ‘?Curtesy’ is simply a spelling mistake, and not everyone is a perfect speller, not even lexicographers. Are spelling mistakes even strictly part of grammar?
Clearly, the Facebook group considered spelling to be a major part of grammar – and readers outside the US should remember that spelling bees are a huge thing there and correct spelling is, to an extent, fetishised.
?Knifes/knives leads us back to that important aspect of grammar already mentioned, morphology, the study of word shapes and how they change according to their function (here, plural vs singular).
At this point it’s worth reminding ourselves there is something called ‘standard grammar’, which is a set of rules that most people and authorities such as grammars (Cobuild meaning 3, ‘a book that describes the rules of a language’) can agree on.
However, small portions of it are fuzzy at the margins. And it’s in those margins that questions of correctness often arise. For instance, the pluralising pronouns yous and y’all will be considered grammatically incorrect by many people, but are fine – indeed highly useful – according to the grammar of those who use them.
Similarly, every day in York, UK, I hear people saying ‘I were’ for the standard ‘I was’. You’d be a brave person to correct them. And on pronunciation, as Professor Terry Eagleton noted: ‘Dropping your aitches in Knightsbridge probably counts as a deviation, whereas it is normative in parts of Lancashire’ (How to Read a Poem, 2007).
Other meanings of grammar
As noted above, the third Cobuild meaning is ‘a book’. The fourth and last is ‘a particular grammar is a particular theory that is intended to explain the rules of a language.’ That’s one that is best left to professional linguists to argue the toss.
A good grasp of grammar in sense 1, knowing the rules of a language, is essential for mastery of foreign languages. The Collins Easy Learning series comprises sleek, pared-down yet comprehensive grammars (sense 3) for French, Spanish, Italian and German.
Grammar and magic
For most people other than professional grammarians – yes, they exist – nothing could be less magical than grammar. It wasn’t always so. Grammar in the sense of understanding the rules was, as noted earlier, the preserve of the highly educated in mediaeval and Renaissance society, and the grammar in question was Latin grammar, hence grammar schools, where it was studied. The highly educated were also often known to dabble in the occult, astrology and alchemy. (Think John Dee, Elizabeth I’s adviser on astronomy or Henry Percy, ‘The Wizard Earl’ of Northumberland.) As previously mentioned, the English word grammar comes from Old French gramaire, and grammar was contorted in English to gramarye, ‘magic and necromancy’ and French gramaire, to grimoire, ‘a book of magic spells’.
Glamour, too, is a variant of grammar, this time an eighteenth-century Scottish one, originally in the phrase ‘to cast the glamour over someone’, meaning to put a spell on them so their eyesight is tricked. The word was popularised by Sir Walter Scott in that sense, but the modern meaning of ‘appeal, attractiveness’ is a twentieth-century originally US development.
* Morphology is a loanword via French morphologie from German Morphologie, a word coined by Goethe.
By Jeremy Butterfield
Jeremy Butterfield is the former Editor-in-Chief of Collins Dictionaries, and editor of the fourth, revised edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.
All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.