Theory, Model, Method

What is grammar - The meanings of the notion of grammar

An informal and broad definition of grammar is that grammar is a branch of linguistics that studies the form and structure of words (morphology) and the way in which the units of sentence structure are combined in sentences (syntax).

The grammar of a language may also include a full description of the form and meaning of the sentences, i.e. the sounds and sounds patterns, units of meaning, as well as the rules which combine the words to make new sentences. Every language has its grammar, and to understand the nature of language, we must understand the nature of this internalised set of rules. In order to speak a language correctly, human beings have to have knowledge of the grammar of that particular language at their disposal. Grammar represents our linguistic competence. It is knowledge of grammar that allows human beings to communicate through language.

Steven Pinker - The Stuff of Thought

1. Grammar as a Prescriptive Compilation for the Use of a Particular Language
A prescriptive approach to language deals with the setting of rules about the structure of a language. It deals with the “correct” forms of a language that people should use both in speaking and writing. Such correctness is formulated by prescriptive rules on what is right or wrong, good or bad language use. Not following these rules leads to incorrect usage and, in the worst case, to social stigmatisation due to failure in communication. This effect shows that correctness (or “proper language”) is not a result of general principles of language, but of the social agreement on accepted or expected usage of specific forms. Prescriptive grammar, unlike descriptive grammar (see below) , is thus not an object of research for modern linguists. You may find prescriptive grammars in the line of traditional linguistics of the earlier centuries.

2. Grammar as a Description of a Particular Language
Grammar in a scientific sense is based on a purely descriptive approach and is defined by a general theory of language, and is therefore based on linguistic universals that help to understand what a human language is in general. Therefore a grammar is a full-length description of a language as it is actually used by its speakers. Modern grammars are theory-driven and thus fulfil scientific standards.
Such a grammar of a given language consists of a set of precise rules which native speakers intuitively follow in the production and understanding of verbal well-formed constructions and which help them to realize well-formed, “grammatical” sentences and to mark ungrammatical sentences or phrases (as derivations from that grammar). So, for example, knowing that regular verbs form their past tense by adding ‘ed’, is a rule of English morphology, and knowing that ‘ed’ may be pronounced as /t/, /id/, or /d/, depending on the environment, is a rule of English phonology.

The term ‘rule’ has a special sense here. Following the prescriptive tradition, we tend to think of rules as externally imposed constraints or norms which everyone has to obey, like Don’t walk on the grass. But linguistic rules of the modern kind are not of this type. They are language-internal constraints (as opposed to external constraints) and, as such, unconsciously present in the minds of native speakers. They are better understood as general or even universal principles by which the language operates. Descriptive grammar as a set of rules is a theory of that language, with its hypotheses as rules and based on a general account of language. Therefore it does not tell people how they should speak, or what is good or bad language use. It systematically describes the speaker’s possibility of speaking and understanding language as it actually is and not as others think it should be.
Nevertheless grammars may differ according how or to what extent they make use of linguistic methods of idealization and removal of contextual dimensions.

3. Grammar as Syntax
Having said that, however, even descriptive ‘grammar’ is a word which is open to a number of different uses and interpretations. Some linguists, particularly those of a more traditional bent, limit its application to the domains of syntax and morphology, whilst others use it in the larger sense, which encapsulates the entire set of rules possessed by speakers, phonological and semantic as well as syntactic and morphological.
(Source: Finch, Geoffrey (2000). Linguistic Terms and Concepts, Macmillan Press Ltd. 2000, pp. 20-21.)

4. Grammar as a Name for Internal Linguistic Knowledge (Competence)
People sometimes use the term 'grammar' as a reference to a speaker’s mental capacity of language: Her good grammar helped her to be successful. This notion of (internal) grammar labels the knowledge of given language which a speaker possesses.

5. Grammar as the Description of Competence
Descriptive grammar may not only describe the particular language but can also be considered the descriptive account of the knowledge a speaker has about his/her particular language (competence).

We use the term “grammar” with a systematic ambiguity. On the one hand, the term refers to the explicit theory constructed by the linguist and proposed as the description of the speaker’s competence. On the other hand, it refers to this competence itself.
(Source: Chomsky, N., Halle, M. (1968). The Sound Pattern of English, New York, Harper & Row, pp.74)

Grammatical competence is the part of the system that allows speakers to produce and interpret grammatical sentences. It includes the knowledge of what speech sounds are part of a given language and how they may or may not be strung together. Grammatical competence also includes knowing the meanings signified by different sound sequences in a language and how to combine those units of meaning into words, phrases and sentences. Grammatical competence is what allows a speaker of English to string together 21 sounds that sound something like The dog chased the cat up the tree and allows another speaker of English to understand what dogs, cats, and trees are, what chasing is, and which way up is. Furthermore, grammatical competence is what allows these speakers of English to share the understanding that it was the dog doing the chasing and that it was the cat that went up the tree. Of course, this does not apply only to English. Grammatical competence contributes similarly to comprehension in all human languages. (Source: Fasold, Connor-Linton (2006). An Introduction to Language and Linguistics, Cambridge University Press, pp.9)

Exercises on Meanings of the Notion of Grammar