chapter  2
16 Pages

Description of Language and Language Use 2 Grammar

ByDiane Larsen-Freeman and Jeanette DeCarrico

Introduction: Grammar and Grammars When it comes to definitions of grammar, confusion abounds. One problem is that the word ‘grammar’ means different things to different people. For many, the term suggests a list of do’s and don’ts, rules that tell us we should say It is I, not It is me, that we should not say ain’t, or that we should avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. For others, the term may refer to the rules of grammar found mainly in written language, for example, rules that label sentence fragments as incorrect even though they are often found in spoken language (for example, ‘Working on a term paper’ as a response to the question ‘What are you doing?’), or that admonish us not to begin sentences with and or but, though again, this usage is common in spoken English. For still others, it may simply mean an objective description of the structures of language, with no comment concerning correct versus incorrect forms. Grammars with rules that make distinctions between correct and incorrect

forms are defined as ‘prescriptive’ grammars. They tell us how we ought to speak, as in It is I, and how we ought not to speak, as in It is me, or He ain’t home. This approach codifies certain distinctions between standard and non-standard varieties, and often makes overt value judgements by referring to the standard varieties as correct, or ‘good’, English and the non-standard as incorrect, or ‘bad’, English. Grammars that do not make these distinctions and that aim to describe language as

it is actually used are called ‘descriptive’ grammars. The rules are more like a blueprint for building well-formed structures, and they represent speakers’ unconscious knowledge, or ‘mental grammar’ of the language. Taking this unconscious knowledge into account, this approach focuses on describing how native speakers actually do speak and does not prescribe how they ought to speak. No value judgements are made, but rather the value-neutral terms ‘grammatical’ and ‘ungrammatical’ are used to distinguish between patterns that are well-formed, possible sentences or phrases in a language and those that are not. For example, The cow ate the corn is a grammatical sentence in English, but *Ate the corn the cow is ungrammatical. (An asterisk indicates a form that is ungrammatical or inappropriate.) Grammar in this sense consists of rules of syntax, which specify how words and phrases combine to form sentences, and rules of morphology, which specify how word forms are constructed (for example, present and past tense distinctions: love, loved; number distinctions: word, words) and so on. For linguists, a descriptive grammar may also be a more detailed look at language, including not only syntax and morphology but also phonetics, phonology, semantics and lexis (that is, vocabulary). For applied linguists, the focus is more on ‘pedagogical grammar’, the type

of grammar designed for the needs of second-language students and teachers.