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This article is about grammar from a linguistic perspective. For English grammar rules, see English writing style.

Grammar is the study of the rules governing the use of a language. That set of rules is also called the grammar of the language, and each language has its own distinct grammar. Grammar is part of the general study of language called linguistics.

The subfields of modern grammar are phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. Traditional grammars include only morphology and syntax.

Types of grammar

  • A prescriptive grammar is a grammar that asserts itself as the only correct formulation of a particular language, and rejects any other constructions as wrong. Traditional grammars are typically prescriptive. Prescriptive grammars are usually based on the prestige dialects of a speech community, and often specifically condemn certain constructions which are common only among lower socioeconomic groups, such as the use of "ain't" and double negatives in English. Though prescriptive grammars remain quite common in pedagogy and foreign language instruction, they have fallen out of favor in modern academic linguistics, as they represent only a limited subset of how people actually use a language.
  • A descriptive grammar is a grammar that describes the language as it is actually used by people, regardless of whether prescriptive grammars would consider a construction correct or not. Descriptive grammars are bound to a particular speech community, and attempt to provide rules for any utterance considered grammatically correct within that community. For example, in many dialects of English, the use of double negatives is very common, even though prescriptive English grammars explicitly reject double negatives as ungrammatical. A descriptive grammar of a speech community where people acceptably say "I didn't do nothing" will treat that sentence as grammatical, and provide rules that account for it. A descriptive grammar of formal English would rather provide rules for "I didn't do anything."
  • Teaching grammar is a combination of prescriptive and descriptive approaches with the aim of teaching a language to children and foreigners. In teaching grammars, it is often necessary to simplify in order to achieve success, as neither the prescriptive nor the descriptive approaches are logical or easy to understand in all details.
  • A formal grammar is a precisely defined grammar, typically used for computer programming languages. These grammars do not generally resemble the grammars of human languages very much. In particular, they conform precisely to a grammar generated by a pushdown automaton with arbitrarily complex commands. They usually lack questions, exclamations, simile, metaphor and other features of human languages.
  • A generative grammar is a formal grammar that can in some sense "generate" the well-formed expressions of a natural language. An entire branch of linguistic theory is based on generative grammars. Generative grammars were popularized by Noam Chomsky.

Development of Grammars

Grammars evolve through usage and human population separations. With the advent of written representations, formal rules about language usage tend to appear also. Formal grammars are codifications of usage that are developed by observation. As the rules become established and developed, the prescriptive concept of grammatical correctness can arise. This often creates a gulf between contemporary usage and that which is accepted as correct. Linguists normally consider that prescriptive grammars do not have any justification beyond their authors' aesthetic tastes. However, prescriptions are considered in sociolinguistics as part of the explanation for why some people say "I didn't do nothing", some say "I didn't do anything", and some say one or the other depending on social context.

The formal study of grammar is an important part of education from a young age through advanced learning, though the rules taught in schools are not a "grammar" in the sense most linguists use the term, as they are often prescriptive rather than descriptive.

Planned languages are more common in the modern day. Many have been designed to aid human communication (such as Esperanto or the intercultural, highly logic-compatible artificial language Lojban) or created as part of a work of fiction (such as the Klingon language and Elvish language). Each of these artificial languages has its own grammar.

It is a myth that analytic languages have simpler grammar than synthetic languages. Analytic languages use syntax to convey information that is encoded via inflection in synthetic languages. In other words, word order is not significant and morphology is highly significant in a purely synthetic language, whereas morphology is not significant and syntax is highly significant in an analytic language. Chinese and Afrikaans, for example, are highly analytic and meaning is therefore very context dependent. (Both do have some inflections, and had more in the past; thus, they are becoming even less synthetic and more "purely" analytic over time.) Latin, which is highly synthetic, uses affixes and inflections to convey the same information that Chinese does with syntax. Because Latin words are quite (though not completely) self-contained, an intelligible Latin sentence can be made from elements placed in largely arbitrary order. Latin has a complex affixation and a simple syntax, while Chinese has the opposite.

See also

Grammatical terms

Grammatical devices

Related topics

In computer science, the syntax of each programming language is defined by a formal grammar. In theoretical computer science and mathematics, formal grammars define formal languages. The Chomsky hierarchy defines several important classes of formal grammars.

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