reference grammar (English)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Longman Grammar
Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English by Douglas Biber, Stig Johansson, Geoffrey Leech, Susan Conrad, and Edward Finegan (Longman, 1999). A shorter version of this reference grammar is also available: Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English (2002).


A reference grammar is a work that describes the grammar of a language, providing explanations of the principles that govern the make-up and uses of words, phrases, clauses, and sentences. A reference grammar may also describe phonological features of a language.

Examples of contemporary reference grammars in English include A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by Randolph Quirk et al (1985), the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English by Douglas Biber et al.(1999), and The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum (2002).

Shorter editions of reference grammars are available for students, e.g., Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English (2002) and A Student's Introduction to English Grammar (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

As explained in the observations below, a reference grammar is not a style manual or a guide to usage. Also see:



  • "Comprehensive reference grammars are the basis of our understanding of linguistic diversity, and of cultural diversity as embedded in human languages. Grammars offer a unique window into the structure and cognitive underpinnings of languages, and the ways they reflect the changing world. A reference grammar brings together a coherent treatment of a language as a system, within its cultural context. Ideally, it also touches on the history of the language."
    (Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald, The Art of Grammar: A Practical Guide. Oxford University Press, 2015)
  • "After half a millennium and despite the decline in the formal study of English grammar in British and American schools, the writing of English grammars has never been more vigorous than it is now. English linguistics is only around 150 years old, and much of its theory and practice disappears overnight, touching very few. Grammar-writing by contrast is an activity which touches countless numbers from professors to language learners the world over."
    (Andrew Linn, "English Grammar Writing." The Handbook of English Linguistics, ed. B. Aarts. Wiley, 2006)

  • "Reference grammars are usually theory neutral, i.e., they derive insights from several theoretically oriented descriptions and present information in traditional grammatical terms or in terms that are explained explicitly so that a wide range of users may find the information useful."
    (Y Kachru, "Pedagogical Grammars for Second Language Leaning." Concise Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, ed. by Margie Berns. Elsevier, 2010)
  • The Aim of Huddleston and Pullum's Cambridge Grammar 
    "[W]e give a synchronic, descriptive grammar of general-purpose, present-day, international Standard English.

    "A synchronic description of a language is a snapshot of it at one point in time, the opposite of a diachronic or historical account. . . .

    "Our aim is to describe and not prescribe: we outline and illustrate the principles that govern the construction of words and sentences in the present-day language without recommending or condemning particular usage choices. Although this book may be (and we certainly hope it will be) of use in helping the user decide how to phrase things, it is not designed as a style guide or usage manual."
    (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2002)

  • The Aim of the Longman Grammar: A Corpus-Based Reference Grammar
    "LGSWE [Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, 1999] made important innovations in the method of grammatical study. It was based on a large, balanced corpus of spoken and written texts. These texts were electronically stored and analyzed with the aid of computers. The analysis produced information about the frequency of grammatical features in different kinds of language. (We use the term 'feature' broadly . . . to refer to any grammatical form, structure, class, or rule.) The results of the analysis were then studied by the team of grammarians. The goal was to explain not just what is possible in English grammar, but what is more or less probable in different situations."
    (Douglas Biber, Susan Conrad, and Geoffrey Leech, Introduction to the Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Pearson, 2002)


    • Early-20th-Century Grammars in English
      - "This work is intended to supply the want of a scientific English grammar, founded on an independent critical survey of the latest results of linguistic investigation as far as they bear, directly or indirectly, on the English language."
      (Henry Sweet, A New English Grammar: Logical and Historical, 1892)

      - "It has been my endeavour in this work to represent English Grammar not as a set of stiff dogmatic precepts, according to which some things are correct and others absolutely wrong, but as something living and developing under continual fluctuation and undulations, something that is founded on the past and prepares the way for the future, something that is not always consistent or perfect, but progressing and perfectible--in one word, human."
      (Otto Jespersen, Preface to A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles, 1909)