An Introduction to Theoretical Grammar

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Theoretical grammar is concerned with language in general rather than with an individual language, as is the study of essential components of any human languageTransformational grammar is one variety of theoretical grammar. 

According to Antoinette Renouf and Andrew Kehoe:

"Theoretical grammar or syntax is concerned with making completely explicit the formalisms of grammar, and in providing scientific arguments or explanations in favour of one account of grammar rather than another, in terms of a general theory of human language." (Antoinette Renouf and Andrew Kehoe, The Changing Face of Corpus Linguistics. Rodopi, 2003)

Traditional Grammar vs. Theoretical Grammar

"What generative linguists mean by 'grammar' should not be confused, in the first instance, with what ordinary persons or nonlinguists might refer to by that term: namely, a traditional or pedagogical grammar such as the kind used to teach language to children in 'grammar school.' A pedagogical grammar typically provides paradigms of regular constructions, lists of prominent exceptions to these constructions (irregular verbs, etc.), and descriptive commentary at various levels of detail and generality about the form and meaning of expressions in a language (Chomsky 1986a: 6). By contrast, a theoretical grammar, in Chomsky's framework, is a scientific theory: it seeks to provide a complete theoretical characterization of the speaker-hearer's knowledge of her language, where this knowledge is interpreted to refer to a particular set of mental states and structures.

The difference between a theoretical grammar and a pedagogical grammar is one important distinction to bear in mind in order to avoid confusion about how the term 'grammar' operates in theoretical linguistics. A second, more fundamental distinction is between a theoretical grammar and a mental grammar." (John Mikhail, Elements of Moral Cognition: Rawls' Linguistic Analogy and the Cognitive Science of Moral and Legal Judgment. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011)​

Descriptive Grammar vs. Theoretical Grammar

"A descriptive grammar (or reference grammar) catalogues the facts of a language, whereas a theoretical grammar uses some theory about the nature of language to explain why the language contains certain forms and not others." (Paul Baker, Andrew Hardie, and Tony McEnery, A Glossary of Corpus Linguistics. Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2006)​

Descriptive and Theoretical Linguistics

"The purpose of descriptive and theoretical linguistics is to further our understanding of language. This is done through a continual process of testing theoretical assumptions against data, and analyzing data in the light of those assumptions which previous analyses have confirmed to such a degree that they form a more or less integral whole that is accepted as the currently preferred theory. Between them, the mutually dependent fields of descriptive and theoretical linguistics provide accounts and explanations of how things seem to be in language, and a terminology for use in discussions." (O. Classe, Encyclopedia of Literary Translation Into English. Taylor & Francis, 2000)

"It seems that in modern theoretical grammar the differences between morphological and syntactic constructions are beginning to show up, for example in the fact that, in the European languages at least, syntactic constructions tend to be right-branching while morphological constructions tend to be left-branching." (Pieter A. M. Seuren, Western Linguistics: An Historical Introduction. Blackwell, 1998)

Also Known As: theoretical linguistics, speculative grammar

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "An Introduction to Theoretical Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 25). An Introduction to Theoretical Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "An Introduction to Theoretical Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).

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