Traditional Grammar: Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

traditional grammar
George Hillocks, Research on Written Composition: New Directions for Teaching (National Council of Teachers, 1986). (Getty Images)

The term traditional grammar refers to the collection of prescriptive rules and concepts about the structure of language that is commonly taught in schools. Traditional English grammar, also referred to as school grammar, is largely based on the principles of Latin grammar, not on modern linguistic research in English.

Traditional grammar defines what is and is not correct in the English language, not accounting for culture or modernizing in favor of maintaining tradition. Because it is fairly rigid and rooted in the ways of the past, traditional grammar is often considered outdated and regularly criticized by experts. Even so, many children learn this proper, historical form of grammar today.

A Prescriptive Approach

Prescriptive forms of grammar like traditional grammar are governed by strict rules. In the case of traditional grammar, most of these were determined a long time ago. While some professionals uphold prescriptivism and the goals of traditional grammar, others deride them.

Author of The Teacher's Grammar Book James D. Williams summarizes the creeds of traditional grammar: "We say that traditional grammar is prescriptive because it focuses on the distinction between what some people do with language and what they ought to do with it, according to a pre-established standard. ... The chief goal of traditional grammar, therefore, is perpetuating a historical model of what supposedly constitutes proper language," (Williams 2005).

Others, like David Crystal, are passionately opposed to school grammar and find it too restrictive. "[G]rammarians of the 2000s are the inheritors of the distortions and limitations imposed on English by two centuries of a Latinate perspective,"(Crystal 2003).

From Traditional Grammar to Sentence Grammar

David Crystal wasn't the first person to call attention to the age of traditional grammar foundations, using this fact to argue against its implementation. Linguist John Algeo coined the second major development in grammar teaching, brought on by growing opposition to traditional grammar, sentence grammar. "The first English grammars were translations of Latin grammars that had been translations of Greek grammars in a tradition that was already some two-thousand years old.

Furthermore, from the seventeenth century through the first half of the nineteenth century, there were no substantial changes made in the form of English grammar books or in the way English grammar was taught. When people talk about 'traditional' grammar,' this is the tradition they mean, or ought to mean. ... Traditional grammar began to be challenged around the middle of the [nineteenth] century, when the second major development in grammar teaching appeared.

There is no very good name for this second development but we might call it 'sentence grammar.' Whereas traditional grammar focused primarily on the word (hence its preoccupation with parts of speech), the 'new' grammar of the 1850s focused on the sentence. ... It began to emphasize the grammatical importance of word order and function words ... in addition to the few inflexional endings in English," (Algeo 1969).

The Negative Effects of Teaching Traditional Grammar

It is clear that traditional grammar is a polarizing subject for experts, but how does it really affect students? George Hillocks explains some of the drawbacks of school grammar in practice: "The study of traditional school grammar (i.e., the definition of parts of speech, the parsing of sentences, etc.) has no effect on raising the quality of student writing. Every other focus of instruction examined in this review is stronger. Taught in certain ways, grammar and mechanics instruction has a deleterious effect on student writing. In some studies a heavy emphasis on mechanics and usage (e.g., marking every error) resulted in significant losses in overall quality.

School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice that should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing. We need to learn how to teach standard usage and mechanics after careful analysis and with minimal grammar," (Hillocks 1986).

The Persistence of Traditional Grammar

Of course, traditional grammar persists despite many opponents and questionable benefits. Why? This excerpt from Working With Words explains why traditional grammar is perpetuated. "Why do the media cling to traditional grammar and its sometimes outdated rules? Mainly because they like the prescriptive approach of traditional grammar rather than the descriptive approach of structural and transformational grammar ... Why? Inconsistencies in the style of a newspaper, online news site, magazine or book draw attention to themselves when readers should instead be concentrating on the content. ...

Besides, consistencies save time and money. ... If we agree on conventions, we can avoid wasting each other's time ... But the prescriptive rules have to be amended occasionally to reflect not only changes in the language but also research that proves traditional advice may have been inaccurate. The work of linguists is essential for making such calls on the best evidence available," (Brooks et al. 2005).

Sources

  • Algeo, John. "Linguistics: Where Do We Go From Here?" The English Journal, 1969.
  • Brooks, Brian, et al. Working With Words. Macmillan, 2005.
  • Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Hillocks, George. Research on Written Composition: New Directions for Teaching. National Council of Teachers, 1986.
  • Williams, James D. The Teacher's Grammar Book. Routledge, 2005.