traditional grammar

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 generally refers to the collection of prescriptive rules and concepts about the structure of language that is commonly taught in schools.

Traditional English grammar (also known as school grammar) is largely based on the principles of Latin grammar, not on current linguistic research in English.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:


  • "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."
    (James D. Williams, The Teacher's Grammar Book. Routledge, 2005)

  • "[G]rammarians of the 2000s are the inheritors of the distortions and limitations imposed on English by two centuries of a Latinate perspective."
    (David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2003)

  • From Traditional Grammar to 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."
    (John Algeo, "Linguistics: Where Do We Go From Here?" The English Journal, January 1969)

  • George Hillocks on the Negative Effects of Teaching Traditional Grammar
    "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."
    (George Hillocks, Research on Written Composition: New Directions for Teaching. National Council of Teachers, 1986)

  • The Persistence of Traditional Grammar
    "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."
    (Brian Brooks, James Pinson, and Jean Gaddy Wilson, Working with Words. Macmillan, 2005)