Grammar in English Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"Grammar is not a time of waste" (Bart Simpson). (VikramRaghuvanshi/Getty Images)

Grammar is:

  1. the systematic study and description of a language. (Compare with usage.)
  2. a set of rules and examples dealing with the syntax and word structures (morphology) of a language. Adjective: grammatical.

Types of Grammar

From the Greek, "craft of letters"


  • "One of the most fundamental claims of modern linguistic analysis is that all languages have a grammar It could not be any other way. If a language is spoken, it must have a phonetic and phonological system; since it has words and sentences, it must also have a morphology and a syntax; and since these words and sentences have systematic meanings, there must obviously be semantic principles as well. Of course, these are the very things that make up a grammar."
    (W. O'Grady and J. Archibald, Contemporary Linguistic Analysis: An Introduction. Addison Wesley, 2000)
  • "It is not the business of grammar, as some critics seem preposterously to imagine, to give law to the fashions that regulate our speech. On the contrary, from its conformity to these, and from that alone, it derives its authority and value."
    (George Campbell, Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1776)
  • "Ancient attitudes to grammar still survive: many people are in awe of it, know little about it, tend to fear or dislike it, often find it baffling or boring if exposed to it at school, and yet a minority is fascinated by it: a field in which precise scholarship and nit-picking pedantry have co-existed for centuries."
    (Sidney Greenbaum, The Oxford English Grammar. Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • "What I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence."
    (Joan Didion)
  • "[G]rammar is the study of all the contrasts of meaning that it is possible to make within sentences. The 'rules' of grammar tell us how. By one count, there are some 3,500 such rules in English."
    (David Crystal, The Fight for English. Oxford University Press, 2006)
  • "A preschooler's tacit knowledge of grammar is more sophisticated than the thickest style manual. [Grammar should not] be confused with the guidelines for how one 'ought' to speak."
    (Steven Pinker, Words and Rules. Harper, 1999)
  • "The child does not learn his language from his ​grammar. After he has learned it in other ways, grammar steps in and furnishes him a scientific analysis of what he has been doing."
    (Thomas R. Lounsbury, "Compulsory Composition in Colleges." Harper's Monthly Magazine, Nov. 1911)

The Role of Grammar in the Teaching of Writing

"We would aim at a program embracing deep and wide knowledge of grammar as highly useful, perhaps proclaiming that ignorance of grammar is far more limiting than knowledge, that it creates a vacuum within which dysfunctional prescriptive norms are enforced.

We would aim for a program that values home languages as the foundation for the evolution of a highly effective writing voice. What our students know already is much too deep to be taught, and we cannot afford to foster distrust. We need to get down to the business of helping them put that fine instrument to work in the creation of a range of effective texts, using a conscious understanding of language as an important adjunct in that process." (Martha Kolln and Craig Hancock, "The Story of English Grammar in United States Schools." English Teaching: Practice and Critique, Dec. 2005)

Applications of Grammatical Study

"There are several applications of grammatical study: (1) A recognition of grammatical structures is often essential for punctuation; (2) A study of one's native grammar is helpful when one studies the grammar of a foreign language; (3) A knowledge of grammar is a help in the interpretation of literary as well as nonliterary texts, since the interpretation of a passage sometimes depends crucially on grammatical analysis; (4) A study of the grammatical resources of English is useful in composition: in particular, it can help you to evaluate the choices available to you when you come to revise an earlier written draft." (Sidney Greenbaum and Gerald Nelson, An Introduction to English Grammar, 2nd ed.

Pearson, 2002)

Syntax and Morphology

"Grammar is concerned with how sentences and utterances are formed. In a typical English sentence, we can see the two most basic principles of grammar, the arrangement of items (syntax) and the structure of items (morphology):

I gave my sister a sweater for her birthday.

The meaning of this sentence is obviously created by words such as gave, sister, sweater and birthday. But there are other words (I, my, a, for, her) which contribute to the meaning, and, additionally, aspects of individual words and the way they are arranged which enable us to interpret what the sentence means." (Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy, Cambridge Grammar of English: A Comprehensive Guide. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2006)

Grammar and Conversation Analysis

"[G]rammar and social interaction are bound up together and analysis should focus on the relationship between them, rather than separating grammar out as a system that exists independently of language-in-interaction.

"For many linguists, such a position is counter-intuitive; but what is even more counter-intuitive in the developing relationship between CA [conversation analysis] and grammatical study is that contributors are starting to work with a variety of definitions of 'grammar' in the first place. These range from the traditional linguistic view of grammar as the set of rules for stringing words together in sentences, to far less conventional and more sociologically inclined ideas." (Ian Hutchby and Robin Wooffitt, Conversation Analysis, 2nd ed. Polity, 2008)

Descriptive Grammar

  • "This book [The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language] is a description of the grammar of modern Standard English, providing a detailed account of the principles governing the construction of English words, phrases, clauses, and sentences. To be more specific, we give a synchronic, descriptive grammar of general purpose, present-day, international Standard English." (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002)
  • "Henceforth, language studies were no longer directed merely toward correcting grammar." (Ferdinand de Saussure)

Thomas Jefferson on Grammatical Rigor

"When strictness of grammar does not weaken expression, it should be attended to. . . . But where, by small grammatical negligences, the energy of an idea is condensed, or a word stands for a sentence, I hold grammatical rigor in contempt." (Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison, November 1804)

Lady Grammar

The perception that grammar is a sort of physical challenge has a long history. . . . In the fifth century writings of Martianus Capella, which were central to the medieval doctrine of the trivium, Lady Grammar was depicted carrying her specialized tools in a box; the western entrance to Chartres Cathedral shows her brandishing a bouquet of birch-rods. Grammar and trauma were closely associated: knowledge was achieved through the sort of coercion that left marks." (Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars. John Murray, 2011)

The Lighter Side of Grammar

First Day at the Grammar School
. . . and the black-gowned vulture at the front declared
"Today, boys, we are going to have
our first lesson in grammar!"

to which Eddie Williams, snotty-nosed, undaunted
in sempiternal wellies, answered back

"Ah, eh, sir, we already done grammer at ar other skewl!"
(Matt Simpson, Getting There. Liverpool University Press, 2001)

"People--they don't write anymore; they blog. Instead of talking, they text: no punctuation, no grammar, 'lol' this and 'lmao' that. You know, it seems to me that it's just a bunch of stupid people pseudo-communicating with a bunch of other stupid people in a proto-language that resembles more what cavemen used to speak than the King's English." (David Duchovny as Hank Moody in "LOL." Californication, 2007)

"The truth is that grammar is not the most important thing in the world. The Super Bowl is the most important thing in the world. But grammar is still important. For example, suppose you are being interviewed for a job as an airline pilot, and your prospective employer asks you if you have any experience, and you answer: 'Well, I ain't never flied no actual airplanes or nothing, but I got several pilot-style hats and several friends who I like to talk about airplanes with.'

"If you answer this way, the prospective employer will immediately realize that you have ended your sentence with a preposition. . . ." (Dave Barry, "What Is and Ain't Grammatical." Bad Habits: A 100% Fact-Free Book. Doubleday, 1985)

Pronunciation: GRAM-er