What Is the Difference Between Grammar and Usage?

Question: What Is the Difference Between Grammar and Usage?


In the late 1970s, two Canadian educators wrote a spirited, well-informed defense of the teaching of grammar. In "Twenty-one Kicks at the Grammar Horse," Ian S. Fraser and Lynda M. Hodson pointed out the weaknesses in research studies that purported to show that teaching grammar to youngsters was a waste of time. Along the way, they offered this clear distinction between two fundamentally different approaches to studying language:

We must distinguish between grammar and usage. . . . Each language has its own systematic ways through which words and sentences are assembled to convey meaning. This system is grammar. But within the general grammar of a language, certain alternative ways of speaking and writing acquire particular social status, and become the conventional usage habits of dialect groups.

Grammar is the list of possible ways to assemble sentences: usage is a smaller list of the socially preferred ways within a dialect. Usage is trendy, arbitrary, and above all, constantly changing, like all other fashions--in clothing, music, or automobiles. Grammar is the rationale of a language; usage is the etiquette.
(The English Journal, December 1978)

In any case, as the eminent linguist Bart Simpson once observed, "Grammar is not a time of waste."

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