There are probably more misconceptions about the term 'grammar' than any other term in the popular vocabulary of linguistics. Disseminated in classrooms, and therefore widely believed throughout society, these misconceptions tend to identify grammar with a certain kind of book which has been written about a language; more specifically, about the codified variety of a language, in its written manifestation. In this chapter, we shall examine the nature and the source of some of these notions, and show how inadequate they are to describe either the variation in a language at any given time, or the process of grammatical change. We shall need to look at some basic categories of grammatical description, and subject to scrutiny some common misunderstandings about the nature of rules in grammar. Aspects of the grammar of the Anglo-Saxons will be discussed, in particular its reliance on a system of endings known as inflexions; and we shall see how these inflexions can be said to have been simplified in the course of centuries. This process of grammatical simplification will be examined in the light of sociolinguistic variables, such as pidginisation. The agency of social factors will be clearly seen as we describe changes in the system of pronouns, and we shall see the importance of linguistic variation for describing the trend towards syntactic elaboration. Finally, we shall ask how the grammar of written English has acquired not only great prestige, but also a reputation for cognitive superiority.
Grammatical change is often less consciously felt than the adoption of new words or the creation of new meanings. Thus, it is difficult to isolate and describe changes that have been recently introduced into English. Yet when we stand back and view the changes that have occurred during the last 1500 years, we see developments of a particularly striking kind. The grammar that the Anglo-Saxons used seems to have been a radically different kind of grammar from the one we use today (subject to the qualifications we shall note below). It has been