The Uses of Grammar

By Judith Rodby; W. Ross Winterowd | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
The Uses of Grammar

CHAPTER PREVIEW
Grammar describes a language in use. Grammars are made of rules that constitute the language (constitutive rules) and rules that attempt to regulate the language (prescriptive rules).
The history of English grammar shows us how grammars have developed and how they have been used. In the eighteenth century, for example, grammars were used to try to purify and preserve English.
Knowing grammar may help you to use English effectively. Grammar helps you to understand how language forms are used and why people think some language forms are right and others wrong.

WHAT IS GRAMMAR?

For the moment, we ask that you set aside all of your previous conceptions about grammar and follow our explanation of what “grammar” means in terms of this book. A grammar of a language (in this case, English) is a description of that language. This description does not make value judgments. For instance, grammar as a description of English would not state that the word “gentleman” is better or more elegant or more polite than the word “geezer.” Both “gentleman” and “geezer” are part of the grammar of English. The description would include both Me and him ain't going to the game and He and I are not going to the game, because both these sentences are part of the English language. In other words, grammar describes the forms of a language that are actually used by native speakers.

Grammar also explains how the forms of language function in units we call sentences. For example, in the sentence The teacher was unhappy about the test, the words the and teacher form a noun phrase that functions as a subject in the sentence.

Grammar (as usage) is to language as sociology is to any society it studies. Through sociology you learn the norms and customs of a given society and what is acceptable and unacceptable in behavior. Through grammar as usage, you learn what language is appropriate in given situations and what is inappropriate (or even taboo). Grammar as usage helps explain why sometimes the word gentleman is preferable to the word guy, why sometimes the sentence I must leave immediately is preferable to the sentence I've got to go right now, and why sometimes the reverse is the case.

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