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Defining Grammar

The word grammar has multiple meanings to educators and those who study language.

Descriptive grammar, explained in the story of Julia learning to speak, is what linguists refer to in describing how language is actually used by people. When linguists study a descriptive grammar they investigate the entire mass of language, written and spoke, to look for patterns. There is no judgment on right or wrong in these patterns.

In her book, Teaching Grammar in Context, Constance Weaver offers a full historical account of grammar and its study. A following brief summary offers a deeper understanding of the social context and meaning of the word “grammar.”

  • Classical Greek schools demanded schoolboys study grammar.  This practice was seen as a way to discipline the mind. Traditional grammar texts created in the second through fourth centuries, based in Latin, were used extensively through the 1700’s.  Traditional grammar is the teaching of categories (noun, verb, etc), their function, and rules for use.
  • In the 1700’s, the Industrial Revolution created opportunity for upward social mobility.  For the first time in history, lower classes needed to gain social acceptance.  The creation of grammar handbooks outlined a prescribed formula for grammar use. These manuals were almost entirely based on the traditional grammar that had gone before them, rooted in the classics and Latin. Linguists consider such manuals as prescriptive grammar.  The foundational error occurred with the creation of prescriptive grammars - they were based on the Latin language, not English.  Therefore what a writer could not do in Latin, due to the constraints of the language, ended up becoming something that should not be done in English. 
  • The early 1800’s found American school children memorizing and reciting definitions, rules, examples, and grammatical features from the prescriptive grammar handbooks.  There was little emphasis on understanding. After 1850, grammar texts began to include exercises where students could apply what they had memorized to a prescribed sentence. 
  • By the early 1900’s teachers, parents, and society at large assumed the memorizing and practicing of grammar rules, through the means of English textbooks, would improve student writing.