Introductions and Aim of This Module

Lesson 1 Module 1


1.1. What is grammar?
Grammar is a set of rules that make up a language. Grammar is also used as a
term to refer to the prescriptive rules of a given language, which may change over
time. The way people spoke in the 1700´s is not the way we speak today.
Languages are living organisms and evolve over time so grammar must also
evolve and change over time.
Grammar may be separated into two common categories: descriptive and
prescriptive. Both views of grammar are used today, although in general, linguists
tend towards a descriptive approach to grammar, while people teaching a specific
language (English) might tend towards a more prescriptive approach.

Descriptive grammar
A descriptive grammar tries to look at the grammar of any language as it is actually
used, judging whether a sentence is grammatical or not based on the rules of the
speech group in which it is spoken, rather than the set of rules. For example, in
many speech communities, a sentence such as, "Ya´ll ain’t getting’ that," would be
entirely grammatical, and an entire set of rules of grammar can be deduced that
explain why that formation is used. In another speech community, however, that
sentence might be considered ungrammatical. The only accepted version such as,
"You are not getting that," would be considered acceptable.

Prescriptive grammar
A prescriptive grammar covers the norms of speech as given by authoritative
sources, such as an upper-class or academics, and creates strict rules by which all
speech within that language must abide to be considered grammatical. Few
linguists take a prescriptive approach to grammar in modern times, preferring to
describe language as it exists in a given speech community. Many teachers and
pedagogues, however, still use a prescriptive approach towards grammar,
adhering to standardised rules as being the only proper way to speak.
Prescriptive grammar is also used to some extent in teaching a language to nonnative speakers. When teaching English, for example, it can be useful to employ a
standard form of English as a baseline to teach from. This usually helps reduce
confusion among students. Once the language has been acquired, of course, a
less-prescriptive approach will necessarily take over, as the non-native speaker
learns regional rules and new dialects that may not conform to the prescriptive
grammar he or she originally learned.

For an interesting overview of the types of arguments that can arise between
proponents of prescriptive and descriptive grammars, see
Note: If you are overwhelmed with grammar at this point, please complete
this module after module 2.

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