What Exactly Is Grammar, Anyway?

Thanks to Martha Brockenbrough, since 2008 we have celebrated National Grammar Day here in the U.S. every year on March 4.

It may not be a national holiday (at least, not yet; perhaps we need to start a petition!).

It may be difficult to find greeting cards to mark the special occasion. (Step up your game, Hallmark.)

But here at Get It Write, we think it’s a cause for celebration! And since your supervisor probably won’t give you the day off, we are bringing the celebration to you with this special article called “What Exactly Is Grammar, Anyway?”

What grammar is not:

  • Mechanics is a word that refers to commonly agreed-upon choices about how to handle various aspects of written text–commas, semicolons, colons, periods, dashes, hyphens, capitalization, and such. Knowing where to place a comma or a dash is certainly informed by an understanding of grammar, but the mechanics of a language is not its grammar, per se.
  • Usage issues (word confusion, spelling, appropriately making words plural or possessive, and such) are certainly important, but the person who confuses less and fewer or who does not know how to spell receive is committing a usage error, not a grammatical one.

Grammar also does not refer to style or voice or tone–other important aspects of good writing.

So what, exactly, is grammar?

Grammar refers to syntax, or sentence structure–the way words, phrases, and clauses come together to make meaning.

It’s that simple!

In common parlance, however, the word grammar is used to refer not only to problems with syntax but also to word- and sentence-level errors, some of which are problems with mechanics and usage but others of which are simply matters of style. For example, while all grammar handbooks advocate making subjects agree with their verbs, the decision about whether or not to use the Oxford comma is a matter of mechanics–or, more specifically, a matter of style.

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar, Mechanics, and Usage

Style manuals are prescriptive: they prescribe an agreed-upon set of rules that professionals with shared goals (say, for example, journalists or historians or chemists) have decided (often rather arbitrarily) are “correct.” Prescriptive grammar is a kind of linguistic etiquette: we learn the “rules” of the groups to which we belong in order to communicate most effectively.

Linguists–people who devote their careers to studying language–are descriptive: they describe how language is being used without judging one usage as superior to another. Dictionaries are largely descriptive; that is, a dictionary will include a new word or change the spelling of an older one once the new usage has become widespread.

Professionals are expected to follow certain prescriptive rules thought to be hallmarks of “standard written English.” In other words, we have to mind our “linguistic etiquette” and play by the prescriptivists’ rules in order to be perceived as polished and knowledgeable in our own professional circles.

But even prescriptive rules change over time, as part of the natural evolution of any language. Here at Get It Write, we make it our business to stay on top of those changes so we can keep you informed. Both in our articles and in our seminars, we address grammar, mechanics, and usage issues, as well as more global writing-related concerns, such as focus, organization, and audience awareness.

When your writing looks professional, so do you. We are here to help.

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