Saturday, March 22, 2008

What is Grammar?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Before I get into this week’s topic, I’d love to respond to the request that Rachel made in her wonderful observations and comments on my last piece, “It’s Just a Formality.” Rachel mentioned that perhaps I could guide her “… in the right direction about getting doctors to do the right thing” as far as how they address her as their patient. (And, by the way, Rachel, thank you for your terrific comments and observations!)

I’ve been in similar situations, and I’ve only found one tactful way to get my message across about not caring to be addressed by my first name when the person doing so is in a position that I feel could adversely affect my well being in one way or another. I just use that person’s first name, too. So if my doctor were to call me Richard, and I didn’t feel comfortable about him doing so, I’d simply start calling him by his first name, too, and avoid calling him “Doctor.” If my medical practitioner reacted negatively to that, I hope he’d get the message, subtle though it may be. But if he didn’t seem to mind, well, so be it. We’d both just keep addressing each other as if we were old pals. That would be fine with me ― as long as it were mutual.

I once had a principal who always called me “Firsten,” just “Firsten.” It used to drive me nuts. One day, out of total irritation, after he again addressed me as “Firsten,” I called him “Leyva” (his last name). He was quite taken aback and actually came right out and said to me, “You mean Mr. Leyva, don’t you?” I retorted, “Then you mean Mr. Firsten, right?” He got the message, although with somebody like him subtlety didn’t work. But from then on, he called me “Mr. Firsten” and I called him “Mr. Leyva.” So that’s my suggestion, Rachel.

Betty Azar posed a great question in her comments on my last piece. Betty wrote, “I have a question for you. People talk about there being a spoken grammar and a written grammar. When they say that, aren’t they really talking about register and style being different? Isn’t the underlying grammar the same no matter what the register or speaking/writing style?”

This question couldn’t have come at a better time. One of our wonderful members in the Azar Grammar Exchange, an EFL teacher in Saudi Arabia by the name of Ismael, posed a question to me that I told him would best be answered here on my blog. His question ties in perfectly with Betty’s. Ismael asked, “Is pronunciation a part of grammar?”

I smiled both when I read Ismael’s question and when I found Betty’s waiting for me, and here’s why. To begin, I’d like to quote a linguist’s definition of “grammar” to help answer these questions: The sounds and sound patterns, the basic units of meaning, such as words, and the rules to combine them to form new sentences constitute the grammar of a language. The grammar, then, is what we know; it represents our linguistic competence. To understand the nature of language we must understand the nature of this internalized, unconscious set of rules, which is part of every grammar of every language.*

We can tell immediately from this linguistic definition of grammar that pronunciation is indeed one of the integral parts of all the internalized rules that govern a language, and we certainly have “rules” that tell us which sounds are or are not acceptable in any given language. In fact, that’s what’s meant when we say that somebody has “an accent” in another language. It means that the speaker is imposing certain sounds of his native language onto the sound system of the other language he’s speaking. So, for example, if I use my rounded English /r/ when I speak Spanish, which has a trilled /r/, Spanish speakers will say to each other right away that I have “an accent,” an “English accent,” in their language. So that would be one part of the “grammar” of Spanish that I haven’t mastered. I hope that answers your question, Ismael.

As to what Betty has asked, I think the answer can get quite complicated. First, we probably don’t need to define what we mean by “spoken language,” but perhaps we need to do so for “written language.” I would venture to say that “written language” or “written grammar” refers to the standard, educated language and its rules used in writing and understood by all educated people who use the language in question in one specific country.

With that said, if we use the linguistic definition of a grammar, I imagine that we can say there’s a spoken grammar and a written grammar, since the standard ― and I stress “standard” ― written language doesn’t need to take pronunciation, intonation, or dialectal variation into account. Here’s one case in point: In certain parts of New England, it’s perfectly correct for Person B to utter the following response in this mini-dialogue:

A: I like nothing better than watching football on Thanksgiving Day.
B: So don’t I.

Now the standard way of responding to that comment would be to say, “So do I,” and I daresay that in the written language, that would be the only acceptable sentence. But “So do I” certainly isn’t the only acceptable sentence in the spoken grammar in that part of the US. So can we say unequivocally that Person B’s response is ungrammatical? I don’t think so, not in the spoken grammar.

So I don’t thin
k those who claim there’s a spoken grammar and a written grammar are just talking about register and style. There seem to be some real differences that we can find if we look closely enough without even accounting for the areas of spoken grammar that don’t need to be dealt with in the written grammar. At least that’s my take on this topic.

I’d love to hear what others think about this issue. Have an opinion? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment. What you have to say is always most welcome!

*Victoria Fromkin & Robert Rodman. An Introduction to Language. 4th ed. Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 1988


Comment from Anonymous
March 23, 2008 at 1:17 am

Thanks a lot my friend.

I’m still confused by what is written at the back cover of the Practical English Usage, by Swan which states:

“Most of the book is about grammar, but it also covers selected points of vocabulary, idiom, style, pronunciation and spelling.”

What I inferred from that is that pronunciation is not part of grammar.

Thanks again,

Comment from Michael
March 25, 2008 at 2:52 am

Ismael: Different linguists use the term ‘grammar’ in different ways. For some, it covers all the systems of a language. More commonly, though, it is used (especially by teachers) in a more limited sense to refer just to morphology (changes in the form of words) and syntax (conventions for the ordering and combination of words). Both of these are essentially mechanisms for indicating meanings that can’t easily be expressed by ordinary vocabulary alone (e.g. subject-object relationships; modality).Used in this way, ‘grammar’ generally excludes vocabulary and pronunciation, though there are areas of overlap. Intonation can have grammatical functions, as when it is used to indicate a question or to signal a change of topic; some words, such as auxiliary verbs, have grammatical functions.


Comment from Sam Simian
March 25, 2008 at 9:33 pm

Dear Ismael,

Even though it’s March, I sense a damp, drizzly November in your soul. So in order to prevent you from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off*, I may have the answer to your question. Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Probably. Would “grammar” by any other definition include pronunciation? Maybe it would, and maybe it wouldn’t.

If you look at most reference books on English grammar, they will not have much to say about pronunciation. I believe that (as Betty Azar’s question implies) this is because they take written English as their model of the language, and I believe that this is still implicitly what they have in mind when they talk about informal spoken English. However, they will usually talk about pronunciation to some limited extent — for example, “a” VS “an,” “–s,” and “–ed.”

The definition that Richard Firsten quotes is similar to Noam Chomsky’s. I believe that Mr. Chomsky takes the native speaker’s mind as his model of all languages. He is, as I understand him, an advocate of the view that knowledge of language is different than all other types of knowledge — that language is so difficult it can’t be acquired like other knowledge, so he is trying to describe the principles of the mind and/or brain that make language possible. (Those theoretical linguists are big picture guys.)

The bottom line is the goals of people who write reference books are different from that of those who write books about theoretical linguistics, and their discussions of language reflect that. Mr. Swan’s discussion of grammar is probably more like that of an administrator of an ESL/EFL program: “What’s grammar?” “That’s the stuff you study in grammar class.” Mr. Chomsky’s answer would probably be a bit more involved.

Sam Simian


Comment from Richard Firsten
March 26, 2008 at 2:35 pm

A big “thank you” to Ismael, Michael Swan, and Sam Simeon for their comments on my latest blog piece, “What is Grammar?” I greatly appreciate your interest and participation, gentlemen!

As I suspected, Michael Swan was focusing more on what a teacher’s definition of “grammar” is rather than the broader, linguistic definition of that term. That makes perfect sense since I imagine his book is directed more for teachers and others interested in learning more about the topic of English grammar and how to present its finer points.

So thank you all again for your efforts!

Comment from MikeyC
May 12, 2009 at 11:42 pm

Could anyone please point me in the direction of a descriptive, or even comprehensive, grammar that deals adequately with “tails”?


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