Dr. Judith M. Newman


Some Background

Grammar refers to the system of structural rules which describes how words combine with each other to form sentences. In this sense, as a speaker of English, you already have an instinctive knowledge of English grammar. It is this knowledge which enables us to distinguish a well-formed English sentence from one which is clearly ill-formed.

For example, native speakers know that the following sentence is well-formed and `grammatical':

David plays the piano

Native speakers can produce and understand a sentence like this without ever thinking about its grammar. Conversely, in the course of everyday communication, no native speaker would ever produce this:

*piano plays David the

We know there is something wrong with this second example, not least because it doesn't make sense. It is ill-formed—we say it's `ungrammatical'.

Now if it's true that native speakers have a functional grammer, then it is reasonable to ask why we need to study grammar at all. If we know instinctively that the first is acceptable and the second example is nonsense, then what more do we need to know?

In the most general terms, a knowledge of grammar is part of our knowledge of the world and of ourselves. The use of language is a distinctively human activity, so it is appropriate for us to understand how it works. The study of grammar enables us to say why example 1 is acceptable and the second is not. It enables us to externalise and formalise our instinctive knowledge of our own language.

The study of grammar helps us to communicate more effectively. Quite simply, if we know how English works, then we can make better use of it. For most purposes, we need to be able to construct sentences which are far more complicated than David plays the piano. A knowledge of grammar enables us to evaluate the choices which are available to us during composition. In practice, these choices are never as simple as the choice between the first and second example above. If we understand the relationship between the parts of a sentence, we can eliminate many of the ambiguities and misunderstandings which result from poor construction.

In the interpretation of writing, too, grammatical knowledge is often crucially important. The understanding of literary texts, for example, often depends on careful grammatical analysis. Other forms of writing can be equally difficult to interpret. Scientific and academic writing, for instance, may be complex not just in the ideas they convey, but also in their syntax. These types of writing can be difficult to understand easily without some familiarity with how the parts relate to each other.

The study of grammar, then, enables us to go beyond our instinctive, native-speaker knowledge, and to use English in an intelligent, informed way.

Online Resources

There are tons of resources to help you with your questions about grammar. Type "grammar" into Google and you'll find pages and pages of sites dealing with grammar.

Click here for a few very useful resources.