What Is Grammatical? When we talk about the grammar of a language, we mean the set of rules a speaker knows that allow him or her to produce and understand sentences in the language.A grammatical sentence is therefore a possible sentence in the language. An ungrammatical sentence is one that is impossible in a given language, one that a native speaker of that variety would never utter naturally. (Remember that ungrammatical sentences are marked with an asterisk. For example, of the two following sentences, the second sentence is ungrammatical because it is not a natural sentence that a speaker of modern English would use.
Sheba watched Murdock playing the banjo.
Sheba wonders Murdock playing the banjo.
This definition of grammatical is probably quite different from other definitions you might be familiar with. Consider, for example, the following sentence. Sheba doesn’t know anything. Some of you might think this sentence is ungrammatical because you have been taught that double negatives (don’t . . . nothing) are to be avoided. Some of you might be aware that this sentence is typically considered “incorrect” or “bad” English. Others of you might find this sentence perfectly natural in your own dialect, whether or not you are aware of the social stigma attached to double negatives.
In fact, double negative constructions are grammatical (in the sense we are talking about here) in many varieties of English, and for speakers of those varieties, this sentence is certainly a possible sentence of English. So a sentence is grammatical if a speaker would naturally produce it, regardless of its social value.
Prescriptive and Descriptive Grammar Given the complexity of the term grammatical, it’s useful to make yet another distinction between the concept of grammar that forms the basis of the study of language and the more everyday meanings of the term. The kind of grammar we are talking about here is called descriptive grammar because it describes the rule system we use to produce sentences, regardless of the social value we may attach to those sentences.
Prescriptive grammar, on the other hand, is a set of rules that prescribes or defines how we are supposed to speak, typically according to some authority (your older sibling, your teacher, your parents, a writing or grammar handbook). Prescriptive rules have positive social value, and sentences that do not conform to prescriptive rules often have negative social value. To make the difference between descriptive and prescriptive grammar clearer, let’s consider another example.
I don’t know who to see.
I don’t know whom to see.
According to the rules of prescriptive grammar, the second sentence, with whom rather than who, is considered grammatical and therefore correct. Yet most of us would probably be more likely to say the first sentence, with whom, in our everyday speech.
According to our descriptive grammar, then, the sentence with who is grammatical, a sentence we’d produce naturally and that sounds perfectly natural to us. Notions of correctness and incorrectness don’t really come into play here—descriptive grammatical rules simply describe what we actually say; they do not assign a social value to one construction over another.
(And here’s the prescriptive rule for the distinction between who and whom, in case you are curious: Use the objective or accusative form whom when the pronoun is functioning as a direct object, as in I don’t know whom to see, or as the object of a preposition, as in I wonder to whom I should address this letter. Use who when the pronoun functions as the subject: Who left?).
When Prescription and Description Overlap
Now, though we may be able to cite examples of rules that are clearly prescriptive (rules you’ve been taught in school, for example) and rules that are clearly descriptive (rules that you probably can’t even describe because they are unconscious and therefore not obvious to you), the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive grammar can be rather fuzzy. Many prescriptive rules are simply unnatural; they don’t conform to rules of natural language and can be learned only consciously. Others, however, are actually descriptive grammar set of grammatical rules based on what we say, not on what we should say according to some language authority prescriptive grammar set of grammatical rules prescribed by a language authority Learning.
The Single Most Important Thing You Need To Know About Grammatical
What Is Grammar rules for some speakers—the descriptive rules of the language variety that has higher social value. In this case, description and prescription overlap. First, let’s take an example of a prescriptive rule of English that is not a natural rule of any variety of English. It is completely natural in English to “split infinitives,” that is, to insert an adverb between and the verb, as in to boldly go or to quickly run.
There is a long-standing prescriptive rule, however, that says split infinitives are to be avoided and that only to go boldly or boldly to go are prescriptively grammatical or “correct.”
This prohibition against split infinitives (which is now enforced less often than it used to be, and some of you might not even be aware that it is a prescriptive rule) originally grew out of the desire for English grammar to conform to the grammar of Latin, the language of prestige in eighteenth-century England.
At that time, prescriptive grammarians proposed that because it is impossible in Latin to “split” infinitives, they should also not be split in English. But this prohibition was based on faulty logic; it is impossible to split infinitives in Latin because infinitives are single words!
The infinitive ‘to precede, go out before, lead’, for example, is procedure (the -re suffix, rather than an independent word, to, tells us that this form of the verb is the infinitive) and is impossible to split.
Thus, applying this rule to English is an example of a prescriptive rule that is completely arbitrary and not based on the rules of natural language. Some prescriptive rules, however, can also be descriptive rules. For example, you are likely aware of the prescriptive rule “Don’t use double negatives.” In fact, speakers of all English dialects do use so-called double negatives, though some varieties of English form negatives with a negative verb (such as don’t know) and an any- word, such as anyway, anyone, and anywhere (I don’t know anything), while other varieties form negatives with a negative verb and a no- word, such as no one, nothing (I don’t know nothing).
The no- variety of negative is stigmatized, and it is the one that is considered prescriptively ungrammatical and incorrect. The any- variety, on the other hand, is considered prescriptively grammatical and correct and is an example of a prescriptive rule that is also a natural descriptive rule for some speakers, one to which positive social value happens to be attached.