What is English Grammar?

And this is Kate Taylor’s second blog post. Help her collect data by filling in her brief survey below!

say what cartoon
There are many different attitudes with regard to grammar; some people are born to learn grammar, some people work to achieve grammar and some people have grammar thrust upon them.  You may love, hate, or be indifferent towards it, but do you actually know what grammar is for, or even what it really is?  Harry Ritchie states in his recent book English for the Natives (2013):  

What almost everyone assumes it to be is a weird combination of finicky word usage and obscure social etiquette, like knowing how to address a viscount or where to place the sorbet spoons.

These people think that grammar is when you have to say fewer rather than less if you have under ten items in the supermarket or that you can’t use the word literally  like literally ever (or like for matter). Do you think that anyone hearing the phrase my head is literally about to explode is really thinking about how to avoid the splatter zone?  Nobody takes literally that literally.  If you were truly speaking English ungrammatically, people would not correct you, they wouldn’t know how to because you would be speaking nonsense.

Richard Grant White, author of Words and their Uses, Past and Present. A Study of the English Language (1870)goes to the other extreme and states that English is “untrammelled by the rules of grammar” as it has almost no inflection, no agreement in number or case, no gender and almost no distinction of mood, tense or person.  Essentially, because it uses almost none of the rules of grammar which govern Ancient Greek and Latin, the two languages revered by English grammarians.  But if English grammar is not the same as Greek or Latin grammar, does that mean it doesn’t exist?  The Collins English Dictionary defines grammar as “the abstract system of rules in terms of which a person’s mastery of his native language can be explained.”  “Abstract” is the key word here.  The rules may not be obvious or easy to understand but they do exist: they are what makes the difference between an intelligible phrase and one that makes no sense at all.

I am very interested in the way people know and use English grammar, particularly in the difference between native speakers and second language speakers and am currently writing a paper on this topic.  In order to gather data I have prepared a questionnaire with a select few items of grammar usage and want to know if people believe the grammar in these sentences to be correct and whether they use them or not.  You will be able to access the questionnaire by clicking on this link; please help my research by taking the time to fill this in.

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