5.3 What is Grammar?

Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Natalie Boldt; and Nancy Ami

It’s difficult to come up with a definition of the term grammar because people use it to mean different things. As we explained in section 5.2 Grammar as a Situated Practice, grammar is situated or contextual, and so grammar as a concept changes meaning depending on where, when, and how it’s used. The most basic distinctions are as follows:

Grammar includes the rules for putting together words, phrases, clauses, and sentences that speakers and writers of a language should follow. This type of grammar can be called prescriptive—it indicates what is good and bad, what is correct and incorrect, what is right and what counts as a mistake.

Grammar is a description of the patterns and structures that speakers and writers of a language actually use. This type of grammar can be called descriptive—it attempts to capture what is going on in the real world without judgement about right or wrong. Although folks interested in the academic study of descriptive grammar are often delighted when they come across unexpected patterns.

Clearly, these two areas of concern with grammar aren’t the same, so it’s important to know which is being stressed before you start working through a lesson on grammar or reading a textbook chapter like this one.

Here we are taking a descriptive approach to prescriptive grammar. We are trying to describe the rules about “right and wrong” you are likely to encounter in academic writing contexts, rather than assuming there are absolute right and wrong ways to use language. We recognize that language rules aren’t exactly the same in all situations. They aren’t fixed across time. Not to mention these rules might even be broken strategically and to good effect.

The rules for correctness in academic writing aren’t natural. That is, they need to be learned by all speakers of English. If you are going to familiarize yourself with the conventions of academic writing, you need to learn a bit about grammar—and everyone has something to learn about this topic.

Most importantly, we want to stress that what counts as “good” or “correct” or “right” in the context of academic writing isn’t the best or only way to use language. Back in 1974, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (often called the 4 Cs) passed a resolution entitled “Students’ Right to Their Own Language.”[1] This set of principles has since been refined and re-ratified. Its key points can be summarized as follows:

  • Students have always entered educational settings (schools, colleges, and universities) speaking various forms of English. This could include, but is not limited to, a dialect like that spoken by some Black Canadians and Americans that is known as Black English;[2]
  • It is not the job of educational institutions to erase all of these differences and impose on students one “best” or “correct” way of using the English language.
  • Instead, the goal of writing teachers should be to help all students to learn to use language effectively, skillfully, and in a variety of ways.
  • One way that students may learn to use language is in alignment with the expectations of edited Academic English – and this is a version of English that students will need to be taught.
  • That said, edited Academic English doesn’t need to replace other ways of using English with which a student might have facility (in writing or in speaking).
  • In fact, students can and should be taught that edited Academic English isn’t suitable or necessary for all situations.[3]

So, in this chapter when we talk about rules for academic writing (or about correctness or even errors), we’re not saying you ought to follow all of these rules all of the time. As with all other aspects of your writing, you need to think critically about what’s likely to be appropriate and effective for a given rhetorical situation.

All Languages Have Grammar and “Rules”

Someone who learns English as their first language develops an intuitive sense that some words go together and others don’t. For example, let’s use the word “freedom” in a number of sentences, all of which seem “correct.”

The Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms guarantees Canadian citizens “freedom of conscience and religion.”[4]

  • The freedom to assemble is also guaranteed in this document.
  • A freedom that some people don’t understand has limits is the ability to peacefully assemble as a group – there are times when the health or safety of a community allows government officials to set “reasonable limits.”

Here we see the word treated in ways that signal one thing (freedom) and more than one thing (freedoms) as well as something general (a freedom) and something specific (the freedom).

That seems like a rather clear set of instructions for using a word in different ways in English, but then we bump into a word like “sugar.” Similar uses of the word “sugar” can seem odd. Note in these examples how the word sugar is used:

  • This pound cake recipe combines sugars with butter.
  • For smooth icing, sift the sugar before combining it with the other ingredients.
  • Sugar should be put into your mug before pouring in coffee.
  • Give me a sugar.

For those who bake, it might be easy to see how there can be more than one sugar—“sugars” could include powdered sugar, caster sugar, brown sugar, demerara sugar, and so on. Those who do not bake might find this construction strange. And the phrase “a sugar” might take some imagination to seem right—this phrasing might be used when asking for one sugar [packet] from a bowl.

Why is English like this? To get a full answer, you would need to understand the history of the English language, which we are not going to get into here (it is a fascinating subject, though). All languages are culturally based and change across history. Therefore, every language has a grammar (operating instructions), but these operating instructions are not usually applied uniformly. We realize this fact can be annoying but there is not much we can do about it. For example, almost all English-as-first-language speakers will hear the following as incorrect:

  • The counsellor offered good advices.
  • The bloods of patriots ran through the street after the battle.
  • He always completed a homework before allowing himself to check Twitter.
  • A money in her wallet got stolen after she left her purse on the bus.

Fluent speakers of English can hear that these sentences are wrong, but only someone who has studied English as a foreign language (or who has studied the grammar of English as an academic subject) could tell you the words above are examples of non-count nouns and that non-count nouns in English generally can’t be made plural or take an indefinite article. Note that in English indefinite articles are “a” and “an.” People who grow up speaking English use articles like “the” and “a” all the time and without much thought, but anyone who learns English as a foreign language knows that article usage can be frustratingly idiosyncratic. However, this set of examples might confuse some readers in light of the earlier words used in sentences because “sugar” (as a mass noun) and “freedom” (as an abstract concept) sometimes show up on lists of non-count nouns. That’s what we mean when we say English can be annoying and frustrating.

The last couple of sentences in the paragraph above might have made you nervous. That jitteriness could arise because you’re not sure how to define nouns, much less non-count nouns, mass nouns, or articles. You might also worry that although you know these rules by heart, you find it tricky to apply them in the real world. It’s okay. What these examples are meant to show is the following:

So-called native speakers of any language (or those who develop facility with a language as a young child, usually in their home environments) learn patterns of how words do and don’t go together by speaking and listening to the language. They also learn that there are some predictable patterns—let’s call these “rules.” But they also learn that there are numerous cases in which the rules get bent or broken.

Meanwhile, anyone studying a foreign language gets introduced to the most common rules of that language. Following those rules will allow a person to communicate in a lot of situations.

But very soon the learner discovers there are cases when the rules don’t work. There are lots of exceptions and special cases that simply need to be memorized.

Determining and defining the rules of how a language works makes it possible to teach it to people who didn’t learn to speak that language as small children. It’s for this reason Indigenous language revitalization projects (and efforts to record, preserve, and teach a range of endangered and extinct languages) involve: (1) studying the language of fluent speakers; (2) determining the grammatical patterns of their language; and then (3) offering instruction in this grammar to those who want to learn and teach the language. Learning some of the typical (and sometimes seemingly illogical or artificial) rules of a language empowers you to do things with words, such as write in Academic English.

  1. Committee on CCCC Language Statement, “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” Conference on College Composition and Communication, April 1972, reaffirmed November 2014, https://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/srtolsummary.
  2. To learn more about Black English, check out the following article by Shana Poplack: “‘It don’t be like that now’ – The English History of African American English,” Royal Society of Canada, February 6, 2020, https://rsc-src.ca/en/voices/%E2%80%98it-don%E2%80%99t-be-like-that-now%E2%80%99-%E2%80%94-english-history-african-american-english
  3. Committee on CCCC Language Statement, “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” https://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/srtolsummary
  4. Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s 2a, Part 1 of The Constitution Act, 1982, being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c. 11. You can also find an online version of the Charter here: https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/csj-sjc/rfc-dlc/ccrf-ccdl/check/index.html.


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Why Write? A Guide for Students in Canada Copyright © 2020 by Erin Kelly; Sara Humphreys; Natalie Boldt; and Nancy Ami is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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