What is Grammar?

Not bad grammar!

“Grammar” is derived from an ancient Greek word (grammatikē), meaning the “art of words.” The term is often used incorrectly, to cover rules about spelling or usage. For example, frequently you will see the “there/their/they’re” confusion referred to as a “grammatical error.” It is not. It is an error of spelling or word choice, but there’s no grammar involved.

Grammar, to be precise, is the collection of rules of language structure that relates to words, phrases and clauses. Other categories in this website cover such non-grammatical subjects as usage, rhetoric and vocabulary.

As a subject, “Grammar” includes:

  • Syntax (rules for the arrangement of words to comprise well-formed sentences),
  • Phonology (the study of how English sounds are organized) and
  • Morphology (the study of morphemes, those bits and pieces of words that convey meaning).

An example of a phoneme is the sound of the letter combination “th,” often called a “theta” after its Greek letter (θ).

An example of a morpheme is the fragment “anti-” as it appears in words like “antiperspirant,” “antithesis” and “antidisestablishmentarianism.”

In these pages, we will focus more on syntax than on the other two subcategories of grammar.

What Is Correct Syntax?

Syntax is the art (and skill) of arranging words and combinations of words to create a well-formed sentence. The operative term is “well-formed,” which means that the author broke none of the rules.

MyBadStraightFor example, it is probably acceptable these days to say “my bad” in informal speech, even though most would argue that it is ungrammatical (“bad” is not a noun). It is surely inappropriate in a formal speech or letter.

dumb jock
Blocks good

Likewise, a sports commentator might feel comfortable saying that a certain athlete “blocks good” or “tackles good”; but correctness requires that, at a higher level of language (or more formal prose), the phrases be “blocks well” and “tackles well.”

Sometimes the wrong syntax is so common that under-educated speakers think they are speaking correctly, when in fact they are using bad grammar. I knew a minister who kept saying, “Between you and I . . . ” This is the “I/me” issue. It is related to the “who/whom” problem. These are just two of the more common atrocities mentioned in the pages and posts of this website.

goodvswellThe “good/well” problem is also among the most common. Think for a moment: Isn’t there a big difference between “doing good” and “doing well”? Charities “do good,” and Wall Street investment bankers “do well.” Also, “well” can be used correctly as an adjective (meaning “healthy”), but “good” should never be admitted into the adverb category.

aint overNote also the ubiquitous and impermissible double negative (as in “don’t pay it no nevermind”). Also, be aware of “ain’t.” It is an old and unofficial contraction of “am not.” “Ain’t” is bad enough when used in the first person, but it is utterly wrong when used in the second and third persons, whether singular or plural (as in “Y’all ain’t never been to Texas?”). It has been around for centuries, although it was relegated mainly to the Appalachian mountains for a long time. Recently it has made a big comeback across the nation among the crowd that never paid attention in school. It has been called “a social marker,” meaning that a person who uses it is revealing a low educational and social status.

A similar problem with contractions occurs with “aren’t.” Unlike “ain’t,” it is an acceptable contraction: it is a short form of “are not.” But for that very reason, it is wrong to say “aren’t I?”. Though this widespread error is a less flagrant “social marker” than “ain’t,” it is still wrong.

Runners up for irritating syntax goofs include the “lie/lay” mix-ups and the “wait for/wait on” confusions. These and several others can be found among the posts in the “Grammar” and “Usage” categories.

Awareness Is More Important Than Correctness

Even if you may make these syntactical mistakes from time-to-time, particularly in lower-level speech in which you seek rapport with someone who has no choice but to speak that way, it is essential that you know what you are doing. Ignorance of correct syntax is perhaps a sin, but it is forgivable. It is harder to forgive someone who knows better, but is just too careless, lazy or mentally decrepit to speak correctly. If you are going to speak bad English, at least know that it is bad English, and have a sensible reason for speaking that way!

Where to next? Link to these pages or posts:

The Naming of Parts
Use the Right Part
Keeping Subjects and Objects in Line
Order Your Nouns by the Case
Prepositional Phrases and Phrasal Verbs
“Everyone” is Singular
“Waiting on” and “Waiting for”
The Like/As Problem
Much, Many, Less and Few
“Woe is Me!”