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- The study of a language: how it works, and everything about it. This is background research on language.
- The study of sentence structure. A set of rules and examples to show how the language should be used. This is a correct usage grammar, as in a textbook or manual.
- The system which people learn as they grow up. This is the native-speaker's grammar.p446p453
When we speak, we use the native-person's grammar, or as near as we can. When we write, we try to write with correct grammar. So, speaking and writing a language each have their own style.
English makes few changes to its word endings ('suffixes'). In the Italic or 'Romance' languages (such as French, Italian, and Spanish), word endings carry a lot of meaning. In English we have just a few: plurals and possessives (John's) are the most common. In our verbs we have dropped most endings except one: I love, you love, but she loves. That final 's' is a remnant of Anglo-Saxon, which had more suffixes. Verbs do have endings which show changes in tense: walked, walking.
Word order is the other big difference. Romance languages normally put adjectives after the nouns to which they refer. For example, in English, a person may say I like fast cars, but in Spanish, it is Me gustan los coches rápidos. The order of the words has changed: if just the words, without the grammar, are translated into English, it would mean 'to me they please the cars fast'. This is because Spanish and English have different rules about word order. In German, verbs often come near the end of sentences, whereas in English we usually put them between subject and object, as: the cat has eaten the food.
Written grammar changes slowly but spoken grammar is more fluid. Sentences which English speakers find normal today, might have seemed strange 100 years ago. And they might not, because many of our favourite sayings come from the Authorized King James Version of the Bible, and from Shakespeare.
Some people use grammar that is different from other people when speaking. For example, people who use what is called General American English or BBC English might say, I didn't do anything, while someone who speaks what is called African American Vernacular English or AAVE might say, I didn't do nothing. London working class version: I ain't done nuffink! These are called double negatives, and are found almost entirely in spoken language, not written language.
These differences are called dialects. The dialect a person uses is usually decided by where they live. Even though the dialects of English use different words or word order, they still have grammar rules. However, when writing in American English, grammar uses the rules of General American English. When people talk about using 'proper English', they usually mean using the grammar of general British English, as described in standard reference works. The models for spoken English in Britain are often called Received Pronunciation or BBC English.
Grammar studies syntax as well as the different parts of language. These are called "parts of speech". They fit together according to rules and create sentences. Sentences fit together and create paragraphs.
Parts of speech
Nouns are 'thing' words like 'table and 'chair'. They are objects, things you see in everyday life. Proper nouns are places, people's names, or other things like days of the week. The name 'James' is a proper noun, as is 'Wednesday' and 'London'. Nouns can also be abstract things, such as 'suffering' or 'happiness'.
Verbs describe actions and states. Action: "John threw the ball". State: "I am worried". The basic verb form is called the infinitive. The infinitive for existence is "to be". A famous example is the speech of Hamlet: To be or not to be, that is the question.
Variations of the infinitive create verb tenses.
- McArthur, Tom (ed) 1992. The Oxford companion to the English language. Oxford University Press.
- Crystal, David 1995. The Cambridge encyclopedia of the English language. Cambridge University Press.
- Nash, Walter 1986. English usage: a guide to first principles. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London. Contains a list of sources.