Week 11  Module 4 Lesson 4.2 Syntax

What is Grammar? 

Languages have rules. The word "rules" suggests that somebody somewhere at sometime created the rules first and then spoke the language, like a new game. But languages did not start like that. Languages started by people making sounds which evolved into words, phrases and sentences. No commonly-spoken language is fixed. All languages change over time. What we call "grammar" is simply a reflection of a language at a particular time. 

The rules of a language that dictate how words are put together into sentences and other utterances make up its grammar. Although the words "syntax" and "grammar" are used interchangeably, "grammar" in strict  linguistics terms is an umbrella concept which has several components. These can be described as follows:

  • The phonetics that governs the structure of sounds 

  • The morphology that governs the structure of words

  • The syntax, which governs the structure of sentences

  • The semantics that governs the meanings of words and sentences 

We are concerned in this lesson specifically with the syntax of the structure of sentences.

What is syntax?

Syntax is the discipline that examines the rules of a language that dictate how the various parts of sentences go together. While morphology looks at how individual sounds are formed into complete words, syntax looks at how those words are formed into complete sentences. 

Here it might be pertinent to mention a couple of other definitions of the term grammar that are widely used. Grammar may be separated into two common broad categories: descriptive and prescriptive. Recall that we were first introduced to these concepts in module 1.

1. A descriptive grammar is a description of the structure of a language in all its aspects--morphology, syntax, phonology--which attempts do portray the language as accurately as possible in terms of how it is naturally used by speakers.

As you will remember from Module 1, linguists are concerned with descriptive grammar. A descriptive grammar looks at the grammar of any spoken language or dialect as it actually exists, judging whether a sentence is grammatical or not based on the rules of the speech group in which it is spoken, rather than an arbitrary set of rules. 

For example, in many speech communities, a sentence such as, "He done got thrown off the horse," would be entirely grammatical, and an entire set of rules of grammar can be deduced that explain why that formation is grammatical. In another speech community, however, this sentence might be considered ungrammatical, while a version such as, "Him isa throwed offa horse," would be the grammatical version. In yet another speech community, both would be considered ungrammatical, with only a version such as, "He was thrown off of the horse," being considered acceptable. 

2. A prescriptive grammar assigns value judgments to the  ways native speakers form words or sentences.  Prescriptive grammars do not attempt to describe the language as it is naturally spoken but rather to tell the speakers how they best should speak it.

People teaching a specific language, such as English, might tend towards a more prescriptive approach. A prescriptive grammar looks at the norms of speech as given by authoritative sources, such as an upper-class or academic subculture, and creates strict rules by which all speech within that language must abide to be considered grammatical. 

Few linguists take a prescriptive approach to grammar in the modern age, preferring to describe language as it exists in a given speech community. 

Many teachers, grammar mavens, and pedagogues in general still have a prescriptive approach towards grammar, however, holding to standardized rules as being the only proper way to speak. Grammars of foreign languages written for second language learners fall in between the other two types.  They represent attempts to describe a language as it is spoken by natives in order to tell non-natives how to speak it.

When thinking of grammar in the general, descriptive sense, remember that there is no absolute division between syntax, morphology, and phonology.  Even in the same language these so called levels of language are not completely separate. 

What do we already know about grammar?

We already know a lot about grammar. As native speakers of a language, we assimilated these rules subconsciously while we learned the language as a children. 

1. We know that some sounds or array of sounds belong to English while others don't

For example:


is possible but


is not

2. We know that some words go together while others don't

For example:

The dog looks terrifying

is possible but

*The dog looks barking

is not

3. We can understand sentences we've never head before

For example:

Because we know some grammar rules, we can understand sentences we've never heard before until right this second: 

Some purple gnats are starting to tango on the microwave.

4. We can understand sentences of prodigious length

For example:

Bill said that he thought that the esteemed leader of the house had it in mind to tell the unfortunate vice president that the calls that he made from the office in the White House that he thought was private were actually being taped by an over-zealous cub reporter in a local newspaper office just blocks from the leader's private office.

5. We can understand nonsense sentences if they have clear syntax

We can even make sense of nonsense sentences, as long as they follow the grammar rules:

1a. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

1b. A verb crumpled the milk.

1c. I gave the question a scuba-diving egg.

Although these sentences are nonsensical, they are grammatically correct because they follow certain rules we recognize for English. 

Compare the above sentences to these below (remember that an asterisk * indicates a grammatical error):

2a. *Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

2b. *Milk the crumpled verb a.

2c. *The question I an egg scuba-diving gave.

These sentences do not follow our grammar rules, so we don't recognize these are grammatically correct English sentences.

Syntax is the study of the ability to create and understand sentences.

6. We know that words fall into classes (called lexical categories)

For example:

He saw a picture of Uncle Mark. 

is correct (picture = noun) but

*He saw a difficult of Uncle Mark. 

is not (difficult = adjective)

7. We know that certain sentences are structurally related to others while others are not related

John broke the window.

The window was broken by John.

It was the window that John broke.

What John broke was the window.

8. We know that languages don't have the same grammar rules


English - nouns are made plural usually with -s and by other means













Spanish - in addition to nouns, the determiner "the" can be singular or plural


el libro  "the book"

los libros


la puerta  "the door"

las puertas  "the doors"


mi amigo  "my friend"

mis amigos  "my friends"


su amigo  "her friend"

sus amigos  "her friends"

Hawaiian - nouns are made plural either by making the determiner "the" plural or by the plural marker mau + noun


ka wahine   "the woman"

na wahine   "the women"


pua   "flower"

mau pua   "flowers"






subject: I, he, she, we, they, you
object: me, him, her, us, them, you


tu "you" (familiar)
usted "you" (formal)


watakushi (very formal male, less formal female)
watashi (formal male, neutral female)
atakushi (rare male, snobbish female)
atashi (chiefly female, colloquial)
washi (chiefly male, older generation, dialectal)
boku (exclusively male, in talking with superior)
ore (colloquial male)

honorifics: -chan, -san, -sama

Pronoun number (we = me + others)


ainjak   "I"
aijumrau "we two"
aijumtail   "we three"
aijuma   "we four"

aiek   "you" singular
aijaurau   "you" two"
aijautaji   "you three"
aijaua   "you four"


au   "I"
kaua   "me and you"
maua   "me and someone else" (not you)
kakou   "all of us"
makou   "all of us" (but not you)

Distance (this/that)


this (near the speaker)

that (farther from the speaker)

that over there (farther still from the speaker)


kono (near the speaker)

sono (near the listener)

ano (distant from both)


30 forms! (that, that in there, that on the horizon, that which we cannot see, etc.)

9. We know that sentences can have more than one meaning (called ambiguity)

semantic ambiguity (words can have more than one meaning)

For example: 

John sat on Jumbo's trunk (trunk?)


structural ambiguity (a sentence can have more than one meaning)

For example:

Chocolate cakes and pies are my favorite desserts. (Chocolate cakes and pies? Chocolate cakes and chocolate pies?)

10. We know that an expression doesn't have to be a complete sentence to be grammatically correct



Happy Birthday.


Oh to be free!

Down with racism!


No entry

Good evening

11. We know that the order of words in English sentences is important (We'll look at more about word order in an upcoming lesson.)

Mary loves John 

is not the same as

John loves Mary.

Why do we need grammar rules? Because Words + Rules = Creativity

The reason for grammar  rules is that a person needs to be able to speak an indeterminately large number of sentences in a lifetime. The effort would be impossibly great if each sentence had to be learned separately. Speakers of any language are able to effortlessly take words and combine them into novel, meaningful sentences.

By learning the rules for connecting words, it is possible to create an infinite number of sentences, all of which are meaningful to a person who knows the syntax. Thus it is possible to construct sentences that the speaker has never heard before.

A finite number of rules facilitates an infinite number of sentences that can be simultaneously understood by both the speaker and the listener.

In order for this to work with any degree of success, the rules have to be precise and have to be consistently adhered to. These rules cover such things as:

  • the way words are constructed

  • the way the endings of words are changed according to context (inflection)

  • the classification of words into parts of speech (nouns, verbs, pronouns, etc.)

  • the way parts of speech are connected together.

Do we need to study grammar to learn a language?

The rules of grammar do not have to be explicitly understood by the speaker of the language or the listener. Most native speakers of a language have no formal knowledge of the grammar of a language but are still capable of speaking the language grammatically to a great degree of accuracy.

Do we need to study grammar to learn a language? The short answer is "no." Very many people in the world speak their own native language without having studied its grammar. Children start to speak before they even know the word "grammar." But if you are serious about learning a foreign language, the long answer is "yes, grammar can help you to learn a language more quickly and more efficiently." It's important to think of grammar as something that can help you, like a friend. When you understand the grammar (or system) of a language, you can understand many things yourself, without having to ask a teacher or look in a book.

So think of grammar as something good, something positive, something that you can use to find your way - like a signpost or a map.


back to Lesson 4.1.6

On to Lesson 4.2.1

Ling 102/WI Introduction to the Study of Language, University of Hawai'i - Leeward Community College
Professor Pat Kamalani Hurley

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