Grammar and syntax

In language, Grammar refers to the body of rules which allow people to use words in a way which makes sense to the other users of the language. The word comes from a Greek stem grammatike (alphabetized, of course) which means “the art of arranging letters” and was intimately bound up with writing. Grammar shows up the relationships between words in a sentence and helps to define how sense is made of them.

Syntax refers to the arrangement of words in a sentence and can deal with the rules for making sensible arrangements, and for the analysis of these rules. It is about the structure of sentences.

If you’re finding it difficult to see the difference between grammar and syntax, you’re not alone. Linguists are very clear about the difference and that’s absolutely fine: for the rest of us, grammar and syntax are pretty much synonyms.

Loosely speaking, grammar and syntax help define the major elements of a language: the sounds we make (phonics); the meanings of words (semantics, etymology and morphology); possible functions of words (parsing into noun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition and so on); the structures through which meanings are conveyed (sentencing, inflections, word order and groupings); the agreements made to standardise language elements (spelling, punctuation, an alphabet); perhaps also the variations which fulfil social functions (forms of address, register). To use the metaphor of a car: if you can drive it and don’t much care what the machine’s actually doing, you are expert enough for day-to-day use. If you feel a pressing need to look under the bonnet, you’re behaving like a grammarian.

If we go to learn a new language, even if it is a language which has a vocabulary similar to our native language, the greatest obstacle and the greatest benefit to us is working out how those words are connected together to make sense. Each language has first of all its own overarching set of rules about structure, and then there will be a whole set of variations within that structure which prove to be exceptions to those rules, all capable of derailing the whole process if not learned correctly. Grammar changes according to dialect.

As each of us grows up and learn our native language – any language – a process takes place in our brain which is so complex as to be rightly considered magic. Our infant brains pick up an immensely complex explosion of sound, rhythm, cadence, vocabulary, inflections, rules of agreement, a whole set of spelling rules that don’t work, more rules which have more exception than conformity, whole groups of words which don’t mean what they say except when we say they do and even then we may be lying… and then after six or seven years that wonderful organ between our ears divests itself of all the extraneous information and locks itself into one language. We don’t know how it does it, but, fittingly, we talk about it a lot, and some combination of neuroscience and linguistics will one day provide an answer. Possibly.

That neuronal shaving of extraneous information (and I don’t mind if you think it takes place within the brain or the mind) is the best evidence we have that grammar is a real thing, and all normal human beings are capable of arranging their communications according to its rules. A lucky few are good at doing this in several languages, but each of us has one in which we are expert.

That last idea is important. It is a product of the latter half of the 20th century’s best attempts at understanding the match between the structure of the brain and the structure of language. It is clear that the same human brain is capable of absorbing virtually any of the thousands of the competing grammatical structures which exist on Earth currently and then specialising, often to the exclusion of all others, in one structure. One of the products of this understanding was the movement in the second half of the 20th century to degrade the study of grammar of the English language on the basis that anybody who was upright and talking was already an expert.

In general, it’s a valid point, but like all valid points it may not paint the whole picture.

Polemic aside, the study of how words work for us is important. Primitive experts we may be in our own language, but the peculiarities of the human condition – on the one hand an immensely technologically-advanced species, and on the other hand just an upright ape – mean that every time we open our mouths or put pen to paper we expose ourselves to the scrutiny of our peers and all that goes with it. To gain approval, we need to use words effectively and in many cases that means absolutely correctly.

Grammar ain’t dead by any means.