What is grammar?

last changed 31 May 2005

More precisely, what does 'grammar' mean in the KS3 Strategy? Here is a summary of the answer that can be compiled from official documents.

The main points

Click on each point to see the full discussion.

  1. Grammar is broad.
  2. Grammar has no clear boundaries.
  3. The KS3 Framework for English is based on grammar.
  4. Grammar is technical.
  5. Grammar is only a part of 'knowledge about language'.
  6. Grammar provides tools for expressing meanings.
  7. Every kind of English has a grammar.
  8. Grammar should be descriptive, not prescriptive.
  9. English grammar is relevant to other languages.

1. Grammar is broad. The most helpful 'definition' of grammar consists of a six-page article 'What is grammar?' in The Grammar Papers. The gist is: "Grammar includes syntax, morphology and semantics and was originally associated with logic and rhetoric." The main point to notice about this rather pithy statement is that grammar is not just syntax. It takes grammar to include all of the following:

  • syntax, i.e. sentence structure, where we distinguish subjects and objects, subordinate and main clauses, and so on.
  • morphology, i.e. word structure, where we recognise roots, suffixes, inflected words, and so on.
  • semantics, i.e. meaning - the things, people, events and so on that we refer to when talking.

The very traditional association with logic and rhetoric is important because grammatical structures impact on the logic and 'rhetorical success' of a communication; for example, a grammatical pattern such as a choice of tense can make a major difference to the logical and communicative effect of a sentence.

In short, grammar teaching should be as concerned with the 'effects' of grammatical structures as with these structures themselves.

2. Grammar has no clear boundaries. The term 'grammar' is remarkable by its absence from official documents - perhaps a sensible decision given the checkered history of grammar teaching. Nowhere do we find an attempt to give a water-tight definition of grammar which would help us to know whether or not it is meant to include any of the following:

  • vocabulary and 'word families'.
  • sound patterns in words and the phoneme-grapheme correspondences of phonics.
  • intonation in speech and its effects on meaning.

Again this is probably a sensible decision, because in education what counts is not whether something is 'really' part of grammar or not, but whether or not it is worth teaching. In any case, grammar is not the kind of concept that can be given a 'correct' definition; even professional grammarians (such as me) cannot agree, and have no prospect of ever finding some kind of objective fact which would push us all to an agreed definition. This doesn't mean that grammar itself is vague and subjective - on the contrary, it is one of the most clearly structured areas of human thought outside the natural sciences and maths - but simply that it has no natural boundaries waiting to be discovered.

3. The KS3 Framework for English is based on grammar. The KS3 Framework assumes a conceptual structure based on grammar. It follows the Primary Framework in dividing all the teaching objectives into three 'levels':

  • word level
  • sentence level
  • text level

This division is based on grammar, where morphology deals with word structure and syntax with sentence structure. Roughly speaking, at the word and sentence levels pupils learn to identify important grammatical patterns, in contrast with the text level, where they explore how the patterns are used for the semantic and rhetorical effects mentioned above. This simple three-part structure makes excellent sense to me, as a grammarian, and on the whole it has served the strategies well by keeping word-level and text-level work in focus; this is important because of the danger that 'grammar' might be interpreted exclusively as sentence grammar. The three-level division at KS3 also has the great attraction of being familiar to pupils coming up from KS2.

Even more importantly, virtually all the individual objectives at word and text level define topics which count as 'grammar' by almost any definition. Click here for a sample page from the Framework for Year 7.

The specific topics mentioned in the KS3 Framework give a very helpful indication of the kinds of topic that are likely to be productive in class. However nothing in either the Framework or the training materials that I have seen suggests to me that these topics are meant to constitute a syllabus to be covered or a checklist to be ticked. After all, if this had been the intention, then there would have been some provision for testing children's knowledge of grammar directly, but there is none (a point I shall note in the discussion of why grammar is taught). The choice of grammatical topics is left very much to teachers, and no doubt it will be influenced by local circumstances such as the needs of children and possible collaboration with MFL colleagues. It is true that teaching needs to be systematic, but there is no single correct systematic route through grammar, nor is there a clear set of 'basic' items of knowledge which are more important than all the rest. The more independent teachers become in deciding their own route into grammar, the more successful they will be.

4. Grammar is technical. However we define grammar, it must include the linguistic structures found in sentences and inside words; so pupils must learn to identify and talk about some of these patterns. In short, they must learn about grammatical analysis and the standard terminology associated with it. As in any other curriculum subject, both the analysis and the terminology have strong underpinnings in academic research, so school grammar links children to this research (and, for some, will prepare them for further study at A-level and beyond). This research-led 'modern' grammar is very different from the rather dogmatic 'traditional' grammar of the early 20th century. The need for technical detail is very clear in the National Curriculum for English, in the paragraph for KS3/4 writing headed 'language structure' (p. 38); I have highlighted what strike me as the key words:

7. Pupils should be taught the principles of sentence grammar and whole-text cohesion and use this knowledge in their writing. They should be taught:

  1. word classes or parts of speech and their grammatical functions
  2. the structure of phrases and clauses and how they can be combined to make complex sentences [for example, coordination and subordination]
  3. paragraph structure and how to form different types of paragraph
  4. the structure of whole texts, including cohesion, openings and conclusions in different types of writing [for example, through the use of verb tenses, reference chains]
  5. the use of appropriate grammatical terminology to reflect on the meaning and clarity of individual sentences [for example, nouns, verbs, adjectives, preposition, conjunctions, articles].

The implications for teaching are spelt out more fully in "Not whether but how", whose first part is entitled "Developing pupils' explicit grammatical knowledge" and contains this summary (p. 5):

The aim of the requirements is to ensure that pupils are familiar with grammatical terminology, and can make independent use of their grammatical knowledge when reading and writing. Pupils should be taught:

  • the organising principles and structures of language;
  • how they contribute to meaning and effect;
  • how to use their knowledge of language structures in their reading and writing.

...[see below for the omitted passage]

Central to the development of pupils' explicit grammatical knowledge is the ability to name linguistic features, structures and patterns at word, sentence and whole text level....

In short, grammar can and should become as technical as other subjects in the KS3 curriculum. This poses serious problems for teachers who themselves passed through a grammar-free (or even grammar-hostile) education system, and the Strategy team are trying hard to provide the training that these teachers need.

5. Grammar is only a part of 'knowledge about language'. Language changes through time, varies from place to place and is learned by small children. None of these facts about language is covered by the term 'grammar', but they are all things that children should know about. This broad Knowledge About Language (often referred to by the acronym KAL) is also recognised in the passage from "Not only but how" quoted above (at the point of the omission marks):

They [i.e. pupils] should also be taught:

  • that language changes;
  • the sources and causes of linguistic change;
  • how meanings are affected by choice of vocabulary and structure;
  • to apply their knowledge of language variety.

These ideas are less technical than grammar, which makes them easier to teach and to learn; but of course they are equally important because, unlike most parts of grammar, they involve social attitudes. For example, change implies difference between generations, so is language getting better, worse or merely different? It would be a shame if these general issues were squeezed out by too exclusive a focus on grammar.

6. Grammar provides tools for expressing meanings. English grammar consists of a vast collection of patterns - ways of using and modifying words - each of which is dedicated to achieving some meaning or effect. For example:

  1. "adjective + common noun" (e.g. big book) - the adjective modifies the meaning of the common noun
  2. "so + adjective + a + common noun" (e.g. so big a book) - the adjective again modifies the common noun, while "a" and "so" have their usual effects; other words that behave like so are that, too and how.
  3. "question phrase/word + auxiliary verb + subject" (e.g. what are you doing?) - asks about the identity of the thing or person referred to by the question phrase/word.

Each of these patterns is a tool which allows us to achieve effects which would not otherwise be possible. We have to learn these tools and the details of how to combine them - for example pattern 2 can combine with 3 to give an example like "How big a book is it?" I mentioned earlier that grammar is hard to separate from vocabulary - for example, are the peculiarities of words such as so, that, too and how a matter of grammar or vocabulary? This being so, we should think of grammar as growing (in the same way as vocabulary) through the years of formal education and beyond.

7. Every kind of English has a grammar. Traditionally, grammar was associated with standard English because schools saw grammar teaching mainly as a means of teaching standard English. This is no longer so (as explained elsewhere), but the linkage lives on in popular thought. In fact, every dialect has a grammar, in the sense of a set of conventions which its speakers follow, and which sometimes distinguish insiders from outsiders. For example, those who say Nobody done nothing are following the dictates of their grammar just as much as those who use the standard forms: Nobody did anything. It is important not to refer to non-standard forms as 'mistakes' or as 'incorrect' because this is offensive to the large proportion (perhaps 90%) of the population who normally use these forms; and in any case, it is simply wrong to assume that these forms are failed attempts at producing the standard forms. To its credit, the National Curriculum applies this principle by referring to "non-standard usages" or "dialectal variation" rather than errors; and the KS3 Framework includes the following teaching objective for Year 8:

[Pupils should be taught to:] 11. understand the main differences between standard English and dialectal variations, e.g. subject-verb agreement, formation of past tense, adverbs and negatives, use of pronouns and prepositions.

Seen from this perspective, a child who speaks a non-standard dialect has to learn some new grammar in order to be able to use standard dialect, so it makes good sense to address these grammatical differences directly in class; and the more they are presented as differences rather than mistakes, the more successful the learning is likely to be. This enlightened attitude to non-standard English contrast sharply with traditional grammar, and is one of the great achievements of our schools in the last few decades.

This is not to say that 'anything goes' in grammar. On the contrary, the KS3 strategy also stresses that language varies with place, time and purpose, so what is good grammar in one place is bad grammar in another. For example, Us books was here may be good grammar in casual speech, but it is bad grammar in formal writing; and conversely, Our books were here may be bad grammar in casual speech. The aim is to expand the children's grammatical choices so that they can function effectively in any situation, if necessary switching between standard and non-standard.

8. Grammar should be descriptive, not prescriptive. A closely related issue is whether grammar should follow usage, or try to change it. For example, some grammarians tried for three centuries to persuade English speakers and writers not to use split infinitives (e.g. to boldly go) in the belief that since this was not possible in Latin (where the infinitive is just one word) it should not be possible in English either. This mistaken approach is called 'prescriptive grammar' because it tried to prescribe what we ought to say - or more often, to proscribe what we ought not to say. Prescriptive grammar proscribed not only all non-standard forms (e.g. We was sat) but also a number of standard forms (such as split infinitives). Prescriptive grammar is pure dogma, and (as such) has no place in our schools; and I'm happy to report that it has no place in the KS3 strategy. The Strategy publications sometimes encapsulate this rejection of prescriptive grammar in the very useful but potentially misleading slogan "Tools not rules" contrasting the traditional focus on restrictive rules with the modern focus on enabling tools.

9. English grammar is relevant to other languages. Grammar provides a link between English and other languages (all of which, of course, have a grammar). English grammar shows many similarities to other grammars; for example, the word classes (noun, verb, and so on) of English are very similar to the classes found in most other languages - not surprisingly, perhaps, since we inherited them (and their names) from grammarians of Latin, who in turn had inherited them from Greek. These similarities mean that we can use our knowledge of English grammar when we learn foreign languages as I explain elsewhere. At the same time, however, different languages obviously have different grammars, and some languages have grammars that are startlingly different from English. Being able to talk about grammar, using standard terminology, is even more important when learning one of these languages.

The KS3 Framework for MFL builds explicitly on the work in first-language literacy. In relation to its structure we find the following passage (p. 14):

The headings also reflect work taking place in the teaching of literacy in primary and secondary schools. Teachers of English and MFL have often been encouraged to work more closely together, but such cooperation has not always been clearly focused or sustained. The frameworks in these subjects now provide an opportunity and a set of tools for such collaboration. MFL teachers looking at their Framework of objectives will notice that words such as ‘connective’ and ‘determiner’ are used in objectives and examples. These are valuable concepts, familiar to English teachers and increasingly to their pupils. A glossary explaining these and other terms is included as section 3 appendix 4. This approach will also enable MFL teachers and pupils to make those comparisons between languages mentioned in the MFL programme of study and to learn from them.

This deliberate convergence of MFL and first-language teaching is one of the most impressive (and least recognised) achievements of our schools over the last decade. For the first time ever we have a coherent school policy on language, in which both first- and second-language teachers contribute to the same overall picture of what language is like, and assume the same framework of ideas for talking about grammar. The best concrete example of this convergence is the glossary mentioned in the passage just quoted, which is a slightly revised version of the same glossary that is included in the National Literacy Strategy Framework. In short, for the first time ever we have a government-sponsored unified terminology for grammar.