English Grammar – Introduction
These are sufficient to suggest several distinct notions about English grammar –
(1) It makes rules to tell us how to use words.
(2) It is a record of usage which we ought to follow.
(3) It is concerned with the forms of the language.
(4) English has no grammar in the sense of forms, or inflections, but takes account merely of the nature and the uses of words in sentences.
Fierce discussions have raged over these opinions, and numerous works have been written to uphold the theories. The first of them remained popular for a very long time. It originated from the etymology of the word grammar (Greek gramma, writing, a letter), and from an effort to build up a treatise on English grammar by using classical grammar as a model.
Perhaps a combination of (1) and (3) has been still more popular, though there has been vastly more classification than there are forms.
During recent years, (2) and (4) have been gaining ground, but they have had hard work to displace the older and more popular theories. It is insisted by many that the student’s time should be used in studying general literature, and thus learning the fluent and correct use of his mother tongue. It is also insisted that the study and discussion of forms and inflections is an inexcusable imitation of classical treatises.
Which view shall the student of English accept? Before this is answered, we should decide whether some one of the above theories must be taken as the right one, and the rest disregarded.
The real reason for the diversity of views is a confusion of two distinct things: What the definition of grammar should be, and what the purpose of grammar should be.
The province of English grammar is, rightly considered, wider than is indicated by any one of the above definitions; and the student ought to have a clear idea of the ground to be covered. It is also evident to those who have studied the language historically that it is very hazardous to make rules in grammar: what is at present regarded as correct may not be so twenty years from now, even if our rules are founded on the keenest scrutiny of the “standard” writers of our time. Usage is varied as our way of thinking changes. In Chaucer’s time two or three negatives were used to strengthen a negation; as, “Ther nas no man nowher so vertuous” (There never was no man nowhere so virtuous). And Shakespeare used good English when he said more elder (“Merchant of Venice”) and
most unkindest (“Julius Cæsar”); but this is bad English now.
If, however, we have tabulated the inflections of the language, and stated what syntax is the most used in certain troublesome places, there is still much for the grammarian to do.
Surely our noble language, with its enormous vocabulary, its peculiar and abundant idioms, its numerous periphrastic forms to express every possible shade of meaning, is worthy of serious study, apart from the mere memorizing of inflections and formulation of rules.
Grammar is eminently a means of mental training; and while it will train the student in subtle and acute reasoning, it will at the same time, if rightly presented, lay the foundation of a keen observation and a correct literary taste. The continued contact with the highest thoughts of the best minds will create a thirst for the “well of English undefiled.”
Coming back, then, from the question, What ground should grammar cover? we come to answer the question, What should grammar teach? and we give as an answer the definition:
English grammar is the science which treats of the nature of words, their forms, and their uses and relations in the sentence.
Further reading: http://www.bbc.co.uk/learningenglish