What is Grammar? Defining Grammar for Teachers

What is Grammar?

What is grammar?

This article tries to investigate how grammar has been defined during the history of language teaching. We will start with the traditional view of what grammar is all about. Then, we will see that traditional definitions of grammar do not really reflect language reality.

The traditional view of grammar

Traditionally, studying a language was grounded on the principles of Greek and Latin grammar. During the renaissance era, the Greek and Roman literature were held in high regard and Latin was taught as a language mainly for reading and writing.  Mastering Latin grammar rules became an educational goal. The invention of printing machines and the development of local languages around Europe increased the need for second or foreign language learning. Grammar was central in language teaching and language teachers adopted the Grammar Translation Method which was based on traditional Latin teaching. The underlying principle of the method was that the target grammar should be described in the student’s native language. Grammar was viewed as ‘a set of rules that govern how sentences should be formed.’ This view about grammar has been challenged with real data. Having a set of rules that distinguish the right sentences from the wrong ones might, at first glance, seem to account for what grammar is all about.  However, we will see later in this article that grammar is not only about the rules that distinguish the ‘correct’ sentences from the ‘incorrect’ ones. But let us first analyze the definition given above. To illustrate it, let’s take some concrete examples:

I like horror filmsI am liking horror films*
They arrived yesterdayThey arrive yesterday*
We are at home right nowWe are at now home right*

Table 1 – Prescriptive grammar distinguishes grammatical from ungrammatical sentences.

According to the traditional definition, grammar rules help us differentiate the grammatical sentences on the left from the ungrammatical ones on the right. Grammar, seen in this light, misses important aspects of language use as we will see in the next sections. But, let us shed light on how the above definition is fraught with pitfalls:

  1. The context is not specified. Using sentences in isolation deprives language analysis of their appropriateness within specific situations.
  2. Meaning can be derived not only from the sentence’s constituent but also from the speaker’s or writer’s intentions. These can be hard to guess from isolated sentences.
  3. The above definition focuses on grammar at the level of each sentence, that is, the well-formedness of sentences according to prescriptive grammarians (more about prescriptive grammar later). Actual data suggest that sentence-level grammar does not account for many instances of real communication.
  4. Some sentences can be perfectly grammatical, but they may convey no meaning at all. Chomsky’s example – ‘colorless green ideas sleep furiously’ – exemplifies this perfectly well. Although this sentence is grammatical, it is nonsensical.
  5. Grammar is not absolute and fixed. Grammar rules may change not only diachronically, through historical linguistic evolution, but also synchronically, through dialectal variations (see the discussion about ‘going to’ in below).

That is why the above strict view of grammar has attracted considerable criticism from the advocates of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). This approach has stressed the importance of interaction, meaningful tasks, and the centrality of the learner in teaching processes. Instead of focusing only on grammar teaching, CLT has adopted a theory of language that considers the grammatical competence as just one aspect of communicative competence.  Accordingly, Canale and Swaine (1980) described four dimensions of communicative competence:

  • Grammatical competence refers to what Chomsky calls linguistic competence.
  • Sociolinguistic competence refers to an understanding of the social context in which communication takes place (role relationships, shared beliefs, and information between participants…)
  • Discourse competence refers to the interpretation of individual message elements in terms of their interconnectedness and how meaning is represented in relation to the entire discourse or text.
  • Strategic competence refers to the coping strategies that participants use to initiate terminate, maintain, repair, and redirect communication

Grammatical competence includes different aspects of language, namely:

  1. The sound system (phonology),
  2. The system of meaning (semantics),
  3. The rules of word formation (morphology),
  4. The rules of sentence formation (syntax),
  5. The words of the system (lexicon).

Grammar and context

As mentioned above, a grammar about the rules that distinguish the correct sentences from the wrong ones may not stand in front of real language data.  Let us take the last example from table 1 above “we are at home right now.” This sentence is perfectly grammatical, but as Scott Thornbury (1999) rightly demonstrates, if we put it in its proper context, it will become nonsense. Let us suppose it is taken from an answering machine message:

This is 06123456. We are at home right now. Please, leave a message after the beep.

Is the above message really appropriate? We normally would expect a message from an answering machine to be as follows:

This is 06123456. We are not at home right now. Please, leave a message after the beep.

This example shows that while the sentence “we are at home right now” is grammatical when it stands alone, that is, when it is isolated from its context, once the context is specified, it becomes meaningless. This leads us to say that grammar has a meaning-making potential when it is related to the rules of use, the rules that consider the context in any linguistic analysis. Contextualizing grammar gives a communicative value to the language taught. The pedagogical implication is that instead of using isolated meaningless sentences to teach grammar, teachers have to provide life-like situations where language is used appropriately to convey meaning.

To clarify more the importance of context in grammar teaching, let us take another example from Scott Thornbury (1999, p. 3). Let us imagine that a train inspector addresses a passenger:


Train inspector checking tickets

Copyright Martin Addison and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.train inspector checking tickets

Is ‘tickets!’ a sentence? No! It is just a word – There is not much morphology or syntax. Does the fact that it is not a sentence, in the traditional sense, make it meaningless? No, the utterance makes perfect sense. The inspector is asking the passengers to show him their train tickets. The question that might arise here is the following: what makes a one-word utterance meaningful?

The answer is CONTEXT!

Let us look at another example. This is a blind date conversation:

A: Beautiful!

B: Thanks.

A: A drink?

B: Please.

By using just a few words in a specific context, it seems we do not really need a lot of grammar. Vocabulary items carry meaning and may function pretty well without the need for grammar rules. It seems that the more context is specified, the less grammar is needed (Thornbury 1999, p. 4).

Grammar and functions

As demonstrated in the previous section, language use does not rely only on having a set of grammar rules. Context is undeniably a prerequisite for effective language communication. It is a factor that determines how effective our communicative acts are and plays a role in meaning construction. Reference to contextual clues has an impact on how we understand and respond to utterances. Let us look at the following utterance:

“It’s cold in here.”

Is it an affirmative statement?

Well! It depends. It can be just an assertion that it is cold in the room. But, providing additional contextual clues may suggest that it is an indirect speech act uttered by –let’s say- a prince who requires a servant to turn up the heat in the room.

This is exactly what the philosopher Donald Davidson refers to when he states:

What matters to successful linguistic communication is the intention of the speaker to be interpreted in a certain way, on the one hand, and the actual interpretation of the speaker’s words along the intended lines through the interpreter’s recognition of the speaker’s intentions, on the other. (Davidson, 2005, 311. Cited in Jaque, 2017)

And this is what led Scott Thornbury to say that:

“When we process language, we are not only trying to make sense of the words and the grammar; we are also trying to infer the speakers’(or the writer’s) intention, or, to put it another way, the functions of what they are saying and writing.”
Scott Thornbury (1999, p. 6)

The point that Thornbury wants to make is that, in addition to grammar rules, meaning construction relies also on the intention of the speaker and how the hearer interprets the message.  Utterances may function differently depending on these factors.

Since language functions are about what the speaker or writer intends to say, one cannot have a fully clear idea of what is being said or written unless some contextual clues are provided. For example, depending on the context, the following conditional sentences mean different things:

If you do that, you’ll be in trouble.Warning
If you lie down, you’ll feel better.Advice
If it rains, I’ll take a taxi.Planning
If you pass the driving test, I’ll buy you a car.Promise

Table 2 Language functions

The pedagogic implication is that while teaching grammar, the focus should be not only on grammar forms but also on the language functions conveyed in specific contexts. Isolated sentences are not helpful. It is through all the information available through the context that meaning is constructed appropriately:

“By dealing with related units of information rather than isolated bits, more efficient processing becomes possible” (McLaughlin, Rossman, McLeod, 1983, p.138. Cited in Mart 2013).

Grammar and lexis

In addition to the context, effective language communication depends also on having access to a stock of lexical items. According to Michael Lewis, by teaching vocabulary items, we endow our students with the underlying grammatical patterns that language is made up of:

“language consists of grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalized grammar.” Michael Lewis (1993, p. 34)

Grammar, according to the Lexical Approach developed by Michael Lewis, is secondary to lexis and by teaching lexical items such as words (e.g., book, pen…), polywords (e.g., by the way, upside down,..), collocations, or word partnerships (e.g. community service, absolutely convinced…), we help learners internalize grammar patterns/constructions that contribute to language use. It is an approach that focuses first and foremost on lexis as a basis for grammar internalization. With the advent of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and corpus linguistics, a shift occurred from teaching structures per se to teaching how strings of words that go together convey meaning in specific contexts. For example, teaching ‘I’d like’ as an instance of the conditional tense might not be helpful. Instead, it has become evident that teaching that structure as a chunk to express desire is much more productive. The realization that some grammar forms can be taught as lexical items has contributed to their introduction earlier in the syllabus with no structural analysis or explanation. This is more like a lexis-first, grammar-second approach to language teaching. Accordingly, it is argued that vocabulary item-learning precedes rule-learning.

Quite similarly, according to the emergentists point of view of language learning, grammar has emerged historically through processes through which lexical items have become:

“‘grammaticalized’ to perform certain needed functions, and then, through repeated use, become established in a speech community. According to this view, ‘grammar is seen as … the set of sedimented conventions that have been routinized out of the more frequently occurring ways of saying things’
Thornbury (2017)

The structure ‘going to’ is an example of how grammar evolves through language use. During the 16th century, ‘going to’ used to have only a literal meaning, namely, moving physically towards the intended place. Later, this structure has gained another meaning denoting future intentions. During the 20th century, ‘going to’ has evolved into the short form ‘gonna’.  As teachers, it might be more helpful to teach the structure ‘going to’ as a lexical item meaning future intention rather than go into a lengthy grammatical explanation about this form.

Prescriptive and descriptive grammar

The definition provided in section 2.1 is prescriptive. It stipulates that grammar is about differentiating the wrong from the right sentences. Put differently, ‘prescriptive grammar’ refers to a set of norms governing how sentences should or should not be formed rather than describing how language is actually used. It is concerned with what the grammarians think to be right and wrong.

Prescriptive grammar, which differentiates between good and bad language users, is contrasted with descriptive grammar. The latter focuses on describing the language as it is actually used, not as it should be used. It is based on the language used by its speakers.

Descriptive linguists try to analyze real language data so that they can formulate rules governing its use. The aim is not to distinguish good from bad language users. Many forms of language that prescriptive grammarians consider ungrammatical may be included in the data the descriptive linguists analyze. Here is an example of a form that prescriptive grammarians believe to be wrong:

John is older than her.

Although the above form is actually used by native speakers, prescriptive grammar considers it an example of bad language, claiming that the right form should be:

John is older than she.

Prescriptive grammarians believe that the word ‘than’ is used as a conjunction that should be followed by a subject pronoun. The correct form according to this approach should be:

He is older than she (is).

However, according to descriptive grammar, since the above form (i.e. ‘John is older than her’) is used by actual language speakers and writers, it should be included in the data and studied. The word ‘than’ in this analysis is viewed as a preposition, and for that reason, it can be argued that the sentence ‘John is older than her’ is also correct and that ‘her’ in this case functions as the object of the preposition.

Descriptive grammar describes language forms objectively and nonjudgmentally. The aim is to study the principles and patterns that underlie the actual language use.

Pedagogical grammar

After reviewing what prescriptive and descriptive grammars are, the question that might arise is:

Do prescriptive and descriptive grammars meet the needs of English language learners?

Practically, many teachers think that both prescriptive and descriptive grammars are hard to teach. Hence, the need for a more teachable grammar – a pedagogical grammar. The latter can be defined as the presentation of information about the grammar of the target language for teaching or learning purposes. It is selective and need not deal with all the facts about language. Only those facts that are relevant to language learning are presented. This should be done without losing the truthfulness and reliability of the grammar rules. Pedagogical grammar can be also contrasted with reference grammar which is designed to teach someone about the language not how to use a language.

So that grammar becomes teachable, it should meet some requirements, namely, meaningfulness, simplicity, truth, and grading.


Grammar should be contextualized and should make sense. Instead of focusing only on form, grammar rules have to take into consideration meaning and use as well. When and why to use a structure are as important as how to use it.


Lengthy explanations of grammar rules may be counterproductive. Short and simply formulated rules can be more effective.


The simplicity of grammar rules should not be at the expense of truthfulness. Many teachers explain the use of the indefinite articles ‘a’ and ‘an’ by stating that ‘a’ is used before consonants while ’an’ is used before vowels. This rule is simple, but it is not true. There are many instances of the articles ‘a’ and ‘an’ used before a vowel letter (cf. a university, an umbrella). A more appropriate and true formulation of the above rule might be as follows:

‘a’ is used before consonant sounds while ’an’ is used before vowel sounds.

This is because the vowel letter ‘u’ can be pronounced both as a vowel (c.f. ‘umbrella’, /ʌmˈbrɛlə/) and as a consonant or more precisely as a glide (c.f. ‘university’, /juːnɪˈvəːsɪti/).


Grammar rules have to be sequenced in such a way that easy structures should be taught before complex ones. For example, one cannot teach the past perfect tense before teaching first the simple past tense. It is generally agreed among syllabus designers that grammar points that are easy to teach should have precedence over more complex ones. Common topics you can find in a core grammar syllabus for beginners are: be, can/can’t, going to, articles, adjectives, adverbs, etc.

Redefining grammar

How can one now redefine grammar in the light of what has been said so far? The above discussions about the deficiencies inherent in the traditional definition of grammar clearly show how difficult it is to define it. Grammar is related to the entire structure of a language, including not only its syntax and morphology but also its phonology, semantics, and possibly also its pragmatics.

Here is a definition by Larsen-Freeman:

“Grammar is a system of meaningful structures and patterns that are governed by particular pragmatic constraints.”
Larsen-Freeman, 2001

Grammar should be viewed as a system governed by rules of form, meaning, and use (Larsen-Freeman 2003:34-35). In other words, not only does it refer to a description of the rules governing sentence structures, but it also involves a reference to the meanings that these structures express as well as when and why they are used. Furthermore, appropriate language use relies on both the pragmatic context and the linguistic context where this language is used. Thus, sentence structures may be interpreted differently according to, not only, the linguistic surroundings of these structures, but to individuals’ beliefs and their knowledge of the world as well. Therefore, it is safer to think of grammar structures as only one layer of meaning construction, the other layers being the situational context where these structures are used and the linguistic links these structures have within sentences. Werth (1999) summarizes this as follows:

The context of a piece of language (…) is its surrounding environment. But this can include as little as the articulatory movements immediately before and after it, or as much as the whole universe with its past and future.  (Werth 199 9: 78 – 79. Cited in Porto, 2009)

On a different level, as we have seen in the previous sections, sentence grammar, which was traditionally the focus of language teaching, fails to account for features that pertain to how meaning is constructed at the level of texts. Language knowledge involves not only how structures are organized into sentences, but also how these sentences make meanings in texts. As shown previously, a sentence may be perfectly grammatical but may fail to contribute to the production of a meaningful text.

What are the implications on grammar teaching?

Taking into consideration the above considerations of what grammar is, we can safely identify several pedagogical implications to grammar teaching.

  1. Grammar teaching should be contextualized because language is context-sensitive. Without context, it is hard to get the intended meaning of utterances, whether they are one word or multi-word utterances. Contextualizing the target structures can be done by providing real-world situations, videos, texts, etc.
  2. It is not helpful to teach grammar in isolated sentences.
  3. By taking the linguistic and pragmatic context into consideration rather than dealing with isolated elements of language, learners will be able to process language more efficiently.
  4. Traditional prescriptive sentence grammar focuses on how language should be used instead of reflecting how language is actually used. This can be confusing when confronted with real-life language that contradicts the pre-set rules of prescriptive grammarians. One way of helping learners to internalize grammar is by adopting an inductive way of teaching that relies on providing the necessary contextualized examples of actual language use and asking the students to discover the rules. This can be done through providing data (e.g. examples from corpora) and creating opportunities for guided noticing. The idea is that when the learners discover the grammar rules by themselves, this will help them to remember the rules better because they have been active in discovering them. In addition, by training the learners to use a discovery approach to learning grammar, they will tend to become anxiety free when faced with other unfamiliar grammar structures they might encounter in the future. (More on Discovery Learning in section 3.3.2.)
  5. Pedagogical grammar should abide by some essential criteria such as meaningfulness, truthfulness, simplicity, and grading. Grammar teaching has to focus on meaning, be true, and account for exceptions without losing simplicity. Some sort of sequencing – from easy forms to complex ones – should also be taken in consideration.
  6. By providing a context, language learning may occur incidentally. The learners’ knowledge about the world can help them figure out meaning and consequently learn new patterns implicitly.
  7. Any grammar teaching should involve some sort of controlled practice followed by some meaningful communicative activities where the learners will have to produce expanded output using the target structures.
  8. It is sometimes more productive to teach chunks – blocks of language – than go into lengthy explanations. Lexical chunks like ‘Would you like…?’, ‘I’d like’, and ‘how do you do?’ are cases in point. This will help learners become engaged in making links between vocabulary and grammar and see that some language patterns can be used to fulfill communicative acts without necessarily being explicitly taught by the teacher.
  9. Teaching grammar should take into consideration how language is used to serve a communication purpose. Sometimes, even if the sentences we use are grammatical, they fail to serve their communicative purpose if we overlook the functions they express. The imperative form of verbs (as in ‘Don’t press that button’) may express either a warning or a command depending on the context. Similarly, conditional sentences may express different functions like warning, advice, or promise as we have seen in table 1 above.



Canale, M., & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics,1, 1-47

Chomsky, N. (1957). Syntactic Structures. The Hague/Paris: Mouton.

Davidson, D. (1990) The structure and content of truth. Journal of Philosophy 87/6: 279-328

Jaque, Claudia. (2017). Utterance content, speaker’s intentions and linguistic liability. THEORIA. An International Journal for Theory, History and Foundations of Science. 32. 10.1387/theoria.16720.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2001). Teaching Grammar. In M. Celce-Murcia (ed.), Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (3rd edn., pp. 251-66). Boston, MA: Thomson/ Heinle

Lewis, M. (1993). The lexical approach: The state of ELT and the way forward. Hove, England: Language Teaching Publications.

Mart, Cagri. (2013). Teaching Grammar in Context: Why and How? Theory and Practice in Language Studies. 3. 10.4304/tpls.3.1.124-129.

McLaughlin, B., T. Rossman, B. McLeod. (1983). Second Language Learning: an information-Processing Perspective. Language Learning 33: 135-158.

Porto, Dolores. (2009). The role of context in word meaning construction: a case study. 7. 10.6018/48991.

Thornbury (2017, July 23) E is for Emergence. Retrieved from https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/e-is-for-emergence/

Thornbury, S. (1999) How to teach grammar. England: Pearson Education Limited.

Werth, Paul (1999). Text Worlds: Representing Conceptual Space in Discourse. London: Longman.

1 thought on “What is Grammar? Defining Grammar for Teachers”

  1. The content is quite helpful, comprehensive with a logical smooth flow, not impeding the understanding of the reader. Appreciable Work.

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