Domains and main notions of Theoretical Grammar


Brief history of grammar studies

Subject matter of Grammar. Types of grammar studies

Nature of a grammatical element.

Language structure and grammar

Some basic grammar terms and concepts

Brief history of grammar studies

Theoretical grammar is a theoretical description of a language grammar system, scientific analysis and description of its grammatical categories, the study of inner mechanisms of the language that make sentences out of words in the process of communication.

Grammar studies of English began in the end of the 16th century. At that time Latin grammar was the only grammar learned in schools. Until then there were no grammars of English.

The first grammar of English, Bref Grammar for English, written by William Bullokar, was published in 1585. The most influential grammar of English (published in 1762) was R. Lowth’s Short Introduction to English Grammar. It started the age of prescriptive grammar. To a prescriptive grammarian, grammar is rules of correct usage; its aim was to prescribe what is judged to be correct rather than to describe actual usage.

A new, modern understanding of grammar appeared only by the end of the 19th century, when the period of scientific (descriptive) grammar began. To descriptivists, grammar is a systematic description of the structure of a language. With the appearance of structural descriptive linguistics, grammar came to mean the system of word structures and word arrangements of a given language at a given time.

To transformational-generative grammarians, who are an offshoot of structural descriptive linguistics, grammar is a mechanism for producing sentences. Thus the actual definition of grammar is determined by pragmatic factors. If we wish to learn to speak and write, we will focus on the system of rules that underlie a given language, and if we wish to describe the structure of a language, we will focus on the units that make up the language and their relations, and if we wish to understand how speakers of a given language produce and understand sentences, we will focus on the nature of the rules used.


Periods Types of Grammars Linguists and their works Main Principles
I. Prescientific Grammar (XVI – IXX cc.) Early Prenormative Grammar W. Bullokar Bref Grammar for English(1585)J. Wallis Grammatica Linguae AnglicanaeJ. Brightland The simple description of    English Grammar system by adaptation of Classical Latin Grammars
Prescriptive (Normative) Grammar R. Lowth Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762)Lindley Murray English Grammar Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners(1795)J.C. Nesfield English Grammar Past and Present (1898, 1964) To set up a set of correct and standard usages
II. Scientific Grammar (XX c.) Classical scientific grammar (descriptive and explanatory) H. Sweet New English Grammar, Logical and Historical (1891)L.G. Kimball Structure of the English Sentence(1900)H. PoutsmaO. Jespersen Philosophy of Grammar Scientific study description of language without discriminating “wrong” and “right” usages
Structural (descriptive) Ch. Fries The Structure of English (1956)L. Bloomfield Language To develop precise and rigorous methods to describe the formal structural units in the spoken aspect of any language, to describe relationships that underlie all instances of speech in a particular language
Transformational Generative N. Chomsky Syntactic Structures (1957)E. Bach Introduction to Transformational Grammars To study language as a device for producing structures

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Subject matter of grammar. Types of grammar

For academic purposes, we can speak of two types of grammar: practical and theoretical.

According to the definition popular in Soviet and Russian linguistics, practical grammar gives practical rules of the use of the linguistic structures while theoretical grammar gives an overview and analysis of the structures in the light of general principles of linguistics and the existing schools and approaches.

Western scholars use different terminology. In his The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, David Crystal talks about the following types of grammar studies:

Pedagogical Grammar is specifically made for teaching a foreign language, or for developing an awareness of the mother tongue. Such ‘teaching grammars’ are widely used in schools.

Normative (Prescriptive) Grammar lays down rules for the socially correct use of language (=this usage is correct, that usage is wrong). 

Descriptive Grammar is an approach  that describes the grammatical constructions that are used in a language, without making any evaluative judgments about their standing in society. These grammars are commonplace in linguistics, where it is standard practice to investigate a ‘corpus’ of spoken or written material, and to describe in detail the patterns it contains.

Reference Grammar is a grammatical description that tries to be as comprehensive as possible, so that it can act as a reference book for those interested in establishing grammatical facts

Theoretical Grammar is an approach that goes beyond the study of individual languages, to determine what constructs are needed in order to do any kind of grammatical analysis, and how these can be applied consistently in the investigation of linguistic universals.

Source: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press. 1997. (p. 88).

Ver popular are functional approaches of grammar which consider the functions of language and its elements to be the key to understanding linguistic processes and structures. This type of grammar studies states that language structures are best analysed and understood with reference to the functions they carry out.

Whatever the approach, the main subject matter of grammar studies is the grammatical structure of language, i.e. the system of the laws of word changing and sentence building. The rules of Grammar govern the ways in which words are joined together to express feelings, emotions, etc.

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Nature of a grammatical element

The structure of languages is in large part determined by their characteristic functions.

The most important language function is cognitive, which reveals the interrelation of language and thought (concept).

We express concepts through nomination (the action of giving a name to an object) and signification (the general representation or conveying of abstract meaning). Hence, there are two main types of linguistic signs: nominators (they are nominative words) and significators (they have no nominative ability but only more abstract semantic meaning). Significators are grammatical devices/elements.

As any lingual unit, the grammatical element is a bilateral sign. It has both form (expression)  and meaning (content). The complex relations between its planes of expression and content may even result in grammatical homonymy, synonymy and polysemy.

Grammatical Homonymy:

Form Meaning
-s/ -es 3d person sg (he goes)possessive case (Jack’s)plural (boys)

Grammatical Polysemy:

Form Meaning
Present Indefinite-s/ -es habitual actiongeneral truthstate

Grammatical Synonymy:

Form Meaning
Present IndefinitePresent ContinuousFuture Continuous future action

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Language structure and grammar

Language is a system. System is a structural set of elements related to one another by common functions.

Linguists analyse the language into 2 different aspects: the system of signs (language proper) and the use of signs (speech proper).

The elements of the language aspect are ideal, abstract and potential. In speech the potential meaning of the lingual sign is “actualized”, that is made a “real” part of a grammatically organised text.

After Descriptive linguists, the elements of language are termed “eme” units, while the elements of speech are termed “allo” units.

e.g. A morpheme is manifested as one or more morphs (surface forms) in different environments. These morphs are called allomorphs.

A phoneme is manifested as one or more phones (phonetic sounds) in different environments. These phones are called allophones.


Every language consists of a number of structural layers. They form a hierarchy  in such a way that units or combinations of units on one layer realise units or combinations of units of the next higher layer.



6. Supraproposemic texteme (supra-sentential construction) Formation of a textual unity with complex functions.
5. Proposemic sentence It’s a nominative and predicative unit. It nominates a situation and shows its relations with reality.
4. Phrasemic phraseme (word-group, clause) It’s a nominative unit. It presents an object as a complicated notion (polinomination)
3. Lexemic lexeme (word) It’s a nominative unit. It names things and notions and relations in the world.
2. Morphological morpheme Morphemes have an abstract meaning which build a more concrete one. It’s a significative unit.
1. Phonological phoneme (sound) Phonemes have no meaning. It’s a distinctive unit.

The above described language elements stand to one another in 2 fundamental types of relations: paradigmatic and syntagmatic.

Paradigmatic relations exist between the elements of a class. Elements form a class when they have something in common; they are associated with each other.


There are 3 main types of paradigmatic relations studied by grammar: 

  1. The elements of a paradigm may have a similar invariant semantic feature (synonymic and antonymic lines)

e.g. Present Continuous, Future Continuous, Future Indefinite forms may all imply the meaning of a future action. 

  1. The elements of a paradigm may have similar formal characteristics.

e.g. (I) write, (you) write, (he) writes …

  1. The elements may have a similar function

e.g. ‘a, the, this, some, his’ have a common function of determination of a noun and are called “determiners”

Syntagmatic relations exist between the elements of different linguistic status and of different complexity. Standing together in linear order, linguistic elements can make up a unity, the parts of which are syntagmatically related and make up a whole.

Paradigmatic relations coexist with syntagmatic relations in such a way that some sort of syntagmatic connection is necessary to realize any paradigmatic series.

All syntagmatic and paradigmatic properties of morphemes and words are the subject of Morphology as a part of grammar.

Different paradigmatic and syntagmatic aspects of the syntactical level units are studied by Syntax.

Morphology studies parts of speech and their morphological categories. Morphological categories are represented in word forms. It studies the system of forms of word change and the structure of words. E.g.: the case and the number of the noun; person, number, mood of the verb etc.

Traditionally the field of morphology is divided into two domains: lexical/derivational morphology studies the way in which new items of vocabulary can be built; inflectional morphology studies the way words vary in their form in order to express grammatical contrast.

Syntax studies the sentence and the parts of the sentence; it makes the study of ways of connection of words and word combinations in the sentences.

Morphology and Syntax are two independent parts of Grammar and have their own scopes of study; however, they are closely connected, for the morphological characteristics of the word are realized through its syntactical relations with other words.

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Some basic grammar terms and concepts

In this section we will introduce some basic terms and concepts. They are essential for studying English grammar as a whole and also provide a framework for sentence analysis. Here you will find only a brief overview, and all these terms and concepts will be further described in detail in individual topics.

The words of every language fall into classes which are called parts of speech (classes of words).  Parts of speech differ from each other in meaning, form and function.

The parts of speech are divided into two main classes, the open and the closed (or “notional” and “functional” parts of speech). The open classes are those that freely admit new members into the vocabulary. They are lexical words. The closed classes do not admit new members. They mainly express grammatical meaning.

Open classes of words (notional parts of speech)
  • Nouns refer to a person, animal, thing or idea: e.g. boy, book, name, war…
  • Verbs refer to an action, event or state, e.g. go, happen, be, have…
  • Adjectives give us more information about objects or ideas, e.g. big, tall, red…
  • Adverbs add more information about a verb, an adjective, another adverb, a clause or a whole sentence, e.g. carefully, here, fast…
Closed classes of words (functional parts of speech)
  • Articles show the type of the noun reference: a, an, the
  • Pronouns substitute noun phrases: e.g. it, you, they, someone, those…
  • Prepositions describe the relationship between words from open classes: e.g. at, in, on, with…
  • Conjunctions show a link between words, phrases or clauses: e.g. and, but, when, if…
  • Interjections are mostly exclamation words: e.g. oh, wow, ouch…

Parts of speech have different grammatical categories (a set of syntactical features to express some grammatical properties)

Verbs: the categories of mood, tense, aspect, phase, voice, person and number;

Nouns: the categories of number, gender, case, determination

Adjectives: degrees of comparison

Adverbs: degrees of comparison

In a sentence, words have a certain syntactic function:

  • Subject encodes the primary participant in the clause. It is a person, place, thing, or idea that is doing or being something. (e.g. Mike studied three foreign languages at school)
  • Predicate (predicator) is is the main verb in the sentence. It expresses what is said of the subject and usually consists of a verb with or without objects, complements, or adverbial modifiers (e.g. Mike studied three foreign languages at school)
  • Predicative/subject complement is the nominal part of a predicate. It is the adjective, noun, pronoun, verbal or a clause that stands after the linking verb (copula) and ascribes some quality to the subject. (e.g. Mike is an excellent translator.)
  • Object (direct, indirect, prepositional) receives the action and follows the main verb. A direct object is the receiver of an action; the indirect object shows to or for whom/what the action is performed. Semantically, object completes the meaning of the verb. (e.g. Mike studied three foreign languages at school)
  • Adverbial modifier (of time, place, attendant circumstances, manner, purpose etc.)  is a word or phrase that is used to modify another part of a sentence, usually a verb or adverb. (e.g. Mike studied three foreign languages at school)
  • Attribute is a word ascribing a quality. It qualifies a noun and stands right before or sometimes after a noun. (e.g. Mike studied three foreign languages at school)
  • Appositive is a noun or noun phrase that renames another noun right beside it, e.g. Henry, my cousin, lives on my block.

On the syntactic level we distinguish:

  • clause is a group of related words containing a subject and a verb.

A clause may be either a sentence or be a part of a complex sentence.

  • Sentences can be simple, compound and complex.
  • Complex sentences have a main (principal) clause and a subordinate clause or clauses.

e.g. The old man saw a black dog there. (simple sentence).

Tom believed it. (simple sentence).

Tom believed that the old man saw a black dog there. (complex sentence)

book logo2Additional reading and links:

Simple explanations of parts of speech and sentence elements —>

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True of false?

A grammatical element is a bilateral sign

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True. A grammatical element is a unity of form and meaning.

True of false?

Grammar mainly studies lexical meaning of words.

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False. The main subject matter of grammar is the grammatical structure of language, i.e. the system of the laws of word changing and sentence building.

True of false?

A grammatical element has only the form.

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False. A grammatical element is a unity of form and meaning.

True of false?

Grammatical synonyms exist in English.

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What do we call the traditional subdivision of grammar studies dedicated to morphemes, parts of speech and their morphological categories?

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What do we call the traditional subdivision of grammar studies dedicated to the study of sentences and the principles and processes by which sentences are constructed?

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 Determine the classes of all words in the following sentence:

Your channel must change all the programmes tomorrow.

  • Your

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Possessive pronoun

  • channel

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  • must

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Modal verb

  • change

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  • all

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Defining pronoun

  • the

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  • programmes

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  • tomorrow

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Analyse the sentence defining the functions of phrases.

1. Your channel must change all the programs tomorrow.

Your channel

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must change

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all the programmes

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Direct object


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Adverbial modifier of time


2. The Johnsons added a double garage to their house.

The Johnsons

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a double garage

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Direct object

to their house

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Indirect prepositional object

3. The news about your illness reached me very late.
The news

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about your illness

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very late

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Adverbial modifier

Find subordinate (dependent) clauses.

1.Because the bridge wasn’t properly maintained by the government, it fell down.

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Because the bridge wasn’t properly maintained by the government — adverbial clause of reason

2.He’ll be able to maintain a healthy weight if he keeps exercising.

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if he keeps exercising — adverbial clause of condition

3.The people whose names are on the list will go to camp.

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whose names are on the list — attributive clause

4.Pizza, which most people love, is not very healthy.

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which most people love — attributive clause

5.When the book was written is a real mystery.

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When the book was written — subject clause

6.No one knows whom Michael hired to write his book.

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whom Michael hired to write his book — object clause