Grammar

We define grammar as the study of the structure of words and sentences. As such it is an abstract system, worthy of study in its own right. However, we also see grammar as a system that is used in a range of contexts to unlock meaning. We want to look at grammar not only in written language, but also in spoken English, in a range of multimodal forms, and in all its rich variety. The grammar we are looking at here is not about making judgements about expressions, or speakers being right or wrong, but about exploring the structure and meaning of what is said or written in many different settings.

To do that we need a toolkit, and the terminology we use to describe grammatical structures is an important part of that. But the terminology isn’t the be-all and end-all of what we’re doing here. A toolkit is not really much use on its own: we need something to use it on.

That is why, in the grammar exercises and explanations we provide on this site, we try to use as many examples of real language as we can. Many of these are sourced from the ICE-GB corpus, a collection of over a million words of natural English, sampled from real life, much of it representing speech. So instead of making up abstract examples which illustrate a grammatical point, we try to find examples that have actually been written or spoken. And instead of telling people what to do, we act as language detectives investigating what people do in real life, and describe it.

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Grammar: What grammar isn't

One of the big misapprehensions about the word grammar is that it is all to do with getting things right or wrong. Grammar teaching in the past has often taken a prescriptive turn, and for many people of older generations the memory of grammar tests at school is often a painful one.

There have also been debates for many years – centuries even – about the place of grammar in English teaching. Some see grammar as a restrictive set of rules, others as a mass of technical jargon that has to be learned, while many English teachers have often seen it as something that probably has to be done, although it’s not much fun.

Many of those views are understandable and we can’t hope to change every English teacher’s mind with what we are attempting to provide here. In fact, the prescriptive view – that grammar is all about getting things right or wrong – has had something of a mini-revival of late, with writers like Lynne Truss, John Humphrys and Simon Heffer all weighing in to the discussion and telling us how we should or shouldn't be writing, or speaking, or texting.

Others – mostly linguists, but not exclusively – have argued against those prescriptive views. So in recent years we have seen David Crystal, Geoff Pullum, Henry Hitchings and Kate Burridge argue that language usage should be open to scientific investigation, as well as discussion, and that change is not for the worse.

In Englicious we take a different approach to grammar.

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