word cloudGrammar represents the tools with which we fashion the vocabulary, or building blocks of a language, to construct that language. It is how the linguistic units are joined together. These units consist of clauses, phrases and words, even punctuation. When we look at these linguistic (or grammatical) units we describe them in terms of their structure, syntax, meaning and how they are used in discourse. Grammar consists of rules which may seem to dictate the 'proper' or 'accurate' way to use the English language. In fact, by following grammar rules, we find that our communicative audience extends around the world. Virtually any grammatical English sentence can be understood by English speakers anywhere. By following the principles that establish how we use the language, we are able to communicate universally.

 Even though standard English constantly changes, it is surprisingly uniform wherever it is spoken. There is no official panel or academy that dictates correct English. If there is any regulation at all, it comes unofficially from those who write dictionaries, grammars and handbooks (and teach English as a Second Language) A consensus of opinion determines what is considered 'standard' English (generally in written form). Given the diversity in the actual use of the language, what is most remarkable is that users are able to find common meaning in a language that accommodates cultural nuances found around the world. In addition to being the language of the United States, South Africa, India and New Zealand for example, English is the lingua franca of the European Union.

With today's reliance on computerized approaches to problem solving, exactness in quantitative solutions is de rigueur. We are able (and expected) to answer mathmatical questions accurately and effortlessly to the minutest degree. Enormous economic sums and even lives can be at stake. Nano- and Giga- are common prefixes in mathematical jargon today. However, not only is the power of the computer being used to analyze and manipulate quantitative data, but today we are able to use it to research qualitative and linguistic data as well. We can now harness the computer's power and precision beyond its applications in mathematics, bio-engineering and aero-dynamics. The elements of speed, accuracy and logic that are made possible by computers are being used to solve linguistic riddles.

While grammar is often taught to language learners in a simplified (sentence-level) form, It is important to remember that grammar does not operate solely at that level. ESL instructors must continuously remind themselves (and their students) that the context of the discourse within which the grammar is being applied has an effect on the message's meaning. "The use of authentic texts in teaching...is essential in helping learners to relate form to meaning and use." (emphasis added) (Bardovi-Harlig, 2002) Presenting grammar in context can reveal form and meanings that are not readily apparent in exercises that are traditionally demonstrated.

Today we are able to analyze groups of words to see how they are actually used to communicate. A 'group' in Latin is called a corpus. Corpus Linguistics is the study of large groups of words. Language is used differently in registers such as conversation, fiction writing, newspapers, non-fiction, magazines and academic lectures and distinguishing these differences is one goal of Corpus Linguistics.

In the field of Corpus Linguistics, size does matter. It is critical that the groups we analyze are large. In fact, enormous corpora exist. The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) contains 450 million words in various registers and the results of its analyses are robust, in part due to its enormity. One thing we are finding from this analysis is that things are not always as they seem. Our perceptions and reality often do not agree. For more on this development, go to Corpus Linguistics on this website..

Presenting authentic use, rather than usage, is our goal and we aim to analyze English communication within a framework of Corpus Linguistics.

In addition to articles in newspapers, academic journals and magazines, this author has cited two grammar texts. These texts base some of their conclusions on these studies of corpora. One is Longman's Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English by Douglas Biber, Susan Conrad and Geoffrey Leech. The other is Real Grammar: A Corpus-based Approach to English by Susan Conrad and Douglas Biber. Both look at how we actually use grammar and vocabulary.

Accuracy in communication does not have to rely upon computerization. An informed and skillful use of grammatical principles can result in accuracy whenever ideas are exchanged. Unfortunately the value of linguistic exactness is too often overlooked. Communicating "well enough" is too often acceptable. When one's ideas are only vaguely expressed, the listener or reader is likely to be only vaguely aware of what those ideas are. The challenge we all face is how to elevate grammatical proficiency and accuracy to a higher level.

Below are links to selected grammar-related topics in no particular order:

To Be or To Do
The Sentence

The Adverb

Prepositions
Verbs
Articles

Possessives
Gerunds & Infinitives
Mysterious English

 

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Last Updated: November 21, 2016