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What is Grammar?

and why is it so important that you had

to write a whole handout on it?

Grammar is something that we consciously or unconsciously use in our

daily lives; it is the way we form words and sentences convey meanings so that
whoever is listening is able to understand. Grammar is more than a worksheet
that your teachers made you do in high school- it is a system of rules that
governs every language. One definition of grammar would be, a set of patterns
for how words are put together to form phrases or clauses, whether in speaking
or in writing. (If you liked that definition, you should check out the Does
Grammar Matter? Ted ED video on Youtube). There are two important
subtopics within the subject of grammar: morphology and syntax.

Lets start with morphology. Morphology is the study of the structure of
morphemes and/or words, to put it simply. Just as phonology has phonological
units called phonemes, morphology contains smaller morphological units called
morphemes. Morphemes and words are not interchangeable units- words are
made of morphemes which means a word has at least one morpheme and can
contain several. For example, the word elephant only contains one morpheme
because it contains one lexical meaning. By simple saying the word elephant in
a conversation, it can fairly automatically be referred to a large, gray mammal
that you can find in Africa or India. In comparison, if we look at a word like
exchangeable, we can find three morphemes, but what are these morphemes?
Another way to look at morphemes are as affixes, or additional elements
added to a root word. We more commonly see them as prefixes (found at the
beginning of the word) and suffixes (found at the end of a word), but there are
also languages that use infixes that can be found in the middle of the word.
Going back to the example of exchangeable, the three morphemes that we can
identify are ex-, change, and able. We know that the root word change means
to make or become different, but when we add the morpheme ex- to the
beginning of the word, it changes the meaning to give something and receive
something of the same kind in return. THEN we add the -able morpheme and
have a new word meaning capable of being exchanged. These are just a few
examples as to how morphology can be used.

Syntax is the study of word combinations to give structures to sentences
within a language. Sentences usually consist of two main parts: the subject and
the predicate. The subject of the sentence is the topic of the sentence, while the
predicate of the sentence is everything that is being said in relation to the
subject. Identifying these things can be difficult because the subject can be very
long or very short. For example, in the sentence,
He is nice
the subject of the sentence is he and the predicate of the sentence is nice. But
there are other examples in which the subject can be longer than the predicate.
For example,
The never-ending dispute regarding if the Office is better than Parks & Rec or
vice versa which was created by TV fans who have seen both shows and found
an immense amount of joy in watching both but have either a hard or easy time
coming to conclusion that gives plausible reason as to why one show is better
than the other based on pure opinion makes people aggravated.
In this example, makes people aggravated is the predicate. There are other
aspects of sentence structure that are important, but those will be addressed
later on.

Grammatical Categories
Grammatical categories are an important aspect of grammar across
languages. The morphemes (in agglutinative and fusional languages) or words
(in isolating languages) can add or change meaning to the verb, noun, pronoun,
adjective, or adverb being expressed. Below is a chart that explains all of these
categories and the ways they convey meaning in languages. But before going
into that, lets look at what these categories mean:
Aspect is used with verbs. It states a time-based view of a verb- usually
done through affixes or auxiliary verbs. You may have heard terms we use to
describe aspect: perfect, imperfect, progressive, and so on.
Mood is also used with verbs used to indicate modality to express an
attitude toward whatever the speaker is saying. Words like would, should,
and could are words that are used to indicate moods such as the subjunctive
or the imperative.
Tense is used for verbs to refer to the time in which an action happened.
You have probably heard of past, present, and future tenses, but if we look at
the chart we see that languages can have several different tenses to refer to
Voice is used to describe the relationship between the action of a verb
and the parts of a sentence that are connected to the verb (subject, object, etc).
These include active voice, passive voice, reflexive voice, as well as others.
Number indicates how much of something there are. This could be
singular, dual, plural, and many others. It is used most commonly wit nouns,
pronouns, and verbs.
Person is used who to indicate who is talking or who is being talked
about. This includes different persons such as first, third, fourth, and so on.
Noun class is used for identifying nouns and pronouns. Noun class is
about grammatical changes depending on groupings of nouns by gender,
animacy, countability, and others.

Case is a grammatical category that shows which grammatical function is

performed by a noun, pronoun or adjective in a phrase, clause, or sentence.
There are many cases that are included in this grammatical category that add
grammatical meaning to a sentence. The cases include:
1. Nominative
-(in nominative-accusative languages) marks the subject of the
2. Genitive
- marks the person or thing in possession
3. Dative
-(in nominative-accusative languages) marks the indirect object of
the transitive verb
4. Accusative
-(in nominative-accusative languages) marks the object of the
transitive verb
5. Ergative
-(in ergative-absolutive languages) marks the agent of a transitive
6. Absolutive
-(in ergative-absolutive languages) marks the object of the
transitive verb and the subject of the intransitive verb
7. Instrumental
-an object used in performing an action
8. Vocative
-marks the person (or thing) being addressed
9. Locative
-marks the location of the noun, pronoun, or anything in the noun
These categories can be more easily seen in the chart on the next page. This
chart provides examples of how we can see how these categories are used in
multiple languages

Category Typical formal Typical meanings Examples
contrasts conveyed
Aspect (verbs) Perfective, Time or intensity with English perfective: 'I walked to
imperfective, perfect, which something work today.' Imperfective: 'I
progressive, inceptive, happened have walked to work every day
durative, iterative, for twelve years.'
continuative Finnish mometane: huudahtaa
(to yell once)

Mood (verbs) Indicative, subjunctive, Something is either a Finnish mennee 'he/she/it will
optative, conditional, fact (indicative), or it probably go' potential mood;
imperative, jussive, isn't (all others) Russian imperative: !
hypothetical, inferential, 'Run!'
interrogative, deity,
potential jussive: similar to
'Let him run'

Tense (verbs) Present, past, future, Expresses time Burmese is a "tenseless"

non-past, non-future, reference language; Kalaw Lagaw Ya
recent past, remote KKY/KY -pa- present and
past, today past, near near-future marker,
future, remote future, KKY/KLY/KulY -nu today past
perfect, imperfect,
pluperfect, future

Voice (verbs) Active, passive, middle, Describes the Gulf Arabic Causative: xarrab
causative, adjutative, relationship between 'make go bad, ruin';
reciprocal, reflexive the action of a verb and Danish reflexive: Jeg vasker mig
its participants 'I wash myself'

Number Singular, dual, trial, Denotes number of French baleine 'whale', baleines
(nouns, verbs, plural, collective, items associated 'whales'; Tagalog bahay 'house'
pronouns) paucal with mga bahay 'houses'

Person First, second, third Which person is talking Objibwe establishes which third
(pronouns, (proximate and or being talked about. person is central to a story or
verbs) obviative), fourth not; English first person "I"
person, zero person second person "you"

Noun Class Masculine, feminine, Grammatical changes Spanish masc. el chico boy,
(nouns, neuter, animate, depending on fem la chica girl; German masc
adjectives) inanimate, count, groupings of nouns by der Mann the man, fem. die
noncount, human, gender, animacy, Dame the lady, neut. das Ende
non-human countability, etc. the end
Case (nouns, Nominative, vocative, Actor, possession, English genitive: boys, girls;
pronouns, accusative, genitive, naming, location, Basque accusative: bere (his,
adjectives) ergative, absolutive, motion towards her)* ergative: berak (he, she)*

Word Class
In languages all over the world, there are parts of the sentence known as
word class. Word class refers to different categories and groups of words that
have similarities whether it is in form or in function. We can separate word class
into two main categories that have smaller categories within them. We will be
using the chart below as a reference tool.

Lexical words (also known as content words) are words that contain meaningful
(or semantic) content. The four subcategories of lexical words are nouns,
adjectives, verbs, and adverbs.
Nouns refer to persons, places, things, states, or qualities.
Adjectives modify nouns (and pronouns) typically to give them a quality
Verbs are typically one of the main parts of a sentence. They express
actions, occurrences, or states of being. There are three main types of
-Transitive: action verb, expressing a doable activity with a direct
object, something or someone who receives the action of the verb
-Intransitive: action verb, expressing a doable activity, no direct
object receiving the action
-Copular: verb used to join an adjective or noun complement to a
subject, and they refer to the same thing or that the subject possesses
the property mentioned in the complement
Adverbs are words that modify verbs (and sometimes entire clauses)
Before moving onto function words, we should address these different
types of verbs and what they mean. Transitive verbs usually have a direct object
to follow them. For example, He kicked the soccer ball. The underlined verb
kicked has the direct object of the soccer ball- the soccer ball is the receiver
of the action.
There are also verbs that dont have these direct objects called
intransitive verbs. The example we can use here is He laughed. There is no
receiver of the verb laugh, it just is an action that doesnt require a direct
object. Other types of intransitive verbs can include sit, sneeze, went, and

The last type of verb to look at is the copular verb. This is a special type
of verb that we use a lot in English- its typically in the for of to be. For an
example, we can use the sentence, I am hungry. In this example, the verb
am connects the subject to the adjective, to directly relate the two. But, what
does to be actually mean? We know that a verb like kick means somewhere
along the lines of to hit something with ones foot, but how would you define
to be? Its pretty difficult to come up with something without using the word.
One way to look at is as a form of existing, which is a way languages without
this verb view it (yes, there are languages that dont have to be verbs!). This
verb is actually a grammatical construction rather than a lexical verb we would
typically think of. To be acts as a copula to connect entities to descriptions,
but it doesnt necessarily have to be there. Think about powerpoints that
professors give- a lot of them will have sentences like, Mitochondria necessary
for energy production. Even though the professor left out are, the sentence
was still intelligible and made sense.

Lets move on to the next category. Function words are words that rather
than having lexical meaning, they show grammatical relationships. Think of this
this way- if youre building a house, you cant just expect the wood framing to
hold by itself. You would need nails, staples, or screws in order to hold the
structure together. In the same way, the way sentences are formed cannot only
contain lexical words, function words are present to be able to give grammatical
meaning and grammatical relationships to the clause or sentence. For example,
if you were having a conversation with someone and all they said was, Put
plate table it would just sound like a list of words. But by adding function
words, we have a more comprehensive idea of the fact that Put the plate on the
table. is what our friend was trying to say. Think of lexical words as the
framework of a house and the function words are the nails and screws that hold
it together.


What is typology? Linguists define typology as a field of linguistics where
languages are classified based off of their structural and functional features.
Grammar plays a major role in linguistics typology, because morphology and
syntax contain these structural and functional features linguists look at. Lets
take a look at both of these.

Morphological Typology
In morphological typology, linguists look at the way languages form
words in order to classify them. There are three major classifications: fusional,
isolating, and agglutinative. There are close to no languages that are perfect in
each of these types because as languages change, so does the typology of the
language. Languages tend to move around a clock that flows into each other
as these languages change.
Fusional languages are languages that show grammatical relationships by
changing the internal structure of words. These languages have morphemes that
contain more than one grammatical meaning. Lets look at Latin as an example.
If we have the word amare (to love), it can be conjugated into 36 different forms.
If we conjugated it to amat (meaning they love), the -at ending that indicates
third person, singular, and present tense all in one morpheme. Not only does
this occur in verbs, but nouns also have declensions that change number and
Isolating languages (sometimes referred to as analytic languages) contain
no bound morphemes. Thats right, no
bound morphemes. In this typology, all
words express one type of grammatical
meaning- all the morphemes are free and
unattached. Classical Chinese is a
language where this occurs. From the
chart below, you can see how every
character represents one grammatical
meaning that translates to, My friends all want to eat eggs.
Agglutinative languages contain several morphemes that contain only one
grammatical meaning. Unlike fusional languages, multiple morphemes are
added on to words to express the multiple grammatical meanings they convey.
Turkish is a good example of this. The word ev in Turkish means (the) house,
but when the morpheme -ler is added to it, the word becomes plural meaning
(the) houses. By adding multiple morphemes, words are able to express more
grammatical meanings that could even mean complete phrases in one word.
Evinizdeymisim means I was (apparently) at your house in Turkish, which is
all expressed in one word by adding multiple morphemes.
As stated earlier, a clock is the best visual representation of how these
languages work. Fusional languages start at 12 oclock, isolating languages start
at 4 oclock, and agglutinative languages start at 8 oclock. Just like the hands
on a clock move, languages flow into each other in the same direction.
Languages that are fusional can also have indications of being isolating,
isolating could have agglutinative qualities, and agglutinative can have fusional
ones. The clock image below gives examples of some languages and how they
move around this clock.

Another good way to be able to differentiate from these different types is by
looking at them like boxes:

Fusional languages have multiple morphemes that

contain multiple grammatical meanings within one
Agglutinative languages have multiple
morphemes put together, but the
grammatical meaning still have
Isolating languages have morphemes that do not attach and have clear
grammatical boundaries.

Syntactic typology
looks at how languages form sentences in order to convey meaning. One of the
ways they do this is classifying languages by their word order.
Word order is made up of three components: subject, object, and verb.
These three elements can be moved
around in every which way to
convey meaning in their language.
English uses SVO word order,
meaning the subject comes first,
followed by the verb, and then the
object. In the sentence The girl
kicked the ball the girl is the
subject, kicked is the verb, and the
ball is the object. But if we look at a
language like Spanish, they use SOV
word order, where the sentence Yo
lo como directly translates to I it
eat. Below is a chart that shows the
different word order types and how
many languages use them. As you will notice, subject-first languages are the
most common, followed by verb-first, with object-first languages being the least
common of the three.