Let me clarify the question, There are traditional grammars to describe the working and structure of languages, mostly with the purpose of teaching someone to speak the languages. So, it is approach is simply educative and theoretical inconsistencies within the grammar used are neglected , it only has to work as a teaching instrument.

Then, there are descriptions of languages with the purpose of describing them for further linguistic evaluations. Maybe to have a common system of description to compare languages with one another, to group them according to some criteria, to follow their development through time by observing its change of grammar, to describe their structure precisely for computational evaluation and so forth.

Now, at this point I don't know how deep an answer to this question can get, if it is too comprehensive, please try to point out some relevant differences.


This is of course difficult to prove, but I would say traditional grammars tend to be prescriptive, i. e. they are conceived as a list of rules to be followed in order to speak the language correctly, and usually to establish a standard; deviations from the standard will be either pointed out and discouraged as "mistakes" or "deformations", or simply ignored. (This prescriptivism is the strategy adopted by certain national language academies, like the Academie Française and the Real Academia Española.)

Whereas "scientific" grammars will probably tend towards a proper descriptive approach, a non-judgmental exposition of how the language is actually spoken in its variety of registers: formal, familiar, intimate, slang, etc.; this variety will be acknowledged and studied as part of the language, as will the variety of regional accents, of lexical forms, and the like.

As an example of prescriptive grammar in the face of obvious deviations from the supposed standard, I might offer the fact that traditional grammars in Argentina, where I was born, taught us only the pronouns and verb forms employed in European Spanish, even though my dialect (spoken by maybe 30 million people!) uses different second person pronouns and a very distinctive verb conjugation for them. This was thirty years ago; a few decades before not only was the European standard taught exclusively, but the use of our dialectal forms was pronounced a "linguistic vice" and the teachers were told to erradicate it.

It makes sense, of course, to design grammars that only focus on the standard, especially for second-language students who won't have the opportunity to take in the language naturally and don't have the time to learn all registers. But they shouldn't be in the same category as real scientific grammars.

  • This distinction is well-chosen. Prescriptivism was the norm for most of the history of explicitly studied grammar. Descriptivism and a scientific (=observational, =explanatory, =generative!) approach go hand in hand. – Luke Sawczak Mar 15 '17 at 2:39

Traditional grammars were developed mainly for heavily inflecting languages (Sanskrit, Classical Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Classical Arabic). Such kind of grammars turn out to be inadequate for languages of other types, like English. Modern grammars are often developed with English in mind to suit the needs of a mainly isolating language. I am not sure how well they generalise to languages of other types.


As indicated by pablodf76, "scientific" approach to grammar is strictly descriptive. Also it tends to be really... scientific, i.e. it may be highly formal, sometimes going as far as resembling programming instructions for a computer.

Traditional approach can vary widely:

It can be prescriptivist, i.e. based on what is considered the correct usage (this is actually not as unscientific as many would consider as it may be based on genuine demand from language users that are interest in "what is correct/appropriate", but also it can be used as a political tool to suppress dialects and minorities etc.).

It can be didactic, i.e. created from categories that are more or less easy to understand for non-scientific users (i.e. no X-bar theories etc.).

It can be really traditional, i.e. based on a way used to describe some old, prestigious language (Latin, Greek,...), which was subsequently adapted to fit more or less the language in question.


Traditional grammar is supposed to be help people use language better. Modern grammar attempts to tell what is true about human language, regardless of whether that helps anyone to use language better.

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