From what I've read, both terms have to do with the rules of formation of sentences. I've seen grammar used in mathematical contexts, in computability theory, where it has a precise definition. But from what I've read about syntax, I cannot see the difference between the two terms. So, what's the difference? Or do they mean the same?

Crosspost at English.SE: What's the difference between grammar and syntax?

  • 11
    Syntax is roughly about word order. Grammar has two overlapping meanings: 1. Everything about how a language works, including syntax as a subset. 2. How words are inflected, conjugated, declined according to aspect, degree, gender, mood, number, person, tense, etc. 1. is the sense linguists would use. 2. is what some people not familiar with actual linguistics would use and is why you will encounter claims such as "Chinese has no grammar". Apr 7 '13 at 9:22
  • This question should be closed because of lack of research. Jan 15 '20 at 9:00

Grammar is a (occasionally the) set of rules for the organization of meaningful elements into sentences; their economy, in one sense of that word.

There are two basic varieties of grammar; all languages have some of both kinds, but, depending on the kind of language involved, there's a lot of variation in how much of each kind they have.

One part of grammar is called Morphology. It has to do with the internal economy of words. So a word like bookkeepers has four morphemes (book, keep, -er, -s) and is put together with morphology. English doesn't have nearly as much morphology as most European languages; Russian grammar, for instance, has much more morphology than syntax. Russian is a synthetic (inflected) language.

The other part is called Syntax. It has to do with the external economy of words, including word order, agreement; like the sentence For me to call her sister would be a bad idea and its syntactic transform It would be a bad idea for me to call her sister. That's syntax. English grammar is mostly syntax. English is an analytic (uninflected) language.

  • 16
    That's why grammar is also called morphosyntax.
    – Alex B.
    Apr 3 '13 at 19:37
  • 9
    I might add that grammar is not separated from other aspects of language; meaning (semantics), pragmatics, phonology, intonation, gaze, facial expressions, gesture, and many other phenomena influence it. If you come across discussion of an interface between syntax and anything, keep your hand on your wallet. Language is biological, and biological phenomena are wildly interdependent on every level; it's only computers and theoretical models that have neatly defined interfaces.
    – jlawler
    Apr 4 '13 at 17:50
  • 3
    What does economy mean in this context? Oct 13 '14 at 20:46
  • 3
    OED: "7. The structure, arrangement, or proportion of parts, of any product of human design. 8. In wider sense: The organization, internal constitution, apportionment of functions, of any complex unity."
    – jlawler
    Oct 13 '14 at 20:51
  • 3
    I'm not sure how facial expressions affect grammar, but it made me think of yoda...
    – jiggunjer
    Sep 14 '16 at 7:40

Syntax is the study of the internal structure of phrases and sentences, and the hierarchies, grammatical functions and relations between constituents.
From my proposed tag wiki for :

The study of the internal structure of expressions, especially between words and phrases, and the principles and processes that determine it. This includes words order, but also the grammatical relations that hold between words, as well as structural ambiguity, binding, reference, and similar issues.
Common approaches are numerous phrase structure grammars (GPSG, HPSG, LFG, G&B, X-bar, Minimalism, ...) and, on the other hand, dependency grammars.

Questions that syntax attempts to answer include:

  • "How can we describe the structure of a sentence, i.e., how can we meaningfully group words into constituents and describe the hierarchical relations that hold between these consituents?" This is very often done by the use of tree diagrams (commonly referred to as "syntax trees").
  • "How can we explain the two readings in a sentence like I saw the man with the telescope (1) I saw the man by looking through a telescope vs. 2) I saw the man who had a telescope with him)?"
  • "Why does the sentence Myself shaved me not work?" (It has something to do with reflexive binding.)
  • "Why (in English) can we say [the man] who I saw [] yesterday but not [the man] who I believe [the rumours that [] is a murderer]?" (It has something to do with the complexity in the structure of noun phrases and what you can extract for the formation of relative clauses).
  • "How comes that in the sentence Mary kissed him, him is in accusative case, but in the sentence He was kissed, where he is still the one affected by the kissing and not the actor, the pronoun receives nominative case?"

Grammar is a very broad term that can roughly be described as

the implicit rules by which speakers intuitively judge which strings are well-formed in a given language.

This includes

  • syntax: The structure of phrases and sentences - see above.
  • morphology: The internal structure of words.
    Questions include:
    • "How can we sort out the word antidenationalization into a meaningful structure?"
    • "What went wrong with the word undeadable, while we can say undead and unbreakable?"
    • "Why do we find un-use-ful okay, but un-ful not?"
    • "How come that it is sing-er-s and not sing-s-er? What is the difference between how a so-called derivational moprpheme -er and an inflectional morpheme like -s work?"
  • phonology: The structure of sounds.
    Questions include:
    • "Why is it that we say ships, but not fishs and buss, but fishes and busses?"
    • "How do we intuitively know, without ever having heard the word imby-bimby before, that it should be an imby-bimby and not a imby-bimby?" (It has something to do with vowels and consonants.)
    • "Why can a word like rgafmp not exist in English?" Yes, this is actually ungrammatical. Grammar means more than "It's we swam, not we swimmed".
  • Sometimes, semantics, i.e. the study of meaning, is seen as a part of grammar:
    • "Why can we read the sentence Every child sings a song both as For every child it holds that it sings some song (not necessarily the same one) and There is (at least) one song which every child sings (this being one and the same song)?"
    • "Why can bow mean both to lean forward and a thing that you use with arrows to shoot?"
    • "In the sentence John seeks a book about Norway, how can we account for the two readings 1) John is looking for a specific book about Norway he has seen the other day vs. 2) John is looking for some book about Norway, but isn't sure that what he wants exists at all?"

To summarize, syntax is basically a sub-discipline of grammar that deals with the structure of more complex expressions, while grammar is the cover-term for every aspect of the system of rules that tell our intuition which structures are well-formed and what they mean, including word-level (morphology) and sound-level (phonology), possibly also meaning-level.


English Grammar and Syntax defines the two as follows:

Grammar is a set of rules that set forth the correct standard of usage in a language. These rules dictate how we should say things correctly. For example, agreement between words in relation to other constructions in the sentence.

Syntax is the study of sentences and their structure, and the constructions within sentences. Syntax tells us what goes where in a sentence.

  • 1
    This answer reflects my understanding of it. To put it simply, the grammar of a language is the set of rules for what works, and the syntax is the structure (and study thereof) that conforms to those rules. "Grammar rules syntax." (i.e. Grammar tells us how to structure sentences.) Apr 3 '13 at 1:57
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    @JohnM.Landsberg your last part is back-to-front. It's the observed structure of sentences (utterances...) that allows us to infer what the rules are that underlie them. As for grammar vs syntax, see jlawler's answer. Apr 3 '13 at 11:20
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    I'm afraid the source is not a useful one. This is just the usual catechism from a century ago, put on the web. First page: "A noun is the name of a person, place, or thing. Nouns may be proper or common." etc. Not a reliable source, sorry.
    – jlawler
    Apr 3 '13 at 15:08
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    @GastonÜmlaut I take it you are a "descriptive" linguist; if I qualified as a linguist, I would be, too. I wouldn't ever suggest that any set of grammatical rules was ever invented prior to the language which it subsequently generated. But once a grammar exists, syntax follows it, even if the grammar (rules) was as much as derived originally from syntax (structure). John Lawler's comment does not deny any of what I have said. I hope, however, he will comment on this discussion, because his knowledge of these matters is profound. If he can straighten me out on this, I will appreciate it. Apr 4 '13 at 20:04
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    @JohnM: Just saw this. I started to list the objectionable parts of the definitions, but in 500 characters it's easier to list the unobjectionable parts. The following 2 parts are correct: (1) "Grammar is a set of rules"; (2) "Syntax is the study of sentences and their structure, and the constructions within sentences". Everything else is either useless bloviation ("For example, agreement between words in relation to other constructions in the sentence") or downright wrong. There IS no "correct standard of usage" in English; that's a socioeconomic concept, not a grammatical one.
    – jlawler
    Jul 27 '14 at 16:31

Grammar is the general term referring to the set of rules in a given language including syntax , morphology, while syntax studies sentence structures. This means that syntax is studied within grammar as a daughter of grammar but sister of morphology where syntax has nothing to share with internal structure of words but grammar have i.e in morphology. So,morphology studies words forming, syntax deals with such formed words by putting them in a correct position within a phrase, clause or/and a sentence under the umbrella of grammar.

  • 3
    Many would argue against drawing such a concrete distinction between word-formation and sentence-formation. In the frameworks of Distributed Morphology (ling.upenn.edu/~rnoyer/dm) and Nanosyntax (nanosyntax.auf.net/whatis.html) it's 'syntax all the way down', or 'morphology all the way up', if you prefer. This isn't meant as a criticism of your answer, but more as a point of interest.
    – P Elliott
    Nov 4 '13 at 20:02
  • Morphology and syntax interact historically and strategically, at many places. Whether one wishes to incorporate all of them into a hierarchy depends on what one wants to use the grammar for. Grammars are tools, and not every tool is appropriate for every task.
    – jlawler
    Jul 27 '14 at 17:12

Latin grammar consists of two main parts.

Part I describes the word classes and what forms these words can take, nouns, adjectives, verbs etc.

Part II describes what parts a sentence has (subject, predicate, objects, predicative complement, adverbials), how sentences are built and special constructions used in Latin sentences as accusative + infinitive or absolute ablative.

The Greek word syntax consists of syn- together and taxe from a verb meaning to set, to put, so the idea of syntax is how words are put together to form a sentence.

The Latin way to describe language is extremely systematic and accurate. As a pupil in the higher classes I was filled with awe about this systematic architecture of language description. Unfortunately I miss this systematic way in English grammars by native authors.

  • 1
    "The Latin way to describe language" is reasonably effective for the purpose it was invented for, describing Latin - though there are certainly aspects of the language that it made no attempt to cover. It is less successful in describing similarly structured languages such as Greek and Sanskrit. It is hopeless for any other language. Descriptions of English (and other languages) were for centuries made nearly useless by the insistence that grammar meant Latin grammar.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 30 '15 at 21:27
  • That is something I have often heard. But the system of word classes is the same in Latin, German, French and English. The same is true for sentence parts. But the description and explanation of word classes and sentences parts is on a very low level in English grammars. Careless.
    – rogermue
    Jul 4 '15 at 18:53
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    For just a few examples of differences: French, German and English all have articles, which are a fundamental aspect of their syntax, and correspond to nothing at all in Latin. German has a case system almost completely lacking in French and English (there are vestiges in personal pronouns), but even German has much more rigid word order than Latin. French and German retain some complex morphology in verbs (hardly any remains in Englsh), but both normally require even personal subjects to be expressed, unlike Latin. English and German have far fewer synthetic tenses. And so on.
    – Colin Fine
    Jul 5 '15 at 23:33
  • Yes, it is true that Latin as a role model is very good for studying and understanding natural languages, but natural languages are used for ease of communication and usage by humans, not by grammar geeks or machines. So it is correct to say linguists must study Latin and Sanskrit, but it is its rigidity that makes it unpopular with its users. It is the difference between the house architect-ed by an architect and by the house-wife or the user, who will find strange ways to use the same house.
    – Sukii
    Nov 27 '17 at 11:21

I think I answered a very similar question recently, but I haven't located it. Please excuse any repetition.

I use grammar as the counterpart to logicians' term morphology, which means an account of what sentences (well-formed formulas) are in a language. I'd use the term morphology for that, as logicians do, except linguists have preempted the term morphology to mean something different -- an account of word structure. I believe my use of the term grammar is completely in accord with McCawley's use, in The Syntactic Phenomena of English. (But McCawley thinks grammar, in that sense, is not useful and is not interesting. Whilst I, on the other hand, am a grammar lover.)

I use syntax to mean the same thing that logicians, and McCawley use it for. It's an account of the relationships of sentences to other sentences, excluding truth and reference (which is semantics). I suppose there could be other relations of significance, but really that boils down to an account of logical implication based on the forms of sentences, which is called logical syntax (to distinguish it from logical semantics). I think it is fair to say that McCawley's interest is in logical syntax.

In these senses, syntax presupposes grammar, because until you know what the sentences are, how can you study implicational relations among them?

I think the use in linguistics of these two terms grammar and syntax, though, has been all over the map.


Three questions: Can one have improper grammar and good syntax? It sounds like the answer is 'no.' Can one have proper grammar and poor syntax? I think yes, happens all the time. Which suggests a simple distinction: grammar is the uber-structure, and syntax is it's subset, and therefore one that is more subjective than its boss.

  • Please do not ask questions using the answer box.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 27 '14 at 1:00
  • @curiousdannii: They seem to be rhetorical questions used merely in the formation of the answer... oh except for the end maybe ... Jul 27 '14 at 7:45
  • Can you give some examples of this proper grammar and poor syntax you claim happens all the time? Jul 27 '14 at 7:46
  • 1
    @hippietrail rhetorical questions are fine but I didn't think these ones lead to anything...
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 27 '14 at 7:55
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    You guys are right, those questions seem rhetorical. Since without the last sentence it seems like a potential answer, I'm leaving it here.
    – Alenanno
    Jul 27 '14 at 8:42

Artificial intelligence (computer science) has a lot of borrowing from linguistics, and the unpleasant effect happens to be sometimes that the borrowing becomes mistaken for the real thing. Linguistics is about natural language and computers do not have cognizance, therefore,

– computers do not have real syntax; all they can have is parsing routines;

– computers do not have real semantics; all they can have is designate sets;

– and computers do not have phonology; all they can have is programmed spectra of sound.

Human grammar has syntax, semantics, and phonology.

Syntax is mostly the way we put words together. We put words together in relation to the way we view time.

Semantics tells about word sense. Collocations emerge in association between syntax and semantics.

Phonology tells about the sound of language. Speech sounds matter when we phrase, not only for poetry.

The three, syntax, semantics, and phonology, are related. The relation comes to exist in human cognizance, as grammar.


Syntax is the order ,the way i perceive the term personally syntax is word that aims the arrangement of the attention as a possibility as a dynamical semi active arrangement..while grammar sets the scene out of the raw order..

  • That's wrong, syntax is definitely not equivalent to word order. Syntax is primarily concerned with the internal structure of phrases/sentences and the hierarchy between constituents, but also about e.g. grammatical features, reference, binding, etc.
    – lemontree
    Dec 31 '16 at 20:06

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