There's a question that bothered me for a long time when I am learning another language. English is not my first language, so when I was being taught, they told me all these grammars like like the tenses, single/plural and so on.

I got confused all the time why they have to make the language so complicated themselves. Why can we just say "He eat a lot." in stead of "He eats a lot."? I mean both sentences are understandable but the rules of English say the former is wrong!

My question is "What's the use of Grammar if it makes the things more complicated?" Since people have higher possibility to make grammatical mistakes.

  • 3
    @Clinttt - without grammar, you can't communicate your ideas to another and be understood. "Me get food." Who is me? Is it I or you, or us or them? Get when, now or later or already? The first written language had grammar rules we can write out today. They didn't call it grammar. They just wrote what they wanted to say. But for it to be understood, it had a structure. That's grammar. – anongoodnurse Nov 22 '14 at 11:29
  • 2
    There is no language without grammar, because the two cannot be separated. Similarly, you cannot say you like learning languages but you hate learning vocabulary. – painfulenglish Nov 22 '14 at 11:33
  • 10
    What is your first language, Clinttt? I can assure you that, whatever it is, it too has plenty of grammar rules that are unnecessary and superfluous, but are used because that’s just how the language is. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 22 '14 at 11:39
  • 7
    I had a hunch your first language might be Chinese. Chinese has plenty of odd grammar quirks, and as a foreigner who has learnt it, I spent a lot of time trying to work out the grammar as I was speaking earlier on. It took a long time to get to the point where I no longer thought about grammar—and I still can’t understand what they say on the news! Example: why is it usually 你吃饭了吗? and not 你吃了饭吗? And why is the reply 我没(有)吃饭, rather than 我不吃饭了 or 我不吃了饭? And why is 我把电影看完了 fine when 我把电影看了 isn’t? There’s lots of stuff like that in every language. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 22 '14 at 13:49
  • 3
    @RoaringFish You’re right, this is simply a peeve by a native speaker of an analytic/isolating language like Mandarin Chinese peeving about the existence of synthetic/inflectional languages like English or Spanish or French or German or Latin or Greek or Sanskrit. It misuses the term “grammar” when it means nothing more than simple inflection. For a good example of how language require grammar, not only strip all inflexional and derivational morphemes from this comment but also sort all resulting words alphabetically, and then see how useless an utterance it has become. – tchrist Nov 22 '14 at 19:54

A very short version: the use of grammar is that you could not have asked this question without using grammar!

You are making one big assumption, and as a result, you miss the main point:

Grammar was devised by people trying to create a language.

Well, in some cases, this has actually happened. But in general his is just a huge misunderstanding. Grammar is made by the people that speak the language.

Language is what people use to communicate with each other. Over time, language evolves, it changes. And over a time of thousands of years, nobody ever wrote a grammar book! Well, probably that also had to do with writing not having been invented yet.

But even after we started to write, most people never saw a grammar book.

Still, everybody knows grammar rules! Because grammar is not what someone writes down for you to learn, it is how people use the words in a language to make meaningful sentences!

So, what's the use of grammar? It makes it possible for people to use a language. Without grammar, I would expect you to understand the meaning of the following sentence:

and walk come have john dog home some the oranges after

I have used all the words from a normal English sentence, but I have willingly removed that pesky grammar that makes it difficult. So my words are in no particular order, I did not conjugate any verbs, and for good measure I removed all punctuation.

Now let's see what happens when I apply grammar to those words:

After walking the dog, John came home and had some oranges.

Now, I am not going to give you a list of all the grammar rules I used to form that sentence, but there are a lot of them! I can use them without even knowing they exist!. Native speakers learn the grammar rules of their mother-tongue when they learn how to speak. Nobody teaches a baby how to conjugate verbs, yet they learn by copying and understanding patterns. A grammar book is nothing else than a collection of those same rules that children learn by themselves when they are quite young.

What makes it seem difficult is that those rules are different between languages, so the rules for English may look very new and unfamiliar compared to the rules of your native language. That may seem unfair and complicated, but trust me, an English speaker learning your language has the same problem.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    @Clinttt. Did you read oerkelens's answer? Nobody 'overdid' anything. Nobody invented the rules as such - the written rules were simply observations of what people actually said. – tunny Nov 22 '14 at 10:57
  • 1
    @Clinttt: who overdid it, according to you? – oerkelens Nov 22 '14 at 11:09
  • 4
    @Clinttt Grammar has throughout the history of humankind come solely from how native speakers use language. It wasn’t until the 17th or 18th century that prescriptivism (people trying to dictate what’s ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ in their language) really started popping up. But languages change: their grammar does not stay the same. This happens in tiny little increments, but if speaker A follows the new change in one place and speaker B doesn’t, then obviously B will think that A is making a grammatical mistake. And sometimes, of course, even native speakers do make accidental mistakes. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 22 '14 at 13:07
  • 2
    @Clinttt, put another way: even if we (the people on this site) agreed the rules are "too complex" and "should be simplified", there is no governing body of English. The fact that there is no one to appeal to in order to change the rules also tells you that there is no-one making these rules. In other words, as others have said: grammar is simply descriptive. We watched a bunch of people talking & writing and then wrote down the patterns we observed them using. That's what grammar is. And for that reason, there is no way for us to say change it!. – Dan Bron Nov 22 '14 at 14:29
  • 2
    The OP has misused the word grammar when he means inflection. This is because he comes from an isolating not an inflecting language, so he is peeved off that inflections exist in English. – tchrist Nov 22 '14 at 19:56

Grammar is what allows you to connect the meanings of individual words into a more complicated meaning that connects different concepts together. Without some agreement about how we do that, we can't express these more complex concepts.

As you say, "He eat a lot" is perfectly understandable. We say that it's a mistake because it isn't the normal way of expressing that concept, but it still gets the point across. But consider a sentence such as "John eaten alligator". Is that supposed to mean "John was eaten by an alligator" or "John has eaten alligator" (quite common in the southern US)?

Now, you could argue that insisting on "he eats" instead of "he eat" is unnecessary complication and just an opportunity to make mistakes. But it does have some use, by adding redundancy to the language, which gives you more than one chance to understand. For example, suppose that, in a noisy room, somebody asks "Who wants a drink?" Because of the noise, you're not quite sure if they said "You wants a drink?" However, that would be ungrammatical, so you assume they asked "Who wants a drink?", rather than "You want a drink?" If we didn't use a different form of the verb for the second and third person, you'd have to ask them to repeat themself.

This answer was written while the question was still over on English Language and Usage SE. I suspect it doesn't meet the standards that would be expected of an answer here on Linguistics so if it's inappropriate, just yell and I'll delete it.

| improve this answer | |

Short and simple answer: grammar is natural and without it there is no language.

Longer answer: in the beginning there is pidgin. Pidgins develop where a group of people with no common language have a pressing need to communicate, often related to work or trade. Pidgins have a lexis sufficient to talk about work/trade, and barely any grammar though that also depends on how you define 'grammar'.

The pidgin may migrate out of the situation that generated it, into a domestic setting, and then it becomes a creole. A creole has a larger lexis to accomodate domestic items and starts to develop grammar.

One day, depending on social and political factors more than on linguistics, the grammar and lexis of the creole might be codified into grammar books and dictionaries, which allow it to be taught in schools. Now, it is a language.

Note here are that the grammar arises naturally - there is no sinister 'they' inventing grammar, only a 'they' who codify it. Why does the grammar arise naturally? Because grammar is needed for the creole or the language to function effectively. A pidgin might get by with minimal grammar because it has minimal functions, but the extended functions of a creole or language need grammar to avoid chaos. Consider this short sentence... a verb with two arguments:

John shot David

We know, in English, that John had a gun and David recieved a bullet, and it all happened in the past. We know that because the rules of English grammar tell us what the word order should be and to mark the verb as past. Without those grammar rules all we would have is two people and a shooting, at some indefinate time.

Your question about third person -s...

This is already a simplification. In OE the third person was conjugated with some weird symbols that I can't reproduce here, and pronounced as -eth, -ath, and -th. In ME those three were simplified into a single -eth used for all third persons:

He eateth a lot

which in Modern English is simplified even further to -s, used to mark that person as being absent from the conversation.

| improve this answer | |

I'd like to offer an alternative perspective to all the answers offered so far. First, I'd like to rephrase the question and then react to the other answers with some general points.

  1. When you ask what is the purpose of grammar, you really want to know what is the purpose of morphology? And, in fact, this is one of linguistics' great puzzles (although not one that is often discussed openly). By and large morphology is redundant in all languages. As you say, it does not matter whether you say 'John likes' or 'John like'. In fact there are many dialects of English where 'John like' is just fine. There's certainly no potential for misunderstanding. The vast majority of inflectional morphemes are not necessary to convey the desired meaning. That does not mean that they do not convey meaning that would not be lost without them (e.g. in Czech accusative and locative often differentiate between a directional and locational meaning of a preposition or even the English plural morphemes are pretty useful) but that the meaning is generally sufficiently clear from context or could be easily recovered through some other means. There are various very powerful models that explain the process of the emergence of inflectional morphology but no clear explanation as to why it's there.

  2. So by and large you can do without morphology but can you do without syntax? That depends on what you think syntax is. If you think about it as mostly word order, then you always need some way to order words one after another. And there does not seem to be one natural, logical way to do it. Subject-Verb-Object may seem natural to us but any other ordering seems to be just as fine. But how necessary is it? Not very. Most sentences are fine in pretty much any order. There are some high profile examples where the sentence alone is completely ambiguous (e.g. Parents love children.) but they would generally be rescued by context (e.g. in Czech 'Parents love children' is always ambiguous without context and in English, you're more likely to disambiguate by including 'their' before the object). But even in languages with relatively fixed word orders, there are many contexts (like poetry) when it can all be upended and mixed beyond recognition.

  3. While there are no languages without some sort of word order conventions, surely syntax is not about the order of words, at all! It's all about capturing the underlying relationships between words and giving them some sort of communicative or configurational function. Nouns become subjects to express agentivity, adjectives become attributes, verbs predicates, etc. We need to capture how agents and patients relate to each other, make sure we know what it is that prepositions modify, link anaphors to their referents, etc. And sure enough, all languages do that in one way or another. But they all do it in a profoundly redundant manner. Almost anything that you might think is essential for communication based on your observations of one language will be found missing in another language. All attempts at finding grammatical universals have failed to find anything plausibly invariable. Even the famous 'Universal Grammar' is just a collection of a handful of some general tendencies.

  4. All the answers to the question, have assumed that there is such a thing as grammar. And not just that. They also assume that grammar is the fundamental expression or carrier of the deeper purposes of language. But I'd like to propose that there's in fact no such thing as grammar. Grammar is consequence of its artifacts, the grammar books. I've written a long post about thinking about grammar in different ways.

  5. Construction grammar offers a much better way of thinking about grammar as an inventory of conventional ways of expressing meanings through sounds, words, parts of words, and combinations of words (constructions). And it's relatively easy to explain why we want to have conventional ways of speaking. Everything in human interaction is governed by convention (tacit agreement). In makes the interaction more predictable, easier to teach to new generations, more useful in differentiating in-groups from out-groups, and of course, it also make interaction more efficient. Not having to negotiate your conventions at the start of every interaction is very helpful. Even redundancy makes great sense because you often deal with the transmission of information over noisy channels (e.g. in a noisy place). Of course, over time, conventions tend to pile on top of one another and the efficiency will suffer. But no matter how morphologically or syntactically complex, no language seems to have transcended the equilibrium of efficiency.

This last point has to deal with two important objections:

i. What about the obviously different cognitive natures of the conventions of grammar when compared to the conventions of culture? It's much more difficult (and quite different) to 'learn a language' than it is to 'learn a culture'. Our ability to behave in conventional linguistic ways is embedded so much 'deeper' in us than our ability to behave in culturally conventional ways. Just compare acquiring the phonological distinctions of a language with learning to politely refuse an offer of food. This is a good point to which I only have a partially satisfactory answer in that the conventions of culture are much deeper and more complex than people imagine. But I have to admit that they still seem qualitatively different from the conventions of language. I've addressed some of this in another post.

ii. Isn't talking about an inventory of conventional ways of expression just renaming what we've always talked about as grammar? Yes and no. In claiming that grammar is just an artifact of the grammar book, I'm not suggesting that the grammar book is a deluded enterprise. For millenia, grammar book writers have been describing real conventions and have done a great job in putting together taxonomies of these conventions. So when rethinking the nature of language without 'grammar', we don't need to start over and jettison all those old rules. They're pretty handy for what they are. But we need to rethink their place in our understanding of language. We must not confuse all those taxonomies of linguistic conventions with language for which we then need to find cognitive and neurological correlates. These taxonomies that were developed for the convenience of the reader and writer (and often influenced as much by the convention of the genre as anything else). The structure of language does NOT look like the table of contents of a grammar book. There's probably not even such a thing as a single structure. But that is often what we're lead to believe.

So in conclusion, even though this question may seem a bit naive, it is actually a profound puzzle to which linguistics does not have a complete answer. The fact, that we can be so dismissive of the question only indicates how much we need to rethink what we've been taking as givens about language for at least a hundred years. There are many linguists and other cognitive scientists who are doing that. But perhaps few who would want to be as radical about it as this. But I suspect that in a few generations, this will not seem as bold, as it may now.

| improve this answer | |

To make a short answer. You have it backward. Linguistics, like other sciences, tries to provide description of what is. Linguistics is descriptive, but not prescriptive.

No one invented grammars (except for very few artificial languages), or other language strucutures, They happened because that is how humans, collectively, felt it convenient to talk, for whatever good or bad reason. Possibly it is good, possibly it is bad, but it is not really open to value judgement: it just is. And no one is making a decision one way or another.

In this sense it is neither more nor less absurd than many other social rules, and following it is necessary for social life. You do not walk naked to work when it is hot. Why not?

Now, many social rules can be described, and some times explained. That is the work of scientists. Do not pick on them, or on anyone. It is a collective thing that cannot be controled.

Some people have tried, not even to make the rules, but only to document them and freeze them. This was more or less the role of the Academie Française for French, when it was created some 4 centuries ago. But the language evolved despite the Academie, and the Academie had to follow. You cannot be prescriptive, even with a good description.

Evolution of life is based on chance, but still follows some general rules. For example, any trait that will save energy expenditure is favorable.

It is probable that, to some extent, languages evolve similarly, under environmental constraints.

Also languages represent concepts that people want to communicate. These concepts can actually vary from culture to culture. It may vary in the words. Some Nordic languages may have more words for white or for snow, with nuances that do not matter to us. Some culture give genders to objects, while other do not. Some have tenses that express very specific relation that have less significance for other. The grammar is often only part of a mirror of cultural evolution, of the way people think. And what really matters when learning a language is to learn to think in that language. That is much harder than grammar.

| improve this answer | |

I've just found nice piece of explanation by Michael Swan and I've decided to share it:

Michael Swan | What is grammar?

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Please summarise this link; we don't allow link only answers on SE sites. – curiousdannii Nov 23 '14 at 21:54

Even if after he/she/it the verb in present tense had no ending -s the grammar would have to describe this. But your suggestion is naive, it would be impossible to destinguish between present indicative and present subjective.

If you find the single ending -s in the present tense too difficult you should learn Latin where each of the six verb forms in present tense has a different ending. Besides,how is it in your mother tongue? Do you think your mother tongue is a language without a system? And the description of how the system of a language works is called grammar.

And such language systems evolve over a very long time, more than a thousand years. How a language system works is not the decision of a single person. In the long evolution of English this language has managed to get rid of five verb endings in present tense compared to the six endings in Latin. A great achievement of simplification. If the community of speakers has kept the last ending it has a cause. Perhaps you think about what ambiguities would arise without this last ending. Think of the plural problem in English. Sometimes singular and plural have the same form.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    It’s already impossible to distinguish between the indicative and the subjunctive everywhere in the English language except 3sg of the present in all non-modal verbs, as well as more widely (everywhere in the present, 1sg/3sg in the past) in one single verb (be). Getting rid of this remnant of a distinction is not a naïve suggestions at all: it is extremely logical, and it’s a development that’s well underway across the Anglosphere (cf. “if he was” especially in AmE and “I demand that you are/should be” in BrE). And compare Scandinavian and Afrikaans—they do fine. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 22 '14 at 16:25
  • 1
    In German there are a lot of verb forms where indicative and subjunctive have the same form, all the same one can distinguish the two moods. And in English too, even when the forms are identical. I think nobody has problems with irreal conditional sentences. It is always clear whether irreality or reality is meant. – rogermue Nov 22 '14 at 16:33
  • 2
    Then I don’t see your point at all. A morphologically distinctive form in the verb is not necessary to distinguish indicative/subjunctive or real/irreal (I agree); this also goes for the 3sg, where getting rid of that silly little -s would not really cause any confusion or problems whatsoever (and hasn’t, in those dialects that have done just that). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 22 '14 at 16:39

I never learned English grammar. English is my "mother tongue", in other words I picked it up at home by hearing my parents speak it, by reading books, etc.

When I went to school I only learned French grammar, Latin grammar, German and Greek grammar, etc.

So I'd argue that you learn the "rules" of English grammar in order to learn to speak the kind of English that is "natural" and in a sense "unlearned" to 'native' English-speakers.

Like me, my brother's elementary/primary school was French, where we learned the rules of French grammar. When he was sent to an English school aged about 10, he said to his parents, "But I don't know the rules of English grammaire", and they replied, "Don't worry: you already know them."

Occasionally I hear rules like, in English you would say, "the little red house" and not "the red little house". Rules like these are taught, and they are true, but I never learned them: I don't even realize that such rules exist, it just sounds a bit 'wrong' if you say it the other way.

Saying that Grammar is necessary for comprehension is going a bit far. I spent a year in Italy where I would "get by" with just vocabulary that I picked up, without learning grammar such as how to decline verbs.

So, "The Italian mine to hear like this." You can just about make out what I'm trying to say, even without grammar.

Historically a country like France spoke many regional dialects. Pronunciation was different in each region, words were different, words were spelled as they were pronounced. The laws and law courts were in Latin. After a while they wanted to change that: they wanted the laws to be in French, so that ordinary people could understand them. In order to do that they needed to change French: to define French: to make French unambiguous, and uniform across the whole country. So they defined rules of grammar and spelling, and taught them in school.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Nobody learns their first language. Everybody acquires it. Only second languages are learned. In acquiring your first language, you necesarily acquire the grammar too, otherwise you wouldn't be able to speak your first language. By the time you get to school, all the grammar lessons do is make explicit something you have already acquired. Nor, to be precise, did you acquire your first language by listening to your parents or reading - that is simply not enough input to acquire a language. – Roaring Fish Nov 22 '14 at 17:19
  • @Roaring Fish: I think your distinction between learning and acquiring is artificial. I observed my daughter when she acquired her native language. She started by listening with interest when we talked to her, even though she didn't understand at the time. Then for months she practised the pronunciation of individual syllables systematically and methodically before moving to putting them together. – user4938 Nov 24 '14 at 7:11
  • Even when she had started to speak comprehensible (short) sentences, there were moments when it was clear that she was learning consciously. There was a moment when I had the impression she was planning to do something unusual, but had no idea what it was. And out came a fully grammatical sentence with her first subordinate clause (involving obwohl, which is German for although - in German such subordinate clauses are harder because you have to invert the word order, which she did.) – user4938 Nov 24 '14 at 7:15
  • Conversely, whenever I learn a foreign language I try to quickly reach the stage where I can read simple texts and mostly understand. Because then I can learn subconsciously ('acquire' the language) simply by reading and wanting to understand. – user4938 Nov 24 '14 at 7:18
  • 1
    I think the insistence on a hard distinction between acquisition and learning indicates a severe undervaluation of the conscious effort involved in first language acquisition and similar processes of understanding how the world works, and/or a seriously depressing view of adult learning as an extrinsically motivated ineffective procedure under the control of a teacher. – user4938 Nov 24 '14 at 9:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.