What is Grammar?

girl standing with students holding a grammar book

Grammar Definition

Grammar is a system of rules about how we form words, how words are formed into sentences, and the meaning and use of these words and sentences. Grammar includes three elements: form, meaning, and use. Form of words and sentences, the meaning of the words and sentences, and how we use the words and sentences together in spoken and written contexts.

What is grammar?

Theories of Grammar

Theories of Grammar Infographic

Traditional Theory of Grammar

Traditional grammar refers to the grammar theories that originated in ancient Greece and Rome and which became popular at the end of the 18th century. Traditional grammar values the old grammar model which places emphasis on the written language, more so than on oral language. The parts of speech are an important element of traditional grammar since patterns of inflection and rules of syntax each depend on a word’s part of speech.

Although systems vary somewhat, typically traditional grammars name eight parts of speech.

  1. Noun
  2. Common Noun
  3. Proper Noun
  4. Adjective
  5. Verb
  6. Adverb
  7. Preposition
  8. Conjunction

Grammar Translation Method

The Grammar Translation Method is a direct influence on language teaching received from the Traditional Grammar Theory and has the following characteristics:

  • The ultimate goal of language teaching is to read materials such as foreign classics with very little emphasis placed on oral language skills.
  • Due to the fact that there is little emphasis on oral language skills, students often find themselves not being able to actually speak the language even after years of study. 
  • The classroom environment is predominantly teacher-centered where teachers do all the talking and the students are expected to merely take notes and listen. 
  • Teachers mostly use their native language to teach grammar. 
  • There is a great emphasis on translation exercises.

Structuralism Grammar

Structuralism is an approach to linguistics that stresses the importance of language as a system and which investigates the place that linguistic units such as sounds, words and sentences have within this system.

The Swiss linguist Ferdinant de Saussure is widely regarded as the father of structuralism.  Saussure distinguished in linguistics between:

1. LANGUE: A socially shared system that makes production and comprehension possible. There are two points of importance:

  • It is a social institution and each language as such is something external to all speakers so that no one speaker can change it.
  • It is a system of signs that form structure and each sign is defined by its relation to other elements of the structure.

2. PAROLE: This is actual speech production, however it also involves the speaker’s mood and tone.

The main differences between Traditional grammar and Structuralism.

Traditional GrammarStructuralism
Written language is very important.Spoken language is important.
Grammar is prescriptive and language must be in accordance with grammar.Grammar is descriptive and thus language must first be described if we want to learn it.
Classifies language into different levels according to its closeness to Latin.Denies this, and values languages of all countries.
Traditional Grammar and Structuralism

The two schools of Structuralism.

European SchoolAmerican School
Saussure represented the European school. Saussure claimed that the meaning of words are to be understood through their relation to each other. He also distinguished between Parole and Langue, Synchronically and Diachronically.Leonard Bloomfield represented the American school. Bloomfield invented immediate constitute analysis or (IC Analysis) to dissect a sentence into small parts.
European School and American School in Structuralism Grammar

Research Background

Conceptual Change Theory

This research article about conceptual change theory for languaging visualization method for grammar teaching has ideas of conceptual change theory as a basis for establishing a new grammar teaching method. The research has applied language knowledge and production with languaging and visualization method. 


Languaging is a teaching method in which students express their thinking by speaking or writing. The reason they focused on languaging and visualization was to induce learners to make the meanings clear and express their own grammatical thinking through different language skills, such as speaking, writing and drawing.

“Languaging as I am using the term, refers to the process of making meaning and shaping knowledge and experience through language” said by Merrill Swain, professor of second language education at the University of Toronto.

This sentence also explains when students learn language by thinking and talking through, they will develop their language and verbalization can be the tool for second language teaching. 

Languaging method shows performances with highly developed conceptual grammatical knowledge and problem-solving skills. By this teachers can evaluate the level of conceptual grammatical knowledge and students’ awareness of their misconceptions.

Conceptual Change and Socio-Constructivist Theories

Further in the research article, from conceptual change and socio-constructivist theories, they did an exercise with languaging combined with an exercise in visualization of the virtual learning environment. The categories of grammatical concepts made visible by charts and hierarchies help students to apprehend the ontological differences between the categories.

Research Methodology

They made students exercise firstly with written verbal explanation by languaging and the misconceptions were found because students were confused between adjectives and adverbs or they chose a concept from the wrong linguistic category. So they gave exercises with visualization and students had the reduction of confusion. That explained the confusion with adverbs and adverbial modifiers because “adverb” was not presented in either written or drawn answers, it was taken in use as a sentence constituent.

Also, conceptual knowledge consists of four concepts: noun, numeral, verb and adjective. Adverbs as a word class are unknown and applying or explaining concepts is difficult for students. In addition, misconceptions seem to be difficult to repair if students are taught just portions of linguistic categories with vague definitions of concepts, for example in the textbook with simplified and reduced forms like “subject is a person” and “verb describes doing” will produce misunderstanding and a failure to learn difficult words.

Research Summary

To summarize the research article, the solution designed in this research was the combination of languaging and visualisationmethods for grammar teaching. The method of languaging and visualisation combines concepts from constructivism, socio-cultural learning theories, as well as conceptual change theory. Also a teacher will gain a deeper understanding of their conceptual grammatical knowledge by following students’ languaging processes. 

Further Reading

Empowering the Language Learner

Complexity Theory and its Implications for TESOL


The SIOP Model


Teaching with the SIOP Model


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(2021). Amazonaws.com. https://platform-user-content.s3.amazonaws.com/activity_resources/ConceptualChangeTheory.pdf

(2011). Amazonaws.com. https://platform-user-content.s3.amazonaws.com/activity_resources/TheoriesofGrammarandInfluence.pdf

(2021). Excelsior.edu. https://owl.excelsior.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2018/09/grammar-389907_1920.jpg

What is grammar and how does it work? (n.d.). Courses.eslbase.com. https://courses.eslbase.com/courses/68968/lectures/1022364

2 responses to “What is Grammar?”

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