The official website of educator Jack C Richards

Definition of Grammar


Submitted by Nur, Indonesia

Would you please tell me your definition of grammar?

Dr Richards Responds:

There are two dimensions to grammatical knowledge (also known as grammatical or linguistic competence) that are central in second language learning and teaching:

  • knowing how to use the grammatical system of a language to create sentences
  • knowing how to use the grammatical resources of a language as part of the processes used in creating spoken and written texts

The system of rules used to create sentences refers to the knowledge of parts of speech, tenses, phrases, clauses and syntactic structures used to create grammatically well-formed sentences in English. The rules for constructing grammatically correct sentences belong to “sentence grammar”. This is the kind of grammar that is the focus of many grammar reference books and grammar practice books for students.

Older approaches to grammar teaching and the design of course books reflected a view of language that saw the sentence and sentence grammar as forming the building blocks of language, language learning, and language use.  The goal of language teaching was to understand how sentences are used to create different kinds of meaning, to master the underlying rules for forming sentences from lower-level grammatical units such as phrases and clauses, and to practice using them as the basis for written and spoken communication. Syllabuses were essentially grammar-based and grammar was a primary focus of teaching techniques. Correct language use was achieved through a drill and practice methodology and through controlled speaking and writing exercises that sought to prevent or minimize opportunities for errors.

However learners also need to know another kind of grammar, and that is the grammar that is used when sentences are connected in longer stretches of discourse to create texts . Knowledge of the grammar that is used to create texts can be called text-grammar. For example here is information about the past tense and other grammatical features that are used in recount texts:

Recounts are either personal recounts, factual recounts or imaginative recounts. Personal recounts usually retell an event that the writer was personal involved in. Factual recounts record an incident, e.g. a science experiment, a police report. Imaginative recounts describe an imaginary role and give details of imaginary events – e.g. a day in the life of a pirate.

Grammatical features of recounts:

  • Written in the past tense
  • Frequent use made of verbs which link events in time, such as when, next, later, after, before, first, at the same time, as soon as
  • Recounts describe events so make frequent use of verbs (action words) and adverbs (which describe and add more detail to verbs)
  • Use of personal pronouns (Personal recount)
  • Passive voice may be used (Factual recount)

Grammar can therefore be understood as a resource people make use of to create discourse that is grammatically appropriate at both the level of the sentence and the text. While vocabulary can be thought of as the units that describe people and places, concepts, topics, states, events, relationships, and actions, grammar can be thought of as the resources we use to package words into sentences and texts according to the  grammatical conventions of our language.  However much of a person’s knowledge of grammar is implicit rather than explicit. When learning a second language, knowing “about” rules of grammar does not necessarily translate into being able to draw on grammatical knowledge in communication, and this is one of the dilemmas that arise in relation to grammar instruction. Traditional approaches to language teaching often assumed that the more students knew about the grammar of English, the better they would be able to use it, but unfortunately this is not the case.

Contemporary approaches to grammar describe grammatical knowledge and grammatical systems in terms of the way people actually use the language, not the way they “should use” it. Describing grammar in terms of how people “should” speak is known as prescriptive grammar. Prescriptive grammar is often based on the features of written language and typically written language as it was described several generations ago. Language teaching courses and published materials today generally seek to present grammar as it is actually used by speakers of English, often based on the study of authentic language use and information from corpus research. But because the grammatical resources of English are often very different from the grammatical resources used in the learner’s native language, mastery of grammar presents a significant challenge for many language learners.