2.1 Advanced Theoretical Studies in Grammar: Do you know how traditional grammar rose and developed?

Chapter  2

2.1 Analyze the rise and development of traditional grammar



Just as a tree has roots, the study of language has a beginning- traditional grammar. It is therefore logical to briefly revisit what you have covered so far about traditional grammar before we can proceed to later developments in the linguistic tradition.


It was in the 4th century BC that interest in the study of language initially The first person to show this interest was Plato, a Greek philosopher (427-347 BC). Dealing with Greek, he realised that it was possible to divide a stream of speech into smaller units. These he called sentences. He then noted that in turn, sentences could be divided into two parts, which he called the nominal and the verbal (equivalent to nouns and verbs) and regarded them as the basic units of analysis or parts of speech.

This linguistic tradition was continued by Aristotle, another Greek Philosopher (384-322 BC). He maintained the categories his predecessor had identified but added conjunctions, articles and pronouns. This tradition reached its peak at about 100 BC with the grammar of Dionysius Thrax which has been preserved to date.

Next in line came the Romans whose language, Latin, was used as the lingua franca in Europe at the time. In their study of Latin in the first century BC, they followed in the footsteps of the Greeks but added prepositions, adverbs, participles (equivalent to what we call adjectives today), and interjections. Articles were however left out since they don’t occur in Latin. To arrive at the parts of speech, the Romans used the criteria of meaning and form (form referred mainly to the affixes that a word could take).

The first English grammar appeared in 1586. It was closely modeled on Latin since this was the language used in scholarship, religion and law at the time. In fact, the influence of Latin upon English can be seen in many areas. These include the tense, case, person, gender and spelling system. Just to illustrate with two examples, Latin has affixes that differentiate among past, present and future simple tenses. English, on the other hand, only differentiates between the past and the present tense morphologically (for example in ‘wash-ed’ and ‘wash-es’). The future is expressed lexically (using auxiliaries like ‘will’) among other ways. Unfortunately, the future tense was also imposed on English.

Another example relates to the grammatical category of person which we encountered in the unit English Grammar and Usage. Consider the sentences: ‘I sell mangoes’ and ‘You sell mangoes’

The verb in the first sentence is said to be in the first person in agreement with the first person subject. The verb in the second sentence is in the second person. But do you see any difference between them in terms of form? There is absolutely none. This unnecessary person distinction is an influence from Latin in which the two verbs would be different in form.

From the 18th century, by which time English had replaced Latin as the lingua franca, the preoccupation of grammarians was to preserve English in its most ‘pure’ form. This was prompted by the belief that over the years, the language had become defiled and,  therefore, needed to be purified. The intention was to return it to its state in the 16th century, which was considered the golden era (the time of Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare). To do this, they prescribed rules that were meant to regulate the way the language was used. There was emphasis on how one should express oneself in a proper or educated way. To achieve this end, examples of correct usage were given but the  emphasis was on how to correct wrong sentences. Here are a few of the prescriptive rules associated with traditional grammar:

  1. Do not start a sentence with a conjunction as in ‘ And that is the end of the story’.
  2. Do not end a sentence with a preposition as in ‘ Whom did you buy it for?’
  3. Do not use a double negative as in ‘They are not unwise’
  4. Do not split an infinitive as in ‘ He was determined to completely stop ’ (Here, the infinitive ‘ to stop’ has been interrupted by the adverb ‘completely’)

Before we look at the merits and demerits of traditional grammar, let us note that it has endured up to the present day albeit with various modifications. Also, let us note that there isn’t one monolithic form of traditional grammar but the different classical grammars (for example Greek, Latin and English) share enough characteristics to be termed ‘traditional grammar’.


The following are among the strong points of traditional grammar:

  1. Since it dominated the education system, it improved the students’ writing by making it more systematic and well The prescriptive rules helped to regularize language usage to some extent.
  2. Traditional grammar has played a pivotal pioneering role in It has contributed heavily to modern grammar in the area of terminology and concepts. These include: parts of speech and their associated grammatical features such as number, tense and degree; functional categories such as subject and object; syntactic categories such as words, phrases, clauses and sentences and their various types and relations such as subject-verb agreement and active-passive alternations.
  3. The definitions provided are accurate for a majority of the cases. For example, the subject is defined as the doer of the action or the entity that is talked about (topic) in the sentence. An example is: The student is



  1. Traditional grammar is not able to stand alone as a It is influenced by other disciplines, particularly philosophy. That explains why the definitions of parts of speech and functional labels such as subject and object are based on logic (meaning). Recall that a noun is seen as the name of a person, thing or place. It is difficult to know, for example, what is meant by ‘thing’ since ‘book, wind, movement, beauty and idea’ are all considered things and yet we cannot readily tell what they have in common.
  2. The use of logic or meaning in the definitions has been severely criticized. This is because, by looking at an unfamiliar word whose part of speech we don’t know, we cannot tell whether it is a naming word (noun), doing word (verb) or even a joining word (conjunction). As for the definition of subject, there is neither doer nor topic in a sentence such as: There is no need to panic. Are we then to conclude that the sentence has no subject? By no means.
  3. The misguided application of logic can also be seen in the prescriptive rules above. For example, since a conjunction is defined as a joining word (implying that it appears between the two units it joins), it shouldn’t appear at the beginning of a sentence. But we know that there are instances in which we may need to use a conjunction at the beginning for emphatic purposes as in: “The boxer promised he would knocked out his And he did.”
  4. The prescriptive rules focus on the negative; that is, how to correct wrong sentences rather than on how to form correct Unfortunately, these rules are divorced from the reality of language use on day to day basis. At best, they are only followed in formal written situations and yet we know that language is primarily spoken.
  5. Sound as the various forms of traditional grammar are, their applicability to the description of other languages is rather The tendency has therefore been to impose the features of one language upon another, even when the two are structurally different.



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