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Traditional approaches

Traditional grammar are remembered by their misconceptions.

Speech versus writing
In traditional grammar there is an absence of recognition that spoken and written forms of a
language are different, displaying different patterns of grammar and vocabulary. Rules have been
written as if they apply to the etirety of English grammar, whereas they only apply to the written
part of it. For example, a rule tells that the regular plurarl of a noun is formed by adding an s.
However, in speech there are three dfferent distinct sounds which we add to nouns to make them
In traditional grammar the material presented does not even cover thhe whole range of the
language's written forms, but is restricted to specific kinds of writing, the more formal styles.
Anything considered informal is avoided. There are different levels of formality. We do not use
the same kind of formal language when we are at home as we do when we are giving a speech. A
language can be used at many levels of formality, and it should be one of the jobs of a grammar to
take account of these differences, and not to select some levels as right and others as wrong. For
example, with the rule of English wic tells us tat we should use whom and not who as relative
pronoun in a sentence like the man - i saw was tall and darlk. But such rules distort reality of
English. it is not a question of whom being corect usage, and who being incorrect: each is correct
in different circumstances. The difference is one of formality: whom tends to be more formal in
this context, and who more colloquial. From traditional grammar we get a distorted view of the
function of language forms.
The influence of Latin
A second reason for the inadequacy of traditional grammars is tat writers tried to describe english
in terms of another language, usually latin. We find rules about English which tell us to say "it is
I" instead of "it is me". Or that nouns in English have 6 cases. This is an attempt to treat English as
if it were latin and English is not latin. The patterns of English grammar work differently from the
patterns of latin grammar. English must be described in its own terms.
Logic and language
People often appeal to a criterion of logic , when making statements about the way a language is
constructed. One usually hear "english is a more logical language than french". Statements of this
kind confuse two standars of usage, the standard of lingusitic usage and that of logical usage.
Human language is not a logical construct. It can change its form and it is full of irregularities. It
is best not to mention the word logic, but to talk instad in terms of regular and irregular forms, and
to show how there is a tendency for the irregular forms in language to be made to conform to the
parttern of the regular ones, a process called analogy.
Complexity of language
There isnt a most complex language, where complexity means difficult to learn. Standards of

difficulty are relative: a thing is more difficult to do depending on how much practice we have had
at doing it.
Similarly, we must not talk about some languages as if they were primitive languages. This
happens with tribes of south America. But just because a tribe happens to be primitive
(anthropologically speaking) is no reason to argue its language is (linguistically speaking)
primitive. Just because a some tribe does not have as many words as enlgish, it doesnt mean it
is more primitive than English. It has enough words for its purposes. Language are not better or
worse, they are different.
Aesthetics and language
A language , word, sound is said to be more beautiful, ugly than another. This was very common
when beauty was associated with the Classics. These days, aesthetic judgements about language
are common when talking about peoples accents, or ways of pronunciation. No one sound is
better or more beautiful than another.
History and language
Here the argument is that the true or correct meaning of a word is its oldest one. Thus, the real
meaning of nice is fastidious, as this was one of the senses it had in Shakespeares time.
It is easy the absurdity of this dependence on history in discussing meaning (etymological fallacy
sometimes called) by following the reasoning to its logical conclusion. If the oldest meaning of a
word is the correct, then we can hardly stop with Shakespeare! We must trace the meaning of nice
back into Old French and then to Latin and so on.
The best authors
Another authority is the usage of the best authors. Most of the quotation illustrating grammatical
rules are from famous novelists. The result of applying such a standard is to produce a description
of a very restricted, specialized, literary English.
Another authority invoked by grammarians is themselves. Many textbooks are clearly
impressionistic (lacking detail) at many points, rules based on half-baked (badly thought out)
awareness of the authors own usage.
Traditional grammar is characterized by extreme vagueness of defition and a failure to be explicit
avout important issues. The clearest example of badly defined terms is that of the parts of speech.
Parts of speech are supposed to tell us something about how the grammar of a language works.
But the traidional definition of many of the parts of the speech are usually ungrammatical. The
noun, is usually defined as being the name of a person, place of thing. But this definition tells us
nothing about the grammar of nouns at all. A grammatical definition of noun mus give us
grammatical information: it should tell us where in a sentence nouns can appear, how they inflect
and so on. Rules of grammar should not be based on the meaning of the frorms ( a word, a clause)
but on the way these forms behave in relation to other forms.

Prescriptive versus descriptive

The word to sum up the traditional attitude to language is prescriptive: writers were concerned
to make rules about how people should speak and according to some standard. They were not
concerned with determining first how people actually did speak and write. Before one can
prescribe rules about language, one must first describe the facts about the language. This is the
difference between the new and the old attitude to language, the difference between linguistics and
traditional grammar. Modern linguists want to describe language in its own terms. A linguist is
aware that the grammarian of a language does not make the rules of that language. They should
restrict their ambitions to codifying what is already there, the usage of the people who speak the
To linguists of two alternative usages, one is not right and the other is wrong, they are two
different. They must descrie both in their study and leave others decide which is socially more
appropriate to which situations. For example, comparing the sentences the man whom I saw was
your uncle, and the the man who I saw was your uncle, they do not say that whom is right and
who is wrong. They say that that whom is more appropriate for formal contexts, and who for the
more colloquial.