How Many Kinds of Grammar Are There Really?

by Travis Heermann on February 4, 2010

Most people believe that English grammar is simply English grammar. There is a right way and a wrong way to construct a sentence, a right place and a wrong place to put a comma, words that go together and words that don’t. For the most part, this is true. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of tiny rules that native speakers instinctively know and follow when communicating. What most people don’t realize is how mutable some of these rules are, and how others are not, and where the differences lie.

For example, did you know that types of adjectives are nearly always used in a certain order? Take a look at this phrase: the big yellow Chinese vase. There are three adjectives, big, yellow, and Chinese, all of which describe a vase. Try speaking the same phrase with the adjectives in a different order.

On the other hand, consider the sentence, “We might could go out tonight.” It sounds strange to a large portion of the English-speaking world, because there are two modal verbs, might and could, when normally only one is allowed. However, to natives of the American South, it sounds perfectly fine, and, in fact, carries shades of meaning that are different from either of the phrases might go or could go. If meaning is accurately conveyed, isn’t it still “proper English?”

Native speakers process hundreds of little rules like this every day when giving and receiving communication. The biggest discrepancies and missteps come when inexperienced writers confuse writing with speaking. The rules of effective writing are considerably more restricted than rules for effective spoken communication.


And what about dialect? We seldom think of ourselves as speaking a dialect, but linguists have identified 27 distinct English dialects in the United States alone. When we look at the larger English-speaking world—Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, South Africa, Jamaica, among others—the number of dialects goes up considerably.

All of these different dialects exhibit small variations in word placement, use of verbs, words distinct to that dialect, use of idioms, and all of them are 100% intelligible to other speakers of that dialect. Furthermore, nearly all of them are intelligible to speakers of other dialects, at least mostly. In writing, all those dialects come together much more understandably, because a reader doesn’t have to process variation in pronunciation.

So which ones are “wrong?” What, then, is “proper English?” Scholars and linguists—even kings—have been trying to pin that down since the Middle Ages. In spite of untold effort that the English-speaking world has applied to this question since the earliest dictionaries were written in the 16th century, the best that we have achieved is a perception of what is “proper English.” The disconcerting thing is that the way the language is used seems to change faster than grammarians can keep up.

Two grammar camps

Linguists divide grammar into two camps.

Prescriptive grammar is what your high school English teacher taught you. This is the set of standards that professional writers accept, that appear in grammar books and references, that appear in dictionaries and thesauri. The thing that the strictest grammarians try not to notice is that even these rules are remarkably fluid, even more so when one crosses national boundaries. These differences between proper English grammar in England and proper English grammar in the United States lead us to the other kind.

Descriptive grammar is the study of how grammar is used. It looks at writing and utterances and attempts to tease out the myriad little rules that people are using. The stance is that, if the language is used in successful communication, if the utterance works and is understood, then the grammar must have been correct.

One type tries to maintain the existing rules, to make sure the rules are followed—as those rules are judged by those who feel passionately about them; the other type looks at how language is used to find out what the real rules are, even if what they find doesn’t conform to what is “proper.”

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