Grammar vs Usage

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It was quite interesting to find this old web article on the distinction between Grammar and Usage. The author acknowledges that the definitions offered in the article are somewhat “tendentious”, but they are interesting food for thought.

Grammar is a set of implicit rules that govern the formation of sentences. We may have no explicit knowledge of these rules, but we obey them every time we speak and use them every time we comprehend a sentence.

Usage is a set of explicit prescriptive rules that people impose on language in order to separate socially acceptable grammatical sentences from others that are not socially acceptable.

The author gives some interesting examples to illustrate the point:

  1. After Sean got up, he had a shower.
  2. Sean had a shower after he got up.
  3. After he got up, Sean had a shower.
  4. He had a shower after Sean got up.

In these sentences, “he” can only refer to Sean in the first three sentences. This is just a fact of grammar. A speaker of English would not understand the word “he” in sentence 4 as relating to Sean. The issue of usage would only come into the picture if people started to argue over which of the first three sentences is the best form to use.

Another perspective offered by the author on the distinction is that bad grammar leads to confusion, whereas bad usage leads to annoyance. The annoyance arises not because of lack of understanding, but because a custom of usage has been breached.

Another set of sentences is offered, “which might be said to a little boy who has stolen a toy from his sister”:

  1. Give it to her!
  2. Give it her!
  3. Give her it!
  4. It her give!

The first example (and in some countries the second) is standard usage, and the meaning is clear. The third example is grammatical, in that the meaning is clear; but it is bad usage in the view of many. The fourth example is ungrammatical, because it is virtually meaningless in English—and thus it is also bad usage.

Final prepositions

“This is something we cannot put up with.”

A sentence ending with a preposition is another situation where the distinction between grammar and usage is clearly shown. The meaning of the sentence is clear—and thus, according to the author’s definition, such usage is grammatical; but it may also be considered bad usage—something “up with which we cannot put”, to quote Churchill.

Acknowledgements & Links

  • Tim Morris web article for his History and Development of the English Language class at UT-Arlington, entitled Grammar and Usage.

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