Episode 16 – Grammar

In this episode I talk about grammar – what it is, where it comes from, how it develops, and how knowledge of grammar can help you to learn languages. This post was partly inspired by this post on the Polyglots (Community) group on Facebook.

What is grammar?

It is defined by the Oxford Dictionaries as follows:

The whole system and structure of a language or of languages in general, usually taken as consisting of syntax and morphology (including inflections) and sometimes also phonology and semantics.

A set of actual or presumed prescriptive notions about correct use of a language.

The Free Dictionary defines grammar as:

1a. The study of how words and their component parts combine to form sentences.

1b. The study of structural relationships in language or in a language, sometimes including pronunciation, meaning, and linguistic history.

2a. The system of inflections, syntax, and word formation of a language.

2b. The system of rules implicit in a language, viewed as a mechanism for generating all sentences possible in that language.

3a. A normative or prescriptive set of rules setting forth the current standard of usage for pedagogical or reference purposes.

3b. Writing or speech judged with regard to such a set of rules.

According to Wikipedia, grammar in linguistics is:

The set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language. The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field includes phonology, morphology, and syntax, often complemented by phonetics, semantics, and pragmatics.

To non-linguistics grammar might be:

rules of spelling and punctuation.


a generic way of referring to any aspect of English that people object to.

(Jeremy Butterfield)

I also invited members of the Omniglot Fan Club on Facebook to provide their definitions of grammar.

Music featured in this episode

The Bells of Hirael / Clychau Hirael

See the score for this tune

The Curious Pigeon / Y Colomen Chwilfrydig

Episode 11 – Fewer than Less

In this episode I discuss the distinction between between less and fewer, and commonly-held beliefs about English grammar and usage. I investigate where these ‘rules’ and practises originated and find out who is responsible.

Less & Fewer

Less was used to mean fewer, i.e. a smaller number of from the 9th century. From the 11th century it was being used to mean smaller or lesser – a comparative form of little. By the 14th century it was being used to mean a smaller amount (of) or not as much.

It comes from the Old English lǣs (less), from the Proto-Germanic *laisiz [source].

Fewer is used to mean a smaller number of something, and is generally used before plural countable things. For example, fewer words, fewer letters.

It comes from few, from the Middle English fewe (few, little, not many; small, little), from the Old English fēaw (few), from the Proto-Germanic *fawaz (few), from Proto-Indo-European *peh₂w- (few, small). [source].

In his 1770 book REFLECTIONS ON THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE: In The Nature of VAUGELAS’s REFLECTIONS ON THE FRENCH; Being a Detection of many improper Expreſſions uſed in Converſation, and of many others to be found in AUTHORS. (p 55), Robert Baker wrote:

“LESS. This word is moſt commonly uſed in ſpeaking of a number; where I ſhould think Fewer would do better. No fewer than a Hundred, appears to me not only more elegant than No leſs than a Hundred, but more ſtrictly proper.”

This is a reproduction of the original text:

Robert Baker on Less and Fewer

Splitting Infinitives

In his 1866 book, A PLEA FOR THE QUEEN’S ENGLISH: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling (p 188), Henry Alford, Dean of Canterbury, wrote:

A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. He gives as an instance, “to scientifically illustrate.” But surely this is a practice unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me, that we ever regard the to of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb. And when we have already a choice between two forms of expression, “scientifically to illustrate,” and “to illustrate scientifically,” there seems no good reason for flying in the face of common usage.

This is a reproduction of the original text:

Henry Alford on infinitives

Ending sentences with prepositions

In his 1763 book, A Short Introduction to English Grammer: With Critical Notes (p 141), the Right Rev. Robert Lowth, D.D. Lord Bishop of Oxford, wrote:

The Prepoſition is often ſeparated from the Relative which it governs, and joined to the Verb at the end of the Sentence, or of ſome member of it: as, “Horace is an author, whom I am much delighted with.” “The world is too well bred to ſhock authors with a truth, which generally their bookſellers are the firſt that inform them of.” This is an Idiom which our language is ſtrongly inclined to; it prevails in common converſation, and ſuits very well with the familiar ſtyle in writing; but the placing of the Prepoſition before the Relative is more graceful as well as more perſpicuous; and agrees much better with the ſolemn and elevated Style.

This is a reproduction of the original text:

Robert Lowth on prepositions

Double negatives

In his 1711 book, An Essay Towards a Practical Engliſh Grammar, Describing the Genius and Nature of the English Tounge; Giving Likewiſe A Rational and Plain Account of Grammar in General, with a familiar Explanation of its Terms. (p 182), James Greenwood, Sur-Master of St. Paul’s School, wrote:

Two Negatives, or two Adverbs of Denying, do in Engliſh affirm.

This is a reproduction of the original text:

James Greenwood on double negatives

In the 1794 edition of Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammer: With Critical Notes (p 132), he wrote that:

Two Negatives in Engliſh deſtroy one another, or are equivalent to an Affirmative.

This is a reproduction of the original text:

Robert Lowth on double negatives

Tunes played in this epsiode

The Salmon’s Leap / Naid yr Eog

The Kettle / Y Tecell

The Swellies / Pwll Ceris

These and other myths about English are discussed on The Grammarphobia Blog.

More information and sources

Wikipedia, Visual Thesaurus, Corpus of Global Web-Based English, Google Books Corpus, Inky Fool