What is grammar and how does it work?

In this module you will learn:

  • What grammar is
  • How we form words and put them together to make sentences with different meanings and uses
  • How grammar fits into the bigger picture of English language learning and teaching

What is grammar?

Grammar is a system of rules which tells us how we form words, how these words are formed into sentences, and what the meaning and use of these words and sentences are when we have done this.

It tells us, for example, that the sentence “Cows eat grass” works, but “Grass cow have eating” doesn't. It tells us why we might choose to say "I work" and not "I am working", or vice versa, and it tells us where exactly to add the word "red" in the sentence "I have a red car".

If you like, you can imagine grammar as the scaffolding that holds the other elements of a language together. Take away the scaffolding and everything collapses into a messy heap of words and sounds. We can speak, write, read and listen to these words and sounds, but they won't make a great deal of sense unless we say them in the right way and at the right time.

In our definition above we underlined three words:

  • form
  • meaning
  • use

If we want to communicate with an item of grammar - for example if we want to say the sentence "I am working" - we need to know its form, its meaning and its use. Firstly we need to know the rules that tell us how to build the individual words, in what order to put them and why. This is the form of the sentence. Secondly, we need to know what meaning a sentence built in this way gives us (as opposed to the meaning of the sentence "I work", for example). And finally we need to know in which situations we can and can't use this sentence.

We're going to have a closer look now at what we mean by form, meaning and use. We'll start with form, looking first at how we form words.

Forming words

We need all sorts of different types of word to make sentences with different meanings. The set of rules that tells us how we make these words is called morphology. To see these rules in action, let's start off with three simple words:
man play happy
Next, let's experiment a little and see if we can make these words any shorter. Here are all the possibilities:
  • ma
  • m
  • pla
  • pl
  • p
  • happ
  • hap
  • ha
  • h
You can see that none of these shorter combinations of letters means very much at all. So we can quite confidently say that our three original words are the smallest combinations of letters we can get away with that have any sort of meaning. We call these morphemes.
At this point there doesn't seem to be any difference between what we've just called morphemes and what we know of as words. And with these particular examples we'd be right. These three morphemes, man, play and happy, are also words in their own right. We can call these types of morpheme lexical morphemes (the word lexis is another way to say vocabulary - that is, words!)
But it's not always the case that morphemes are also words in their own right. There is another type of morpheme which can't stand alone as a word in its own right. Instead, it needs to be attached to the first type of morpheme. And it's by combining these two types together that we build different types of word.
We can see some examples of this other type of morpheme by experimenting again with our three original words, this time to make them longer:
  • manhood
  • manly
  • mankind
  • unmanly
  • plays
  • played
  • playing
  • playful
  • playfully
  • playfulness
  • player
  • happily
  • happiness
  • unhappy
  • unhappily
We can call our three original words (man, play and happy) our root words - they are the starting point from which other words grow. What we've done here is added some other morphemes to the beginning or end of our root words to make new words entirely. These morphemes are:
  • -hood
  • -ly
  • -kind
  • un-
  • -s
  • -ed
  • -ing
  • -ful
  • -ness
  • -er

The hyphen tells us whether the morpheme comes before or after the root word. If we add one of these morphemes before the root word we call it a prefix; if we add it after, we call it a suffix.

By themselves, these morphemes aren't much use. But when we attach them to one of our root words they give us a whole range of words that we can use to make different types of sentence. For this reason we call these types of morpheme grammatical morphemes – they are the morphemes which allow us to add grammar to the mix and open up the whole range of words, structures and meanings which we'll find out about in this course.
Luckily there are patterns, or rules, when we add grammatical morphemes. For example, if we add -ed to the end of a regular verb, we get the past form of that verb:
  • play - played
  • work - worked
  • jump - jumped
Or if we add un- or il- or dis- to the beginning of an adjective, we usually get the opposite meaning:
  • kind - unkind
  • legal - illegal
  • satisfied - dissatisfied
With these rules about forming words we can predict with a fairly high level of certainty what type of word we end up with when we add one of these morphemes. This is useful to us because it gives us some consistency. It would soon get complicated and almost impossible to learn if we added a completely random combination of letters in order to change an adjective into its opposite.
We'll talk more about all the different types of word (verbs, nouns, adjectives and so on) later. For now though, let's move on and have a look at how we make sentences.

Forming sentences

The set of rules that tells us how to put words together to make sentences is called syntax. As with morphology, these rules make things easier for us by giving us some consistency.

As you work through this section you'll start to see some terms like verb, adjective, subject, object, determiner and adverb to help us show you what we mean by syntax. We'll explain briefly what we mean by these terms here to get the point across, but don't worry about them too much at the moment , because we'll be looking at them a lot more closely later.
So, let's start with a short sentence:
The cat ate.
This sentence is made up of a subject (the person or thing "doing" the action), in this case the cat, and a verb, ate. One of the English syntax rules tells us that, normally, the subject comes before the verb in a sentence. This is why The cat ate works, but Ate the cat doesn't work.
To this short sentence we can add various other types of word to extend it and add some more detail. Just as we had to put the subject before the verb, there are other rules which tell us where we can put other types of word. For example:
The big, brown cat ate his lunch noisily.
Here's what we've done:
  • We've added two adjectives (big and brown) to describe the cat. Our system of rules tells us that adjectives normally go before the subject, but after the determiner ( the).
  • We've added an object to say what the cat ate (his lunch)
  • We've added an adverb to describe how he ate it (noisily).
Syntax rules tell us where all these words need to go. They also tell us a whole lot of other things. For example, if we want to make our sentence a question, the set of rules tells us what we need to do:
Why did the big brown cat eat his lunch noisily?
  • We need to add a question word (why) and the word did at the beginning of the question
  • We need to change the word ate to eat
Again, we'll be seeing why we need to do these things and how to do them as we go through the course.
We could expand on and change this sentence almost indefinitely, adding more information about the cat, saying that the action will happen in the future instead of the past, making the action dependent on another action, and so on. Each time we do this there are rules which tell us how to construct the sentence and the meaning that sentence has.

Meaning and use

We've had a look at the system of rules which tell us how to make words and put them together into sentences. This gives us the form of grammar - what a word or combination of words looks like when we've finished constructing it by applying the rules of morphology and syntax.

Let's have a look now at the other two things from our list at the beginning of this lesson - meaning and use.


Why is meaning important? Well, all these different forms that we can construct, all the different sequences of morphemes we can put together to make words and the sequences of words we can put together to make sentences, are of little use unless we know the meaning that these different sequences give us. Here's an example to show you what we mean by this:

Raquel learns the rules which enable her to make the following two sentences:
I play
I am playing
She knows which morphemes to use in each case and how to put the words together to make sentences. She can also very confidently substitute different words in these sentences, making other sentences like “We are working” and “They sleep”. In other words, she knows the form of these two structures.

What Raquel hasn't been taught though is the meaning of the two structures. Although she's happy with the meaning of the individual words "I" and "play", she doesn't know the difference in meaning between the two sentences which she's correctly formed. She therefore has the following conversations:

Bob: Hi Raquel, what are you doing tomorrow?”
Raquel: Oh, I go to the cinema”.
Bob: Hi Raquel, do you like tennis?
Raquel: Oh yes, I'm liking tennis very much”.
Although in these simple conversations Bob can most likely understand what Raquel wants to say, we can see that Raquel has made the wrong choice in each case about which sentence to use. This is because she has understood only the form, not the meaning of the structures that she is using.

So, how we construct a particular grammar item, its form, goes hand in hand with its meaning. There is not always a one-to-one relationship between form and meaning though. One form can have several different meanings, and we can sometimes express one meaning with different forms. Here are some examples:

John: What are you doing now?
Kate: I'm playing tennis.
John: What are you doing tomorrow?
Kate: I'm playing tennis.

Kate uses the same form in each of her answers, but with a different meaning in each case. In her first answer she is using the form to talk about something that is happening now, and in the second answer she uses it to talk about a future event.

John: What are you doing tomorrow?
Kate: I'm going to have coffee with my sister.
John: What are you doing tomorrow?
Kate: I'm having coffee with my sister.

This time Kate uses two different forms to give the same meaning.


Form and meaning of a grammar item don't give us quite everything we need. We also need to know when and why we use the grammar item - in other words we need to know what language is appropriate to use in a particular context. Appropriacy (what is the"right" language to use in a certain context) depends on whom we're speaking with, what our relationship is with them, and why we're talking to them. This in turn determines the level of formality (called register) that we choose. Let's imagine that Raquel has learnt both the form and meaning of this sentence:

Come here!

She starts a new job and on her first day has a question for her boss. She stands up and says loudly: "Come here". Even though she's correctly formed the sentence and has understood its meaning, she hasn't yet understood the contexts in which it can and can't be used.

Let's have a closer look at this. Have a look at these sentences:

Shut the door, would you?
Can you shut the door, please?
Excuse me, would you mind shutting the door?

Normally, the closer the social relationship between the speaker and listener, the lower the register (level of formality) can be. So in this example you can probably see that the first sentence is more appropriate to say to a close friend or family member. The last one would probably be better with your boss or a complete stranger.

Sometimes, the reason for talking to someone, or the context of the conversation, overrides the closeness of the relationship we have with them. Have a look at this example:

Dad, lend us 5 quid, would you?
Dad, do you think it would be possible to lend me £1000?

In the first sentence, the register is still informal because the reason for communicating is an "easy" one. In the second sentence though, even though the person is still a close family member, the register is much more formal because the reason for communicating is much more "difficult" or "serious".

This brings us back to the idea of using different forms to express the same meaning - as you can see from the example above these form and meaning combinations are closely linked to use (appropriacy and register).

In this course we'll be looking primarily at form and meaning. We'll see some references to "use" (in what contexts it's appropriate to use language). Whether or not we refer directly to "use" though, it's always important to keep it in mind.

Grammar and rules

So far we've talked a lot about rules, especially when we talked about morphology and syntax. And as you go through this course you will, essentially, be learning "rules".
But there's an important thing to keep in mind as you learn these rules. And that is that they are only the rules which are most commonly accepted as "standard" in most English speaking regions at the moment. This doesn't make them the only rules or the definitive set of rules.
And that's because what is "standard" English is different depending on where it's being spoken (or written) and who's speaking it.
For example, there are some grammatical differences between British and American English, or Australian and South African English. The language used and the rules which are considered "standard" by a BBC newsreader and a teenager talking with friends at an inner city London school are quite different. These differences are usually more apparent in spoken English than in written English.
This is not only true for grammar, but for vocabulary and pronunciation as well. Language isn't fixed - it is constantly evolving according to people's lives and experiences, and cultural and societal changes.
But when we're learning about grammar we have to start somewhere! And that's why we start with the most commonly accepted rules. But keep in mind that we can, and do, bend, break or discard some rules in some contexts, especially when speaking, and that rules can be different depending on where we are and who we are.

Grammar and the bigger picture

Before we move on to module 2 to look at all the different forms and meanings that make up English grammar, we're going to take a step back so that we can put grammar into some kind of context and see how it fits into the bigger picture of communicating in a language.

What else is there in a language apart from grammar?

Grammar alone is not enough if we want to be able to communicate in English. It would be of little use knowing where to put the word "red" in the sentence "I have a red car" if we had no idea what the word "red" meant. Even if we knew what "red" meant, it would still be of little use when speaking with your friend if you had no idea how to pronounce it or how to pronounce the sentence as a whole.
So if we want to communicate we need more than just grammar. We also need to know some words, so we need vocabulary. We need to know how to pronounce individual sounds, words and sentences and how our intonation changes as we speak, so we need to know about phonology (pronunciation). Finally, when we communicate in different situations we normally say or write more than one sentence. Grammar tells us how to make the individual sentences, but not how to connect them together in a coherent and meaningful way according to the situation we're in. When we connect sentences together like this we have discourse.
These four elements are known as the four language systems:
  • Grammar
  • Vocabulary
  • Phonology
  • Discourse
Each of these other three systems has their own set of rules and features, just like grammar. For example, when learning vocabulary we need, amongst other things, to know the same things about a word that we need to know about a grammar item - its form (in the case of a word this is how it is spelt), its meaning and its use.

We use these four language systems to speak, listen, read and write in English. We call these ways of communicating the four language skills:

  • Speaking
  • Listening
  • Reading
  • Writing
So communicating in English (or any other language) is all about using grammar, vocabulary, phonology and discourse to speak, listen, read and write.


Here's a summary of the main points from this lesson.

  • Grammar is a system of rules which tells us how we form words, how these words are formed into sentences, and what the meaning and use of these words and sentences are.
  • Morphology is the set of rules that tells us how to make words.
  • A morpheme is the smallest combination of letters that has any kind of meaning. Lexical morphemes (or root words) are also words in their own right. We add grammatical morphemes to the beginning and end of root words to make a range of different types of word. Grammatical morphemes might be prefixes or suffixes.
    Lexical morphemes: man, play
    Prefixes: un-, dis-
    Suffixes: -ly, -ness
  • Syntax rules tell us how to put words together to make sentences with different meanings.
  • We need to know when and in which contexts it is appropriate to use a grammar item. This in turn determines the register (level of formality) we choose. Normally, the closer the social relationship between the speaker and listener, the more informal the register can be.
  • Grammar is not enough to be able to communicate. We also need knowledge of other language systems (vocabulary, phonology, discourse) and to practise these using the skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing.