Another product of the eighteenth century was the invention of "English grammar". As English came to replace Latin as the language of scholarship, it was felt that one should also be able to control and dissect it, parse and analyze it, as one could Latin. What happened in practice was that grammatical description that applied to Latin was removed and superimposed on English. This was silly, because English is an entirely different kind of language, with its own forms and signals and ways of producing meaning. Nevertheless, English grammars on the Latin model were worked out and taught in the schools. In many schools they are still being taught.

This is an excerpt from A Brief History of English, written by Professor Paul Roberts. I am curious about the Latin grammar, and what is the situation now about its use in English.

In China, students think it’s normal to learn English grammar, and use the grammar to analyze the components of long sentence. So my questions are

  • What is the Latin grammar? More precisely, what does Latin grammar in English learning look like? Is it same as the grammar in our school teaching now in China?

  • How do American students study English? Do they learn English grammar? If not, what do they learn?

  • To give you an idea of Latin grammar have a look at Latin for beginners. I've just found it at gutenberg.org. Everything is irregular. Nine school years are not enough to learn Latin. All the same it is a fascinating language. gutenberg.org/files/18251/18251-h/files/LatinBegin1.html
    – rogermue
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 4:50
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    @rogermue How long it takes depends on how you learn it. This is running off-topic, but Latin pedagogy became a disaster in the 19th century and hasn’t recovered. Latin for Beginners is a classic example, teaching through deductive scientific analysis of the language—a strategy almost guaranteed to fail. Latin grammar is much simpler than English grammar, and really not very hard to learn. See Lingua Latina per se Illustrata: a rare Latin primer that doesn’t make the mistake of teaching by explaining Latin as if it were mathematics.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 9:18
  • I have never seen an English grammar for Latin, I know only German ones and I had no problem with my Latin grammar. And I must say that in my later years at school I was filled with awe about the systematic description of the Latin language and the clear terminology. Really a pity that that language grew so irregular. Compared with English grammars of English I miss the systematic approach and the clear terminology.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 13:35
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    @rogermue Lingua Latina per se Illustrata is written in Latin. The title means "Latin Illustrated by Itself." It teaches mostly through example, with small amounts of explanation at the end of each chapter. The last chapter is an excerpt from Donatus's Ars Grammatica. It teaches you to use the grammar much more than it teaches facts about it. Take a look! I think the reason so many people studied Latin for years in school yet can't speak or read it is because they were taught terminology and facts but not the language.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 16:15
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    In the 17th century, Ben Jonson wrote "The English Grammar Made by Ben Jonson for the Benefit of All Strangers, Out of His Observation of the English Language Now Spoken and in Use". This idea that people didn't study English grammar before the 18th century is a myth. Commented Oct 1, 2016 at 12:29

5 Answers 5


Latin grammar

Latin has an inflected grammar, in which words change their form to indicate the role they're playing in a sentence. English has a little bit of inflection; Latin has a lot. For example, in English, these are all the possible forms of a verb: show, shows, showed, shown, showing. Most Latin verbs have about 150 different forms. These indicate how the verb fits into the sentence, which noun it agrees with, and other things.

English has a possessive case for nearly all nouns, indicated by -’s, and distinguishes two other cases only in a few pronouns: I/me, he/him, she/her, they/them, and (sometimes) who/whom. Latin has five cases (or six, or seven, depending on how you count them), and they apply to all nouns. For example, in the Latin sentence Marcus Quintum pulsat, which means “Mark hit Quintus”, the -us ending indicates that Marcus is doing the hitting, and the -um ending indicates that Quintus is the person getting hit. The word order is very flexible, because the cases indicate how the sentence fits together. You could say Quintum pulsat Marcus and it would mean the same thing.

In Latin, all the grammatical distinctions and categories are explicitly indicated by the inflections. The meaning of most sentences results from combining the meaning of each individual word according to the grammatical rules (known as “the principle of compositionality”). It’s easy to see why grammarians would like to use the concepts of Latin grammar to explain the grammar of all languages. Latin has rules, which are mostly clear and obvious.

English grammar

But English grammar works very differently from Latin. English grammar is more of a patchwork of phrases, with a few inflections to help out (like -ed, -s, and -ing). Many phrases have unique rules for how to use them, like “too adjective to verb. Grammatical distinctions are often indicated by ambiguous auxiliary verbs like will, would, and should, whose meaning varies a great deal depending on the phrase or the context. Here is a list of verbs, some of which can be followed by a gerund, some of which can be followed by an infinitive, and some of which can be followed by either. There is no rhyme or reason to the list.

Unlike Latin grammar, which the Ancient Romans had written about and explained in detail just from noticing when they use each inflection, English grammar is quite hard to figure out and explain. Even today, linguists are still debating over what the grammatical categories are. For example, sometimes there seems to be no way to tell which (Latin-like) grammatical category is denoted by -ing, as in this question. Probably the most complete attempt to formulate English grammar as a set of rules is this book, which is 1,800 pages long and costs US$250.00!

The effect on education

For a couple hundred years, many educators thought you could understand English grammar by learning Latin grammar. It was thought that English grammar was doing in an “abstract” or “invisible” way what Latin grammar does “concretely” or “visibly” with inflections. So, learning Latin grammar seemed like an easier way to learn the grammatical concepts of English. For example, Dorothy Sayers (1893–1957) said “To embark on any complex English construction without the Latin Grammar is like trying to find one's way across country without map or signposts.” The idea that Latin and English grammar do not just represent the same things in superficially different ways, but work in profoundly different ways, so that the “map” you learn from one language misleads you in the other language, did not seem to occur to many people. The assumption that, deep down, English and Latin grammar work the same way, is much less popular now than it used to be, but a few people still believe it. (This assumption might even still influence linguists of the type who try to work on a “universal grammar”.)

Consequently, some of what most Americans are commonly taught about English grammar is wrong or confused, because American schoolteachers’ grammar concepts are largely borrowed from Latin.

For example, English verbs have an -ing form, which doesn’t neatly correspond to anything in Latin. Some people are taught that the word running in “I am running” is a present participle, and others are taught that it’s a gerund. Present participle and gerund are concepts from Latin grammar. However, in the English sentence “I am running”, neither of the Latin grammatical concepts fits well. Yet, schoolteachers teach the Latin grammatical terminology as if it applied to English grammar. Mostly this causes confusion. The schoolteachers themselves probably don’t even know they’re doing this.

Two famous errors, “taught” up until about twenty years ago, were that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition, as in “Jane picked the cat up”, and wrong to “split” an infinitive, as in “to boldly go”. These are natural, grammatical constructions in English. However, under the influence of Latin grammar, many educators thought they were ungrammatical. The problem is that phrases like pick up and to go are two-word units of meaning in English grammar unlike anything in Latin grammar.

In Latin, a preposition always introduces a prepositional phrase, which includes a noun. If you say in in Latin, you always follow that by saying in what. For example, Marcus Quintum in via pulsat, “Mark hit Quintus in the road.” In Latin, it really doesn’t make any sense to end a sentence with a preposition. No one would do that, just as in English, no one would end a sentence with an article.

And Latin has nothing corresponding to the to-infinitive of English. It’s not possible to split an infinitive in Latin even if you wanted to. Many people learning English as a foreign language have been misled by being told that to verb is how you make an infinitive in English, by false analogy with Latin infinitives. Hence “I go for to buy cigarettes.

To this day, most Americans do not know what phrasal verbs are, even though they use them every day. And many people learning English as a foreign language are never taught about phrasal verbs, because phrasal verbs don’t correspond to anything in Latin grammar. Lack of a name or even a concept for phrasal constructions causes a lot of confusion for people whose native language doesn’t have them.

  • I love the use of 'que' in Latin. Batman Robinand. Also, hmmm, I betcha someone can come up with a grammatical English sentence ending in the. Regarding bracelet, did you say 'a' or 'the'. Still, I'm sure a one can be constructed without resorting to naming the word.
    – user6951
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 9:30
  • It's not a TV I wanted but the ---, her voice trailed off. Not quite. And I saw the rooster and the spider and the cat and the, the... That's all she could think of.
    – user6951
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 9:39
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    When it's a Rolls, we're not talking about a car, but the. probably comes closest to working.
    – user6951
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 9:47
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    ... perg- audacter -ere ...
    – Jay
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 16:46
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    @Jay Ha! I was wondering! Ire didn’t seem to work. :)
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 17:10

It would be hard to give a complete list of such rules of Latin grammar being applied to English, and there is still some degree of controversy on these matters. The simplest example, however, is the rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition. This is a hang-over from when Latin grammarians were adapting practices appropriate to Latin to English where it wasn't entirely appropriate.

Another example, only moderately less controversial, is that about not splitting an infinitive. In Latin, the infinitive is a particular morphological form of the verb. In English, the infinitive is usually expressed as to <verb>. So, to pick a favorite example, in to boldly go where no one has gone before, the word boldly splits the to from the verb go. Latin grammarians frowned on this.


This is something of a comment on the other answers, especially @benkovitz, but I wanted to add a couple of additional thoughts.

As Ben Kovitz says, English grammar and Latin grammar are certainly not the same. I'd add the caveat that there are surely many cases where English and Latin grammar do accomplish the same thing in different ways. Like in general, one could say that English uses multi-word constructs to indicate tense, like "will do" versus "to do", while Latin uses endings, like "agebit" versus "agere". Etc.

But yes, supposing that there is a perfect one-to-one mapping between constructs in different languages just doesn't work.

I read an article years ago by someone who was involved in an early project to write computer language translation software. He said that he and the others on the project started out thinking that this would be easy: To translate from, say, English to Latin, just look up each English word in a dictionary, get the Latin equivalent, shuffle the word order around from the English convention (subject-verb-object) to the Latin convention (subject-object-verb), and you're done! They sadly discovered it was not that simple at all. There are some problems that I would think would have been obvious, like idioms, and words that can have different meanings depending on context. But he said they also ran into all sorts of problems with differences in grammar rules between languages.

All that said, it is surely instructive to study the differences and similarities. I'm no linguist, but I suppose that if you studied many languages, it would at least be interesting to see when they do things essentially the same way, when they accomplish the same thing in different ways, and when there are elements of one language for which you cannot find any corresponding element in some other language.


That paragraph says that grammatical descriptions used to study Latin were applied to English. Native English speakers do not study actual Latin grammar.

English education varies from country to country (and from state to state in the U.S.). You can search online using the word "curriculum" to see what sort of stuff gets taught. Here's an example from a random district in the U.S. The U.S. is in the middle of a large and controversial curriculum reform called Common Core. What you see at that link is new stuff. I don't know where one would find historical examples of English curricula.

I remember learning the alphabet in Kindergarten (age 5), and learning about subjects and predicates a couple years later. (This was in Texas in the late 1980s.) We had spelling tests up through fifth grade (age 10). There were spelling competitions called spelling bees, which I did rather well in. :-) Grammar was mostly taught to children. Secondary education focused on literature and writing. A lot of vocabulary was taught as part of other subjects. I read a lot of books starting at a young age, which probably taught me as much about English usage as my classes did.

I suspect that non-native speakers learn more about grammar than native speakers do.

  • Referring to your last sentence. I think you are absolutely right because - at least in German "higher" schools - pupils learn to use a grammar.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 4:40

I think the Latin grammar terms for word classes, sentences parts, declension, conjugation etc are still the basis of grammar whether it is Latin, Italian, French, German or English. And I think to treat English as something totally different only because some endings were abolished is not the right view. In English grammar some grammar terms were changed, you say noun for substantive, the names for the cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative) were changed into subject case, possessive case, indirect object and direct object, but that are only some other names for the same thing. But I have found out that English is not very suitable for conveying how grammar works and that may be the cause why in American schools grammar doesn't play a great role. Latin grammar is excellent, unfortunately Latin is such an arduous language to learn.

Basic Latin

Often I think one should develop a form of basic Latin with no irregularity at all - one declension, one conjugation, no irregular verbs, regular word order as in English - a kind of Esperanto but on the basis of Latin. Such a Basic Latin would be excellent to convey the system of grammar and what is yet more important it would convey the Latin vocabulary which is so important in English.

I have experimented with creating forms of Basic Latin, it is no problem at all.

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    “But I have found out that English is not very suitable for conveying how grammar works” — that is a very interesting statement. I suggest you have a peek at, for instance, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language by Huddleston, Pullum et al. They seem to have had very little trouble describing English grammar in English. I think it is a very sad message to tell learners that they are learning a language that is incapable of describing its own grammar — I doubt this would be true for any language, but any such language would be so flawed that learning it would be a waste of time.
    – oerkelens
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 8:13
  • @oerkelens Very little trouble? It’s taken centuries to get to that point, and CGEL is more than 1,800 pages long. If I understand rogermue correctly, the problem is not that English can’t describe fantastically complicated things like English grammar (any language can do that), the problem is that English grammar is fantastically complicated, so it's hard to pry grammatical principles from example sentences, whereas in Latin that's pretty easy.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 8:21
  • @BenKovitz If that was the intended meaning, I find it fantastically complicated to pry that meaning from the sentence "English is not very suitable to convey how grammar works". Even if Latin grammar were the easiest in the world, that would only support the idea that it is utter nonsensical to apply it to English - if English grammar is so much more complicated!
    – oerkelens
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 8:44
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    Why would English, usually classified as a Germanic language, share deep underlying grammatical principles with Romance languages? Do you have any actual evidence of this "commonly held idea"?
    – oerkelens
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 9:14
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    @rogermue: So now you say that English does have a distinctive grammar, that is not like Latin? The confusion about box in box office is, imho, the result of the "let's do Latin" craze, by the way. Calling nouns adjectives just because they are used attributively does indeed lead to confusion, but that is not the fault of English grammar. It's the fault of faulty grammarians and teachers blindly following their misgivings.
    – oerkelens
    Commented Jan 12, 2015 at 9:40

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