Some people equate grammar with any rules governing the language. Some people believe grammar is language itself minus whatever is being discussed in the shade of "meaning" and "comprehension". Some people think "grammar" is anything that prohibits them from uttering some words, morphemes or phonemes together.

So, what is grammar? What criteria should we use to call something a "grammar rule"?

   *** Please do not remove the 'grammar' tag from this question! ***

                 It's a placeholder.

  • Relevant meta discussion. Please read it to see why this post is being asked.
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 16:47
  • Grammar is description how a language system works.
    – rogermue
    Commented Oct 24, 2015 at 14:52

6 Answers 6


Short answer:

Grammar is syntax and morphology.

Grammar is not semantics, pragmatics, phonology, orthography, or the lexicon.

Long answer:

The definition of grammar in David Crystal's A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (2008) is quite long and describes a number of different uses of the term. Here is a short excerpt:

[G]rammar refers to a level of structural organization which can be studied independently of phonology and semantics, and generally divided into the branches of syntax and morphology. In this sense, grammar is the study of the way words, and their component parts, combine to form sentences.

This, he says, is the "traditional sense in linguistics", but it's certainly not the only way the term is used. Still, if you were to ask me what grammar is, this is the sense that comes to mind.

I also think this is probably the most useful general definition of the word. If you don't include word formation, then you have a synonym for syntax, but we've already got a word for that: syntax. And if you include everything under the sun, grammar doesn't identify anything in particular.

Using this definition allows us to talk about how grammar interacts with other language components. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), pages 3-4, summarizes the interactions like this:

Grammar versus other components

A grammar of a language describes the principles or rules governing the form and meaning of words, phrases, clauses, and sentences. As such, it interacts with other components of a complete description: the phonology (covering the sound system), the graphology (the writing system: spelling and punctuation), the dictionary or lexicon, and the semantics.

Phonology and graphology do not receive attention in their own right here, but both have to be treated explicitly in the course of our description of inflection in Ch. 18 (we introduce the concepts that we will draw on in §3 of this chapter), and Ch. 20 deals with one aspect of the writing system in providing an outline account of the important system of punctuation.

A lexicon for a language deals with the vocabulary: it brings together information about the pronunciation, spelling, meaning, and grammatical properties of the lexical items – the words, and the items with special meanings that consist of more than one word, the idioms.

The study of conventional linguistic meaning is known as semantics. We take this to cut across the division between grammar and lexicon. That is, we distinguish between lexical semantics, which dictionaries cover, and grammatical semantics. Our account of grammatical meaning will be quite informal, but will distinguish between semantics (dealing with the meaning of sentences or words as determined by the language system itself) and pragmatics (which has to do with the use and interpretation of sentences as used in particular contexts); an introduction to these and other concepts used in describing meaning is given in §5 of this chapter.

A grammar itself is divisible into two components, syntax and morphology. Syntax is concerned with the way words combine to form phrases, clauses, and sentences, while morphology deals with the formation of words. This division gives special prominence to the word, a unit which is also of major importance in the lexicon, the phonology and the graphology.

Of course, this isn't the only way the word has ever been used, and it's certainly not the only way the word is used today. For example, you may hear generative phonologists talk about the "phonological component of the grammar". If you're working in that sort of grammatical framework, the short answer I gave at the top isn't right for you.

In fact, grammar has lots of different uses. The complete definition in David Crystal's dictionary is a bit longer than the little quote I gave near the top of this answer, and it covers lots of different uses of the word:

grammar (n.) A central term in linguistics, but one which covers a wide range of phenomena, being used both in mass noun and count noun senses (as ‘grammar in general’ and ‘a grammar in particular’). Several types of grammar can be distinguished.

  1. A descriptive grammar is, in the first instance, a systematic description of a language as found in a sample of speech or writing (e.g. in a corpus of material, or as elicited from native-speakers). Depending on one's theoretical background, it may go beyond this and make statements about the language as a whole, and in so far as these statements are explicit and predictive of the speaker's competence the grammar can be said to be ‘descriptively adequate’ and generative. In the older tradition, ‘descriptive’ is in contrast to the prescriptive or normative approach of grammarians who attempted to establish rules for the socially or stylistically correct use of language. Comprehensive descriptions of the syntax and morphology of a language are known as reference grammars or grammatical handbooks (such as those produced in the twentieth century by the North European grammarians, e.g. the Dane, Otto Jespersen (1860–1943), and more recently by Randolph Quirk et al. (see Quirk grammar)).

  2. A theoretical grammar goes beyond the study of individual languages, using linguistic data as a means of developing theoretical insights into the nature of language as such, and into the categories and processes needed for successful linguistic analysis. Such insights include the distinction between ‘deep grammar’ and ‘surface grammar’, the notion of ‘grammatical categories’ and ‘grammatical meaning’, and the study of ‘grammatical relations’ (the relationship between a verb and its dependents, such as ‘subject of’, ‘direct object of’). In so far as grammar concentrates on the study of linguistic forms (their structure, distribution, etc.), it may be referred to as formal grammar (as opposed to ‘notional grammar’); but formal grammar also refers to the use of the formalized techniques of logic and mathematics in the analysis of language.

  3. Other general notions include the distinction between diachronic and synchronic grammars, based on whether or not grammars introduce a historical dimension into their analysis. Comparative grammar, which compares the forms of languages (or states of a language), relies on a combination of theoretical and descriptive methods. A pedagogical or teaching grammar is a grammar designed specifically for the purposes of teaching or learning a (foreign) language, or for developing one's awareness of the mother-tongue.

  4. The phrase traditional grammar is an attempt to summarize the range of attitudes and methods found in the prelinguistic era of grammatical study. The term traditional, accordingly, is found with reference to many periods, such as the Roman and Greek grammarians, Renaissance grammars, and (especially) the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century school grammars, in Europe and America. It is usually used with a critical (‘non-scientific’) implication, despite the fact that many antecedents of modern linguistics can be found in early grammars. Criticism is directed primarily at the prescriptive and proscriptive recommendations of authors, as opposed to the descriptive emphasis of linguistic studies.

  5. In a restricted sense (the traditional sense in linguistics, and the usual popular interpretation of the term), grammar refers to a level of structural organization which can be studied independently of phonology and semantics, and generally divided into the branches of syntax and morphology. In this sense, grammar is the study of the way words, and their component parts, combine to form sentences. It is to be contrasted with a general conception of the subject, where grammar is seen as the entire system of structural relationships in a language, as in such titles as stratificational grammar, systemic grammar and (especially) generative grammar. Here, ‘grammar’ subsumes phonology and semantics as well as syntax, traditionally regarded as separate linguistic levels. ‘A grammar’, in this sense, is a device for generating a finite specification of the sentences of a language. In so far as a grammar defines the total set of rules possessed by a speaker, it is a grammar of the speaker's competence (competence grammar). In so far as a grammar is capable of accounting for only the sentences a speaker has actually used (as found in a sample of output, or corpus), it is a performance grammar. The study of performance grammars, in a psycholinguistic context, goes beyond this, however, attempting to define the various psychological, neurological and physiological stages which enter into the production and perception of speech. Investigations which go beyond the study of an individual language, attempting to establish the defining (universal) characteristics of human language in general, have as their goal a universal grammar.

Students of grammar are grammarians, and they carry out a grammatical analysis (the term here having no implications of well-formedness, as it has in the notion of grammaticality). When it is necessary to differentiate entities in one's analysis as belonging to a grammatical level of description as opposed to some other (e.g. semantic, phonological), the term ‘grammatical’ is often used attributively, as in ‘grammatical category’ (e.g. gender, case, voice), ‘grammatical gender’ (as opposed to ‘natural gender’), ‘grammatical formative/item/unit’ (e.g. an inflectional ending), ‘grammatical subject/object . . . ’ (as opposed to ‘logical’ or ‘semantic’ subjects​/​objects . . . ), ‘grammatical word’ (as opposed to lexical word). When a semantic contrast is expressed using grammatical forms, it is said to be grammaticalized (or grammaticized), a process often seen in historical linguistics. An example of grammaticalization (grammaticization) is the use of the motion verb go, as in She is going to London, which has become a marker of tense in It's going to rain. See also application (2), arc, constituent, core, discourse, fuzzy, general (1).

But as detailed as this is, it doesn't cover every way the word has been or is used. I've seen people give definitions as general and vague as "Grammar is what people say". Unfortunately, people simply don't all agree on what grammar means.

Still, I think grammar does have a usual meaning in linguistics, and that meaning is what I put at the top of this answer. The definition I've given is commonly used because it's useful. It lets us make distinctions that help us talk about language. I'll repeat it below:

Grammar is syntax and morphology.

Grammar is not semantics, pragmatics, phonology, orthography, or the lexicon.


Since I believe we should get our meaning of as close as possible to the learners' world, I've decided to formulate the definition from what is categorized under "grammar" sections in EFL coursebooks and exercises, rather than looking at linguistic or dictionary definition of the term.

It would be exhausting to list all the topics I have found, but here are some of them that are most common (regrouped and relabelled by me; most of these are not this technical in the books):

  • Tenses (Present Simple, Present Continuous, Present Perfect etc.) Note that aspects as well as so-called "future" tenses are generally included.
  • Auxiliaries: including primaries (be, have, do), modals and modal-likes such as be supposed to
  • Clauses: how to form basic clauses (questions, declaratives etc.) and "special" clauses such as relative clauses.
  • Conditionals (0, 1, 2, 3, Mixed etc.)
  • Possessives: determiners & pronouns
  • Active-passive voice

Some observations are:

  • Most of what I found concern verbs, especially their inflections, and their constructions.
  • A big portion of "grammar" seems to go to syntax.
  • Word formation is taught, but usually not put under "grammar."
  • Generalizations/categorizations about the use of a certain part of speech are usually put under "grammar," but the same doesn't hold true for particular groups of functionally similar words.
    • For example, "gradable vs. ungradable adjectives" is under "grammar" ("adjective" is a part of speech)
    • but "contrasting: (al)though, even though, despite, in spite of" would be under "vocabulary" (these are just "phrases that show contrast")

The widespread definition at present that fits here best is

grammar is morphosyntax.

However, as I've noted, word formation, obviously part of morphology, is usually not put under grammar. Most of syntax, on the other hand, is considered part of "grammar," but since syntax often excludes semantics-pragmatics, we have to define it more specifically, as EFL often approaches grammar in a more practical, in-context way.

The following is what I believe should be the definition of "grammar" here.

grammar is the set of rules of how words are put together to form meaningful structures, such as phrases and clauses, and of how they change forms.

The criteria guideline

The "not" criteria should have higher priority.

A question is not a question when ...

  • it concerns the use of a certain group of functionally similar words/phrases, with the exception of auxiliaries, as they are closely related to structures.
    • "What's the difference between despite and although?"
    • "What's the frequency order of the adverbs of frequency?"
  • it concerns word formation, including derivation
    • "-ic vs -ical?"

A question is a question when ...

  • it is about inflection, i.e. tense, aspect, number etc.
    • "My vs mine?"
  • it concerns structural elements, i.e. phrases, clauses, sentences, with the focus on form and order.
    • "What is inversion?"
    • "How do I form a Wh-question for this sentence?"
  • it concerns a morphosyntactic generalization or subcategorization of a part of speech.
    • "How do I know if an adjective is gradable?"
  • it concerns "special" kinds of clauses, such as relatives and participles.

I will update my answer when I have done more research and have free time. Meanwhile, please voice your comments.


You could do a lot worse than go back to 1640 for the first grammar of English written in English—to the best of my knowledge the only grammar by an English author of the first rank, Ben Jonson. Here is the entire first chapter.

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Jonson's terminology is very strange to a modern reader; but once you get past that it's pretty sound stuff.


After referring several dictionaries, I found this close to what I mean grammar of any language.

grammar: (linguistics) the branch of linguistics that deals with syntax and morphology (and sometimes also deals with semantics).

If you see, it includes semantics though it writes 'sometimes'. But overall, the structure of the sentence with proper tenses and placement of the words would make a typical question of grammar.

Relevant to the meta discussion this question hails from:

For what should have the tag 'grammar', a typical example I see is here. For non-native speakers, putting the grammar tag to this question is the most obvious thing. If the OP keeps prepositions and infinitive vs gerund tag, that is his further knowledge which might not be an obvious thing to many non-natives.

  • 1
    Wait now please exclude the tag discussion from this answer. It's irrelevant.
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 9:50
  • I would like to address 'why this post is being asked' as well! Formatted!
    – Maulik V
    Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 9:55
  • you should that on meta, not here.
    – M.A.R.
    Commented Oct 13, 2015 at 9:58

Grammar has a meaning, i.e. current usage as defined in the dictionary. Jonson's def of grammar stood for 300 years, and it is echoed in the dictionary entries of today. Based on my knowledge and experience it may have began to morph somewhere post WW2 in common usage. Although, I think said morphing is arguable. The definitions do give grammar a very wide scope.

While I completely understand the reason for trying to define grammar more closely, that there is a lack of filtering, I am strongly critical of attempts to redefine words. A word has a meaning. If something else is meant, then one should use a different word. Redefining words leads to muddy and unclear communication. In the case of an English learner, I would think it would also lead to a high potential for confusion. There is another way to accomplish the results that are desired here.

I am strongly supportive of the desire to communicate with the learners expressed in this p.o.v.:

Since I believe we should get our meaning of grammar as close as possible to the learners' world, I've decided to formulate the definition from what is categorized under "grammar" sections in EFL coursebooks and exercises, rather than looking at linguistic or dictionary definition of the term.

But, as I've said above, I think that redefining grammar is not the answer. Rather take a lesson from judo: redirect the energy. The best answer lies in making the tag system work in our favor. I've addressed my thoughts on blacklisting etc. in the meta-posts that led to the creation of this question.

Here: A proposed solution to the "grammar" dilemma and then here: Is this tag useful? Big Boss grammar

Basically, imo, leave Jonson's definition alone. Don't confuse things by trying to redefine something that is already defined. Redirect the energy for tagging going forward. The answer to the grammar dilemma lies in better tag usage.

  • While I don't agree with you (I think, as I believe many people here do, that grammar is ambiguous; it is used differently in different fields of study), I can see where you're coming from and do not wish to go into a debate. But more importantly, I don't think this post is an actual answer to this question, only a response to my answer. If you're saying grammar is what Jonson defined and his definition is echoed in dictionaries, please provide those details in your answer, as well as the criteria for what should be tagged grammar, because that's what this question asks for.
    – user1513
    Commented Oct 30, 2015 at 3:49
  • I agree that grammar is ambiguous, and it because the definition is so broad. I apologize if you felt I was only answering you. I was trying to respond to the original question, and using the P.O.V. you expressed to illustrate my point. I was also uncertain about including points that I tried to make elsewhere in the meta-conversations that lead to the creation of this question. But, yes, I would say to stick with the dictionary definition, with Jonson's definition, even though it is too broad to be useful as a filter. I will work on my answer later today, or early tomorrow. Thank you.
    – Mark G B
    Commented Oct 30, 2015 at 17:06

In my understanding, grammar rules explain how to correctly spell words, build sentences, phrases. It's just a set of rules on how to use the language correctly.

  • 1
    I’m afraid that how you spell things has nothing to do with grammar. Grammar and orthography are unrelated. Similarly, punctuation is part of orthography not part of grammar. Grammar is syntax and morphology.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 16:51
  • 4
    I can see how your understanding of "grammar" could include all of these things, but the question is asking for something more than personal experience or opinion. It's asking for criteria to distinguish something as a grammar rule as opposed to categorizing it as something else.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 17:33

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