Syntax concerns the way that words are arranged into larger units. That is, words are the basic units—the building blocks—of syntactic analysis. The largest unit that syntactic analysis usually considers is the sentence. For this reason, syntax is often equated with the study of sentence structure, even though the things we analyze may not always be complete sentences. Language, of course, rarely consists merely of isolated sentences. We string sentences together into larger units—paragraphs, essays, books. When we spend a great deal of time focused on sentence-level analysis, as we will in the following chapters, it's easy to lose sight of the larger purposes of syntactic study. So before we plunge into the forest, it's worth considering why we should spend so much effort on the task.
One of the first things that people noticed when they started thinking about language as language was that words tend to fall into categories and that the members of these categories behave in similar ways. The traditional name for those categories is the "parts of speech." In this chapter, we will look at these word categories and see how the traditional account is somewhat misleading, as well as inaccurate. With a more accurate idea of word categories, we will be equipped with the basics that we need to begin studying sentence structure.
Language is an extremely complex system consisting of many interrelated components. As a result, learning how to analyze language can be challenging because to understand one part you often need to know about something else. The bulk of this book concerns English sentence structure, which largely falls under the category of syntax, but there are other components to language, and to understand syntax, we will need to know a few basics about those other parts.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the notion was widespread that some languages—generally presumed to be those of peoples with a primitive physical culture—either lacked a grammar completely, or had a very simple grammar. Versions of this story persist today, claiming that there is some tribe in a remote region of the world—the depths of the Amazon, or the highlands of New Guinea—who have a language of only a hundred words and no grammar.
We often speak of language as a monolithic entity that exists separately from its speakers. And while it is true that writing does give language an existence that is partly independent of people, language is fundamentally a mental process, existing in the minds of its speakers. And as individuals vary, so does their language. Languages vary at every level. Speakers of a language vary depending on their geographical origin, class, gender, and ethnicity. Even individuals do not speak a single form of language.
Both prescriptivists and descriptivists often make statements about whether or not a particular utterance is grammatical. For a prescriptivist, deciding that an utterance is ungrammatical is the first step in eliminating error. For a descriptivist, observing what native speakers do not do gives important clues to understanding the tacit rules of the language. But given the difference between descriptive and prescriptive rules, we have to be careful to specify what kind of grammar we have in mind.
The consequences of these clashing assumptions are nowhere more stark than in the confusion over the term grammar, which has various, somewhat conflicting meanings depending on who uses the term. Grammar, at its core, refers to the rules of language. But how these rules are imagined and what these rules encompass can vary greatly from definition to definition. As a result, the common understanding of grammar differs in subtle but important ways from the linguistic sense of the term.

The traditional understanding of grammar—the one we associate with the prescriptivist position—began in ancient Greece and Rome. For hundreds of years, grammar was synonymous with the study of Greek and Latin.[1] These languages were regarded as perfect—or nearly so—and their grammatical structures were taken to be universal forms by which all "vulgar" languages should be judged. It was not until the seventeenth century that writers began to turn their attention systematically to the grammar of English itself, and when they did so, they applied the structures that they had learned studying classical languages to English.

Children can learn any language they are exposed to. Take a moment to consider how remarkable that ability is. If you put any infant born without developmental disabilities in any culture, that child will learn the language—or languages—he or she hears spoken. Ethnic origin makes no difference to this fluency. A child of Japanese parents raised by English speakers will grow up speaking fluent English. A child of European ancestry will learn to speak perfect Navajo if raised among Navajo speakers. And no special training is necessary. By the time children reach school age, they have already mastered the basic structures and vocabulary of their native language, even if their parents give them no special instruction.


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