Grammar vs. syntax

One more follow-up to my posting on Ned Halley’s Dictionary of Modern English Grammar, this time on grammar vs. syntax. The sub-title of the book says that it’s about grammar, syntax, and style, so that I wondered how Halley distinguished these three things.

Style first. Then grammar vs. syntax, a distinction that crops up in many other places, in particular in discussions of the “grammar and syntax” of some language.

For Halley, style seems to take in only conventions of the mechanical details of writing:

In newspaper and periodical publishing ‘style’ stands for consistency. Because there are different spellings for so many words, a ‘style book’ or sheet is issued to staff and contributors to clarify as many words or phrases as possible. Also laid down are rules for punctuation and use of italic type faces for foreign-language words, book, film or other titles — such as those of the newspaper when referring to itself.

On to

grammar Reports of the death of grammar have been exaggerated. Traditionalists complain that grammar, in the sense of a set of rules for ‘correct’ use of the language, is no longer taught in schools and that this contributes to a steepening decline in the clarity of both spoken and written English. But there is no real evidence that grammar is absent from the school curriculum. In its advice to teachers, the official National Curriculum for England states: “In writing, pupils should be taught to use correct spelling and punctuation and follow grammatical conventions.”

The entry for syntax begins with another reference to correctness and then goes on to talk about conventional arrangements of the parts of sentences (no doubt echoing the Ancient Greek etymology for the word:

syntax Dread word for students of English. It is the set of criteria by which use of the language can be judged correct, or otherwise. The sentence, ‘The cat sat on the mat’ is correct syntax, being a conventional arrangement of subject, verb and object, clearly setting out the relationships between all the words and thus conveying sense.

Neither entry is particularly helpful on its own, and the two together are puzzling, though the syntax entry does suggest that syntax is about the parts of sentences and their ordering and relationships. But then what’s left for grammar?

OED2 has a long introductory note on the term grammar, pointing out the uses of the word have shifted over time, but that many current sources treat grammar as having three parts: phonology, accidence (treating “inflexional forms or equivalent formations”), and syntax (treating “the structure of sentences”). That is, syntax is part of grammar, a conceptualization that is repeated in OED2’s entry for syntax:

the department of grammar which deals with the established usages of grammatical constructions and the rules deduced therefrom: distinguished from accidence

Some other sources treat grammar as having only two departments, syntax and (inflectional) morphology. (Note that OED2’s account of accidence allows for formulations equivalent to inflection, like marking with “grammatical words”, so it’s applicable to languages with very little or no inflectional morphology.) But in all these views of the matter, the locution “the grammar and syntax of” some language sounds wordy; “grammar” by itself should do the trick.

3 Responses to “Grammar vs. syntax”

  1. Marc A. Pelletier Says:

    But in all these views of the matter, the locution “the grammar and syntax of” some language sounds wordy; “grammar” by itself should do the trick.

    … omit needless words? 🙂

    — MA

  2. John Lawler Says:

    Oh, it’s far worse than needless words. Omit confusing words, more like.

    Saying ‘the grammar and syntax of’ a language is like saying ‘the furniture and chairs of a room’, since chairs are part of the furniture of a room as syntax is a part of the grammar of a language. We don’t need to imply that ‘chairs’ are different from ‘furniture’, and we certainly shouldn’t imply that ‘syntax’ is different from ‘grammar’.

    Conjoined noun phrases should not be related as general class/subordinate class.

  3. panne Says:

    “The sentence, ‘The cat sat on the mat’ is correct syntax, being a conventional arrangement of subject, verb and object”

    Uhm, right, except there’s no object. How can a book like exist? It reminds me of a book I proof-read – it was a guide to parents with children in middle-school who wanted to help their kids with homework. The book contained many extraordinary claims about sentences and grammar. If the proof-reader hadn’t happened to have knowledge of these topics, the incorrect statements would most likely have been printed. Sigh.

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