Grammar


Having surveyed the methods, concepts and findings of the study of speech sounds, we now turn to the construction of meaning in language. The first step in this process is the formation of words and sentences and their organization according to rules of language form, which is necessary to make speech intelligible. Grammar constitutes the collection of rules of language form and is divided into two specializations:

Before beginning a discussion of morphology and syntax, we must first distinguish between the linguist's approach to grammar and the methods applied by our parents and teachers. Traditional teaching focuses on normative grammar, i.e., standards of socially acceptable language form. Linguists deal with descriptive grammar and take as their baseline for correctness the commonly used forms, whether they are considered to be "proper" or not. Thus, to a linguist, the sentence: "I am not doing nothing" is acceptable English usage. It is commonly used within some sectors of the population and is understandable to any English speaker. The usual complaint that the double negative implies a positive or is ambiguous is not supported in this instance. The meaning of this sentence is perfectly clear, as it is in many other languages where double negatives are standard accepted use. (In Spanish this sentence would be phrased: No hago nada, where no and nada are both negatives.) Moreover, the rare use of the double negative to make a positive statement "that I am doing something" is articulated with a stress on the first syllable of "nothing" and is therefore is phonemically tagged as a different message. The only problem with the normatively ungrammatical sentence is that it is understood as a social-class marker, a sociolinguistic rather than a grammatical issue.

On the other hand the sentence: "I no de do anything" is not acceptable standard English because violates more basic rules of word formation and is accordingly difficult to understand, even if the unfamiliar word "de" is glossed as "is." The rules violated here are the absence of the suffix "t" after not, the "ing" after do, and a first person form of the present tense marker "de." These elements, which are known as morphemes, are necessary for grammatically correct word and sentence construction. However, this second sentence is grammatically correct in a different language, West African Pidgin, whose grammar is based on the rule that every unit of meaning must be assigned a separate word.