The History of Theoretical Grammar development

On the History of English Grammars

The history of English grammars is roughly divided into two periods of unequal length, according to the general aims or objectives of the grammars appearing within these periods. The first is age of prescientific grammar beginning with the end of the 16th century and lasting till about 1900. It includes two types of grammars.

The first type of grammars in the history of English grammars is the early prenormative grammars of English, beginning with William Bullokar’s Bref Grammar for English (1585).

By the middle of the 18th century, when many of the grammatical phenomena of English had been described, the early English grammars gave way to a new kind of grammar, a prescriptive (normative) grammar, which stated strict rules of grammatical usage. The grammars of the second type still constitute the only kind of grammar in the use in the practical teaching of English.

By the end of the 19th century, when the prescriptive grammar had reached its highest level of development, when the system of grammar known in modern linguistics as traditional had been established, the appearance of new grammar, the scientific grammar, became possible.

In contrast with prescriptive grammars, classical scientific grammar (the third type of grammars), was both descriptive and explanatory. As H. Sweet’s grammar appeared in the last decade of the 19th century, we may take 1900 as the dividing line between the two periods and the beginning of the second period, the age of scientific grammars of English, including three new types of grammars, i.e. classical scientific grammar, structural or descriptive grammar and the transformational generative grammar. The linguistic theory represented by the last mentioned type of grammar is considered by many modern linguists to be the most fruitful approach to the description and explanation of the grammatical system of English, especially in the field of syntax.

English grammar before 1900

(the first period)

Early (prenormative) grammar

Until the 17th century the term “grammar” in English was applied only to the study of Latin. This usage was a result of the fact that Latin grammar was the only grammar learned in schools and that until the end of the 16th century there were no grammars of English. One of the earliest and most popular Latin grammars written in English, by William Lily, was published in the first half of the 16th century. This work was very important for English grammar as in most grammars the arrangements of the material was similar to that of Lily’s grammar.

The first English grammar, Pamphlet for Grammar by William Bullokar, written with the seeming goal of demonstrating that English was quite as rule-bound as Latin, was published in 1586. Bullokar’s grammar was modeled on William Lily’s Latin grammar, Rudimenta Grammatices. Thus, in Bullokar’s grammar there were 5 cases of nouns and 6 genders (cf 6 cases and 6 genders in Latin).

During the first half of the 17th century appeared Ben Jonson’s and Ch. Butler’s English grammars in which the number of cases is two.

By the middle of the 18th century the main results of the description of the English grammatical system, as it was presented in the prenormative grammars, were as follows:

 Morphology. The Latin classification of the parts of speech, which included eight word-classes, different from the system adopted by modern grammars in that the substantives and adjectives were grouped together as two kinds of nouns, while the particle was presented as a separate part of speech. In the earliest English grammars the parts of speech were divided into declinable and indeclinable parts of speech (W. Bullokar), or words with number and without number (Ben Jonson), or words with number and case and words without number and case (Ch. Butler). Declinable words included nouns, pronouns, verbs and particles, indeclinables were adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections.

Later, at the beginning of the 18th century another scheme of classification appeared in J. Brightland’s grammar. He reduced the number of parts of speech to four; names (i.e. nouns), qualities (i.e. adjectives), affirmations (i.e. verbs), and particles, which included the four so-called indeclinable parts of speech.

 Syntax. In Brightland’s grammar we found an important innovation in the study of English syntax – the introduction of the notion “sentence”. In Brightland’s grammar sentences are divided into simple and compound. The simple sentence is defined as containing one affirmation (verb) and one name. The compound sentence consists of two or more simple sentences.

Prescriptive grammars

The age of prescriptive grammar begins in the second half of the 18th century. The most influential grammar of the period was R. Lowth’s Short Introduction to English Grammar, first published in 1762. Robert Lowth, Bishop of Oxford and thereafter of London, scholar of Hebrew poetry, and for a short time professor of poetry at Oxford, was the first and the best known of the widely emulated grammarians of the 18th century.

The aim of prescriptive grammars was to reduce the English language to rules and to set up a standard of correct usage. The rise of prescriptive grammar met the demand for setting usage and for codifying and systematizing grammar, a demand which had found expression in the movement for establishing an English Academy.

The problem which continues to be the subject of dispute to this day was the number of cases in English. Lowth adopted a two-case system for nouns and three-case system for pronouns and the term “possessive case” which is extremely popular now.

The syntactic study of the simple sentence did not advance greatly till the middle of the century. By the time Lowth’s grammar appeared the concept of principal parts of the sentence had been already elaborated to the number of three: an agent, an attribute (i.e. the predicate) and an object.

A very important innovation in the concept of the compound sentence was its subdivision into the compound sentence proper, with coordinated component parts, and the complex sentence, characterized by subordination of clauses. In this way the dichotomic classification of sentences into simple and compound was changed into a trichotomic division, according to which sentences are divided into simple, compound and complex.

Of great interest also is the elaboration of the concept of a clause as a syntactic unit containing a noun and a finite verb and forming part of a complex or compound sentence. Clauses are classified as independent and dependent or coordinate and subordinate. The latter were also classified morphologically as noun, adjective and adverb clauses.

The phrase is differentiated from the clause, as containing no finite verb.

Second period

Classical scientific grammar

By the end of the 19th century, after the description of the grammatical system, especially that of syntax had been completed, prescriptive grammar had reached the peak of its development. A grammar of a higher type was needed, a grammar which could give a scientific explanation of the grammatical phenomena. The appearance of H. Sweet’s New English Grammar, logical and Historical (1891) met this demand. As Sweet wrote in his Preface: “This work is intended to supply the want of a scientific English grammar”.

Sweet clearly states the new viewpoint: “… whatever is in general use in language is for that reason grammatically correct”. Scientific grammar was understood by its authors to be a combination of both descriptive and explanatory grammar.

Sweet describes the three main features characterizing the part of speech, namely meaning, form and function, which have also been considered important in Russian linguistics.

The priory of oral speech over written proclaimed by the structuralists has also been stated by Sweet.

English grammar in the 20th century

(the second period)

The modern period may be divided into two chronologically unequal parts, the first from the beginning of the 20th century till the 1940’s, when there were only two types of grammars in use – the prescriptive and the classical scientific, the second from the 1940’s, during which time structural grammar, and then transformational have been added.

Prescriptive grammars in the modern period

Among the 20th century prescriptive grammars J. C. Nesfield’s grammar should be mentioned (1898). Of the various classifications of the parts of the sentence current in the grammars of the second half of the 19th century the author chose a system, according to which the sentence has four distinct parts: the Subject, the Predicate and the Adjunct of the Predicate.

In Nesfield’s grammatical system the number of cases of the noun was increased to five (through the addition of the vocative and the dative), while classical scientific grammars, for instance those of Sweet and Jespersen, favoured the two-case system.

Another change occurred in the structural classification of sentences. Two new terms, “double” and “multiple” sentences, were substituted for the term “compound” sentence, the term “double” denoting the coordination of two and “multiple” of more than two sentences. According to the concept of the “compound” sentence, the combination of two or more syntactically independent, though semantically connected sentences, was analysed as a single sentence. The new terms became very popular in perspective grammar and influenced some scientific grammars.

Classical Scientific English Grammar in the Modern Period

The founders of this type of grammar either specialize in syntax or deal with the problem of both morphology and syntax.

Among the authors who specialize in syntax are L. G. Kimball, C. T. Onions and H. R. Stokoe. Both Kimball’s Structure of the English sentence (New York 1900) and Onion’s Advanced English Syntax (London 1904) discuss the problems of the structure of English. The third book, H. R. Stokoe’s Understanding of Syntax, which appeared in 1937, was also largely influenced by the views of prescriptive grammarians like Nesfield. Stokoe adopted the new classification of sentences, describing double and multiple sentences in his book. All these authors differ from prescriptive grammarians in their non-legislative approach to the description of English structure and deeper insights into the nature of the grammatical structure. Their aim was to describe English grammar scientifically as a whole. The authors retain the traditional system of the eight parts of speech, grouping the article and the numerals with the adjective. In syntax the more international scheme of five parts of the sentence and the corresponding classification is combined with the specifically English features of syntactic analysis, with the addition of the concepts of the compliment and the modifiers (or adjuncts.

Of all the authors of scientific grammars of the classical type O. Jespersen is the most original. His morphological system differs from the traditional in that he lists only five parts of speech – substantives, adjectives, verbs, pronouns (the latter include pronominal adverbs and articles) and “particles”, in which he groups adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections. Like Sweet he proposes three principles of classification – meaning, form and function.

Jespersen’s syntactic system is more original. He intends to reject the traditional syntactic analysis and developed the concept of ranks.


In the phrases a furiously barking dog three ranks are designated. The principal on which this theory is based is so-called principle of determination. The primary is an absolutely independent word, the secondary is the word which determines or is subordinated to the primary, and the tertiary determines the secondary and so on.

But the author applies the same principle of analysis to sentence structure,


such as the dog barks furiously, where the relations between the subject and the predicate differ from those between a noun and its attribute. Moreover, the rank of a primary is given to the object adjoining the verb: I see a dog, where in reality a dog, as a member of a verbal group, is subordinated to the leading element, the verb.

Thus, according to Jespersen’s theory in attributive and subject-predicate groups the primary is the leading element, but in a verbal group the primary is a subordinate element.

A few more points of interest should be noted as characteristic of Jespersen’s linguistic activity. Among the authors of the 20th century scientific grammars of the older school Jespersen was the only one who, like Sweet, elaborated such general concepts of grammatical theory as the correspondence of grammatical and logical categories and the definition of morphology and syntax (in his Philosophy of Grammar).

In his works Progress in Language, with Special Reference to English, 1894 and Efficiency in Linguistic Change, 1941 Jespersen tries to prove that English as an analytical language has reached a higher stage of development than other European Languages.

In 1937 Jespersen published his Analytic Syntax, in which he attempted to represent the structure of English. Grammatical constructions are transcribed in formulas, in which the parts of the sentence and the parts of speech are represented by capital and small letters – S for subject, V for verb, v for auxiliary verb, O for object, I for infinitive, etc and the ranks by numerals 1,2,3.

Structural and Transformational Grammars

 Structural grammarians begin treating the problems of the structure of English will criticism of traditional, or conventional grammar, including together prescriptive and scholarly grammars. According to the point of view of structural linguists (Ch. Fries), both these types of grammar belong to a “prescientific era”.

In his work “The structure of English” Fries applies some of the newly developed techniques, such as distributional analysis and substitution and classified words into four “form-classes”, designated by numbers, and fifteen groups of “function words”, designated by letters. The form-classes correspond roughly to nouns and pronouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. The group of function words contains not only prepositions and conjunctions, but also certain specific words that more traditional grammarians would class as a particular kind of pronouns, adverbs and verbs.

Fries’s classification of parts of speech is most popular among structural linguists.

The decade before Frie’s The structure of English appeared was one of intensive development of American linguistics which became known as Bloomfieldian linguistics (K.L. Pike, R. Wells, E. Nida, Z. S.Harris). American linguists concentrated their attention on formal operations, the so-called grammar discovery procedures.

Sentence structure was represented in terms of immediate constituent analysis. The binary cutting of sentences and their phrasal constituents into IC’s is the first and the most important cut between the group of the subject and the group of predicate.

Modern structural linguistics provides little insight into the processes of formation and interpretation of sentences.

N. Chomsky introduced and developed a new method widely known as Transformational Generative Grammar. It was first presented in Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures (1957) and has been revised in his Aspect of the Theory of Syntax (1965). According to this theory sentences have a surface and a deep structure. Of these, the surface structure is the more complicated, based on one or more abstract simple structures. In very simple sentence the difference between the surface structure and the deep structure is minimal. Sentences of this kind, simple, active, declarative, affirmative, indicative, are designated as kernel sentences (The man hits the boy). Kernel sentences are produced applying only obligatory transformations to the phrase-structure (verb + affix in the present tense hit-s). Non-kernel or derived sentences involve optional transformations in addition, such as active to passive (the boy was hit by the man). Transformational operations consist in rearrangement, addition, deletion and combination of linguistic elements.

A Transformational Grammar is organized in three basic parts. The first part – its syntactic component is described.

The syntactic component includes both the description of deep of surface structure. The second is the semantic component, which provides a semantic interpretation of the deep structure. E. g. in sentences We enjoy smoking and We oppose smoking the semantic component would indicate that the first sentence is a paraphrase of we smoke and we enjoy it though the second one is not a paraphrase of we smoke and we oppose it. The third component is the phonological one, which provides a phonetic interpretation of the surface structure of the sentence.

“To generate sentences” according to the theory does not mean “to produce sentences”, but “to characterize”, “to enumerate”, “to determine” the rules for forming all the infinite number of sentences, some of them never heard before.

Chomsky’s new theory is that language has a base which contains the elementary phrase structures. According to Chomsky sentences are not derived from other sentences but from the structure underlying by them. The phrase structures produce sentences usually by way of transformations.

In his books (Cartesian Linguistics and Language and Mind) Chomsky shows that the same views concerning the relation of deep structure to surface structure were held by the grammarians of Port-Royal, the authors of a Famous French Philosophical Grammar, published in 1662, based upon the principles of Descartes (Cartesius).

What is presented in the grammar of Port-Royal is two or more simple judgments or propositions which was common in 16-17th century logics and influenced English grammarians in their classification of sentences into simple and compound.

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Exam Questions. The Subject of Theoretical Grammar. Syntagmatic relations. Segmental units. History of English Grammars. Parts of speech. The noun as a part of speech.

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Exam Questions. The Subject of Theoretical Grammar. Syntagmatic relations. Segmental units. History of English Grammars. Parts of speech. The noun as a part of speech.

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