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In linguistics, traditional grammar is a cover name for the collection of concepts and ideas about the structure of language that Western societies have received from ancient Greek and Roman sources. The term is used to distinguish these ideas from those of contemporary linguistics, which are intended to apply to a much broader range of languages, and to correct a number of errors in traditional grammar.

Although modern linguistics has exposed the limitations of traditional grammar, it is still the backbone of the grammar instruction given to the general population in Western countries. As such, while very few people have encountered linguistics, nearly everybody in a modern Western culture encounters traditional grammar. This is one of the big difficulties that linguists face when they try to explain their ideas to the general public.

The role of traditional grammar Edit

Traditional grammar attempts, usually within a single language, to analyse and elucidate the constituents of any given well-formed sentence. The focus of attention is on surface structure, not meaning. The main benefit of traditional grammar is that it gives learners a basic understanding of the building blocks of language, which can help in improving their writing skills.

Traditional grammar and prescriptive grammar Edit

While there is a large overlap between traditional grammar and prescriptive grammar, they are not entirely the same thing. Traditional grammar is best thought of as the set of descriptive concepts used by nearly all prescriptive works on grammar. Linguists' critiques of prescriptive grammar often take the form of pointing out that the usage prohibition in question is stated in terms of a concept from traditional grammar that modern linguistics has rejected.

Language-specific grammatical traditions Edit

Traditional grammar is not a unified theory that attempts to explain the structure of all languages with a unique set of concepts (as is the aim of linguistics). It is fragmented into different traditions for different languages, each of them with its own traditional vocabulary and analysis. Each of them represents an adaptation of Latin grammar to a particular European language.

For example, what English traditional grammar calls a direct object, in Spanish traditional grammar is called complemento directo; English traditional grammar doesn't call the notion "direct complement," nor does Spanish call it "objeto directo."

Linguistics and traditional grammar Edit

Modern linguistics owes a very large debt to traditional grammar, but it departs from it quite a lot, in the following ways (among others):

  • Linguistics aims to be general, and to provide an appropriate way of analysing all languages, and comparing them to each other. Traditional grammar is usually concerned with one language, and when it has been applied to non-European languages, it has very often proved very inappropriate.
  • Linguistics has broader influences than traditional grammar has. For example, modern linguistics owes as much of a debt to Panini's grammar of Sanskrit as it does to Latin and Greek grammar.
  • Linguistics is in many ways more descriptively rigorous, because it goes after accurate description as its own end. In traditional grammar, description is often only a means towards formulating usage advice.

Key concepts of traditional grammar Edit

Traditional grammar distinguishes between the grammar of the elements that constitute a sentence (i.e. inter-elemental) and the grammar within sentence elements (i.e. intra-elemental).

Concepts of inter-elemental grammar




predicative (aka complement)

adverbial and adjunct




Concepts of intra-elemental grammar










See also Edit

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