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Grammar terms: invention of the devil—or mad scientists?

Question: Our question is "Where do 'they' come up with names, such as transitive and intransitive?" How did they develop these names? Was there a scientific process to develop these names?



Grammar terms are necessary. You have to call things something; you cannot just say, "put a thingamabob after the whatchamacallit." But traditional grammar terms — like "intransitive," "conjunctive adverb," and the rest — are pretty dreadful.

However, I did not Mad scientist inventing conjunctive adverbs.make them up, nor did any humane teacher invent them. Grammar terms were in fact (well, more or less in fact) invented by mad scientists slightly before the time that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein.

Nearly all of our traditional grammar terms come from Latin, where they make sense (if you speak Latin, of course!). In fact, until a few hundred years ago, "grammar school" meant "Latin grammar school." No one thought you needed to go to school to learn English, for goodness sake! Latin was the language of educated people. English, French, Spanish, German — all the languages we use today — were just for common folk.

Then in the 1700s, when more and more people were reading and writing English, book publishers and others decided that English needed some standards. Until that time, you could spell words anyway you liked, punctuate anyway you liked, and generally write anyway you liked. This sounds like a great arrangement, I know, but actually it caused problems. With everyone doing his or her own thing, readers were often confused.

So several writers, publishers, and thinkers began to organize English spelling and punctuation rules. They also began to establish standards for English grammar. Some of these standards were snobbish; they reflected how rich and important people spoke. Many of the standards, however, were based on rules of logic and Latin grammar (hence the grammar terms we use).

The grammarians of 1700s and 1800s used Latin grammar and rhetoric to make sense of English. Their work established standard English — the English written by educated people everywhere, despite their regional dialects. To complete the circle, standard English has replaced Latin as the "universal" language. Throughout the world English is now the preferred language of business, science, and technology.

In the 20th century, many people — linguists, grammarians, and teachers — have proposed other grammar systems and new sets of terms. Nevertheless, the traditional terms are still what most people understand and use, and they are what you will find in reference books. It is nearly impossible to change what people have used for 200 years.

If you look up these terms in a good dictionary, you will find what they mean in Latin. Sometimes knowing the Latin helps — transitive means "carries over," for example, and intransitive means "does not carry over." ("Trans" — as in transportation, transfer, and transcontinental — means "across" or "over.") Sometimes knowing the Latin does not help us understand the term. Regardless, we need to know grammar terms so that we can analyze the structure of our language.

Using good grammar is one mark of an educated person. However, the real reason we must learn grammar — and its terms — is so we know how to write and speak standard English. Using standard English helps us understand one another. Clear communication is our goal.


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Clauses 1

Question: I am not clear on Clauses. Would you please explain it to me? Thank You


Here is the brief explanation: Clauses are word clusters that contain a subject and a predicate.

A subject must have a noun or a pronoun; it may also contain modifiers of that noun or pronoun.

Mary had a little lamb.

Princess Mary, consort of Prince George, had a little lamb.

Predicates contain verbs, their modifiers, and their objects or subject complements.

Mary had a little lamb.

Mary often had a little slice of lamb for dinner.

Independent clauses can stand alone as sentences.

Mary had a little lamb, and it followed her to school one day.

Dependent clauses modify parts of sentences. They set the stage and cannot stand alone.

Although Mary had a little lamb, she rarely wore wool.

For a complete explanation with more examples, please consult a grammar book or an online grammar reference.


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Clauses 2

Question: Please tell me how to answer this question. A student asks why these words are not a clause rather than merely a phrase "because there is a verb":

"the premise of which WAS (verb) that the entire organization would go along with the new product idea."

I know it's a phrase, but I couldn't find the right words to explain. Much obliged.


Your example is a clause — not an independent clause, which could stand alone as a sentence — but nonetheless a clause (adjectival, modifying premise).

It contains a subject, "the premise of which," and a predicate — "was that the entire organization would go along with the new product idea."

Its predicate contains another clause, sometimes called a "noun clause": "that the entire organization (subject) would go along with the new product idea (predicate)."

You might find the Gregg Reference Manual a useful refresher on this and other topics. Please also see my links page for online grammars.


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New grammar terms?

Question: My English teacher has begun introducing grammar using different words from what I am used to, including agent, dative, and patient in place of subject, indirect object, and direct object. Do you know of an easy way to explain these terms, or of a web-site that can?


Ask your teacher for a reference for these unusual terms. Your teacher's system is new to me, and I do not know where to direct you. (I confess to never having heard "patient" used this way, and the last time I used "dative" in a sentence was in Latin class.)

It is tempting to replace awkward traditional terms with more descriptive words (although your teacher's terms are scarcely an improvement that way). However, such substitutions perform a disservice to students. Students cannot build on their learning from the past (hence your confusion) or continue learning in the future. You will not, for instance, find your teacher's terms in standard prescriptive grammar texts and references. Your teacher's terms probably appear in specialized, academic books and articles.

This does not mean we must stand still and use only the terms coined in centuries past. Transformational grammar, after 50+ years, is now an established (if still evolving) set of approaches. Transformational grammar is useful for studying the structure of language, and linguists employ it for that purpose. But it does not easily lend itself to prescribing rules for "correct" English.

Maybe a reader of this page can help us with these terms.

Update: Thanks to reader Karen Davis for enlightening us all:

That guy's teacher is using terms from "case grammar," a rather abstruse development of Chomsky's transformational-generative grammar theories. Case grammar has been around for nearly 40 years, but frankly I can't imagine using it to teach English in place of regular terminology. Also, I'm not sure why she's using "dative," as "recipient" is the usual term. I append some definitions for you.


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Not a grammatical term, but . . . .

Question: I have a trivia question for you and need to know if you have an answer to it. Do you know what the name of the dot over the letter "i" is. Please let me know as soon as possible!!! Thanks a bunch!!!! Stumped


The technical name for it is "dot." From the American Heritage Dictionary:

dot n. 1.a. A tiny round mark made by or as if by a pointed instrument; a spot. b. Such a mark used in orthography, as above an i.
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