Grammar versus usage

What is the difference between grammar and usage?

Published: 10th October 2016 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th October 2016 03:44 PM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

Very recently, during a national conference on ‘Innovations in English Language Teaching Pedagogy’, there was a heated discussion on whether teachers of English should focus more on grammar or usage. During the discussion a few other questions such as whether grammar rules can be violated, what contributes to the style of a writer, whether style implies violation of grammatical rules, etc. were also raised.

What is the difference between grammar and usage? Grammar, according to Merriam Webster Dictionary, is - the set of rules of how words are used in a language. The definition of ‘grammar’ in the Free Dictionary is - it refers to the way words are used, classified, and structured together to form coherent written or spoken communication. Usage is the way a particular word in a language is used and “there are no rules or logical explanations for the way they behave – it’s just how we happen to say things.”

There are numerous grammar rules in the English language.  If a sentence is grammatically correct, we say it is good grammar and if it is incorrect, we say it is bad grammar. Are the sentences below examples of good or bad grammar?

- If any student wants to meet the principal, they should inform their class teacher. (using ‘they’ and ‘their’ as gender-neutral singular pronouns)
- If I was a prince, I would marry her. (using ‘was’ instead of ‘were’ in the subjunctive mood)
- I wanted to personally thank the keynote speaker for raising the issue. (splitting an infinitive)
- This is what she aimed at. (ending the sentence with a preposition)
- Aren’t there no teachers to help you? (using double negatives in a sentence)

Prescriptive grammarians who strictly follow old grammatical rules will say that the above sentences are examples of bad grammar but descriptive grammarians who give more importance to the meaning of a sentence than to its form and who closely follow and accept the changes in the language will say that the sentences are examples of good grammar.

It is common in modern English, both in speech and writing, to use the gender-neutral pronouns. I have discussed it in many of my columns during the past decade. A verb is in the subjunctive mood when it expresses a condition which is not factual as in this sentence: “If I were the Prime Minister, I wouldn’t glorify war.” Prescriptive grammarians insist on the use of the phrases “If I were”, “If he were”, etc.  So, teachers should focus more on ‘descriptive grammar’ than on ‘prescriptive grammar’.

Dr Albert P’ Rayan is an ELT Resource Person and Professor of English. He can be contacted at


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