Grammar and usage

To me grammar means rules. A grammar explanation is an explanation about the accepted or common usage in a language that relies on rules.

To me usage itself is different. That is why I often tend to explain a usage pattern by saying “that is how it is said”. I tend to prefer to learn phrases and patterns rather than rules. Of course all language usage does follow rules, but often these rules strike me as obtuse, complicated and full of exceptions, which are,again , of course rules. When I see a grammar rule explained in detail, I tend to jump to the examples to understand what is meant.

Other people prefer to learn rules. But to me there is a distinction between grammar and usage.

What do other people think?

Steve you mentioned on another thread

" If there is one language where I found the term grammar almsot not applicable, it is Chinese."

I find syntax is an important grammatical construct and in Chinese this becomes even more important, especially in order to make up for other elements of grammar that are not used. Syntax is the order of words and this is a point that should not be forgotten when discussing Chinese grammar. Writing a piece, for example, with correct Chinese grammar without any mistakes is not easy.

What is the difference between syntax and usage? In studying phrases and patterns, am I not learning the syntax, without referring to rules?

To learn Chinese, it is helpful for us to refer to basic rules. (That means it is not necessary to get wound up in details.) For example, if we don’t know what is a basic word order, 离合词 (detachable words), 补语(complements),etc, we don’t figure out exactly what sentences mean, maybe fail to save words when using LingQ.
Listening to and read the same contents again and again without paying too much attention to rules is good. That way, we can memorize basic phrases naturally. But when it comes to speaking of relatively complex things, we cannot express exactly what we want to say without knowing how to form a sentence.

I usually don’t find grammar “rules” or explanations too complex or dry to understand. I’m often quite interested in them, and will happily read a grammar book just for pleasure. However I can find these rules/explanations hard to apply due to my bad memory for grammar tables / conjugation charts; in which case, pure patterns are easier to grasp and use in active speech fluidly.

I think certain things are learned better through patterns/ exposure; certain things where and explanation would just complicate matters (I’m sure a technical explanation of a complex english sentence could leave me confused). And other things where an explanation can be made that is simple, and can be used to navigate more clearly when trying to speak.

So yea, I’m on the fence maybe. I’m happy to learn a pattern if it’s there, and can help me speak faster without thinking. I’m also happy to read through a grammar point and think a little harder when speaking, but at least being happy that I kind-of know what I’m doing in constructing a sentence.

Steve, I think your definition of grammar is a very particular one. This is certainly not my definition of grammar. Grammar is a catch-all term for the phonetics/phonology/morphology/syntax/semantics/etc of a language. All of its linguistic elements. It has nothing to do really with “rules”. Your definition is a rulebook trying to explain why you must say this or must not say that. It seems like it’s the explanations and terminology which you really don’t like.

I’m not sure I have a definition of usage, but perhaps it would be how people say things, how they phrase things, or how they use particular expressions and whatnot. Usage has to do more with sentence-level issues, and also with social and interactional issues. What degree of politeness do people usually use in the following situation and whatnot.

I agree with lmy that grammar refers both to the phenomenon and the explanation/description. Usage maybe is a more practical guideline in real-world situations.

We can also talk about different kids of grammars:
A prescriptive grammar which tries to tell you how to speak “properly”.
A descriptive grammar which describes how a language is used.
And explanatory grammar which tries to explain why the language is how it is.
A learner’s grammar which tries to present and explain the language in a way that is helpful for learners.
There are also style guides for writing and lots of other things too.

I suspect that you mostly encounter learner’s grammars. I agree that the “rules” or guidelines/explanations in them are not actually all that helpful to learners in many cases. I haven’t seen a ton of learner grammars though, so that’s just my impression. It does seem to me that they’ve been getting better and moving away from really obtuse explanations.

It is not just studying grammar rules per se which is a problem right here but doing those grammar drills/excercises such as fixing grammar structures in given sentences and filling in the blanks is a pain in the ass for most students. Learning phrasal verbs out of context, for example, by doing such drills is a total waste of time. However, a little grammar study is helpful for a new beginner since it will help him/her to notice patterns when reading easy materials such as graded readers and short articles etc That’s how I believe everyone learns the language naturally and gradually. Just memorizing grammar rules and doing those drills out of real context with no back up reading is a total waste of time and this is what I believe Steve hates about.

You can’t say that anything is a total waste of time if somebody finds it useful. I’m starting to lose count of cases where I’ve found something endlessly confusing only to see that an explanation in a grammar book does the job in less than 10 minutes.

asad"doing those drills out of real context with no back up reading is a total waste of time "
jeff"found something endlessly confusing only to see that an explanation in a grammar book does the job in less than 10 minutes."

I think these are the same processes. However perhaps Jeff thinks the clarity of the explanation is not necessarily predicated on the time of endless confusion.

Doing drills and reading an explanation are different processes.

I totally agree with @asad100101 about drills. Why not ‘notice’ the application of a grammar point in your reading or listening, or write something yourself that is useful and interesting to you?

Surely such activities involve the learner in the learning process much more than ‘filling in the blanks’ or changing the tense of verbs in a text.


Agreed, grammar doesn’t, or shouldn’t just mean a dusty old book written by old grammarians telling people how to speak. And I think that kind of prescriptive grammar style is very out of date now.

If a native tells me how and why to say something, in very basic terms, have I had a grammar lesson, or am I learning common usage? I think there’s a bit of both there.

As well, often, when people talk about grammar, they’re talking about morphology (mostly inflectional), ie changes on the endings of verbs (conjugation) and nouns (declension), etc. Or, if not morphology, they’re talking about rules of syntax, ie sentence construction - where does the verb go, etc.

This is probably why you probably get people saying things like “Chinese has no grammar”. On the one hand it’s kind of a nonsensical statement, given the definition of grammar I gave above, but I understand where people are coming from. The words in Chinese don’t change very much like they do in Latin, so it doesn’t have much “grammar”.

At any rate, the larger difference is the approach to grammar. Traditionally, grammar was seen like a schematic of the language, and students tried to memorize the schematic, or understand it academically, in the hope that they would they be able to use all these rules to produce correct language. We now know that this doesn’t happen. We learn from content. And some morphological (word-level) or syntactic (sentence-level) features take some time to sink in, just as semantic (meaning) features do.

But explanations of sentence construction, or changes in word ending, or the semantic content of a word (ie its meaning as found in a dictionary) can be very helpful when you want to understand something. Trying to learn “grammar” in advance is like trying to learn “the dictionary” in advance. It doesn’t work like that.

What grammatical and lexical information is helpful for learners, and at what stage in the learning process, is an interesting and difficult question. And it’s probably different from person to person due to their studying habits, interests, and personalities.

Unlike some, I don’t mind drills and exercises. I wouldn’t do them exclusively, but as a small part of an overall program. I consider my Anki flashcard review to be a kind of drilling.

In my “Mandarin Chinese: A functional reference grammar” there are ~700 pages dedicated to this thing that hardly exists. :slight_smile: “A practical Chinese grammar for foreigners” has about the same number of pages. Of course Chinese (and every other language) has grammar.

Jeff, I can only say that in my view these are 700 unnecessary pages. I cannot think of a single grammatical term outside of the basic parts of speech that is useful for learning Chinese. I cannot imagine reading such a book, but I can see people wanting to write. In my view, you just need to follow the patterns. The absence of cases, tenses, etc. makes it much less important to have a reference grammar, in my view.

I would never buy a 700 page grammar for any language. Maximum 100 pages, even for Russian, and preferably 50.

To each his/her own.

Steve- Word order becomes a lot more important though. Do you mean that you would just learn the word order patterns eg of Time then Place just by listening enough? or what about the ba construction and the fact that it is possible to denote definite articles through where the word is placed in a sentence. But ok you may only need these if you wish to express nuances and communicate without errors

Something like the ba construction becomes natural with enough exposure. It appears often enough, as well as in the form using jiang, that it is not difficult, and in fact a very handy way to express things. I do not understand what you mean by denoting definite articles.

There is something about where you place the noun in a sentence will make it clear if you are referring to “the” or “a”. But I think you are right in saying you pick up stuff with enough exposure. That is also how I like to work.

Those verbs are going to give me nightmares! Some patterns are just too difficult/ambigous to pick up through exposure (at last for non-natives). OK, Steve says “enough exposure” but how much is that?

Marianne10 - are you thinking of sentences like 人来了 vs. 来人了?