Monday, July 25, 2016




Language is the expression of thought by means of spoken or written  words.

The English word _language_ comes (through the French _langue_) from the Latin _lingua_, “the tongue.” But the tongue is not the only organ used in speaking. The lips, the teeth, the roof of the mouth, the soft palate (or uvula), the nose, and the vocal chords all help to produce the sounds of which language consists. These various organs make up one delicate and complicated piece of mechanism upon which the breath of the speaker acts like that of a musician upon a clarinet or other wind instrument.

Spoken language, then, is composed of a great variety of sounds made with the vocal organs. A word may consist of one sound (as _Ah!_ or _O_ or _I_), but most words consist of two or more different sounds (as _go_, _see_, _try_, _finish_). Long or short, however, a word is merely a sign made to express thought.

Thought may be imperfectly expressed by signs made with the head, the hands, etc. Thus, if I grasp a person’s arm and point to a dog, he may understand me to ask, “Do you see that dog?” And his nod in reply may stand for “Yes, I see him.” But any dialogue carried on in this way must be both fragmentary and uncertain. To express our thoughts fully, freely, and accurately, we must use words,--that is, signs made with the voice. Such voice-signs have had meanings associated with them by custom or tradition, so that their sense is at once understood by all. Their advantage is twofold: they are far more numerous and varied than other signs; and the meanings attached to them are much more  definite than those of nods and gestures.

Written words are signs made with the pen to represent and recall to the mind the spoken words (or voice-signs). Written language (that is, composition) must, of necessity, be somewhat fuller than spoken language, as well as more formal and exact. For the reader’s understanding is not assisted by the tones of the voice, the changing expressions of the face, and the lively gestures, which help to make spoken language intelligible.

Most words are the signs of definite ideas. Thus, _Charles_, _captain_, _cat_, _mouse_, _bread_, _stone_, _cup_, _ink_, call up images or pictures of persons or things; _strike_, _dive_, _climb_, _dismount_, express particular kinds of action; _green_, _blue_, _careless_, _rocky_, _triangular_, _muscular_, enable us to describe objects with accuracy. Even general terms like _goodness_, _truth_, _courage_, _cowardice_, _generosity_, have sufficiently precise meanings, for they name qualities, or traits of character, with which everybody is familiar.

By the use of such words, even when not combined in groups, we can express our thoughts much more satisfactorily than by mere gestures.
The utterance of the single word “Charles!” may signify: “Hullo, Charles! are you here? I am surprised to see you.” “Bread!” may suggest to the hearer: “Give me bread! I am very hungry.” “Courage!” may be almost equivalent to, “Don’t be down-hearted! Your troubles will soon
be over.”

Language, however, is not confined to the utterance of single words.

To express our thoughts we must put words together,--we must combine them into groups; and such groups have settled meanings (just as words have), established (like the meanings of single words) by the customs or habits of the particular language that we are speaking or writing.

Further, these groups are not thrown together haphazard. We must construct them in accordance with certain fixed rules. Otherwise we shall fail to express ourselves clearly and acceptably, and we may even succeed in saying the opposite of what we mean.

In constructing these groups (which we call +phrases+, +clauses+, and +sentences+) we have the aid of a large number of short words like _and_, _if_, _by_, _to_, _in_, _is_, _was_, which are very different from the definite and picturesque words that we have just examined.

They do not call up distinct images in the mind, and we should find it hard to define any of them. Yet their importance in the expression of thought is clear; for they serve to join other words together, and to show their relation to each other in those groups which make up connected speech.

Thus, “box heavy” conveys some meaning; but “_The_ box _is_ heavy” is a clear and definite statement. _The_ shows that some particular box is meant, and _is_ enables us to make an assertion about it. _And_, in “Charles and John are my brothers,” indicates that Charles and John are closely connected in my thought, and that what I say of one applies also to the other. _If_, in “If Charles comes, I shall be glad to see him,” connects two statements, and shows that one of them is a mere supposition (for Charles may or may not come).

In grouping words, our language has three different ways of indicating their relations: (1) the forms of the words themselves; (2) their order; (3) the use of little words like _and_, _if_, _is_, etc.

I. +Change of form.+ Words may change their form. Thus the word _boy_ becomes _boys_ when more than one is meant; _kill_ becomes _killed_ when past time is referred to; _was_ becomes _were_ when we are speaking of two or more persons or things; _fast_ becomes _faster_ when a higher degree of speed is indicated. Such change of form is called +inflection+, and the word is said to be +inflected+.

Inflection is an important means of showing the relations of words in connected speech. In “Henry’s racket weighs fourteen ounces,” the form _Henry’s_ shows at once the relation between Henry and the racket,--namely, that Henry owns or possesses it. The word _Henry_, then, may change its form to _Henry’s_ to indicate ownership or possession.

II. +Order of words.+ In “John struck Charles,” the way in which the words are arranged shows who it was that struck, and who received the blow. Change the order of words to “Charles struck John,” and the meaning is reversed. It is, then, the +order+ that shows the relation of _John_ to _struck_, and of _struck_ to _Charles_.

III. +Use of other words.+ Compare the two sentences:

  The train _from_ Boston has just arrived.

  The train _for_ Boston has just arrived.

Here _from_ and _for_ show the relation between the _train_ and _Boston_. “The Boston train” might mean either the train _from_ Boston or the train _for_ Boston. By using _from_ or _for_ we make the sense unmistakable.

Two matters, then, are of vital importance in language,--the forms of words, and the relations of words. The science which treats of these two matters is called +grammar+.

+Inflection is a change in the form of a word indicating some change in its meaning.+

+The relation in which a word stands to other words in the sentence is called its construction.+

+Grammar is the science which treats of the forms and the constructions of words.+

+Syntax is that department of grammar which treats of the constructions of words.+

Grammar, then, may be said to concern itself with two main subjects,--inflection and syntax.

English belongs to a family of languages--the Indo-European Family[1]--which is rich in forms of inflection. This richness may be seen in other members of the family,--such as Greek or Latin. The Latin word _homo_, “man,” for example, has eight different inflectional forms,--_homo_, “a man”; _hominis_, “of a man”; _homini_, “to a man,” and so on. Thus, in Latin, the grammatical construction of a word is, in general, shown by that particular inflectional ending (or termination)   which it has in any particular sentence. In the Anglo-Saxon period,[2] English was likewise well furnished with such inflectional endings, though not so abundantly as Latin. Many of these,
however, had disappeared by Chaucer’s time (1340–1400), and still others have since been lost, so that modern English is one of the least inflected of languages. Such losses are not to be lamented. By due attention to the order of words, and by using _of_, _to_, _for_, _from_, _in_, and the like, we can express all the relations denoted by the ancient inflections. The gain in simplicity is enormous.


Since language is the expression of thought, the rules of grammar agree, in the main, with the laws of thought. In other words, grammar is usually logical,--that is, its rules accord, in general, with the principles of logic, which is the science of exact reasoning.

The rules of grammar, however, do not derive their authority from logic, but from good usage,--that is, from the customs or habits followed by educated speakers and writers. These customs, of course, differ among different nations, and every language has therefore its own stock of peculiar constructions or turns of expression. Such peculiarities are called +idioms+.

Thus, in English we say, “It is I”; but in French the idiom is “C’est moi,” which corresponds to “It is me.” Many careless speakers of English follow the French idiom in this particular, but their practice has not yet come to be the accepted usage. Hence, though “C’est moi” is correct in French, we must still regard “It is me” as ungrammatical in English. It would, however, become correct if it should ever be adopted by the great majority of educated persons.

Grammar does not enact laws for the conduct of speech. Its business is to ascertain and set forth those customs of language which have the sanction of good usage. If good usage changes, the rules of grammar must change. If two forms or constructions are in good use, the grammarian must admit them both. Occasionally, also, there is room for difference of opinion. These facts, however, do not lessen the authority of grammar in the case of any cultivated language. For in such a language usage is so well settled in almost every particular as to enable the grammarian to say positively what is right and what is wrong. Even in matters of divided usage, it is seldom difficult to determine which of two forms or constructions is preferred by careful writers.

Every language has two standards of usage,--the colloquial and the literary. By “colloquial language,” we mean the language of conversation; by “literary language,” that employed in literary composition. Everyday colloquial English admits many words, forms, phrases, and constructions that would be out of place in a dignified  essay. On the other hand, it is an error in taste to be always “talking  like a book.” Un practised speakers and writers should, however, be conservative. They should avoid, even in informal talk, any word or expression that is of doubtful propriety. Only those who know what they are about, can venture to take liberties. It is quite possible to be correct without being stilted or affected.[3]

Every living language is constantly changing. Words, forms, and constructions become +obsolete+ (that is, go out of use) and others  take their places. Consequently, one often notes in the older English classics, methods of expression which, though formerly correct, are ungrammatical now. Here a twofold caution is necessary. On the one hand, we must not  criticise Shakspere or Chaucer for using the English of his own time; but, on the other hand, we must not try to defend our  own errors by appealing to ancient usage.

  Examples of constructions once in good use, but no longer admissible,   are: “the best of the two” (for “the better of the two”); “the most   unkindest cut of all”; “There’s two or three of us” (for _there   are_); “I have forgot the map” (for _forgotten_); “Every one of these   letters are in my name” (for _is_); “I think it be” (for _is_).

The language of poetry admits many old words, forms, and constructions that are no longer used in ordinary prose. These are called +archaisms+ (that is, ancient expressions). Among the commonest archaisms are _thou_, _ye_, _hath_, _thinkest_, _doth_. Such forms are also common in prose, in what is known as the +solemn style+, which is modelled, in great part, on the language of the Bible.[4]

In general, it should be remembered that the style which one uses should be appropriate,--that is, it should fit the occasion. A short story and a scientific exposition will differ in style; a familiar letter will naturally shun the formalities of business or legal correspondence. Good style is not a necessary result of grammatical correctness, but without such correctness it is, of course, impossible.


1. Language is the expression of thought by means of spoken or written words.

2. Words are the signs of ideas.

Spoken words are signs made with the vocal organs; written words are  signs made with the pen to represent the spoken words.

 The meanings of these signs are settled by custom or tradition in each language.

3. Most words are the signs of definite ideas: as,--_Charles_, _captain_, _cat_, _strike_, _dive_, _climb_, _triangular_, _careless_.
Other words, of less definite meaning, serve to connect the more definite words and to show their relations to each other in connected

4. In the expression of thought, words are combined into groups called phrases, clauses, and sentences.

5. The relation in which a word stands to other words in the sentence is called its construction.
The construction of English words is shown in three ways: (1) by their form; (2) by their order; (3) by the use of other words like _to_, _from_, _is_, etc.

6. Inflection is a change in the form of a word indicating some change in its meaning: as,--_boy_, _boy’s_; _man_, _men_; _drink_, _drank_.

7. Grammar is the science which treats of the forms and the constructions of word
Syntax is that department of grammar which treats of the constructions of words.

8. The rules of grammar derive their authority from good usage,--that is, from the customs or habits followed by educated speakers and writers.

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