Formal Grammar

Formal Grammar Theory and Definition

Specific Claims for Formal Grammar as a Discipline

Claims for formal grammar are too general.   On reading them any thoughtful person is likely to ask, “Just what do they mean?” A definite answer to this question is much more difficult to find, most writers on theory as well as practically all writers of texts resting content with the general statement.

Even when they do attempt to make the claims for grammar specific, they use language that is difficult to translate into terms of the fifth to eight grade teaching.  Hindsdale, for example writes:

“The Study involves a peculiar exercise of the powers of observation – the forms of words, idioms, and sentences, and of the realities that are behind them, distinctions, meanings, and relations.  These forms and relations develop a kind of sense or perception that external objects do not develop.   Secondly the study involves also a vigorous exercise of the logical powers – analysis, abstraction, comparison, inference.  Grammar is the application of logic to a large and important class of facts.  The powers of thought are developed by studying the relations of objects, external and internal.  The first rank far below the second in educational value…..  Power of abstract thought is promoted most directly and effectively, as Professor Laurie says, “by formal or abstract studies, such as arithmetic, mathematics, grammar, logic; and this because the occupation of the mind with the abstract is the nearest approach to the occupation of the mind with itself as an organism of thinking.”

Grammar is indeed the only metaphysical study that a large majority of people ever pursue: and if that would be a defective information with ignored the facts of language, a fortiori would that be a defective discipline which omitted its relations.

Grammar is the science of language, and as the first of the seven liberal arts it has long held sway in school as the disciplinary study par excellence.   A survey of its educational value, subjective and objective, usually produces the conviction that it is to retain the first place in the future.   Its chief objective advantage is that it shows the structure of language, and the logical forms of subject, predicate, and modifier, thus revealing the essential nature of thought itself, the most important of all objects because it is self object.   On the subjective or psychological side, grammar demonstrates its title to the first place by its use as a discipline in subtle analysis, in logical division and classification, in the art of questioning, and in the mental accomplishment of making exact definitions.   Nor is this an empty, formal discipline, for its subject matter, language, is a product of the reason of a people not as individuals but as a social whole, and the vocabulary holds in its store of words the generalized store of experience of that people, including sensuous observation and reflection, feeling and emotion, instinct and volition.”

After a consideration of all the specific claims that could be found for formal grammar in the writings of educational theorists, of the contents of a number of widely used grammar texts, and of the opinions of several writers of grammars, who were kind enough to set down categorically their beliefs in the subject, the following conclusions were drawn:  It is held that work in formal grammar trains children

A. with rules or definitions:

1. to see likenesses and differences,

2. to critically test a definition,

3. to thoroughly apply a definition,

4 to make a rule or definition;

B. with reasoning:

5. to test reasons,

6a. to take from a mass of data all that are necessary and to use them in reaching a judgment.

7. to reason in other fields, e.g., in arithmetic,

8. to reason syllogistically,

9. to detect “catches.”


Source:  Formal English grammar as a discipline   By Thomas Henry Briggs

March 23, 2015