There is no grammar (as we know it).


“You don’t need to know what the rules are, you just need to obey them. Don’t memorize the penal codes, just stop killing people.” – Khatzumoto

When reflecting on the bewilderment common to Greek students in rapidly shrinking classes, Antony Gorry once commented: “If we taught swimming this way, we would give children a couple talks on hydro-dynamics and throw them into the water.” And I agree. The numbers speak for themselves. In my first beginning Greek class there were over 30 people in attendance. The classroom didn’t even have enough seats for all of us. By the second semester this number was more than halved. By the third semester, halved again. By the fifth semester (the first semester of advanced Greek) there were only three of us, plus a grad student, but by the sixth semester there were no Greek majors left.

Now don’t get me wrong, Attic Greek is very hard. I’ve had many conversations with my Classics professors about just that. I think what makes it harder, however, is that initial transition between the artificial Greek at the beginning to reading real Attic Greek. In Beginning Greek you memorize grammar rules and forms, and every sentence you encounter obeys these rules and forms. The problem is, when you get to reading real Greek it looks like all of these rules have been thrown out the window [1], which is likely to cause any reasonable student to have an existential crisis. [2]

Grammar books do not offer rules but observations.

It can be crushing to arrive at advanced Greek and realize that there are no rules. What did I spend the last 4 semesters learning if there aren’t any rules? I was struggling with these very questions when I stumbled across this passage in Smyth’s Greek Grammar:

Smyth Greek Grammar

Smythe p. 274 on Attributive adjectives

I had to re-read the passage. What? Are you saying, “It does this…. but sometimes this… and occasionally this,”?

It didn’t seem like Smyth was giving me one principle here. He did not write: attributive adjective + substantive = x .

That is because grammar does not work like a math equation. There are peculiarities and exceptions. Therefore, Smyth can’t give me some once and for all rule, he can only give me his observations of Greek.

Some further investigation led me to the understanding that there are two types of grammar: descriptive grammar (how we do speak) vs. prescriptive grammar (how we should speak). It is probably safe to say that most of you reading this blog post have mastered descriptive grammar, whether you realize it or not. Those pesky prescriptive grammar rules, however, are the ones that still trip us up, and many of them make no sense! For example, take the rule: never split infinitives. [3] If we adhered to this prescriptive rule then we would all clearly see the glaring mistake of Capt. Kirk when he said the mission of the Enterprise was “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” He should have said “to go boldly where no man has gone before.”

And yet Kirk said what he said. The quote went down in history, and we all moved on to Next Generation.

Educational activists, here me out. I am not telling you to not heed your English teachers’ lessons, but I am telling you that double negatives are still intelligible and allowed in other languages. Maybe worry about those prescriptive grammar problems after you are fluent?

How do we learn without grammar?

“Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” – Noam Chomsky

English: Syntax tree for "Colorless green...

English: Syntax tree for “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” according to P&P model (Principles and Parameters) of GG (Generative Grammar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here Noam Chomsky gives us an example of a sentence that makes sense grammatically in English, and yet it is not English at all. No one would ever say this. It is an artificially constructed entity. Colorless green? green ideas? ideas sleep? (poetic) sleep furiously? Poetic maybe.

How do we know that this is not English? Well, we happen to not know the rules of English (as demonstrated above), and yet somehow we are (practically) fluent. For instance, I can say, “Marcus Aurelius was an emperor of Rome,” and you can know exactly what I mean without ever going through the logic of needing and employing a genitive. It’s there but you didn’t go through the grammar to get there. I just know how to express it, and you just know how to understand it. You learned the grammar by observing examples, in the same way that you did not learn how to use English vocabulary words by reading the whole dictionary:

“When we select words in the process of constructing an utterance, we by no means always take them from the system of language in their neutral, dictionary form. We usually take them from other utterances, and mainly from utterances that are kindred to ours in genre, that is, in theme, composition, or style.” (From Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986. p. 87)

How do we learn without grammar, then? This is the wrong question to ask. We still have grammar. It can still be our guide through the murky waters of a new language. It just cannot be our crutch anymore. We cannot depend on it as a lifeboat that will carry us the whole way. We have to get our hair wet. We have to go out make our own observations about the language and lots of them.

Taking Bakhtin out of context again:

“The words of a language belong to nobody, but still we hear those words only in particular individual utterances, we read them in particular individual works, and in such cases the words already have not only a typical, but also (depending on the genre) a more or less clearly reflected individual expression, which is determined by the unrepeatable individual context of the utterance. Neutral dictionary meanings of the words of a language ensure their common features and guarantee that all speakers of a given language will understand one another, but the use of words in live speech communication is always individual and contextual in nature.” (p.88)

Babies (that is, us a couple years ago) don’t learn words. They learn utterances. Sounds. As babies, we didn’t come to the language with any outside or preconceived notions. How could we? Our main social activities were blanket soaking and block stacking. Not much of a intellectual milieu to draw from there. We started from the bottom: basic sounds and noises. Then we began to associate these noises with meaning. We gradually learned to communicate more complex noises by imitating the ones coming out our parents faces so often, and so on and so forth. Now we are here.


notes and other links: (or a transcript of that video:

1. There are still rules and order, I know. there are just whole other worlds of possibilities, exceptions, and inflections. Yes, I do read my Smyth faithfully as you will see

2. Hey, maybe you have to be a little unreasonable to be able to translate ancient Greek

3.If you must know, this rule comes Latin and was clumsily translated over to English.



  1. Well, my approach is damn the grammatical rules, just grok what they’re tryna say an’ full speed ahead!, but then again I’m learning a language which is actually spoken, so I can get into situations where the language is being used and there’s plenty of context and nonverbal cues to help me figure out what the other person’s trying to communicate.

    But if you’re dealing with a language that you can only encounter through texts, where the only context is the written language itself — I could see why you’d want some rules explaining how to figure out what you’re taking in.

    Maybe you’re approaching the grammatical rules as an initial set of rough guidelines, to be learned and used in the initial stages of language learning — stepping stones to more advanced abilities, and not to be confused with a definitive description of how the language actually works?

    1. I think you are right on the money.
      I think what concerns me the most when it comes to my experience of classical languages is the way that grammar is presented, which is why I want to emphasize in my post that grammar is not a set rules but observations. If I were to wax poetic, I like to think that language is an ocean and grammar is just the stars with you can choose to navigate it.

  2. If I remember correctly from Nicholas Ostler’s Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, the early method of teaching Greek to Latin speakers was through reading/reviewing bilingual versions of a text (i.e., in both Greek and Latin). There was no instruction in grammar, because at that point no one had yet done a real grammatical analysis of the languages, so the grammatical rules were unknown! But apparently it worked, and students were able to get an intuitive feel for how Greek works without ever explicitly learning the “rules”.

    1. I have never heard that, but It’s safe to say that I’m adding that book to my must read list! That’s really encouraging to know. Knowing the grammar (which are really observations that some other very intelligent has made for you) is kind of like using a shortcut so we don’t have to make those observations ourselves. Sometimes this shortcut can be very necessary, and sometimes this shortcut can be very crippling. I am in pursuit of that “intuitive” feel that you are referring to, and I get closer and closer with each new text that I read.

  3. I hope you’ll continue to document your experiences and reflections; I’m very interested in the process of learning languages naturally, and really want to find out how that works out for languages that are no longer spoken, that live on only in written form.

    As for the Ostler book, I remember it as being a really enjoyable read — kind of a quirky history of (much of) western civilization, as viewed through the lens of Latin usage; I’d definitely recommend it!

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