Word for Wednesday: Grammar

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Yesterday was National Grammar Day in America and to celebrate we shared five easy-to-avoid grammar tips on Facebook. This week, for ‘Word for Wednesday’ we thought we’d look at the word ‘grammar’ itself.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘grammar’ as the ‘whole system and structure of a language or of languages in general, usually taken as consisting of syntax and morphology (including inflections) and sometimes also phonology and semantics’. You can read the full definition of the word here.

What we find the most interesting about the word ‘grammar’ is that, like word ‘spell’, it has associations with magic.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘grammer’ comes from the fourteenth-century word ‘gramarye’, which in turn comes from the Old French ‘gramaire’ meaning ‘“learning” especially Latin and philology’ (from the Greek ‘grammatike tekhne’ meaning ‘art of letters’). In Middle English ‘gramarye’ came to refer to ‘knowledge peculiar to the learned classes’, which included ‘astrology and magic’. It is from this secondary definition that the sixteenth-century word ‘glamour’ meaning ‘magic, enchantment’ was derived.

Today we certainly don’t associate glamour with grammar, but when we think of someone as ‘glamorous’ we often mean that they possess an alluring, and often unattainable, beauty or charm - celebrities, for example, are often described as ‘glamorous’. In British and Irish mythology fairies were said to use a type of magic called ‘glamour’ to create illusions in order to play tricks. Using ‘glamour’ they would make themselves or other objects appear differently on the outside in order to lure victims into traps.

Spelling and grammar, in their modern sense, have shape-shifting magic too: they can be used in different ways to make the same group of words mean different things.

Let’s take a look at an example:

  • Let’s eat, Grandma.

Here, the speaker is clearly suggesting to their grandmother that the two of them should eat.

Now let’s see what happens if we remove the comma:

  • Let’s eat Grandma.”

In this case, the speaker is suggesting that the grandmother herself should be eaten.

If you’d like to see how incorrect spelling can change the meaning of a sentence, take a look at our Commonly Confusing Words series.

Have a good week everyone – and make sure you keep an eye on those commas lest poor Grandma gets eaten!

Avani Shah

05 Mar 2014
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