Comparing Grammar & Syntax Across Languages

Many of you (not me, because I loved it, lol) thought grammar classes were horrible. For years, it has been said that English is tricky and hard to learn. Having had the pleasure of editing manuscripts for writers who do not have English as their first language, I thought it would be good to go back to the beginning. Even if you’ve spoken the English language all your life, a refresher can’t hurt.

Grammar is a field of linguistics that involves all the various things that make up the rules of language. Subfields of linguistics that are considered a part of grammar include syntax, phonetics, morphology, and semantics. Grammar is also used as a term to refer to the prescriptive rules of a given language, which may change over time or be open for debate.

In layman’s terms, most people think of grammar as simply a matter of arbitrary pronouncements, like defining “good” or “bad” language. For example, some would prefer “is not” as opposed to “ain’t,” even though both phrases have their place within the English language.

Linguists do not subscribe to this dictatorship, nor are they interested. They believe grammar is simply the collection of principles defining how to assemble such things as a sentence. Every language on earth has restrictions on how words must be put together to construct a sentence. These restrictions are the principles of syntax, and every language has one.

For instance, every language has rules for constructing sentences that ask questions needing a yes or a no, like “Can you hear me?” Then some questions invite other answers, such as “What did you see?” Some sentences express commands. For example, one could say, “Drink the water,” or “Sit down.” Other sentences make declarations or assertions, like “Fish eat worms.”

In formal terms, the syntactic principles of a language sometimes insist on some order of words or may allow other choices. In English, for instance, sentences must have words in the order of subject-verb-object. In “Fish eat worms,” fish is the subject, eat is the verb, and worms is the object.

In Japanese, sentences allow the words to be in several possible orders. Of course, the normal sequence is subject-object-verb. In the Irish language, the order is verb-subject-object. You may have noted that even if the language allows several orders of the phrases in the sentence, there is still a system that regulates the choice. 

There are similar principles of syntax found in many languages in the world. English, Swahili, and Thai have similar word orders, even if they are totally unrelated. Sentences in Maori, Irish, Masai, and ancient Egyptian are remarkably similar, too. 

Another aspect of grammar where languages differ more radically is morphology, the principle that governs the structure of words. For instance, the English word “undeniability” is a complex noun from the adjective “undeniable,” which came from the adjective “deniable” and formed from the verb “deny.”

German and Eskimo languages permit more complex word-building than English. However, others, like Chinese and Vietnamese, do not.

In another language aspect, English have different pronouns for use as object or subject in a sentence (they or them). In Chinese, there is no variation in the shapes of words. 

English is loved by some and equally hated by others. However, whether you’re writing a manuscript, constructing a cover letter, or typing your dissertation, help is always available. If you can’t seem to get the rules quite right, please know that you can always connect with I A.M. Editing, Ink, for all of your editing needs.

Adrienne Michelle Horn is the owner of I A.M. Editing, Ink. Although she has a full-time professional career in healthcare, she is also a South Florida-based editor, poet, author, entrepreneur, and mother of her beautiful daughter, Paris.

For more information about Adrienne and her company, follow I A.M. Editing, Ink on social media or visit