Grammar and Syntax


Grammar is concerned with the rules that make up language. It is also concerned with the order of the words that makes a sentence i.e. how those words are related to one another. E.g. the head teacher gave us a speech during the closing day. The structure of this sentence is right. Some aspects of grammar include phonetics, morphology, semantics and syntax. Grammar has two parts which includes descriptive and prescriptive. Descriptive grammar is concerned with the spoken language and determines whether the stated sentence is correct according to the rules of the language spoken. According to this, the grammar may be correct according to one language while it is grammatically wrong on another language. E.g. the cat is climb a tree may be grammatically correct according to one community while it may be grammatically wrong in another community. Prescriptive grammar may be used in the teaching of some languages to the non natives.


Syntax is the study of the sentence structures and the rules that govern them as well as the sentences that are closely related e.g. the dog saw the cat and the cat was seen by the dog. This shows that the structure of the sentence is very important in translating the meaning of those sentences. Syntax ensures that sentences follow the correct order and structure and that they are well organized (Sadler 1989).

Universal Grammar

This concept was more common in the 17th century and it was a topic on linguistics. It is used to describe the acquisition of the natural languages by the children. Universal grammar is one out

Grammar and Syntax

of which all the other languages find their origins. It involves the grammatical relationships between the objects, verbs, nouns that are present in a statement and their relationship to one another. All the other languages follow this rule and order of the words by ensuring that there is a relationship between by the words and that they are arranged in the right way. The learning of the first language occurs subconsciously (Sadler 1989).

It is called universal grammar because there are universal rules that guide grammar and that all the languages have a common structure i.e. syntax. It is used to describe all the native languages and how they are organized. It is concerned with the study of so many factors that are generalized in to one concept i.e. grammar. It involves the study of why children develop certain behaviors in their language and why is difficult for the children to develop languages at their earlier stages of life. They take long time to learn the languages and whatever they learn takes long time to develop and to become efficient and understandable by the others but they later develop a language. Young children can learn any language that they are exposed to simply because the rules of language are universal.

Most languages overlap with one another and hence it makes it possible for people to learn other languages without much difficulty. The reason for this is that all the languages have similar nouns and verbs and hence making rules that forms the universal grammar and this is the result of the specific syntaxes that they use. This therefore suggests that all languages have their origin from common point of grammar even though they may have gone through some changes. For others to understand the general languages, they need to first understand their own languages which is the origin of the universal language e.g. if a language has A, then it will have B i.e. if a language has a word for black, it also has a word for white (Sadler 1989).

In all the languages that are spoken in the world, they follow the same structure and organization by ensuring that the order of the words is similar and that the relationships between these words are also right. This is the reason why there is a universal language as an indicator that there is a specific order that sentences and long statements follow and if that order is not followed then correct grammar is not followed and this is not universal language. If the order is followed but one makes an error in the tenses of the words, they used the universal grammar but they made an error in their tenses. E.g. of a universal grammar, ‘the young boy and his friend are playing with the tennis ball in the field’. This is the universal grammar and if translated to any other language that order would be followed thus a universal language because it follows

Grammar and Syntax

a common basis point and if violated it may not make sense to the reader as well as if it is translated to another language.

E.g. of a wrong universal grammar i.e. the grammar that does not exist and it is wrong even if used by all the languages, ‘playing is the young boy with his friend with the tennis ball’. The structure and the order of the words of this sentence are wrong and the sentence does not make sense to the reader since they may not even understand the message that the writer wanted to pass across. This sentence violates the universal principle of grammar and hence cannot make sense to the reader. Grammar is therefore made universal by the facts that it follows the syntax principles (Sadler 1989).

In the universal grammar it is at times not possible to reverse the sentences directly. E.g. ‘the girl is feeding the dog’. If this sentence is reversed directly the resulting one may be ‘the dog is feeding the girl’. This sentence is not grammatically correct because of the ordering of the words and this is what makes it wrong. The later sentence does not follow the universal grammar. The correct reversal of this sentence that observes the relationships of the words and the correct structure of the sentence should be ‘the dog is being fed by the lady’. These are some of the key issues that constitute the universal grammar.

Competence and performance

There are various distinctions between competence and performance. Competence defines the knowledge that an individual acquires unconsciously on how to speak language. Performance may be achieved through competence and it may include errors in ones speech which may occur due to the problems in ones memory or due to some other internal factors like the slip of ones tongue as they talk. E.g. if one says, “we runned with my friends and I defeated them”. The mistake that one makes is using runned instead of ran. This is not an indication that one does not know English but its but it’s just a mistake that one made of using a regular rule in the place of an irregular verb. This error may not be common but it may occur once in a while and once one makes it, they may not make it again. In this case, the person’s competence is good but their performance is not good and this may have made them make the mistakes (Chomsky 1965). The competence is right because the individuals know the irregular verbs and they are

Grammar and Syntax

aware of how to conjugate them. This shows that competence may be good in the cases where performance is not right according to grammar (Chomsky 1965).

Competence describes the difference between the errors made in speech and the lack of knowledge of the language. This brings the distinction between those people who don’t know English and those who make such minor mistakes as they speak, they are aware of the English language but may due to some factors they just made an error and confused the past tense instead of saying ran, the person said runned.

Competence is concerned with the knowledge of the speaker and his/ her ability to produce sentences which are unique and one which may have not been seen before. Performance on the other hand may include grammatical mistakes that one may make in the process of speaking. The differences between the two may therefore be as a result of the structures and the organizations that are in the sentences that are made and that are stated by individuals. E.g. a speaker may say, “my mother buyyed me a very good pair of shoes”. The structure and organization of this sentence is good but there is one problem with it (Scha 1990).

This indicates that the competence of the sentence is okay but the performance is not good and that’s why it appears wrong. The verbs and the nouns have been very well placed in the sentence, the sentence makes a lot of sense but there was a confusion in the tense of the verb. The speaker may have confused the verb as they were talking may be because he / she was in a hurry or due to the slip of the tongue. This person knows English and they know how to apply the syntaxes in the sentences but there was a confusion of the verbs tense. The performance was therefore poor but the competence was right (Scha 1990).

In other words, competence may be something that a person is capable to do like they can speak good English and make long statements that are structurally correct. Performance is the actual thing that one does i.e. one can make long English statements that may have some errors. E.g. my sister and I had the goodest time with our grandmother over the summer holiday. In terms of competence, the sentence is okay because the speaker is able to speak

Grammar and Syntax

English and the structure of okay. The performance of the speaker is not good because this is the actual thing that they said and it has some errors. This therefore shows that in terms of competence, the speaker is right, they are competent enough to speck English but the performance was not actually very good. These errors may occur once in a while due to something that may have caused it. The speaker can therefore speak English but they actually made an error in the speech which may not happen regularly. It may have been as a result of the slip of the tongue or a confusion that may have resulted due to some other factors (Scha 1990).

Competence in grammar may describe the knowledge of the language to both the speakers and the hearers. It is the production of the individual’s language according to the general knowledge of linguistics. It is the fact that the listener or the writer uses the general knowledge of the grammar which involves the structure of the sentences and the relationships of the wordings. Performance is the actual representation of this knowledge i.e. the practical bit of it which is concerned with the actual representation of that knowledge. These terms are correlated but they are independent when it comes to their application in sentences because a sentence may be competent but the performance may be wrong. On the other hand the performance may be right but the competence may be wrong. This happens in such cases where the sentences may be grammatically correct but their structures are wrong hence not competent.

How competence and performance affect the second language learning and teaching.

Second learning is the process by which people are able to learn another language as an addition to the first language that they learnt or in most cases in addition to their native languages. This is a language that is learnt immediately after the first language which in most cases is referred to as the mother tongue. The learning of the second language may be greatly affected by the performance and competence of the first language. If the individual have difficulties in the first language, then they will definitely have a difficulty in the learning of the second language and this may cause some great problems to those whoa are concerned with the teaching of the second language (Rose 2002).

Due to the problems of competence the learners of the second language may have problems of

Grammar and Syntax

making some errors in their speech or in their essays. This is because they are used to those errors in their native language so they will just translate them to the second language and this may translate to more difficulties also to the teacher who teaches such people. The errors that occur in the competencies and performances of the first language may therefore be transferred to the second language.

Some of the errors that may occur in the acquisition of the second language may be the structures of the sentences which may have been translated from the first language and this may never be solved for such students or it may be so difficult for such students to stop them (Rose 2002). The reason is because they have translated this behavior from mother tongue and hence they will just be translating that language to the new language that they learn. This may be greatly affected according to the extent that those error are made in the first language. If the victims cannot correct the first language even after they are shown how to say correctly, they may similarly never change the situation of their acquisition of their second language because they will still continue making such errors an extension of what they make in their mother tongue.

These errors may interfere with the speeches and the communication of the individuals concerned. If the individuals make sentences that have the wrong structure and order of words in their mother tongue, then they will continue with that trend unless other strict measures are considered. This therefore indicates that the learning of the second language greatly depends on the first language and it may be affected either negatively or positively depending on the first language (Rose 2002). This is because the both languages follow the same principle which is mostly affected at the acquisition of the first language. The acquisition of the second language therefore depends on the acquisition of the first language and the same errors that one may make in the first language are the same errors that bone is likely to make in the acquisition of the second language meaning that these languages are dependent especially the second language which is dependent on the first language.

The teaching methodologies in some cases may assist in solving the problems that are associated with competence and performance. If the teacher realizes that they could deal with the problems associated with the learning of the second language with the individual students, then its avoidable that they assist such students as that they could improve their communication with others. The reason behind this is that some students if assisted closely are likely to change

Grammar and Syntax

in terms of the errors that they make when they are made to understand the structure of the sentences.

Different individuals may be affected by their native language as they learn the second language while others may not be affected but may go by what they learn at the specific time. The reason behind this is that as most learners learn a second language they apply the skills that they already have from the first language which in most cases may be direct translation from their native language. The direct translation of the native language to the second language in most cases results to the problems of competency and performance being affected if they were initially affected by that (Scha 1990).

The exposure to the fist language therefore dictates the person’s ability to learn the second language and how they are affected by the structuring and the organizations of the sentences. E.g. ‘the children are chasing the chicken’. This is structurally correct and its competence and performance are right and it is therefore right if presented in mother tongue as well as in English. Another child may state this in their mother tongue ‘the cow eated grasses. This sentence is structurally correct in mother tongue but its performance in English is very poor. This therefore means that if it is translated in mother tongue, it will still not be correct and hence the translation of such errors and difficulties from the first language to the second language (Rose 2002).

This could be solved for those students who don’t rely greatly on their mother tongues to learn the second language but they just follow the instructions that they are given by their instructor for of the second language. The learning of the second language may also be affected by the age of the learners. The young ones who have difficulties in their first language may learn their second language without difficulties while the learners who have advanced in age may have difficulties in learning the second language because they may mostly depend on their first language which has competence and performance problems and hence affecting the learning of the second language. Therefore, the advanced in age learners have difficult in learning the second language while the young learners who had difficulties in the competence and performance of their languages may change as they learn the second language.

Grammar and Syntax


Arnold, Atkinson, Doug, Durand, Glover and Sadler 1989, Essays on Grammatical Theory and universal grammar, Oxford University press, Clarendon.

Grammar and Syntax

Chomsky 1965, Aspects of the theory of syntax, MIT Press, Cambridge.

Kasper and Rose 2002, Pragmatic Development in a second Language Learning, Bardovi-Harlig.

Scha 1990, Language theory and language technology; competence and performance, retrieved on November 23, 2009 from .