I'm surprised this has not been asked and answered on this Site--perhaps it has, but my search found nothing. The closest question to this one i could find sought the difference between grammar and syntax, which received one answer before it was closed as off-topic. In any event, I did not find the answer probative of the question i ask here.

What's more, Internet search engines were no help, likely because there's no distinctive keyword in the query.

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    Probative sounds like legalese to me. Anyway, my point is neither grammar nor syntax - it's vocabulary. I suggest relevant to is probably better than probabtive of. Unless I've misunderstood the intended meaning, in which case I'll be surprised if I'm alone in that. Dec 19, 2011 at 1:12

4 Answers 4


I too have searched for a definitive answer to this question and not found one. My own way of differentiating grammar from usage errors for my English language learners is as follows:

  • If the mistake contravenes a generalizable rule for all members of that word class, then it is a grammar mistake. Otherwise it is a usage mistake.

For example:

He live in Frankfurt contravenes the rule that verbs in the 3rd person singular present simple tense require an -s (with the exception of modals), and is hence a grammar mistake.

My grandfather is a very high man is a usage mistake. We can formulate a rule that high applies to mountains not people. But the rule applies to one member of the word class only and hence the mistake is one of usage.

On this basis, these errors are grammar errors:

  • I play tennis yesterday.
  • Do you have dog?
  • I live in Frankfurt since 10 year. (3 errors)

And these are usage errors:

  • I always enjoy to sleep late on Sundays.
  • What is the reason of your lateness?
  • She replied she didn't know the answer.

The issue is of more than purely theoretical importance because learners need to know whether they should consult a grammar book or a good dictionary/usage manual to find out if what they have written is correct.

It is interesting to note that two excellent resources for English language learners both have the word usage in their titles:

Garner's Modern American Usage and Swan's Practical English Usage.

Garner's book exclusively contains what I personally would define as usage issues, while Swan's includes numerous entries on what I would term grammar; including negation, passive, modals, determiners, etc. So it seems that even the experts can't agree on the meaning of the word.

  • +1, nice one Shoe. I'll need to study your examples more closely before i can distinguish them myself.
    – doug
    Dec 19, 2011 at 9:08
  • I consider usage to be "single word grammar". So the grammar of enjoy is that it cannot be used with the infinitive but requires the gerund: I enjoy drinking good wine. Unlike like which can be followed by both: I like drinking good wine / I like to drink good wine. The distinction I make between above between grammar and usage is possibly idiosyncratic, but it works for me and my students.
    – Shoe
    Dec 19, 2011 at 9:45
  • "i'll need to study your examples..." was not meant as skepticism (a/e/b i up-voted & accepted this answer); instead, i meant that the rule you've recited looks to me, consistent and discernible, but i'll just need to look more closely at it before i am able to apply it myself--a weakness of the reader not the text.
    – doug
    Dec 19, 2011 at 9:57
  • I consider it noteworthy that a sentence can demonstrate grammatical and usage mistakes, depending on how the sentence is interpreted. For instance, your first usage example is certainly a mistake in usage if one assumes that 'enjoy' could have been expressed as 'like'. However, if one instead focuses on 'to sleep', then it becomes a grammatical mistake, as 'sleeping' would be the correct tense to use with 'enjoy'. Sep 13, 2015 at 5:48

Grammar describes the way in which a language puts together the smallest units of meaning to make words (morphology), and the way it puts words together to make sentences (syntax). Usage is a less tightly defined concept, describing the way in which members of a language community use language, within the grammatical framework, to achieve their communicative purpose, particularly when several options are available.

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    I.e, usage is a wastebasket category to cover anything that isn't officially morphological or syntactic (Morphology and Syntax being the two parts of Grammar). Dec 18, 2011 at 22:06
  • You might decide that at least phonology-- along with possibly other aspects that can be seen as being to do with "structure"-- is also part of the "grammar" of a language. Dec 19, 2011 at 0:50
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    N.B. Some people use "usage" specifically to imply prescribed language use (which ironically may mean that what they are describing is actually not used by many people at all, but that a few people who whinge very loudly would like it to be). Dec 19, 2011 at 0:52
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    @John: I would say grammar is the attempt to define a relatively consistent set of principles/rules covering as much as possible of actual usage. The "bucket category" is idiom - constructions that either break existing rules, or which we haven't codified rules for yet. Dec 19, 2011 at 1:20
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    Usage can and does transcend the rules of grammar, though not necessarily always.
    – Kris
    Dec 19, 2011 at 9:42

Usage considers the meanings of words, while grammar might be considered to only consider parts of speech.

The truck played the elephant colorfully.

has correct grammar, but as for usage...

  • The branch of linguistics concerned with the meanings of words is not 'usage', but 'semantics'. Dec 19, 2011 at 10:08
  • @BarrieEngland: Yes, and no. "Usage" includes both grammar and semantics.
    – Ben Voigt
    Dec 19, 2011 at 22:12

"Grammar" is usually taken to be a synonym to "syntax" and here's how syntax is defined in Wikipedia:

In linguistics, syntax (from Ancient Greek word for "arrangement" from the word for "together", and word "táxis", "an ordering") is the study of the principles and rules for constructing phrases and sentences in natural languages.

Syntax is concerned with the structure/mechanics of the sentence, order of the principal parts of the sentence and their mutual dependencies. The highest unit of the analysis is the sentence, and further analysis would include phrases. Internal structure of words is the subject of lexicology, morphology or phonology and is not of primary concern for syntax, at least not in the narrow sense of the word. So, in syntactic/grammar analysis the goal would be to analyze principal parts of the sentence: subject, verb, object.., their order (is it SVO which is typical for English, or ditransitive SVOO etc.), their dependencies, verb complements. You would also analyze the formal structure of the sentence elements identifying word classes in the sentence: nouns, verbs, adjectives etc.., and their relation to the functional parts of the sentence.

When we are talking about "usage", it's what it says on the tin. The matter of concern is typically how a particular phrase/expression stands in the wider context of the language. The question about the usage of the word or a phrase would include analyzing the register of speech in which the expression is used- is it colloquial or academic, formal or informal, characteristic of written or spoken language, literary, slang etc. Another important question about the usage is whether a particular usage is idiomatic or not, that is, if there are variations of the same phrase or it is a set expression.Inquiring about the usage of the expression could further include regional spread or source of the phrase - British or American, Australian, Zealandian, Pidgin, Geordy, etc.., age of the people who characteristically use the phrase: young, old, social class: posh expression versus vulgar etc. The principal thing asked about the usage of the expression would also be how the context affect the use of the expression. Does it carry a negative connotation in specific contexts, or possibly sounds jocular, or pejorative etc.

So the terms "grammar" and "usage" refer to two different analyses, which may or may not be both included in analyzing a particular sentence or expression.

  • "Garner's Modern American Usage and Swan's Practical English Usage." I have both books and, in my opinion, only the first one is really about "usage" while the other one is for the most part a grammar book.
    – tripleowl
    Dec 19, 2011 at 12:19

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