Basic English Grammar For Dummies - US
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English grammar is not a mystery; it's a set of traditions and patterns of language handed down through the ages. With a little practice, you can learn the rules of Standard English so you can express yourself confidently and correctly.

Baring the bones of a sentence

When you’re writing or checking what you’ve already written, you should pay attention to the “bones” of your sentence — the structure that supports your message. All sentences have at least one subject-verb pair. The subject is who or what you’re talking about. The verb expresses the subject’s action or state of being.

What can you tell from the subject-verb pair? First, that you have one! A sentence isn’t complete without one. Second, that the subject-verb pair match. Both must be singular, or both must be plural. A few simple steps help you find these important elements:

  1. Locate the verb. Read the sentence. Ask:

    What’s happening?

    What happened?

    What will happen?

    What is?

    What was?

    What will be?

    One of those questions should have an answer. That’s the verb. The verb can be a single word (goes), two words (has gone), or more (will be going).

  2. Locate the subject. Start with the verb you found. Place these questions before it:



    For example, suppose the verb is will talk. Ask:

    Who will talk?

    What will talk?

    The answer is the subject. You may find one subject (Pete will talk) or more (Pete and Abby and all their friends will talk).

  3. Extra step: Find the complements. A complement is a word that adds to the meaning of the subject-verb pair. Not every sentence has a complement. If one is present, you can find it by asking whom or what after the subject-verb pair. For example, suppose the subject-verb pair is Maria teaches. Ask:

    Maria teaches whom?

    Maria teaches what?

    You may find an answer (kindergarten children or math). Those are complements. Words that answer other questions (when? every day or where? in Boston) aren’t complements. They’re descriptions.

    Once you’ve x-rayed a few sentences this way, you gain an understanding of structure. Everything you write will have a sturdy base.

Picking apart the parts of speech

The million or so words of the English language can be sorted into eight boxes, each devoted to one part of speech — grammarians’ name for the role a word plays in a sentence. Here’s the team:

  • Noun: A noun names a person, place, thing, emotion, or idea. Jacob, France, pencil, joy, and freedom are nouns. As you see, some nouns are specific (Jacob, France) and some are general (pencil, joy, freedom).
  • Pronoun: A pronoun takes the place of a noun. Instead of the noun Jacob, for example, you may write the pronoun
  • Verb: A verb expresses action (dance, sing, sit) or being (is, has been, will be).
  • Adjective: An adjective describes a noun or a pronoun. You may have, for example, four sharp, blue pencils. Four, sharp, and blue are adjectives describing the noun
  • Adverb: An adverb describes a verb. For instance, a visitor may come soon, secretly, or here. The adverbs soon, secretly, and here describe the verb may come.
  • Conjunction: A conjunction is a word that connects ideas (and, but, because, and although).
  • Preposition: A preposition relates two elements. A book may be placed on a shelf. (The preposition on relates placed and ) Or, the book may be interesting to Henry. (The preposition relates interesting to Henry.)
  • Interjection: An interjection expresses emotion (wow, indeed, ouch).

Sometimes the same word can function as more than one part of speech, depending on its role in a sentence. You can think about the past (a noun) or walk past (preposition) a place or person. You seldom have to identify parts of speech when you’re speaking or writing. In some cases, it’s useful information — when you’re deciding which descriptive word you need, for example:

a quick inspection (the adjective quick describes the noun inspection)

move quickly (the adverb quickly describes the verb move)

Dictionaries tell you the part of speech and give examples of the word in a sentence, so you can be sure to use it correctly.

Telling time with tense

Don’t tense up when you’re selecting verb tenses! Tense refers to the quality of a verb that shows whether you’re talking about the past, present, or future. Here are the three most common tenses:

I walk (present tense, happening now)

I walked (past tense, happened before now)

I will walk (future tense, will happen later)

Progressive tenses show ongoing action or state of being:

I am walking (present progressive tense, ongoing now)

I was walking (past progressive tense, ongoing for a period of time in the past)

I will be walking (future progressive tense, ongoing for a period of time in the future)

Perfect tenses relate to two time periods:

I have studied French. (present progressive tense, started in the past and continuing now)

I had studied French before I learned Mandarin (past perfect tense, places the action or state of being at a moment in the past earlier than another moment in the past — had studied is earlier than learned)

I will have studied geology before applying for the job. (future perfect tense, places a future action or state of being before another moment in the future — will have studied will happen before applying)

The perfect progressive tenses relate two ongoing actions or states of being:

I have been studying for two hours. (present perfect progressive tense, started in the past, ongoing now)

I had been studying, but I stopped. (past perfect progressive tense, ongoing action or state of being in the past before another action or state of being in the past — had been studying occurs earlier than stopped)

I will have been studying for three month before graduating. (future perfect progressive tense, ongoing action or state of being in the future before another moment in the future — will have been studying occurs before graduating, both in the future)

When you have trouble deciding which tense to use, make a timeline in your head. The correct choice will be obvious.

Picking punctuation

When you’re speaking, your tone of voice and pauses for breath help your listener understand the meaning of your words. When you’re writing, punctuation marks do the same job. Choose punctuation wisely. Here are the most common marks, along with an explanation of their roles:

  • Period A period ( . ) is a little dot. It appears at the end of a sentence making a statement or giving a command. The first three sentences of this section, two statements and a command, end with periods. A period may also appear in an abbreviation (St., Dr., Inc.) and in a web address (
  • Question mark A question mark ( ? ) is curve atop a dot. It appears at the end of a sentence asking a question. (How are you? What time is the party?)
  • Exclamation point An exclamation point ( ! ) is a line atop a dot. It adds emphasis or emotion to a sentence. (It’s your birthday! I’m so happy!)
  • Comma A comma ( , ) is a curved line that separates one idea in a sentence from another. (Hannah’s mom, who was planning a trip to Tokyo, applied for a passport. She will pack clothing, gifts, and guide books.)
  • Apostrophe An apostrophe ( ) is a curved mark that shows ownership or possession. (Bens boat, students lockers) An apostrophe may also show where a word or number has been shortened. (She graduated in )
  • Quotation marks Quotation marks ( “ ” ) are pairs of curves written above the line. They enclose words someone said or wrote. (May I come in? asked Peter.) They also enclose titles of short works, such as poems, songs, and articles. (Mary Had a Little Lamb)
  • Colon A colon ( : ) is one dot atop another. A colon introduces a long quotation or a list. (George had to buy several items: butter, cheese, milk, yogurt, break, salt, steak, and tofu.)
  • Hyphens and dashes A hyphen ( ) is a short, horizontal line. A hyphen unites two words into a single idea (freezedried, presidentelect). Sometimes a hyphen signals a break in a single word that is too long to fit within the margin on the right side of the page.

Suiting language to situation

Is it okay to greet someone with “Wassup, dude?” I’m a grammarian, so I imagine that you imagine I’m horrified by that question. I’m not. When it comes to English, one size does not fit all. The language you choose should slide up and down a scale of formality, depending on the situation you’re in. Here are the factors you have to consider:

  • Audience: Who will hear or read your words? Someone with more power than you? The same level of power? When you’re aiming up (boss, teacher, or other authority figure), you should be formal. When you’re with a peer (friend or close relative), casual language is appropriate. If your listener or reader has less power than you — an employee, for example —formal language shows respect.
  • Setting: A lunch conversation can be less formal than a comment in a class or meeting.
  • Purpose: Applying for a job or school admittance? Go for formal language that showcases your command of Standard English. Telling your romantic partner why you’re considering marriage? Let your guard down, speak from the heart, and forget about grammar!
  • Medium: Different standards generally apply to written and spoken communication. Unless you’re giving a prepared speech, listeners expect imperfection. In fact, strictly correct language in a conversation sometimes comes across as anger. When words are on a page or screen, though, your reader knows that you have the chance to read and correct your message. Breaking or bending a grammar rule in written communication can seem careless. As I point out in the preceding bullet points, audience and setting matter, too. Sometimes, a broken rule shows that you’re relaxing with friends.

Texting and messaging follow their own rules. Dropping or abbreviating words is fine, so long as your message is clear. You can skip some punctuation, too. Tapping the Send button indicates that your statement has ended. No need for a period! Questions, of course, end with question marks. Use exclamation points if you wish, but carefully. They show emotion, which generally has no place in business or academic communication.

Locking onto the right location

Descriptions normally appear as close as possible to whatever they’re describing. If descriptions stray from the right location, your message gets tangled. Take a look at this sentence:

Teresa traveled to a doctor who specialized in stomach problems on the bus.

As written, the description on the bus applies to stomach problems. The sentence says that Teresa went on a journey to consult a doctor about a motion-sickness problem. If your message concerns how Teresa got to the doctor, you have to reword it:

Teresa traveled on the bus to a doctor who specialized in stomach problems.

The revised sentence puts on the bus near traveled. In that location, Teresa, not the illness, is associated with the bus.

Be especially careful with almost, only, even, and nearly. These descriptions can appear in various places, but location affects meaning. These descriptions attach to the word they precede. Take a look at these examples:

Only Joe has one sister. (This location compares Joe to everyone else. He, and no one else,  has one sister. The others have more sisters or no sisters at all.)

Joe has only one sister. (Joe doesn’t have two sisters or a larger number of sisters. He has one sister. That’s it!)

One more example:

Frank can solve even that math problem. (Frank’s a math genius. He can solve anything, even that math problem.)

Even Frank can solve that math problem. (Frank has a lot of trouble understanding math. That math problem, though, is so easy that he can solve it.)

Finishing what you start

My dishwashing liquid promises “50% less scrubbing!” I should be grateful to spend less time with dirty dishes, but I can’t help wondering about that statement. Is it 50% less scrubbing than what I would do with a different product? or is it 50% less than users needed with an earlier version of the product? (Also, who’s counting?) The point is that when you begin a comparison, you should complete it. Voted best hamburger by the cook and his wife! and Voted best hamburger in a nationwide taste test! are very different claims.

You should also aim for complete sentences when you’re speaking or writing formally. A proper sentence, in English-teacher terms, has a subject-verb pair, an end mark (period, question mark, or exclamation point), and a complete thought. Take a look:

The winner is. (incomplete)

The winner is Frederick. (complete)

Before the ball dropped. (incomplete)

Before the ball dropped, the outfielder raced to catch it. (complete)

Granted, sometimes an incomplete sentence is fine, especially in conversation or in informal situations. Just be sure your meaning is clear.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Geraldine Woods has more than 35 years of teaching experience. She is the author of more than 50 books, including English Grammar Workbook For Dummies and Research Papers For Dummies.

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