Rules of Basic English Grammar
The start and end of a sentenceWithout clarity on where a sentence starts and ends, it is excruciatingly difficult to determine what the writer intends to say. At the ground level, sentence structure lets the reader know when a thought is complete. Each new sentence starts with a capital letter. For example, if you were to say, “the dog ate the cat’s food,” it would look like this:
The dog ate the cat’s food.Notice at the end of the sentence, there is a period. Each sentence must end with punctuation of a period used for a statement, a question mark for a question, or an exclamation point to show excitement, surprise, or shock.
Sentence structureWhile there is no set number of words per sentence, each sentence must have a subject and a verb. The subject refers to whom or what the matter is about. A verb refers to an action or state of being. “I ran” is a complete sentence. “I” is the subject, i.e. who is doing the action, and “ran” is the verb, i.e. the action itself. A verb can also be referred to as a “doing word”. In the case of the verb acting as a “state of being,” one could say, “I am happy.” The word happy references the state of being of the subject “I.” If there is an object in a sentence, the sentence structure should be as follows: subject, verb, object. “He drove a car.” “He” is the subject, “drove” is the verb, and “car” is the object. This is also known as active tone.
Parts of SpeechAt the most elementary level, most words fall into these categories: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns. Even homophones are considered parts of speech. These words work together to give meaning to written and spoken language.
NounsNouns are the largest category, making up 65% of English words. A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea. A basic test to run to check whether something is a noun is to ask, “can I have it?“ Let’s explore some nouns, running them through the test.
- Person: boy. Can I have a boy? Yes, you can have a boy.
- Place: kitchen. Can I have a kitchen? Yes, you can have a kitchen.
- Thing: pencil. Can I have a pencil? Yes, you can have a pencil.
- Idea: love. Can I have love? Yes, you can have love.
Proper NounsProper nouns are the specific names of a noun. Unlike with a regular noun, which is only capitalized if at the start of a sentence, you must always capitalize a proper noun. “The” is not used before a proper noun unless it references a country with the words states, kingdom, or republic. Proper nouns are in bold below: I went to see Mary. She lives in the United States. Her hometown is Portland, Oregon, and she lives on Terryland Drive. She works at General Motors. Her favorite restaurant is O’Charleys, and her bank is FifthThird. The president of the United States when she was born was President Bush.
Plural NounsWhen you have more than one of the same type of noun, you use the plural form. With most regular nouns, you simply add an s to the end to indicate more than one. More than one cat would become cats. Words ending in s, ss, sh, ch, x or z require “es” instead of “s.” The word dress changes to dresses, and peach becomes peaches. When a word ends in f or fe, turn the “f” into a “v” and add “es.” So, leaf becomes leaves. The exceptions to this are roof, belief, chef, and chief, which add an “s” to indicate plural. When a word ends with a y, the “y” changes to an “i” and “es” is added to the end. So story becomes stories, and canary becomes canaries. With proper nouns, the “y” remains, and “s” is added. Smithery becomes Smitherys. If a word ends with an o, “es” or “s” is added depending on the letter preceding the “o.” If the letter before the “o” is a consonant, such as in the word potato, add “es” to the end to make plural: potatoes. If the word has a vowel before the “o”, you add “s,” as in radios. As a final note, only those nouns considered “count nouns” have a plural. Count nouns are any noun you can count, like birds or tables. A noun referencing a mass or concept is called a non-count noun, like water or the idea of honesty. If you had water and then received more water, you state, “I have water.” You do not say, “I have waters.”
PronounsPronouns take the place of nouns.” He, she, them, her, his, themselves, himself, herself, myself, us, yours, those, these, and who” are all pronouns. The requirement for a pronoun is it must be clear which noun the pronoun stands for. Too many pronouns in one sentence can confuse the reader as to which noun the pronoun references. Consider the sentence “Jerry put his towel on the table, but it slipped off.” The pronoun “it” refers to the towel, and “his” is replacing repeating Jerry’s name.
AdjectivesAdjectives make up the second-largest group of words, containing 23% of English words. They typically come before a noun or pronoun and describe a quality or feature of the noun or pronoun. At times, the adjective may come after the verb. Examples of adjectives are nearly endless. “Pretty, eleven, handsome, happy, mad, grey, sick, tall, young, old, yellow, bad, boring, intelligent, and droopy” are all adjectives. If you are unsure if a word is an adjective, you can use the test, “what kind of (noun) is it?” Examine the sentence, “there is a red house.” A house is a thing. It passes the noun test of “can I have a house?” Now, we can add the adjective test. “What kind of house is it?” It is a red house, so red is our adjective. In the example above, if the adjective came after the verb, the sentence would read, “the house is red.” The same tests apply, and identical conclusions reached. House is the noun, and red is the adjective.
Proper AdjectivesProper adjectives are adjectives formed out of proper nouns. In the statement, “it was a German company,” the word German is made from the proper noun Germany. It is an adjective because it describes the company. When using a proper adjective, just like a proper noun, you capitalize the first letter.
Punctuation of AdjectivesWhen using multiple adjectives, commas separate the list. “He was a small, slender man.” In this sentence, the adjectives small and slender need a comma between them. A test to determine if a comma is needed is to judge if you could replace the comma with the word “and.” “He was a small and slender man.” Because this would work, you should insert a comma between the adjectives. Other adjectives do not necessitate a comma. For example, “we went on a cold winter vacation” would not have a comma. Utilizing the “replace the comma with ‘and'” test, the sentence becomes, “we went on a cold and winter vacation.” This rephrasing does not make a lot of sense, and therefore, we leave the comma off. You could also attempt to switch the adjectives’ order to see if the sentence still reads appropriately. In the first example, “he was a small, slender man,” you could say “he was a slender, small man.” The sentence is still correct. In the second example, “we went on a cold winter vacation” does not work reversed. “We went on a winter cold vacation” is not proper English.
AdverbsAdverbs describe a verb, adjective, adverb, or sentence. These words embellish a sentence, giving details and offering clarity. Many adverbs end in “ly.” When testing to see if a word is an adverb, ask any of these questions: how, where, when, how often, how much, or under what circumstance. Use the adverb test on the sentence, “he swiftly ran.” Does this answer the question, “how did he run?” Swiftly passes the adverb test but would not pass the noun test. You cannot have swiftly,” Neither would swiftly pass the adjective test, as swiftly is not describing “he,” but is describing the verb.
VerbsVerbs make up about 10% of the English language. They are primarily action words. The non-action verbs describe a state of being and link ideas using “to be” or “to seem.” The test to determine if a word is a verb is to ask, “can I do it?” For example, in “Jim ran five miles,” the only word you can “do” is “ran.”
Verbs match a subjectVerbs must match the subject. If you recall above, the two parts required in a sentence are a subject and a verb. If the subject is “I,” the verb must match to “I.” If the subject changes, often the verb will change. This rule is not always true with irregular verbs. Using the verb “run,” examine how the verb changes with different subjects:
- I run.
- You run.
- He/she/it runs.
- We run.
- They run.
This or thatIf two nouns are connected with the word “or,” the verb uses the singular verb form. Because the sentence is saying only one or the other will be completing the action, use the singular verb form. An example of this is “The dog or cat enters the house.” If both animals entered the IF house, the sentence would be “The dog and cat enter the house.”
Past, present, and future verbsWhile verbs are a part of speech, verb tenses are a quality of the verb. In other words, they clue the reader in as to when the sentence is happening. The verb changes depending on if the action took place in the past, present, or future. In the sentences below, notice how the verb changes:
- I ran. I run. I will run.
- You ran. You run. You will run.
- He/she/it ran. He/she/it runs. He/she/it will run.
HomophonesHomophones are words with the same sound but different meanings and sometimes spellings. There are numerous homophones, so many that there is a website dedicated entirely to homophones. Four particular homophones trip up native English writers. Resources like TeachersPayTeachers developed lesson plans dedicated to teaching these tricky homophones.
It’s versus its“It’s” represents the contraction “it is.” You can remember this by using the visual cue of the apostrophe as a replacement for the “i” in the word “is.” “Its” without an apostrophe is saying something has possession of an object, as in “its red handlebars.” The “its” here is declaring the red handlebars belong to “it.”
You’re versus your“You’re” with the apostrophe is a contraction of “you are.” “You are going to the movies” can be informally written as, “you’re going to the movies.” The apostrophe replaces the “a” in the word “are.” Your without an apostrophe is possessive. You would use this when writing something like, “It is your bike.”
Their, there and they’reThese are quite troubling for newer English writers. The easiest is likely “they’re” due to the apostrophe giving a clue. In this case, the apostrophe replaces the “a” to form the contraction of “they are.” You could use this as, “they’re coming with us.” The word “there” is referencing a place. “Put the glass there.” A trick to remembering this is “there” has the word “here” in it, which is a place. Finally, “their” is possessive and indicates belonging to someone. To try to help you remember this, “their” has “heir” in it. An heir is a person next in line for the throne, or in other words, the throne belongs to the heir. Their means, something belongs to a group of people. “Their cat ran away.” The cat belongs to them, just like a throne belongs to the heir.
Too, to, twoThe easiest of this trio is “two,” as it refers to the number 2. Because it is not spelled like the other options, this one naturally seems to stick. It can be hard to differentiate between “to,” which is a connector word, and “too,” which means also. A trick is to remember that in the word “too,” the extra “o” wants to come along, too. If you said, “Mary wants to see the movie, too,” it means, “Mary wants to see the movie, also.” If you wrote, “Mary drove to the movies,” you are moving from one place to another, and no extra “o” is needed.
Conjunctions with punctuationWhen joining two sentences with and/or/but, a comma gives a mental pause before the second sentence joins. “I walked to school, but Sarah forgot to meet me.” Each sentence could be its own, but when they are combined by the word “but,” a comma goes before the conjunction.
Possessive FormWhen expressing possession, you are saying something belongs to someone. For example, if the collar belongs to the cat, you would say, “the cat’s collar.” As you can see in the example, ‘s follows the word cat. The ‘s implies there is only one cat, and the collar belongs to this one cat. If there were multiple cats and they shared this one collar, the apostrophe would follow the s instead of coming before it: the cats’ collar. Consider these two sentences:
The girls’ doll.
The girl’s doll.In the first sentence, the doll belongs to all the girls. In the second sentence, the doll belongs to one girl.
ContractionsMost native English speakers use contractions as a part of everyday conversation and informal writing. Contractions are the combining of two words, generally a noun or pronoun with a verb. An apostrophe replaces the missing letter in a contraction.
Pronoun contractionsWhen using a pronoun such as I, you, we, they, he, or she, contractions are made by adding the following to the end of the pronoun: ‘m (am), ‘re (are), ‘s (is), ‘ve (have), ‘ll (will), and ‘d (had/would). I is the only pronoun that works with ‘m. You/we/they are the pronouns that match with ‘re. He/she/it are the pronouns that combine with ‘s. This is because the verb changes based on the person like this:
- I am
- You are
- He/she it is
- We are
- They are
Verbs with n’tWhen you add “n’t” to a verb such as “has,” you form the contraction “hasn’t,” which means “has not.” Other verbs can contract with “n’t.”
- Are becomes aren’t
- Can becomes can’t
- Could becomes couldn’t
- Did becomes didn’t
- Has becomes hasn’t
- Have becomes haven’t
- Is becomes isn’t
- Must becomes mustn’t
- Should becomes shouldn’t
- Was becomes wasn’t
- Were becomes weren’t
- Will becomes won’t
- Would becomes wouldn’t
CommasCommas are as commonplace as periods, but knowing where to add them is tricky. They are meant as a brief pause during a thought. They are also used with lists or when joining two sentences together with a conjunction.
Oxford commaThe Oxford comma is the final comma in a list proceeding the word “or” or “and.” “We have plates, napkins, silverware, and cups.” The comma before “and” is the Oxford comma. Some writers leave this out; however, it is necessary at times for context. If you are saying, “I need napkins, knives and forks, and plates,” knives and forks are intended to go together as a pair and to leave out the comma after forks could cause confusion.
Dates, cities and statesWhen writing dates, you add commas after the day, before the year, and after the year. “On December 4, 1872, my grandfather made a journal entry.” Many writers commonly forget the comma after the year. Similarly, when you are writing about a city and state, you use a comma to separate the city and state. “I live in Portland, Oregon.”
Direct quotesWhen you are quoting what a person said, you need to put a comma in front of or after the quote.
- “Get over here,” he said.
- He said, “get over here.”
- “Hey you,” he said, “get over here.”
Comma SpliceA comma splice is when a comma connects two independent clauses. The comma is actually a mistake because the clauses can stand alone. Evaluate the sentence below:
Travis did not know the girl, she was new to the area.To evaluate this sentence, look at the clause before the comma and after the comma. Are they sentences on their own?
Travis did not know the girl.
She was new to the area.Both of the clauses could be their own sentence. Because each is a sentence, you cannot use a comma to connect the two clauses. One of the following actions needs to be taken: change the comma to a semicolon, add in a conjunction, or keep the sentences separate. Let’s examine each of these.
Travis did not know the girl; she was new to the area.
Travis did not know the girl, for she was new to the area.
Travis did not know the girl. She was new to the area.
SemicolonsSemicolons indicate a pause that is not as concrete as a period but stronger than a comma. They connect ideas and can be used for clarification. Just as in the example with Travis, the word following a semicolon is not capitalized unless it happens to be a proper noun.
Independent clausesIndependent clauses are ideas that could stand alone as a sentence. In our previous example, both “Travis did not know the girl” and “she was new to the area” are sentences independently. The clauses are also related to each other, which is essential in using a semicolon to connect the ideas. It would not be appropriate to connect ideas with a semicolon that have nothing to do with each other.
The dog needed a bath; he is always rolling in the mud.
The dog needed a bath; Fido played with his favorite toy.In the first sentence, the dog needs a bath. Connecting this to the fact that he is always rolling in the mud makes sense because the result of a muddy dog is the dog would need a bath. However, in the second sentence, the dog needing a bath does not logically connect to him playing with his favorite toy. Although both involving the dog, those two sentences do not logically connect the playing with the toy to the dog needing to bathe.
Omit the conjunctionOne way to solve the comma splice was to use a conjunction. With this solution, we place a comma before the conjunction. However, we could altogether omit the conjunction. When omitting the conjunction, we replace the comma with a semicolon to denote the pause. Let’s examine conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) to view this in a real application.
- He replaced his shoes, for the sole was worn out. He replaced his shoes; the sole was worn out.
- She took a deep breath, and the class watched her read the poem. She took a deep breath; the class watched her read the poem.
- They decided not to go on vacation, nor did they visit their family. They decided not to go on vacation; did they not visit their family.
- The kitten was small, but the vet said he would grow up to be quite large. The kitten was small; the vet said he would grow up to be quite large.
- They decided to save their money, or the bank account would be overdrawn. They decided to save their money; the bank account was about to be overdrawn.
- He told her to leave, yet his heart broke. He told her to leave; his heart broke.
- She ate five apples, so her stomach hurt later. She ate five apples; her stomach hurt later.
ListsOften with lists, we use commas to separate items. For example, “For lunch, I had cheese, olives, tortillas, and lettuce.” Sometimes, however, the list includes information that only using a comma would confuse the reader. “Please mail these letters to Portland, Oregon, Buffalo, New York, Phoenix, Arizona, and Dallas, Texas.” In this sentence, the reader could easily think the letters need to be sent to eight different locations. For a case such as this, a semicolon would be appropriate to use for a list. Using a semicolon allows the writer to differentiate between the individual items and parts of each item that should go together. In the example above, each of those is a city-state pair. To show that each city-state combo is one location for a letter, the writer uses a semicolon.
Please mail these letters to Portland, Oregon; Buffalo, New York; Phoenix, Arizona; and Dallas, Texas.If the list of items includes a lot of internal punctuation, semicolons help the reader keep track of which items belong to which commentary. Consider this: She decided to tell me her life -albeit not her entire life- story; her boyfriend’s father’s, which, really I didn’t think was appropriate for her to tell me; and her mom’s, which of all three, was the most interesting.
Conjunctive adverbsCommon conjunctive adverbs are: moreover, nevertheless, however, otherwise, therefore, then, finally, likewise, and consequently. Use these when connecting two independent clauses. In the following example, note how the clauses before and after the word “however” could be a separate sentence.
I don’t like pineapple; however, she offered it to me, and I did not want to be rude.Because conjunctive adverbs can show up in other parts of sentences, you need to ensure the clause before the conjunctive adverb and the one after it can stand on their own as a sentence. If they can, then a semicolon is used following the last word before the conjunctive adverb.
However, she offered it to me anyway.
She was committed, nevertheless, to get her car out of the snow.In these two examples, the conjunctive adverb does not separate two independent clauses. In the first, only one clause follows the word “however,” and there is nothing before it. In the second, while “she was committed” can stand on its own, “to get her out of the snow” cannot.
Practice with PatienceGrammar is complicated for even the best of English speakers and writers. Most professional writers still hire proofreaders before submitting their final products. Magazine and newspaper companies employ editors to catch grammar and spelling mistakes. Do not beat yourself up if it takes a while to remember a rule. The key is to keep practicing. When you make a mistake, try to pinpoint where the error was and why you made it. If you repeat a mistake consistently, be intentional when you approach that particular area of your writing. In time and with purpose, you will master the grammar rule and move on to the next. Once you are accomplished in these basic grammar rules, check out our upcoming intermediate grammar guide. Before you know it, you may even be tutoring the next round of English students!
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