As a famous English teacher once remarked on his deathbed, "Dying is easy, grammar is hard." If English is your native language, you probably don't have much trouble conversing and communicating with others. But even life-long English speakers have trouble with certain elements of grammar. That's where we can help.
We know that English grammar can trip you up sometimes. The Standard Deviants have scoured the nation for all the basic grammar information you need to know. You can count on us to simplify this grammar stuff and make it easier to learn, easier to remember, and believe it or not, even enjoyable.
What Am I Going to Learn?
Here's our Standard Deviants approach to English Grammar. First, we'll define what we mean by grammar, and then we'll discuss Standard Edited American Englishthe form of English we use in formal papers and reports, as well as read in magazines and newspapers. Then we'll tackle the parts of speech, including nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, and everything in between. Like conjunctions and interjections. Did we mention adverbs? Anyway, let's get started.
What Exactly Is Grammar?
English grammar is how the parts of our language fit together to make sentences. So the way we correctly combine both words and punctuation is how we use grammar to communicate effectively with others.
Now, when you're talking with your friends, or during other informal situationswhere the pace of speech is fast and furiousperfect grammar is not so important.
But when you want to appear professional and businesslike, you should use what's known as "Standard Edited American English," or SEAE.
It's what you may have heard called "correct grammar" or "school grammar." It's the dialect you'll find in textbooks, most magazines and newspapers, and in business letters and memos. Let's break down SEAE so we know what we're talking about.
Standard: This is established language that we've all agreed to use.
Edited: This implies that we're discussing a written grammar, something you've taken the time to write down correctly.
American English: Pretty self-explanatory. We use this dialect here in the United States. This is not the English written in Great Britain, Australia, or New Zealand, but it's pretty close.
Now let's make a distinction between grammar and vocabulary. Grammar deals with how words fit together in sentences, and vocabulary concerns the words themselves. So using good grammar is not a case of using long, important-sounding words.
Saying, "Please oculate that I am self-propelling this double-wheeled transportation vehicle without the assistance of my upper limbs, yon giving-birth-to-me woman" is no better than just saying, "Look, Mano hands!"
Remember, writing is a process, so don't make yourself crazy fretting about grammar when you're first writing your ideas down. Deal with it when you're editing your work.
Now that we have a general idea of what grammar is, let's get more specific and tackle the things that constitute grammar: the parts of speech.
The Parts of Speech
For ease and comfort, we usually place words into different groups, based roughly on their form and function. The different groups are nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. Don't worry, we'll cover each one separately, so you'll be sure to understand them all.
And what better place to start than with nouns? They're all around useverywhere you look (maybe even your belly-button).
You know nouns even if you don't know them by name. "Ms. Kowalski," "gecko," "classroom," "desk," and "trouble" are all nouns.
Let's look at some of these a little closer to see what makes them nouns. "Mrs. Kowalski" is a person, so that's a noun. "Classroom" is a place, so that's a noun. Then we have "desk." Well, that's a thing, so that's also a noun. Okay, now "trouble." A little tricky, this one. But it's sort of a concept. So, it counts as a noun!
To sum up, a noun is a person, place, thing, or idea (like trouble).
We can put nouns into four categories, each one more exciting than the last. We've got common nouns, proper nouns, compound nouns, and collective nouns.
The first category is the "common noun." Common nouns are nouns that are, well, common. Another way to think of a common noun is that it's just one of a class of things.
Here's how it works. "Gecko" is an example of a common noun because "gecko" is just a general word describing those frisky lizards. Some other common nouns are pencil, eraser, chalk, dictionary, and map. See, there's nothing special about common nouns.
Singular or Plural
Here's something interesting about nouns: they can be singular or plural. But what does that mean?
Well, if we have just one of a particular noun, then it's singular. One pencil, one dictionary, or one mapthey're all singular nouns.
But say we have four pencils, three dictionaries, and two mapswell, those are all plural nouns, because there are more than one of each.
So singularjust one. Pluralmore than one. The grammar gods have a particular name for the singular/plural thing. They call it a noun's number. Kinda freaky, huh?
Now, it's not like all these nouns are on some team together and they all need different numbers like 88, 12, or 66. Remember, a noun's number is either singular or plural. Take notice of this, because it becomes important as we learn more. Okay, back to the different types of nouns.
The second category of a noun is the proper noun. We use a proper noun when we refer to a specific person, place, or thing.
So "lady" is a common noun, but "Mrs. Kowalski" is a proper noun because there's only one Mrs. Kowalski.
Now notice how "Mrs." and "Kowalski" both start with a capital letter. This is our "grammar guide." You can recognize a proper noun because it will begin with a capital letter.
Some other proper nouns are White House, Washington, D.C., and Abraham Lincoln.
Sometimes two nouns like to get together to make a bigger, better noun. Once this happens, the words act like one unit. We call these new creations compound nouns.
Compound nouns are the third type of noun. There are three varieties of compound nouns.
One, they can be left as two separate words. Two, they can be connected by a hyphen. Or three, they can be smashed together into one big word. Let's look at each one.
First, you'll often see compound nouns as two separate words, like "monkey house," or "bicycle trail." Look at "bicycle trail." These two words are considered one noun because together they refer to one specific thing.
The second way to write a compound noun is by joining them with a hyphen, like "six-shooter," "night-light," or "thirty-two." We end up with the same result, a compound noun. We've just used a hyphen, which is a little dash that connects two words.
And finally, the third type of compound nounsthe "one big word" type. Sometimes when compound nouns are used for a very long time, they eventually meeeerge to form one word, like "classroom," "songbird," and "basketball." Here, two nouns join together to become one bright and shiny new noun.
So those are the three types of compound nouns: two words, two words connected by a hyphen, and the "one big word."
The fourth category of nouns is the "collective form." This is when you put a whole bunch of nouns together, but refer to them all by one noun, which is singular. This example will help out.
Take the members of a family. You can have nouns like "mother," "father," "brother," and "sister," but when we join them together, we can call them a "family." So, "family" is a collective noun. And when we use the noun "family," we consider it a singular noun. We say, "The family loves going to the beach."
This is an important point to keep in mind for later on when we talk about using these nouns in a sentence. So remember, even though a collective noun usually refers to many different nouns, it is still considered to be singular.
We love nouns, and they're great things to have around when you're writing a sentence, but wouldn't it be nice if we had a word that could replace a noun so we don't have to use it over and over in a sentence? We do! It's called the "pronoun."
A pronoun is a word we substitute in the place of a noun.
Pronouns are really nifty. We use them all the time. There's even two in the sentence "We use them all the time": "we" and "them."
Here's another example. If we take the sentence "Stan is at the soccer game" and follow it up with "He likes to play soccer," we've just used a pronoun. It's "he." Instead of saying "Stan likes to play soccer," we replaced "Stan"which is a proper nounwith a short, sweet pronoun: "he."
So a pronoun is a short word that takes the place of a noun. The example we just usedreplacing "Stan" with "he"is just one example of using pronouns. There are several kinds of pronouns out there, because we use different pronouns for different situations.
We'll discuss three types of pronouns: personal pronouns, possessive pronouns, and demonstrative pronouns. First, personal pronouns.
Personal pronouns are the ones you're probably most familiar with. The most common personal pronouns are "I," "you," "he," "she," "it," "we," and "they." They refer to a specific person, place, object, thing, concept or idea.
What do we mean by "refer"? Check out these two sentences.
"Susan drives to work. She takes the expressway." Who are we referring to in the sentence, "She takes the expressway"? Well, Susan, of course. Here's what's going on. The personal pronoun "she" in the second sentence refers to the proper noun "Susan" in the first sentence, and also takes its place in the second sentence. If we didn't have pronouns, we'd have to say "Susan drives to work. Susan takes the expressway." Sounds kinda repetitive, doesn't it?
So, those are the personal pronouns. Next up: possessive pronouns.
These guys do double duty. Possessive pronouns take the place of a noun, like before, but they also show possessionyou know, ownership. In other words, something belongs to someone. So, when something belongs to someone, we can describe it using a possessive pronoun.
The most common possessive pronouns are "my," "mine," "your," "yours," "his," "her," "hers," "its," "our," "ours," "their," and "theirs." Here's a chart showing which personal pronouns they're related to:
|| Possessive Pronoun
Possessive pronouns can work in two ways. One, they can pair up with whatever is being possessed. Or two, they can replace that noun entirely. Here's an example that will help you understand.
Take the sentences: "Is Snappy his turtle or Sharlene's?" "I believe it is hers." Believe it or not, we've used a possessive pronoun in each of these two sentences. In the first sentence, "Is Snappy his turtle or Sharlene's?" the pronoun "his" is right next to the thing being possessed, in this case a turtle. Then in the second sentence, "I believe it is hers" we let the possessive pronoun "hers" stand alone. But notice that we're still referring to a turtle. Either way, we've used the possessive pronouns correctly.
So far we've learned about the personal pronouns, which replace a noun, and possessive pronouns, which both replace nouns and show possession. The third kind of pronoun that we'll cover is the demonstrative pronoun.
"Demonstrative"sounds like they demonstrate. Well, they kind of do. Demonstrative pronouns specify exactly which noun we're referring to. It demonstrates what noun we're talking about.
The most common demonstrative pronouns are "this," "that," these," and "those." We usually use demonstrative pronouns when we point to a specific noun. Here's an example.
"This is her favorite bicycle." In this sentence, "This" is a demonstrative pronoun. "This" tells you which particular bicycle is her favorite. So instead of saying "It is my favorite bicycle," we've specified which one it is.
We have two singular demonstrative pronouns and two plural ones. "This" and "that" are the two singular demonstrative pronouns. "These" and "those" are the two plural demonstrative pronouns. Use a singular demonstrative pronoun when you're replacing a singular noun, and use a plural demonstrative pronoun when you're replacing a plural noun.
So now you know three main types of pronouns: personal pronouns, possessive pronouns, and demonstrative pronouns. There are two general things to keep in mind about pronouns.
One, when using pronouns, be sure you're clear about what noun you're referring to.
Two, be sure to use singular pronouns with singular nouns and plural pronouns with plural nouns.
Okay, now we're going to build on some of the things we've learned about nouns and pronouns. Remember how we said a noun can be singular or plural? (Nod "yes" if you don't). You do? Good. We called it the noun's "number." And you remember how we said that as far as pronouns go, you need to use singular pronouns with singular nouns and plural pronouns with plural nouns? (Keep nodding.) Excellent. Let's expand on this a bit.
As you know, we can have the singular subject pronouns "I," "you," "he," "she," and "it." The plural subject pronouns are "we," and "they." Each of these represents a possible subject of a sentence. So, in this context, let's refer to "I," "you," "he," "she," "it," "we," and "they" as subjects.
The grammar experts use more technical language for each of these kinds of subjects. We'll get to the technical names soon, but first, let's make the distinction between singular and plural subjects.
"I," "you," "he," "she," and "it" are all singular subjectsthere's just one of each of them. So all of these go in the "singular" group. "We" and "they" are plural subjects because they refer to more than one thing. They go in the "plural" group.
Okay, now we're going to take each of our singular subjects one at a time and give you its technical name.
"I" is called the "first person."
"You" is called the "second person."
"He" is considered the "third person." Guess what? "She" is also called the "third person." Ditto with "it"; "it" is also called the "third person."
Now we just have one more thing to do. Since these are all singular subjects, we add the word "singular" to the end of them. Let's see how it works, one at a time.
"I" is called the "first person singular."
"You" is called the "second person singular."
"He," "she," and "it" are each considered the "third person singular."
Now we have all our singular subjects. Let's take a crack at the plurals.
All right, we're going to find out the technical names for these two guys. We will start with, well, "we." "We" is considered the "first person." Fair enough. "They" is considered the "third person." That's all good, too. Now, let's remember our other step. "We" and "they" are plural subjects, so we add "plural" at the end of their technical names. That makes "we" the first person plural and "they" the third person plural.
Now, there is another subject out there: the second person plural. It's sort of like saying "you and you and you
" You might know it better as "you all," "y'all," or even "youse guys." The second person plural is used a lot more in everyday conversation than in our Standard Edited American English, so we really won't refer to it too much.
The grammar guide, then, is that a noun's number is either singular or plural.
Now let's take a look now at an unsung hero of the grammatical game: the adjectives.
Green field. Crowded car. Beautiful park. Fun slide. Dirty water. Wet shoes.
All of the words in italics are adjectives, like "green" and "fun." But what exactly do adjectives do?
Adjectives describe or modify nouns and pronouns. Let's take a look at how adjectives work, and things should be crystal clear.
"Kathleen bounces the ball." Right now, this sentence is adjective-free. There's nothing wrong with that, but let's see if we can jazz it up with some adjectives.
What does our ball look like? Well, let's say it's big. And red. Yeah, big and red. And plastic, too.
Let's use those words in some sentences. How about "Kathleen bounces the big ball." Or "Kathleen bounces the red ball." Or even "Kathleen bounces the plastic ball." Pretty good. Now, the words "big," "red," and "plastic" are all being used as adjectives. Each of these words describes Kathleen's ball. We can even combine our adjectives and say "Kathleen bounces the big, red ball" or even "Kathleen bounces the big, red, plastic ball."
That's how adjectives work they give us more information about a noun or pronoun.
Now, notice how in our sentences the adjectives come before the noun they describe. We didn't say, "Kathleen bounces the ball red, big," did we? That doesn't sound right. So make it a grammar guideadjectives usually, but not always, come before the noun or pronoun they describe.
So now you have a basic understanding of how adjectives work. Let's look at a few sentences that show a little flair by how they use adjectives. We put the adjectives in italics.
"Step right up, folks. Step right up. If I can't guess your weight within five pounds, you'll win great prizeslike this wacky yellow bat. This soft, plush raccoon. This totally useless tiny lampshade. Oh, the incredible, sensational, marvelous fun you'll have!"
Wow! Nice adjective use. We had a lot of neat adjectives, like wacky, yellow, soft, plush, useless, tiny, incredible, sensational, and marvelous.
Not all adjectives are this exciting, however. You know those little tiny words, "the," "an," and "a"? They're actually adjectives too, because they tell us a little tiny thing about the nouns we use them with. We call these teensy adjectives articles. Not articles like you read in a newspaper, but a different kind of article. Check out this sentence:
"Here are the prizes you can win: a bat. An hourglass. A lampshade. The fun you'll have."
Yup. Those articles may be short and bland, but they ARE adjectives. Another kind of adjective is a demonstrative adjective. Remember when we discussed pronouns and we talked about the demonstrative pronouns, "this," "that," "these," and "those"? These same words can be used as adjectives.
How can that be? Well, instead of replacing a noun in a sentence, the demonstrative pronouns describe the noun, just like adjectives do. Here's an example: "I think these corn flakes are great."
Remember the sentence, "This is her favorite bicycle?" We talked about how "this" functions like a pronoun because it replaces the actual bicycle that we're talking about.
Now, let's rephrase the sentence: "This one is her favorite bicycle." "This" is now in front of "one," and in fact describes it. That makes "this" an adjective. In fact, "this" a demonstrative adjective, because it tells us which bicycle is her favorite.
Okay, so we have all of these nouns, pronouns, and adjectives floating around in our heads. We need to do something with them! That's where our next part of speech comes in: verbs.
Verbs make sentences move. A verb is the action of a sentence. A verb can walk, run, jump, sit, look, listen, eat, wave, talk, or just
A verb is a word that shows an action or describes a state of being. It tells us what all those nouns and pronouns are doing in our sentences. A verb is one of the most important parts of a sentence, but it can be one of the trickiest.
In the short sentence "Dave runs," "runs" is the verb because it tells us the action that Dave performs. What does Dave do? He runs.
In English grammar, verbs change form to show who performs an action. And who performs action? I do, you do, he does, we do, they do.
Let's take a closer look at the verb "to run." You would say, "Dave runs," but if you talked about yourself, you would say, "I run." The verb changed from "runs" to "run" because someone else is performing the action.
Here's how "to run" changes for each subject:
Subject / The verb "to run"
What we just didtaking a verb and seeing how it changes with different subjectsis called conjugating. Okay, now, there wasn't too much change there when we conjugated the verb "to run." But if you want change, we've got change! Let's try the most common verb there is: "to be." "To be" is a tricky verb. In fact, when we conjugate it, you may not even realize it as the verb "to be." That's how much it changes. Here's another chart:
Subject / The verb "to be"
Back to Noun Numbers
In the first columns of our charts, first we have "I," then "you," then "he," "she," and "it." Notice anything? Well, yes, they're all pronouns, but they're also "subjects." "I," "you," "he," "she," and "it" are all singular subjectsthere's just one noun being referred to in each. But then we get down to "we" and finally "they." Aha! These are plural subjectsthey refer to nouns that have more than one member.
This goes back to our discussion on a noun's number, which shows whether a noun is singular or plural. This becomes even more important now that we're dealing with verbs. That's because a singular noun takes a singular verb, and a plural noun takes a plural verb. Let's look at exactly how this works.
Okay, let's take Mrs. Midori, the champion yodeler. There's only one Mrs. Midori, so Mrs. Midori is a singular subject. And "yodels" is the third person singular form of the verb "to yodel," so we would say "Mrs. Midori yodels."
Now, take the Midori sisters: Else, Gretel, and Heidi. "The Midori sisters" is a plural nounbecause there's more than one sisterso we should use a plural verb. Let's try "The Midori sisters yodel." It works! "Yodel" is the third person plural form of the verb "to yodel."
Grammar guide: A singular noun takes a singular verb and a plural noun takes a plural verb.
Now it's time to get creative with our verbs. And what's the best way to do that? With our next part of speechthe adverbs.
We already know we can use adjectives to describe nouns and pronouns. But guess what? We can use words to describe verbs, too. We call these verb-enhancing words adverbs.
Adverbs describe verbs, but they can also describe adjectives and other adverbs. We'll show you how they work.
The easiest way to see if you're dealing with an adverb is to see if the word answers the question "how," "how often," "when," or "to what extent." And the easiest way to build an adverb is to add "ly" to the end of an adjective.
Here's an example. As a walker, Simon might be "slow," but we would say he walks "slowly." "Slow" describes Simon, which makes it an adjective, while "slowly" answers the question "How does Simon walk?" This makes it an adverb. All we had to do to change "slow" into an adverb was to add "ly" at the end.
We can also write, "The color of these mushrooms is slightly different." Here we have formed the adverb "slightly" by adding an "-ly" to the word "slight." Then we used it to describe the adjective "different." Now let's use an adverb to modify another adverb.
Suppose we write, "This mushroom is very definitely poisonous." Let's break this sentence down. "Poisonous" is an adjective because it modifies the noun "mushroom." Now "poisonous" is modified by an adverb, "definitely." But, notice how we also have the word "very." What does "very" modify? "Very" modifies the adverb "definitely."
And since "very" modifies an adverb, that makes "very" an adverb too.
But wait! "Very" doesn't end with an "ly." Did you notice that "very" is being used as an adverb even though it doesn't end in "ly"? Yep, you guessed it. It's an exception.
Most adverbs end in "ly" but not all of them. Some common exceptions are "good" and "fast."
Now, let's leave adverbs and move onto our next part of speechprepositions.
In! Out! Over! Under! Around!
Prepositions are words that show relationships between other words, usually nouns. We use them to show how words relate in terms of time and space. Some examples of prepositions are "across," "by," "at," and "through."
Whenever you see a preposition in a sentence, you're probably going to see a noun not so far behind it. You might say, "among the turkeys," "past the pancake house," or "with Pedro." The preposition plus the noun that comes after it is called the prepositional phrase. So "past" is the preposition and "past the pancake house" is the prepositional phrase. Let's look at a preposition in a sentence.
"Darla will find her missing watch under the turkey." Our preposition here is "under," and we can see that it is showing a spatial relationship between the two nouns, "watch" and "turkeys." The watch could be "on" the turkey, "near" the turkey, or heaven help us, "inside" the turkey. But because we used the preposition "under," we know exactly where Darla needs to look to find her missing watch. Where? Under the turkey.
That sentence demonstrated how a preposition can show how words relate in terms of space. Now let's see one that shows how two words relate in terms of time.
"Mildred always finishes her meatloaf before Mark." In this sentence "before" functions as a preposition. Why? "Before" shows a time relationship between Mildred and Mark. When it comes to eating their meatloaf, Mildred is "before" Mark, not "after," "during," or "past" him (although "after," "during," and "past" are all prepositions).
Sometimes the relationship a preposition forms with a verb is so close that when the two are joined together, they surrender their individual meanings and become their own concept. Here's an example using the prepositions "at," "over," and "up," and the verb "looked":
"The chef looked at the secret recipe."
Simple enough, we have a chef looking at a recipe. But suppose we say, "The chef looked over the secret recipe." Now we have a chef quickly reading the recipe. Or let's say we have, "The chef looked up the secret recipe." Now the chef has the recipe filed somewhere and she's trying to find it.
See how "looked over" and "looked up" mean something completely different from "looked at"? And at no point was anyone actually looking up at the sky or over top the piece of paper on which the recipe was written. The prepositions "over" and "up" have fused with the verb to change it into a completely different idea.
Now it's time to make some connections. And to do that, our next part of speech comes in quite handy: conjunctions.
Conjunctions are words that provide transitions between sentences and parts of sentences. Some examples of conjunction are "and," "but," "or," and "therefore."
Sometimes an entire phrase of words can serve as a conjunction. "On the other hand" and "in addition" are great examples.
The really neat thing about conjunctions is that not only can they hook two things together, they also show how these two things relate. Conjunctionsthey're small, but they pack a lot of power.
For example, the conjunction "and" often shows a state of equality between the two things it links together, while "but" is usually used to show a definite contrast. And still others, like "therefore" and "thus," show cause and effect. Let's look at a couple of sentences to see how this works.
Suppose we say, "Frog and Toad are my friends." In this sentence, the conjunction "and" sets up a state of equality between Frog and Toad. Now if we change "and" to "or," we get, "Frog or Toad is my friend." That gives us something completely different. Now, instead of having two amphibian friends, I only have one or the other. Poor me. Behold the power of conjunctions!
Also, some conjunctions come in pairs, like "either/or," "neither/nor," "both/and," and "not only/but also." Let's look at one of these in a sentence, actually a quite famous saying: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be."
Here the conjunctions "neither" and "nor" are a package deal. If you use one, you have to use the other.
Okay, there's one more part of speech we need to talk about: the interjection!
Interjections are words or short phrases that don't play any grammatical role in a sentence, other than to express emotion or surprise.
As you can see, interjections are fun. And, they're grammatically acceptable in SEAEwhat a bonus. But they can be a bit
"Wow! Look! Oranges! Yummy! Juicy! Delicious!"
See? They also tend to lose their effectiveness when overused, so use them sparingly. And in formal writing, try to avoid them.
If you do want to use an interjection in a sentence, try to use it in the beginning. After you have the reader's attention hooked, you can continue with the rest of your sentence. Here's an example:
"Wow, that's a big wheel of cheese!"
Notice how we stuck a comma in between our interjection, "wow," and the rest of the sentence. We also ended the sentence with an exclamation point instead of a period. We could have used a period instead, but as you've probably already figured out, the interjection and the exclamation point are best buds and rarely travel alone.
Now that you've read All About English Grammar, test your knowledge with our Sample Test.