Return to Grammar

Phil Abraham

Tips to Imrove Your English Grammer

I t’s always been somewhat fashionable for modern writers of poetry and prose to be creative with their written words, twisting the language in the name of art  and poetic licence. Unfortunately, the last thirty or forty years have given the written word a real beating. Grammar is no longer taught in high school nor is it given much stress in grade school for numerous reasons. I suppose the casual attitude of the 60s and 70s extended into our educational system, and students were encouraged to deal with their feelings rather than with their ability to express them. It’s not unusual for a university graduate to write an essay laced with errors in spelling , tense, and syntax. Writing with a word processor has not improved the situation; just like calculators killed our ability to add, subtract and divide, ‘spell-check’ and similar programs have minimized our ability to spell or use proper sentence structure.

I imagine most modern scholars don’t even know the various types of words, let alone sentence mechanics, or the ability to write a fluid paragraph. The English language has eight types of words: verbs, that denote action or states of being, like to drink, to fly, to wash, or to exist;

Nouns, or things and people, as in a dog, a car, eggs, London, or Joe ;

adjectives, words that describe nouns, like a green car, or wild dog, rotten eggs, or old London;

adverbs, on the other hand are words that describe verbs, or other adverbs, like to drink slowly, to fly straight, to wash carefully, or to exist alone;

pronouns are words that replace nouns or groups of words, like he, you, they, or them;

prepositions are words that denote direction or possession like from, through, of, or down;

conjunctions which join other words or groups of words, such as but, and, or, although.

Aside from words of exclamation or interjection (Oh, hey, ) and articles (the, an)  we managed to collect our basic writing materials in this list.

The next logical step is joining these words into a cohesive sentence. A sentence requires a subject (a noun) , a verb (which is also called a predicate) , and often an object (usually a noun) . A basic example of this would be: The man painted the fence.  In this case man is the subject, painted is the verb, and fence is the object. Now, the sentence could be expanded to read: The man slowly painted the fence green. In this case we added slowly (as an adverb)  to describe painted, and green (adjective) to describe the fence. This sentence can have an endless number of words and phrases added to it, for example: The tall old man slowly  painted the fence and chair green. Now we have two adjectives describing the man (tall, old) and two objects (fence, chair) , with a conjunction joining the two verbs (and).

You can see with this same sentence, that we could replace either the subject or the object with  pronoun: He slowly painted the fence. Or, The old man slowly painted it. This would be done if either original noun had been used frequently, to vary the sound of your paragraph. I suppose at this time we should clear up the meaning of the word paragraph: a number of sentences joined together by a cohesive thought or idea. When writing a paragraph, a verb is usually kept in the same tense. Oops, what’s a tense? No, it has nothing to do with the amount of stress that grammar can give you. A tense denotes the time element of a verb, as in: I write today. I wrote yesterday. I will write tomorrow. Obviously that demonstrates present, past, and future tenses, the three basic forms of a verb. There are numerous complex tenses, but we will keep our structure simple, for easier digestion.

As with all rules, there will be exceptions to these rules of grammar, just to keep us on our toes. For example, a verb can also function as a noun: John runs home is simple enough, but the verb (run) can also become the object of the sentence when it’s changed to: John likes to run or even: John likes running. In both cases the verb has turned into a noun; in the first it uses a past participle, and in the second a gerund. These names don’t really matter to you, as long as you see that a word can act various roles in a sentence. Sometimes a verb can turn into an adverb or adjective: Mary jogs to the mall. ..the verb (jogs) can turn into an adverb easily: While jogging, Mary made it to the mall. So you can see that some words are used in various ways, but the basic structure of a sentence requires: subject, verb, and sometimes an object.

I assume we all know that a true sentence starts with a capital letter, and ends with a pause and a punctuation mark (or else sentences would all run into each other) . Most sentences end with a simple period, just like this one. But some sentences ask questions, and require a question mark, don’t they? (like that) Other sentences are emotional and are ended with an exclamation point: Hey, get away from my car! There are other common punctuation points like the comma, (used there) to put a break in the sentence usually for clarity. I’m sure you’ve seen the semi-colon (;) when joining two phrases without a conjunction; to separate items in a list or series. I’ve also used brackets a few times, to slip in a quick idea (or explanation) . Obviously quotation marks are used when quoting someone, repeating exactly what they said: “to be or not to be…”and those three dots mean there’s more that’s not written.

When presenting a list of things, or showing that an explanation will ensue, one uses the colon. Perhaps listing the primary colors: red, blue, and yellow (get it?) . We’ve all used apostrophes, when omitting a letter or two, haven’t we? Yet sometimes people have trouble with its other use, to show possession. Simply put:  the boy’s skate…is proper when talking about only one boy. But, when speaking of more than one boy, the apostrophe sits on the right side of the s: the boys’ skate shows the proper use. That’s easy, isn’t it?

Now that we've gotten comfortable with sentences, we can start looking at paragraphs. As you write more elaborately you'll want to start stringing sentences together in a cohesive manner. By the same logic, paragraphs will get fitted together to project more complex discussions, theories, or concepts, and then you’re well on the road to writing correctly.

I haven’t listed all the rules of grammar (an enormous task) , but I have tried to give you an overall view of the mechanics of our language. Knowing these things may not mean a lot by themselves, but they will give you a better understanding of the written word. Just as you want to know the basics that make up  an automobile, not to become a repairman, but to know what makes it function, it’s helpful to have a knowledge of grammar to write more fluidly and to give your writing maximum effect. The next time you write anything, just scan it for a second and see if you’ve followed the rules of grammar.



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