English Grammar Rule Basics

English Grammar Rule Basics
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Published on 21 January 2016

A house needs a good foundation. Likewise, to speak a language, you need a firm understanding of grammar. Here are some basic rules you will need to know if you want to speak and write English well.

Nouns

Nouns denote animate and inanimate things, ideas, places, or people. They compose about half of the English language. There are many types of nouns, and each type has its own usage rules. However, here are two rules that are relatively universal for nouns:

Pluralization

To make regular nouns plural, add an -s to the end of the word. Of course, there are exceptions. If a word ends with the letter y, you change the y to i, and add -es.

Regular nouns

house➝houses tool➝tools

Nouns that end in Y

balcony➝balconies

Remember, however, that even exceptions have exceptions! For a more detailed explanation, check the Grammarly Handbook.

Capitalization

Capitalize nouns if they are at the beginning of a sentence, or if they are proper nouns. Proper nouns refer to specific people or places.

George obtained his degree from McGill University.

Note that some nouns can be proper nouns or common nouns.

Will Dad allow me to go to the park? My dad allowed me to go to the park.

Pronouns

After mentioning a noun once, it’s tedious to repeat it again and again. Pronouns replace nouns. There are also different types of pronouns. Pronouns must agree in number and gender with the noun they replace.

The nails (plural) are too flimsy for the job.➝They are too flimsy for the job. Yolanda (feminine, singular) finished her drink.➝She finished her drink. Bobby (masculine, singular) doesn’t like coconut.➝He doesn’t like coconut.

Articles

The three articles a, an, and the distinguish between specific and nonspecific nouns. A and an are indefinite articles, whereas the is a definite article. If you want to refer to a specific thing, use the. If not, use a before a noun beginning with a consonant and an before a noun beginning with a vowel or a voiceless H.

A book is on the table. (a nonspecific book) An almanac is on the table. (a nonspecific almanac) An hourglass is on the table. (a nonspecific hourglass) The book is on the table. (a particular book)

Adjectives

Adjectives describe nouns. In most cases, adjectives appear before the noun they modify. If more than one adjective modifies the same noun, separate the adjectives with a comma if they are coordinate; that is, if they modify the noun equally. Don’t add a comma if one of the adjectives forms a unit of meaning with the noun (as is often the case with words describing color).

The mail carrier wore a bright blue bowtie with his uniform. The mail carrier fed the dogs some pungent, crumbly biscuits.

Adverbs

While adjectives describe nouns, adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. Most of them end in -ly, but you can also identify them by asking the questions how, where, or when. For instance: How did Sally sing? Sally sang well. Because it answers the question how, well is an adverb.

The Rule: Never place an adverb between the verb it modifies and the direct object of the verb.

The car turned quickly the corner.

The correct word order is “The car turned the corner quickly.” Or “The car quickly turned the corner.”

Verbs

Verbs make it possible to describe an action, state, or occurrence. In other words, verbs let us know what’s happening. Hundreds of rules govern the use of verbs. The standout rule has to do with consistency. In a sentence, you have to pay attention to the tenses of the verbs. Let’s look at an example.

Betsy arrived home from school, eats a snack, and watched her favorite cartoon.

In the example, “eats a snack” is in the present tense, but the other verbs are in the past tense. This is a no-no. You can’t describe the same period in two different tenses in the same sentence. To achieve verb tense consistency, you must maintain the same tense throughout the sentence. And if you want to refer to multiple time periods, you will want to separate them into a new clause or start a new sentence.

Betsy arrives home from school, eats a snack, and watches her favorite cartoon. (All present tense) Betsy arrived home from school, ate a snack, and watched her favorite cartoon. (All past tense) Betsy arrived home from school and watched her favorite cartoon. Now, she is eating a snack. (The tense changes in the new sentence)

Prepositions

Prepositions situate nouns in time or place. You have probably heard one “rule” of preposition use: never end a sentence with a preposition! In reality, this advice only applies to very formal writing, and even there it is somewhat dated. In casual speech and writing, dangling prepositions are generally acceptable.

Here is a bag you can keep your things in. (casual) Here is a bag in which you can keep our things. (formal)

Conjunctions

Conjunctions link ideas, clauses, and parts of sentences. Notice how the coordinating conjunction and can be used to combine two related sentences.

Hugh loves coffee. Hugh has always wanted to own a cafe. Hugh loves coffee and has always wanted to own a cafe.

When you use conjunctions, be sure that the two components have parallel structure. To illustrate, consider the verbs in these two linked phrases:

To lose weight, Jack diets, ran marathons, and drinks lots of water.

Here, two verbs are in the present tense, and one verb is in the past tense. Remember your verb rule! You can’t mix the tenses. With conjunctions, make sure that all the elements in a list match. If you are listing nouns, for example, you cannot insert a verb into the same list.

Interjections

Interjections are words we use to express extreme emotions or to emphasize a point. They are often followed by an exclamation point if they stand alone. In a sentence, they are often set off by commas.

The Rule: Don’t use interjections without context.

Holy smokes!

The above interjection doesn’t give away any information. The reader would not be able to discern what is happening from the interjection alone. When you write, describe the context that merits the interjection.

Holy smokes! I have never seen a pumpkin that color!

Nouns, verbs, and the other parts of speech you examined today are the building blocks of the English language. By mastering a few rules for each part of speech, you are laying a firm foundation for writing and communication. There are hundreds more rules to consider, but don’t be overwhelmed. Bricks used to build a house are laid one at a time.

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