Your palms are sweaty. Your feet are restless. Your mind is racing. It must be test time! Generally, most tests are unpleasant, but grammar tests can be especially difficult because, well, there’s a lot of grammar to remember.
Memorizing countless rules can make grammar test preparation feel overwhelming, so we’re sharing this guide to make the studying smoother and easier. We cover the most common test grammar and their rules to prepare you for whatever questions show up on the exam.
Table of contents
Will this be on the test? Grammar test prep
The more important the test, the harder the test grammar. That’s especially true for academic tests like the SAT and ACT and any of the numerous tests for certifying ESL proficiency. It’s typically not revealed what’s on these tests beforehand—that would defeat their purpose. Instead, students must review everything, just in case.
On the bright side, for tests like these, English grammar tends to revolve around the fundamentals. That means if you review the basics below, you should be prepared for most of the questions. We even link to our more detailed guides on each subject so you can review the advanced rules to feel more confident.
Aside from grammar, be sure to also review vocabulary and word choice. These types of tests like to throw difficult words at you, including English idioms and phrasal verbs, which each have unique meanings.
Parts of speech in grammar
Word class, also known as parts of speech, just means the type of word (noun, verb, adjective, etc.). Some words represent things, others represent actions, and some are just for description. It’s important to know parts of speech in grammar because different word classes have different rules.
- Noun—represents people, places, things, and concepts
- Verb—represents actions
- Adjective—describes nouns
- Adverb—describes verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs
- Pronoun—represents other nouns to save time
- Auxiliary verb (helper verb)—a special type of verb used in supportive roles like conjugation
- Preposition—shows relationships of direction, time, location, and space
- Determiner—identifies characteristics of a noun and is necessary in certain grammar situations
- Conjunction—joins together other words, phrases, or clauses
- Interjection—expresses sudden feelings to mimic speech in writing (used informally)
Example: Wow, he has quickly grown into a beautiful and healthy cat!
Sentence structure and syntax
To understand sentence structure, you should first understand clauses. A complete sentence must contain at least one independent clause, which requires a verb and a subject (the noun doing the verb’s action).
Depending on the number of independent and dependent clauses, a sentence can be one of four types of sentences:
- Simple—one independent clause
- Compound—two or more independent clauses
- Complex—one independent clause; one or more dependent clauses
- Compound-complex—two or more independent clauses; one or more dependent clauses
Clauses must be joined correctly to form complete sentences. While dependent clauses always require subordinating conjunctions, independent clauses use a semicolon or a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) to connect with each other. Failing to use conjunctions correctly results in a mistake known as a run-on sentence.
You also need to put the words in their correct order, known as syntax. For example, in most sentences the subject comes before the verb and adjectives come before the noun they describe. The rules on word order can get complicated, so read our guide on syntax for more details.
Punctuation and capitalization rules
Punctuation is a necessary part of grammar test preparation and of improving grammar skills in general. Let’s review the common punctuation marks and their jobs.
|Ends declarative sentences (statements) and most imperative sentences (commands)
|Ends interrogative sentences (questions)
|Ends exclamatory sentences (emotional statements)
|Shows a pause in a sentence and is used between clauses, phrases, and words in a series
|Shows a direct quote or a title of a short work like a song or poem
|Makes possessive nouns or combines words into a contraction
|Introduces information related to the previous clause, such as a list of examples
|Joins independent clauses in the same sentence or separates items in a series if they already use a comma
|Sets certain words, phrases, or sentences apart as an aside
|Combines two words into one
|. . .
|Indicates information has been removed or a pause to mimic speech
|Used to set off parenthetical information.
|Typically used to show ranges in numbers and dates, or used for clarity in forming complex compound adjectives.
Likewise, reviewing capitalization rules is another important part of grammar test prep. In English, we capitalize the first letter of the following words:
- The first word in a sentence
- Specific names of people, places, and things (proper nouns)
- The pronoun I
- Nationalities and languages
- Historical eras
- Names of days, months, and holidays
- Initials and acronyms
- Family and job titles when used as names
- Major words in the titles of works (rules vary by style format)
Plural nouns and mass nouns
To show more than one of something, we usually change the singular form of the noun into the plural. In most cases, you simply add an –s at the end of the noun to make it plural, but there are a lot of exceptions. Review our guide on plural nouns to see when to add –es or -ies instead of –s, as well as which nouns remain the same when made plural.
Some special nouns use entirely different words when they’re plural, such as child and children. You can review a list of these in our guide on irregular plural nouns.
Even more confusing, some nouns can’t become plural at all because they represent something uncountable, like water or sand. These are called mass nouns or uncountable nouns, and they’re always used in the singular. Review our guide on mass nouns to learn their rules and see a list of the most common ones.
Pronouns are a special type of noun that represent something that’s already been stated or is already known by the listener/reader.
Abdo went home because he was tired.
In this example, the pronoun he represents Abdo. Using pronouns makes this sentence shorter and easier because you don’t have to say Abdo’s name twice. The word a pronoun replaces is called the antecedent. In this example, Abdo is the antecedent of the pronoun he.
The important thing about pronouns for test grammar is pronoun-antecedent agreement. For most pronouns, that usually means matching the number: Singular nouns use singular pronouns, and plural nouns use plural pronouns.
The trip took a long time, but it was nice.
The trips took a long time, but they were nice.
Subject personal pronouns
|he, she, they, it
Object personal pronouns
|him, her, them, it
Other types of pronouns
Although personal pronouns are the most common type of pronoun, they’re not the only ones. Pronouns are actually pretty diverse, and each has their own distinct rules for usage.
- Relative pronouns—pronouns like that, which, or who used to introduce adjective clauses
- Demonstrative pronouns—pronouns like this, these, or those used to emphasize specific antecedents
- Indefinite pronouns—pronouns like anybody, someone, or nothing used to emphasize general antecedents
- Reflexive pronouns—pronouns like myself, yourself, or themselves used as objects of verbs and prepositions that reflect back to the subject
- Intensive pronouns—reflexive pronouns used to add emphasis
- Possessive pronouns—pronouns like mine, yours, or theirs used to show ownership in the noun form
- Interrogative pronouns—pronouns like what, when, and why used in questions when the antecedent is unknown
- Distributive pronouns—pronouns like each, any, or none used to separate individual antecedents from larger groups or categories
- Reciprocal pronouns—two pronoun phrases, each other and one another, used to show a mutual relationship
Modifiers are words that describe other words, like adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases. Each type of modifier has its own rules for usage—for example, we typically put adjectives in front of the nouns they describe, whereas adverbs often come after the verbs they describe.
In general, it’s best to place a modifier next to the word it describes. Otherwise you might create a misplaced modifier, where the modifier accidentally describes the wrong word.
“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know.” —Groucho Marx
Another common mistake with modifiers is known as the dangling modifier, which is when the modifier describes a word that isn’t in the sentence. Both dangling modifiers and misplaced modifiers can be fixed by revising the sentence so that the modifier is next to the correct word.
Verb tenses and forms
Verbs can be one of the trickiest parts of test grammar because there’s a lot of variation. Every time you use a verb in a sentence, you have to make sure it has the right form, tense, and agreement with the subject (discussed in the next section).
When used as an action, verbs generally have five different verb forms:
1 Root—the standard form of the verb without conjugation; the same as the infinitive form without “to”
2 Third-person singular—verbs with singular subjects use a slightly different form of the verb in the present tense if the subject is also third person; usually you add an –s or –es to the end
3 Past tense—used for actions that have already happened; usually you add –ed or –d to the end
4 Present participle—the root form with –ing at the end, used for the continuous tenses
5 Past participle—used for the perfect tenses; usually the same as the past tense but not always
Although these five forms usually follow the same rules and guidelines, you still have to be careful about irregular verbs that use unique forms, especially for the past tense and participles. Some of the most common verbs in English are irregular, including the most-used verb, be.
Unfortunately, there is no formula for irregular verbs, so you just have to learn each of their forms individually. You can see a complete list in our guide on irregular verbs.
Additionally, verbs can be used as nouns in the form of infinitives (to live) and gerunds (living). Each of these has their own particular rules, so feel free to check out the guides for more information.
Typically, verb tenses are separated by when they occur: the past, present, or future. However, verb tenses can get more advanced, explaining ongoing actions or completed past actions that still affect the present. These advanced tenses often use auxiliary verbs like be or have.
- Simple tense—normal actions in the past, present, or future
- Perfect tense [have/has/had + past participle]—past actions that either are still going or otherwise impact the present
- Continuous tense [be + present participle]—ongoing, continuing, or extended actions
- Perfect continuous [have/has/had + be + present participle]—an ongoing action started in the past and still happening later
|I helped my neighbor yesterday.
|I help my neighbor every day.
|I will help my neighbor tomorrow.
|I had helped my neighbor clean his attic before I fixed his car.
|I have helped my neighbor too much this week.
|I will have helped my neighbor a hundred times by the end of the month.
|I was helping my neighbor when he brought me iced tea.
|I am helping my neighbor while he fixes up his house.
|I will be helping my neighbor next month when he moves.
|I had been helping my neighbor for a year before he finally thanked me.
|I have been helping my neighbor since I moved in.
|I will have been helping my neighbor for a year next month.
Stative vs. dynamic verbs
When discussing verb tenses, it’s important to know the difference between stative and dynamic verbs. While dynamic verbs describe regular actions, stative verbs describe the subject’s state of being or feelings, such as what they like or don’t like.
The important part is that stative verbs cannot be used in any of the continuous tenses. Stative verbs are naturally ongoing, so it’s redundant to use them with the continuous tenses, including the perfect continuous. Here’s a list of the most common stative verbs:
Be careful because some verbs can be either stative or dynamic, depending on how they’re used. These include the perception verbs: see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. If they are used to describe a general state, they are stative; if they describe a specific incident, they are dynamic.
Aside from using the correct tense, you also have to pay attention to subject-verb agreement. This grammar rule requires that the verb matches the subject in number and person.
With a subject that’s third-person singular like she, we add an -s to the end of the verb walk. In particular, the third-person singular uses a different conjugation than other subjects. Most verbs add –s, –es, or –ies to the end of the verb in the third-person singular. You can read all the rules in detail in our guide on subject-verb agreement.
Be extra careful with irregular verbs, which sometimes have unique forms. For example, the verb have changes to has in the third-person singular.
The verb be has the most irregularities, including the first-person singular am. It’s best to memorize each form to avoid confusion.
Parallelism in grammar means that whenever you have two or more phrases, clauses, or words in a series, they should use the same grammatical structure in the same sentence.
Incorrect: For dinner we like lamb chops and to fry brussels sprouts.
Correct: For dinner we like lamb chops and brussels sprouts.
Correct: For dinner we like to grill lamb chops and fry brussels sprouts.
In the first example, the sentence is confusing and awkward because it mixes nouns and verbs in the same sequence. You need to choose one or the other and be consistent. The next example correctly uses two nouns (we like lamb chops and brussel sprouts), and the last example correctly uses two verbs (we like to grill . . . and fry . . .).
Parallelism applies to many different aspects of grammar. Some of the most common parallelism mistakes involve:
- Nouns and verbs, like the example above
- Verb forms, like gerunds and infinitives
- Noun forms, like singular and plural nouns
- Word class, like adverbs and prepositional phrases
Common grammar mistakes
In addition to the principles above, test grammar often focuses on common grammar mistakes and the most frequent English errors. You can learn more about them in our article about the thirty grammar mistakes writers should avoid, along with their proper solutions. Like this article, our guide on common grammar mistakes also links to more detailed explanations, if you want to learn more advanced rules.
Additionally, academic tests like to ask questions about homophones, words that sound the same but have different meanings and sometimes different spellings. Homophones make up a few of the most common grammar mistakes, such as their/there/they’re and your/you’re, so make sure you review which words mean what.
Test grammar FAQs
What are the most important topics for grammar test preparation?
Most test administrators don’t like to disclose what’s on the test beforehand to ensure the test accurately assesses your skill level. However, some of the most common topics for test grammar include the parts of speech in grammar, sentence structure and syntax, verb tenses and forms, and punctuation and capitalization rules.
What are the best methods for improving grammar skills?
Improving grammar skills begins with understanding the rules and restrictions. Review the fundamentals and pay extra attention to the areas you have difficulty with. After that, practice good grammar by writing—this includes personal writing, such as journals, essays, or creative writing.
What are common grammar mistakes?
Test grammar often covers some of the most common mistakes people make. Aside from the grammar basics, make sure you know how to avoid frequent errors like run-on sentences or misplaced/dangling modifiers. Also be careful with problematic areas like subject-verb agreement, parallelism, and homophones.