English Grammar, an Introduction
Grammar is the framework upon which all our communication is built. Most native speakers of a language tend to have an intuitive grasp of their own grammar due to sheer frequency of use, but far fewer people will have a more rigorous understanding of their language. Being able to look objectively at your own grammar can help to make your speaking or writing clearer and easier to understand, as well as being more professional for applications such as CV writing. Whether you are a native speaker looking to polish up your grammar, or a later learner aiming to gain stronger familiarity, read on to learn more about the common ground rules of formal English grammar.
Basics of English Grammar Rules
There are a few rules that can be applied anywhere in English that are extremely helpful in analysing grammar.
Sentences are the most common type of grammatical unit found in writing. They generally consist of a series of words that are linked to create a larger meaning, but sentences may also consist of just one word. Sentences are used to express anything from a statement, a question, a request, an instruction, or an exclamation.
Sentences typically contain at least one verb. Verbs describe actions The popular example:
“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”
contains one verb, ‘jumped’. Therefore, a typical sentence describes actions of people, animals or objects.
However, contrary to popular belief, a sentence may not always contain a verb – for example:
“San Francisco. The famous city with the Golden Gate Bridge. “
may be read as two sentences and still be valid due to context and the presence of a full-stop. This is more often found in less formal situations.
The thing performing the action of the verb is known as the subject. In the ‘quick brown fox’ example, the fox and the lazy dog are the subjects. The words ‘fox’ and ‘dog’ are nouns. They are a label for a specific type of thing. A noun can be anything, from a person to a machine, to an abstract concept or idea.
“Plato loved philosophy.”
contains ‘Plato’, a person, and ‘philosophy’, an abstract thing, as nouns. ‘Loved’ denotes the action.
Pronouns are an alternative form of noun with less specific meaning. They substitute for a noun and imply its meaning, without making the writer repeat the noun.
“He went to the bank.”
describes the person doing the action simply as ‘he’.
Subject and Object
Since most sentences describe a real or abstract action, there is generally a thing performing the action, and something upon which the action is performed. The performer is the object, and anything named in the sentence that is affected by the action is the subject. Note that a subject does not always have to be present; for example:
“I read for hours.”
contains only the subject ‘I’. The object being read is implied.
What is an Adjective?
If nouns describe objects, people and other things, then adjectives describe some quality of that thing. In the ‘quick brown fox’ sentence example, the word ‘quick’ is the adjective. It tells us that the fox is not just a fox, but is a particularly fast, speedy, nimble or just generally quick fox.
The lazy dog in the second part of the sentence contains the adjective ‘lazy’, which again tells us something of the character of the dog. In short, an adjective is used in conjunction with a noun in order to reveal more information about the object of the noun.
Verbs convey specific actions. They can be used in a wide variety of ways and are modified to describe when they took place, to whom, and other modifiers depending on the context. In English there is usually no such thing as a masculine and feminine version of a verb – we just use the same word for both sexes (though of course there may be verbs more strongly associated with male or female actions). This is similar situation with nouns, which for everyday objects tend to lack gender.
Verbs are inflected to denote a wider variety of meanings. This can range from tense (past, present or future and derivatives), voice, and also mood.
This is the ‘basic’ form of a verb, as you might see it in a dictionary. The most famous may be ‘to be’. It is almost like a name for a verb, that describes an action in and of itself.
“To eat”, for example, can be used by itself. It could be the answer to the question “what does your dog like to do?”, in which case the subject is implied to be the dog and does not necessarily need to be reiterated.
Infinitives may also be put into ‘infinitive constructions’, which is the English equivalent to marking for tense, voice and other modifiers. Here are some examples for the infinitive ‘to climb’:
- To climb
- To be climbing
- To have been climbing
- To have climbed
Explain Phrasal Verbs
These are a special class of verbs that work not as single words but as phrases. They are stock phrases that have been defined by common usage, and are often somewhat more conversational in tone. Since they are made up of two or more words, there are many possibilities for phrasal verbs, and it would not be possible to make a comprehensive list in an article. However, you can learn to recognise them easily enough. They typically consist of a verb plus an adverb (a word to describe a verb – see the next section), or sometimes a verb plus a preposition. To understand the latter type, look at this example:
“Your shopping adds up to three pounds.”
The phrase ‘adds up to’ contains the verb ‘add’ and the preposition ‘up to’, creating a meaning that is equivalent to the word ‘equal’.
“Break into” (illegally enter), “blow up” (explode), “back up” (reverse e.g. a car) are all other examples of phrasal verbs that may not have an immediately obvious literal meaning to non native speakers. Though they add a layer of complication to language, they often function in spoken and written English to reduce the level of formality.
How to Use Linking Verbs
These are defined by context. “I read the book” uses ‘read’ in a linking fashion. You could not insert an adverb after it, or change the sentence so that ‘read’ was at the end. It has to go between the subject and the object of the sentence.
Examples of Imperative Verbs
Imperatives are used to explicitly instruct a person or animal to perform an action. They can be seen as direct commands. For example:
“Go clean the room.”
or even just ‘Go!’ commands the person being addressed to go somewhere and do something. The context gives verbs the imperative property – the subject of the sentence is omitted, as they are being directly addressed by the sentence anyway.
A Guide to Adverbs
An adverb is the verbal equivalent to an adjective. Rather than describing a thing, it adds information about the manner in which an action is carried out. In this example:
“The fox jumped quickly over the dog”
the word ‘quickly’ becomes the adverb, as it relates directly to the verb ‘jumped’ in order to tell us howthe fox jumped. ‘The dog slept lazily’ provides another example, with the word ‘lazily’ giving extra colour to the idea of a dog sleeping. Adverbs are therefore powerful descriptive tools and are used with great frequency in all kinds of English.
These are used to show some kind of situational information about an object.
“The book is on the floor”
contains the word ‘on’ as a preposition. It links the book with the floor by telling us where the book is in relation to the floor. In this way, prepositions indicate the relationships between multiple objects or environments.
They can be used to inform us about time relations. “On time” or “ahead of time” both contain prepositions that fixate an event or person in time.
10 tips for Tenses
The past tense is used to talk about any event or thing that has existed or taken place in the past. There are four ways to use the past tense:
- Past simple e.g. ‘I went’
- Past continuous; ‘I was going’
- Past perfect; ‘I had gone’
- Past perfect continuous; ‘I had been going’
The present and future tenses describe objects and events in the present and future.
- Present simple; ‘I speak’
- Present perfect progressive ‘I have been speaking’
- Present perfect simple ‘I have spoken’
- Future simple; ‘He is going to finish’
- Future progressive; ‘He will be finishing’
- Future simple 2; ‘He will have finished’
As you can see, the verbs are modified according to the context (conjugated), and each tense has a specific preposition. The prepositions are very useful to recognise these tenses, so try to learn them.