Does the thought of learning English grammar cause your eyes to glaze over? If so, it’s hard to blame you. Grammar is typically understood to be a set of rules governing a language; its parts of speech, varying voices and tenses, and different articles, among others–not the most exciting topic in the world, is it? For the most part, it’s intuitive, especially if English is your first language. However, if you were asked to tell the difference between demonstrative pronouns and interrogative pronouns, could you do it?
English grammar can seem dry and complex, but with a little guidance, it can be easy to digest. Grammar is absolutely essential if you’re thinking of breaking into writing, and it’s good to know for other reasons, too. Besides making you look positively studious and giving you excellent communication skills, knowing basic grammar rules–Grammar 101, if you will–can help you learn other languages, too, since you’ll already be familiar with the way that language changes.
The 8 (and sometimes 9) Parts of Speech
For our purposes, grammar 101 will explore the 8 (and sometimes 9–we’ll go over that in a while) parts of speech, or lexical categories, if you’re feeling especially academic. Now, in English, you can break these categories down even further, but given this is Grammar 101, we’re going to stick to the very basics.
A noun is the largest lexical class, and it’s usually the first thing children learn. Why? Nouns are basic: they describe a person, place, or thing. Let’s look at a few sentences–note that all of the nouns in the sentences have been bolded:
The duck swims on the placid pond.
Mandarin Ducks mate for life.
My mother always told me, “a stitch in time saves nine.”
Some basic rules of thumb to remember with nouns is that these are the words that can be pluralized (duck, ducks), made possessive (that man’s sister), and changed with a prefix or suffix like -age or -hood in order to change it to a new verb (sister/sisterhood, sign/signage). While this doesn’t apply to all nouns, it’s a great place to start. Also remember that proper nouns, a subclass of nouns, are always capitalized. For instance: New York, Mrs. Smith, University of Texas.
Pronouns constitute a rather small lexical class, but they can also be the most confusing. That’s because as a pronoun can take so many forms. They exist in the first, second, and third person, and are further classified into nominative, oblique, reflexive, possessive determiners, and possessive pronouns. If you can believe it, they can be broken down even further than that. But for the purposes of keeping grammar 101 simple, let’s stick to those essential categories, written in the same order as above.
- First Person:
- Second Person (singular and plural):
- you/y’all/you all
- you/ya’ll/you all
- Third Person:
- First Person Plural:
- Third Person Plural:
Determiners are another relatively small lexical class, consisting mainly of articles and a few demonstrative and interrogative words. In other languages, articles may be gendered. For instance: in French the article la precedes a feminine noun, and le precedes a masculine one. In English, because nouns are not gendered, the most common determiner used in English grammar is the word “the”. Let’s look at a few of the ways determiners are used. In these sentences, the determiner will again be bolded for clarity:
- Basic Determiner: Mike ate an apple.
- Quantifying Determiner: Mike ate many apples.
- Possessive Determiner: Mike’s apple was delicious.
You can see that determiners are necessary because it simply does not make sense to say “Mike ate apple”, right? There are some other instances where either pronouns or numerals can serve as determiners as well, for instance:
- Pronoun Determiner: His apples were not ripe.
- Numeral Determiner: Four apples were rotten.
Of course, like most rules in English grammar, the determiner rule can be broken. However, there aren’t many situations where this acceptable, and generally only applies if you are referring to a large group or class of things. In that instance, you would say something like, “Unicorns don’t exist.”
In Grammar 101, the adjective is the part of speech that gives a sentence the flair it needs, and they are absolutely essential to great creative writing. These are descriptive words, and modify a word–usually by being placed in front of it–by describing, identifying, or quantifying it. Here are a few common examples:
The sky turned dark and ominous.
Gray clouds rolled in, and rain splattered the window.
Sarah put her polka-dotted rain boots on.
You can see how adjectives are used in English grammar to add “flavor” to nouns and other words in order to describe them more aptly to the reader or listener.
Next to nouns, verbs comprise the next largest lexical family and are commonly known as “action words” because they help make an assertion regarding what is being done to the subject in a sentence. We’ll look at some ways that singular verbs are used below, and then we will take a look at some compound verbs in action.
Lily ran to the store to buy some apples.
The dog snarled at the burglar.
These verbs are singular, in that they require no additional word to describe the action taking place in the sentence. Compound verbs are made up of a singular verb and an auxiliary verb to help determine the tense of an action. Auxiliary verbs are commonly known as “helping verbs” for this very reason. Let’s see how compound verbs look in a sentence. The entire compound verb will be bolded, and the auxiliary verb will be underlined.
Lily will run to the store to buy some apples.
The dog was snarling at the burglar.
You can see that in the above examples, “will” is used to help determine the future tense of the verb “run”, and that the auxiliary verb “was” modifies “snarl”. It becomes “snarling”, which helps determine that the action took place in the past.
A regular adverb serves one purpose: they modify verbs, adjectives, clauses and phrases. You can think of it as a kind of hybrid between a verb and an adjective. Unlike an adjective, the adverb can be placed anywhere in a sentence. Adverbs typically (but not always) end with the suffix “-ly” and can answer the questions “where, when, how, and how much?” Let’s take a look:
Blake sharpened his pencil as quietly as possible.
The child swings her legs impatiently.
Fortunately, we will have enough pizza for everyone.
In the above sentences, we see how the adverb works as a modifier. In the first, “quietly” modifies the verb “sharpened.” in the second, “impatiently” modifies the verb “swings”, and in the last sentence, “Fortunately” modifies the entire phrase. You can also see from these examples how an adverb can be placed anywhere in a sentence, and how it does not change even as the tense changes.
Of course, there are a few “unofficial” grammar rules regarding the use of adverbs. For instance, some consider it bad form to end a sentence with an adverb. There are also multiple instances in which an adverb can also serve as a conjunction, a speech part that we’ll explore in a moment. Beyond grammar 101, a more in-depth look at advanced grammar rules and nuances can help you to understand some of these adverb exceptions.
Prepositions are linking words; they introduce the object of the preposition in a word or phrase. They also address the spatial or temporal location of the words that they introduce, in other words, where an object exists in space or time. Like pronouns, they are a closed class of lexical elements:
Sarah looked everywhere for her book and found it under the couch.
Marc checked his text messages during his lunch break.
Stefan was well known throughout the academic community; he was lauded for his grammar prowess.
In these examples, you can see how prepositional phrases and stand alone prepositions link words together in the sentence, and how they can be used to introduce an object.
Conjunctions are like super-prepositions. Instead of linking just words, they can link entire phrases, clauses, or sentences. They also fall into three main categories; coordinating, subordinating, and correlative conjunctions. Let’s take a moment to look at all three categories:
- Coordinating Conjunctions: These types of conjunctions are used to link two independent clauses. In other words, if you remove the conjunction, the two clauses that it links can stand on their own as complete sentences.
- Sheena took the train, and Anna bought a plane ticket.
- Van Gogh was a brilliant artist, but he suffered from clinical depression.
- Subordinating Conjunctions: Subordinating conjunctions are used to link an independent clause to a clause that can not stand on its own. These are called dependant clauses because they require an independent clause in order to make sense in the context of the sentence.
- If the plumber comes on Friday, you can finally take a shower.
- We checked beneath the couch cushions, where loose change often falls.
- Correlative Conjunctions: You will recognize correlative conjunctions as a set of two words that are rarely used independently of one another. They serve to illustrate cause and effect or to make a general correlation between two clauses:
- Either she will take the trash out, or the kitchen will start to stink.
- If her mother gives permission, then Jane will stay out late.
Whew! We’re this close to wrapping up grammar 101, which will hopefully leave you with a better understanding of how the 8 parts of speech are broken down. As promised, we’ll touch very briefly on the 9th part of speech. Some argue that because this final category is almost always used independently, it doesn’t really count as a proper lexical family. We decided to include it anyway because it’s the simplest part of speech to understand. Why not end grammar 101 on an easy-peasy lesson?
Interjections are the little pieces of language that add emotion to speech or writing. They usually end with an exclamation point, leaving them grammatically unrelated to the rest of the sentence, or they can be incorporated into a larger sentence, usually at the beginning or end of a phrase.
“Ouch!” Tamara cried.
Oh no, is that bill due today?
So you’re going to go through with it, eh?
See? Easy and arguably the most fun lexical categories.
So now what will you do with your newfound grammatical wizardry? We hope you’ll use it for good; perhaps you’ll have the confidence you need to finally self-publish that book you’ve been slaving over for years on a platform like the Kindle. With all of these new grammar 101 tools under your belt, editing your own work should be a breeze!