It is a cliché: learn the rules before breaking them. Unfortunately, many writers lack basic knowledge of grammar. American schools stopped asking students to diagram sentences many years ago. Possibly worse, American English dictionaries and grammar guides increasingly accept non-standard word usages. Although far from comprehensive, this writers’ guide to basic grammar might prove useful.
Parts of Speech
A noun is a person, place, thing, collection, quality, condition, or idea. Many modern texts abbreviate this definition as person, place, thing, or idea. A proper noun is a name of a particular person or thing and is capitalized. Other nouns are referred to as common nouns. Titles of books or other creative materials are proper nouns. [More Detail]
A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a preceding noun or an understood subject. Pronouns often are used to avoid repeating a noun within a sentence or paragraph. The noun that appears within a passage before the pronoun is called the pronoun’s antecedent. [More Detail]
|Subject||Object (Nominative)||Possessive Adjective||Possessive|
Most verbs make a statement, ask a question, or give a command. Conjugations of the verb “to be” express a state of being. Verbs are a complex part of speech because they convey the purpose of a sentence. [More Detail]
The tense of a verb describes an action's relationship to time. Present tense verbs usually end in -ing. Past tense verbs often end in -ed, d, or t. We have compiled a list of common irregular verbs.
Verbals: Participles, Gerunds, and Infinitives
There are three special forms of verbs: participles, gerunds, and infinitives. A participle is a verb used as an adjective. Participles are doubles. Verbs ending in -ing act as nouns and are known as gerunds. The infinitive of a verb is the word to followed by the first person present tense form of the verb. Note: to be is an exception to this rule.
Conjugations of “To Be”
|Present Tense||Past Tense||Auxiliaries|
|I am||We are||I was||We were||is||have||may|
|You are||You are||You were||You were||am||has||might|
|He is||They are||She was||They were||are||had||must|
|Future Tense||Future Perfect||was||do||can|
|I shall be||We shall be||I shall have (been)||We shall have (been)||were||does||could|
|You will be||You will be||You will have (been)||You will have (been)||be||did||shall|
|She will be||They will be||He will have (been)||They will have (been)||being||should|
|Present Perfect||Past Perfect||been||will|
|I have been||We have been||I had been||We had been||would|
|You have been||You have been||You had been||You had been|
|He has been||They have been||He had been||They had been|
A word that describes a noun or pronoun. Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns by answering “which?” “what kind?” or “how many?” Adjectives frequently refer to color, shape, size, origins, or type. [More Detail]
Adjectives have three degrees of comparison: positive, comparative, and superlative. The positive degree is the standard form of the adjective. The comparative compares two nouns and is formed by adding -er to the adjective. A superlative compares one noun to any number of others and is formed by adding -est. Some multi-syllable adjectives require the word more for the comparative form and most for the superlative.
Writers should avoid extra adjectives.
- Omit adjectives if the noun implies the meaning. Example: The frozen snow chilled her to the bone. (Snow is frozen.)
- Reserve emotional adjectives for people. Example: The wicked wind destroyed the house. (Wind cannot be wicked.)
- Replace adjective-noun unions with a single, precise, noun. Example: Preceding the hurricane, the heavy rain flooded streets. (Replace heavy rain with downpour.)
Articles define “which?” noun. The is a definite article referring to one noun. A and an are indefinite articles.
Adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs by answering “when?” “where?” “how?” “how much?” or “how often?” Many adverbs end in -ly, -ward, -long, and -wise. [More Detail]
Adverbs have three degrees of comparison: positive, comparative, and superlative. The positive degree is the standard form of the adjective. The comparative is formed by preceding the adverb with more. A superlative compares one noun’s manner of action to any number of others and is formed by preceding the adverb with most. Some one syllable adverbs behave like adjectives and use -er for the comparative and -est for the superlative.
Prepositions express a relationship of a noun or pronoun to another word or phrase in the sentence. Most often a noun or noun equivalent follows the preposition. A prepositional phrase includes the preposition, its object, and any modifiers. [More Detail]
by means of
by way of
in front/back of
in regard to
in reference to
in spite of
on account of
with respect to
A conjunction connects words or groups of words. [More Detail]
An interjection is a word or group of words that express strong or sudden emotions. [More Detail]
A double is a word that performs the functions of two parts of speech simultaneously. There are six common forms for doubles:
- Possessive nouns act as nouns and adjectives.
- Possessive pronouns act as nouns and adjectives.
- Adverbial nouns act like adverbs and nouns.
- Participles act as verbs and adjectives.
- Gerunds act as verbs and nouns.
- Infinitives act as verbs and nouns; verbs and adjectives; or verbs and adverbs.
Adverbial nouns act as adverbs by indicating distance, time, weight, or value. Adverbial nouns are sometimes called adverbial objectives.
The large cat might weigh twenty pounds.
The noun phrase “twenty pounds” answers the adverbial question “how much?” The word “pounds” is a noun.
Barnet, Sylvan, Pat Bellanca, and Marcia Stubbs. A Short Guide to College Writing. Penguin Academics. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2005. (ISBN: 0321224698)
Christ, Henry I. Modern English in Action, Ten. Boston: D. C. Heath and Co, 1965.
Ellsworth, Blanche and John A. Higgens. English Simplified. 10th ed. New York: Pearson Education, 2004. (ISBN: 0321104293)
Mulvey, Dan. Grammar the Easy Way. Hauppauge, N.Y: Barron’s, 2002. (ISBN: 0764119893)
Scholastic Writer’s Desk Reference. New York: Scholastic, 2000. (ISBN: 0439216508)
Shertzer, Margaret. The Elements of Grammar. New York: MacMillian Publishing, 1986. (ISBN: 0020154402)