Basic Grammar


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

The basic parts of speech are noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, interjection, and various “doubles.”

Noun (n.)

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]

Pronoun (pr.)

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
I me my mine
we us our ours
you you your yours
he him his his
she her hers hers
it it its its
they them their theirs
who whom whose whose

Verb (v.)

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        

Adjective (adj.)

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.

Adjective Suffixes

able/ible
al
an
ant
ary
ed
en
ent
ern
esque
ful
ic
ile
ish
ive
less
ose
ous
some
y

Writers should avoid extra adjectives.

  1. Omit adjectives if the noun implies the meaning. Example: The frozen snow chilled her to the bone. (Snow is frozen.)
  2. Reserve emotional adjectives for people. Example: The wicked wind destroyed the house. (Wind cannot be wicked.)
  3. Replace adjective-noun unions with a single, precise, noun. Example: Preceding the hurricane, the heavy rain flooded streets. (Replace heavy rain with downpour.)

Articles

Articles define “which?” noun. The is a definite article referring to one noun. A and an are indefinite articles.

Adverb (adv.)

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.

Preposition (prep.)

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]

Common Prepositions

about
above
across
after
against
along
amid
among
around
at
behind
before
below
beneath
beside
besides
between
beyond
but
by
despite
down
during
except
for
from
in
inside
into
like
near
of
off
on
onto
opposite
out
outside
over
past
since
through
till
to
toward
under
underneath
until
up
upon
with
within
without

Compound Prepositions

according to
ahead of
apart from
because of
by means of
by way of
in front/back of
in regard to
in reference to
in spite of
instead of
on account of
out of
up to
with respect to

Conjunction (conj.)

A conjunction connects words or groups of words. [More Detail]

Common Conjunctions

and
after
although
as
as if
as though
because
before
but
but that
if
lest
nor
or
provided that
since
so that
than
that
though
till
unless
until
when
whence
whenever
where
wherever
whether
while

Interjection (i.)

An interjection is a word or group of words that express strong or sudden emotions. [More Detail]

Doubles (part/part)

A double is a word that performs the functions of two parts of speech simultaneously. There are six common forms for doubles:

  1. Possessive nouns act as nouns and adjectives.
  2. Possessive pronouns act as nouns and adjectives.
  3. Adverbial nouns act like adverbs and nouns.
  4. Participles act as verbs and adjectives.
  5. Gerunds act as verbs and nouns.
  6. Infinitives act as verbs and nouns; verbs and adjectives; or verbs and adverbs.

Adverbial Nouns

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.


Sources

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)

Hacker, Diana. The Bedford Handbook. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford, 1998. (ISBN: 0312247567)

Hacker, Diana. Pocket Style Manual. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford, 2004. (ISBN: 0312406843)

Meyers, Alan. Writing With Confidence: Writing Effective Sentences and Paragraphs. 6th ed. New York: Longman, 2000. (ISBN: 0321038010, 0321044460)

Mulvey, Dan. Grammar the Easy Way. Hauppauge, N.Y: Barron’s, 2002. (ISBN: 0764119893)

Ramage, John D., John C. Bean, and June Johnson. The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing. 4th ed., brief. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006. (ISBN: 0321291514)

Rozakis, Laurie E. Grammar and Style. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to. New York: Simon & Schuster, Alpha Books, 1997. (ISBN: 0028619560)

Scholastic Writer’s Desk Reference. New York: Scholastic, 2000. (ISBN: 0439216508)

Shertzer, Margaret. The Elements of Grammar. New York: MacMillian Publishing, 1986. (ISBN: 0020154402)

Strunk, William and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 3rd ed. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1959. Reprint 1979. (ISBN: 0024182001)



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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 30-Nov-2013
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach