English Grammar 101: All You Need to Know
Just ask a friend what is the role of prepositions within sentences, or what are the four moods of verbs, and I am sure that you will see a puzzled look on his face.
Understanding the basic grammar rules is essential for communicating efficiently, but most of us have forgotten those concepts years ago.
In order to solve this problem we decided to put together all the basic rules on a single page, so that you can use it as a refresher, or print it out for future reference. Enjoy!
Sentences are made of two parts: the subject and the predicate.
The subject is the person or thing that acts or is described in the sentence. The predicate, on the other hand, is that action or description.
Complete sentences need both the subject and the predicate.
Sentences can be broken down into clauses.
For example: The boy is going to the school, and he is going to eat there.
This is a complete sentence composed of two clauses. There are mainly two types of clauses: independent clauses and subordinate clauses.
Independent clauses act as complete sentences, while subordinate clauses cannot stand alone and need another clause to complete their meaning. For example:
Independent clause example: The boy went to the school.
Subordinate clause example: After the boy went to the school…
A group of two or more grammatically linked words that do not have subject and predicate is a phrase.
Example of a complete sentence: The girl is at home, and tomorrow she is going to the amusement park.
Example of a clause: The girl is at home
Example of a phrase: The girl
You can see that “the girl” is a phrase located in the first clause of the complete sentence above.
Phrases act like parts of speech inside clauses. That is, they can act as nouns, adjectives, adverbs and so on.
Parts of Speech
A word is a “part of speech” only when it is used in a sentence. The function the word serves in a sentence is what makes it whatever part of speech it is.
For example, the word “run” can be used as more than one part of speech:.
Sammy hit a home run.
Run is a noun, direct object of hit.
You mustn’t run near the swimming pool.
Run is a verb, part of the verb phrase must (not) run.
Traditional grammar classifies words based on eight parts of speech: the noun, the pronoun, the adjective, the verb, the adverb, the preposition, the conjunction, and the interjection. We are going to cover them individually below.
A noun is a word used to describe a person, place, thing, event, idea, and so on. Nouns represent one of the main elements of sentences, along with verbs, adjectives, prepositions and articles.
Nouns usually function as subjects or objects within sentences, although they can also act as adjectives and adverbs.
Here is a list with the different types of nouns:
1. Proper nouns
Used to describe a unique person or thing, proper nouns always start with a capital letter. Examples include Mary, India, and Manchester United.
2. Common nouns
Common nouns are used to describe persons or things in general. Examples include girl, country, and team
3. Concrete nouns
Nouns that can be perceived through the five senses are called concrete nouns. Examples include ball, rainbow and melody.
4. Abstract nouns
Nouns that cannot be perceived through the five senses are called abstract nouns. Examples include love, courage, and childhood.
5. Countable nouns
Countable nouns can be counted. They also have both a singular and a plural form. Examples include toys, children and books.
6. Non-countable nouns
These nouns (usually) can not be counted, and they don’t have a plural form. Examples include sympathy, laughter and oxygen.
7. Collective nouns
Collective nouns are used to describe groups of things. Examples include flock, committee and murder.
Plural Form of Nouns
The English language has both regular and irregular plural forms of nouns. The most common case is when you need to add -s to the noun. For example one car and two cars.
The other two cases of the regular plural form are:
- nouns that end with s, x, ch or sh, where you add -es (e.g., one box, two boxes)
- nouns that end with consonant + y, where you change the y with i and add -es (e.g., one enemy, two enemies)
On the irregular plural form of nouns there are basically eight cases:
- nouns that end with -o, where you add -es (e.g., one potato, two potatoes)
- nouns ending with -is, where you change -is to -es (e.g., one crisis, two crises)
- nouns ending with -f, where you change –f to -v and add -es (e.g., one wolf, two wolves)
- nouns ending with -fe, where you change -f to -v and add -s (e.g., one life, two lives)
- nouns ending with -us, where you change -us to -i (e.g., one fungus, two fungi)
- nouns that contain -oo, change -oo to -ee (e.g., one foot, two feet)
- nouns that end with -on, where you change -on with -a (e.g., phenomenon, phenomena)
- nouns that don’t change (e.g., sheep, offspring, series)
It might appear overwhelming, but after using these nouns a couple of times you will be able to memorize their plural form easily.
Pronouns are used to replace nouns within sentences, making them less repetitive and mechanic. For example, saying “Mary didn’t go to school because Mary was sick” doesn’t sound very good. Instead, if you say “Mary didn’t go to school because she was sick” it will make the sentence flow better.
There are several types of pronouns, below you will find the most common ones:
1. Subjective personal pronouns. As the name implies, subjective pronouns act as subjects within sentences. They are: I, you, he, she, we, they, and it.
Example: I am going to the bank while he is going to the market.
2. Objective personal pronouns. These pronouns act as the object of verbs within sentences. They are: me, you, him, her, us, them and it.
Example: The ball was going to hit me in the face.
3. Possessive personal pronouns. These pronouns are used to indicate possession, and they are placed after the object in question (as opposed to possessive adjectives like my and your, which are placed before the object). They are: mine, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs and its.
Example of possessive adjective: This is my car.
Example of possessive pronoun: This car is mine.
4. Reflexive pronouns. This special class of pronouns is used when the object is the same as the subject on the sentence. They are myself, yourself, himself, herself, ourselves, themselves and itself.
Example: I managed to cut myself in the kitchen.
5. Interrogative pronouns. As you probably guessed these pronouns are used to ask questions. They are what, which, who, whom and whose.
Example: What are the odds?
6. Demonstrative pronouns. These pronouns are used to indicate a noun and distinguish it from other entities. Notice that demonstrative pronouns replace the noun (while demonstrative determiners modify them). They are: this, that, these, those.
Example of a demonstrative determiner: This house is ugly.
Example of a demonstrative pronoun: This is the right one.
7. Indefinite pronouns. As the name implies, indefinite pronouns do not refer to a specific thing, place or person. There are many of them, including anyone, anywhere, everyone, none, someone and so on.
Example: Everyone is going to the party.
An adjective is a word that describes a noun. There are two kinds: attributive and predicative.
An adjective is used attributively when it stands next to a noun and describes it.
For example: The black cat climbed a tree.
Notice that the verb participle forms can be used as adjectives:
The man felt a paralyzing fear.
Flavored oatmeal tastes better than plain oatmeal.
The usual place of the adjective in English is in front of the noun. You can have a whole string of adjectives if you like: The tall thin evil-looking cowboy roped the short, fat, inoffensive calf.
Sometimes, for rhetorical or poetic effect, the adjective can come after the noun:
Sarah Plain and Tall (book title)
This is the forest primeval.
An adjective is used predicatively when a verb separates it from the noun or pronoun it describes:
The umpire was wrong.
The crowd was furious.
She seems tired today.
This soup tastes bad.
The dog’s coat feels smooth.
The verbs that can be completed by predicate adjectives are called being verbs or copulative verbs. They include all the forms of to be and sensing verbs like seem, feel, and taste.
- qualitative: good, bad, happy, blue, French
- possessive: my, thy, his, her, its, our, your, their
- relative and interrogative: which, what, whatever, etc.
- numeral: one, two, second, single, etc.
- indefinite: some, any, much, few, every, etc.
- demonstrative: this, that, the, a (an), such
The demonstrative adjectives the and a (an) are so important in English that they have a special name: articles. They are discussed separately below.
The words a, an, and the are generally called articles and sometimes classed as a separate part of speech. In function, however, they can be grouped with the demonstrative adjectives that are used to point things out rather than describe them.
The is called the definite article because it points out a particular object or class.
This is the book I was talking about.
The dodo bird is extinct.
A is called the indefinite article because it points out an object, but not any particular specimen.
a book, a dog, a lawn mower
The indefinite article has two forms:
A is used before words beginning with a consonant sound or an aspirated h:
a car, a lamb, a hope, a habit, a hotel
An is used before words beginning with a vowel sound:
an ape, an image, an untruth, an honorable man
English has three kinds of Verbs: transitive, intransitive, and incomplete.
1. Transitive Verbs
A verb is transitive when the action is carried across to a receiver:
The farmer grows potatoes. Elvis sang ballads.
The receiver is called the direct object. It answers the question “What?” or “Whom? after the verb. Grows what? Potatoes. Sang what? Ballads.
2. Intransitive Verbs
A verb is intransitive when the action stays with the verb. It is not carried across to a receiver:
Corn grows. Elvis sang.
Adding a prepositional phrase to modify the verb does not change the fact that the action remains with the subject:
Corn grows in the fields. Elvis sang all over the world.
Both transitive and intransitive verbs are action verbs.
3. Incomplete Verbs
There are three types of incomplete verbs:
i. being verbs – also called linking or copulative verbs
to be, seem, become, taste, smell, sound, feel
Tip: Some of these verbs can also be used transitively. If in doubt, substitute a form of to be for the verb. If the sentence still makes sense, the verb is being used as a copulative verb:
He feels depressed. He is depressed.
He feels the wall. He is the wall.
ii. auxiliary verbs – also called helping verbs
be, have, shall, will, do, and may.
He could have gone earlier.
iii. semi-auxiliary verbs
must, can, ought, dare, need.
You must not go. You dare not go.
English verbs are said to have two voices: active and passive.
Active Voice: the subject of the sentence performs the action:
His son catches fly balls. Creative children often dream in class.
Note: Verbs in the active voice may be either transitive or intransitive.
Passive Voice: the subject receives the action:
The ball was caught by the first baseman.
The duty is performed by the new recruits.
The dough was beaten by the mixer.
The mailman was bitten by the dog.
Only transitive verbs can be used in the passive voice. What would be the direct object of the verb in the active voice becomes the subject of the verb in the passive voice:
Active voice: The dog bit the mailman. “bit” is a transitive verb. The receiver/direct object is “mailman.”
Passive voice: The mailman was bitten by the dog. “bit” is now in the passive voice. The “receiver” has become the subject of the verb.
A passive verb in either present or past tense will always have two parts: some form of the verb to be (am, is, are, was, were), and a past participle (verb form ending in -ed, -en, or any form used with have when forming a perfect tense).
Note: The mere presence of the verb to be does not indicate that a verb is in the passive voice. The test of a verb in the passive voice is the two-part question:
Is the subject performing the action of the verb or is the subject receiving the action of the verb?
If the subject is receiving the action, then the verb is in passive voice.
Sometimes the passive voice is the best way to express a thought. Used carelessly, however, passive voice can produce a ponderous, inexact writing style.
English verbs have four moods: indicative, imperative, subjunctive, and infinitive.
Mood is the form of the verb that shows the mode or manner in which a thought is expressed.
1. Indicative Mood: expresses an assertion, denial, or question:
Little Rock is the capital of Arkansas.
Ostriches cannot fly.
Have you finished your homework?
2. Imperative Mood: expresses command, prohibition, entreaty, or advice:
Don’t smoke in this building.
Don’t drown that puppy!
3. Subjunctive Mood: expresses doubt or something contrary to fact.
Modern English speakers use indicative mood most of the time, resorting to a kind of “mixed subjunctive” that makes use of helping verbs:
If I should see him, I will tell him.
Americans are more likely to say:
If I see him, I will tell him.
The verb may can be used to express a wish:
May you have many more birthdays.
May you live long and prosper.
The verb were can also indicate the use of the subjunctive:
If I were you, I wouldn’t keep driving on those tires.
If he were governor, we’d be in better fiscal shape.
4. Infinitive Mood: expresses an action or state without reference to any subject. It can be the source of sentence fragments when the writer mistakenly thinks the infinitive form is a fully-functioning verb.
When we speak of the English infinitive, we usually mean the basic form of the verb with “to” in front of it: to go, to sing, to walk, to speak.
Verbs said to be in the infinitive mood can include participle forms ending in -ed and -ing. Verbs in the infinitive mood are not being used as verbs, but as other parts of speech:
To err is human; to forgive, divine. Here, to err and to forgive are used as nouns.
He is a man to be admired. Here, to be admired is an adjective, the equivalent of admirable. It describes the noun man.
He came to see you. Here, to see you is used as an adverb to tell why he came.
Modern English has six tenses, each of which has a corresponding continuous tense.
The first three tenses, present, past, and future, present few problems. Only third person singular in the present tense differs in form:
Present tense of regular (weak) verbs:
Today I walk. Today he walks.
Yesterday I walked.
Tomorrow I shall/will walk.
The dwindling class of irregular (strong) verbs must be learned individually.
Today I go. Today he goes.
Yesterday I went.
Tomorrow I shall/will go.
The other three tenses, perfect, pluperfect, and future perfect, are formed with the helping verbs have, has, and had.
perfect: used to express an event that has just finished, and to describe an event which, although in the past, has effects that continue into the present.
Queen Elizabeth has reigned for 56 years.
pluperfect (past perfect): used to express an event that took place before another action, also in the past.
I had driven all the way to Oklahoma when I realized my mistake.
future perfect: used to express an event that will have taken place at some time in the future.
As of February 26, I shall have been in this job six years.
For complete conjugation tables of weak and strong English verbs, see the Wikipedia article.
Adverbs are used to describe or modify a verb, adjective, clause, or another adverb. Basically, they modify everything except nouns and pronouns (which are modified by adjectives).
Example of an adverb modifying a verb: He was running fast. (fast modifies running)
Example of an adverb modifying an adjective: She took a very small piece of the cake. (very modifies small)
Example of an adverb modifying a sentence: Strangely, the man left the room. (strangely modifies the whole sentence)
Usually adverbs answer to the questions “When?” (adverbs of time), “Where?” (adverbs of place), and “How?” (adverbs of manner).
Adverbs can also be used to connect clauses and sentences (in this case they are called conjunctive adverbs).
For example: It was dark. Therefore, we needed the torch. (therefore connects the two sentences)
Prepositions are used to link nouns and pronouns to other words within a sentence. The words linked to are called objects.
Usually prepositions show a spatial or temporal relationship between the noun and the object, like in the example below:
The cat is under the table.
Cat is the noun. Under is the preposition. Table is the object.
Here is a list with the most common prepositions: about, above, after, among, around, along, at, before, behind, beneath, beside, between, by, down, from, in, into, like, near, of, off, on, out, over, through, to, up, upon, under, and with.
Notice that you can also have a prepositional phrase, which is formed by the preposition and its object. A preposition phrase can function as adverb, adjective or noun. For example:
The dog was running under the rain.
The prepositional phrase “under the rain” acts as an adverb, specifying where the dog was running.
A conjunction joins words and groups of words.
There are two classes of conjunction: co-ordinate or coordinating and subordinate or subordinating.
Co-ordinate conjunctions: and, but, either…or, neither…nor.
Subordinate conjunctions: that, as, after, before, since, when, where, unless, if.
Mother and Father are driving me to New Orleans. (and is a coordinate conjunction joining words of equal significance in the sentence.
I painted the walls but Jack painted the woodwork. (but is a coordinate conjunction joining clauses of equal significance in the sentence. Either clause could stand alone as a sentence.)
Since you can’t get away, we’ll go without you.
(Since is a subordinate conjunction joining a less important thought to a more important thought. The main clause, we’ll go without you, can stand alone as a complete thought. The subordinate clause, Since you can’t get away, is an incomplete thought. It is dependent upon the main clause for meaning.)
Note: The relative pronouns who, whom, which, and that are used in the same way that subordinate conjunctions are. The difference is that the relative pronouns serve three purposes at once:
1) they stand for a noun in the main clause
2) they connect the clauses
3) they serve as a subject or object word in the subordinate clause:
He is the man who invented the hula hoop. (who stands for man and is the subject of invented)
Charles is the boy whom the other children tease. (whom stands for boy and is the object of tease)
Give me the piece of string that is waxed. (that stands for string and is the subject of is waxed)
There goes the horse which won the Derby. (which refers to horse and is the subject of won)
The possessive adjective whose can also be used to join clauses:
That’s the bird whose plumage I admire. (whose refers to bird and describes plumage)
Interjection comes from from a Latin word that means “throw between.” It’s a word or phrase that is thrown into a sentence to express an emotion:
Goodness, how you’ve grown!
Darn, I forgot my lunch!
Alas, will he never return?
All the impolite expressions that we call expletives are interjections.
Strictly speaking, an interjection is not a part of speech. It serves no grammatical function but is rather “a noisy utterance like the cry of an animal” (F.J. Rahtz). Interjections express feeling or emotion, not thought and have been called “the miserable refuge of the speechless.”
If you’ve ever stood lunch duty on a high school campus, you know just how vapid conversation can be when larded with meaningless interjections.