Grammar is hardly a topic of conversation for any dinner table or party, yet it is an incredibly necessary tool for any writer. While readers read for the information and ideas a reader conveys, a clearer understanding of the rules of the language they write in will always prove incredibly useful. As a disclaimer, however, it is one thing to understand the laws of English – the grammar – and another to put those rules to excellent and creative use (or to break them where necessary). So following are some of the basic grammatical ideas that many people have trouble with. And do not worry, we will be looking into some of these other technical ideas in great detail in future articles.
So, what are the basics of grammar? The basics are the various building blocks: nouns, adjectives, pronouns, verbs, and adverbs. Nouns name a person, place, thing, or idea. Pronouns replace a noun (words such as I, they, he or she). Adjectives modify a noun or pronoun (the quick man). Verbs are action words, and adverbs can modify verbs, adjectives or adverbs (keep in mind they are not just ‘-ly’ words, but more on that later).
Another basic grammar idea is this: sentences only exist if they can stand on their own. Otherwise they are mere fragments: phrases or dependent clauses. However, few people want to be told something that they are already familiar with and these concepts are generally straightforward. So let us move onto some slightly more complex grammar ideas.
Pluralisation and possession
Often in writing it can be complicated to remember and understand how to use pluralisation, possession or tenses appropriately. A simple rule for pluralisation is to remember is that: simple nouns typically add ‘s’ on the end to make them plural. However if the noun ends in s, ss, sh, ch, x or z you should typically add ‘es’ to make it plural. Although some of these cases may require doubling of the letters in order to create appropriate pluralised words. The biggest problem with pluralisation of course is that there are many exceptions to any rule so this often requires memorisation with regards to the rules, and breaking of the rules.
However, more importantly when it comes to possession, individuals need to understand how pluralisation and possession come together. Most individuals know how to use an apostrophe ‘s’ to mark possession as in ‘Tom’s or Lucy’s’. However what often seems to be ignored is the use of an apostrophe when the word already ends in ‘s’. For example in a name like James. Often writers will put James’s but this feels unnecessary so grammar rules allow for simply writing James’ with the apostrophe to denote possession.
Subject, verb, object
This is the order in which typical sentences are meant to be constructed according to grammatical convention. You begin with a subject – say a person’s name or an activity. You then include a verb to highlight the action being undertaken by this subject. And finally you include an object that this action is being done to. So a typical (and dull in this case) subject, verb, object (SVO) sentence may look like this: Mary (subject) hit (verb) the ball (object). Other languages do not necessarily use this SVO sentence order, and this can lead to the overuse of passive sentences. When the order is moved so that you end up with a OVS sentence your sentence becomes passive: The ball (object) was hit (verb) by Mary (subject). It is important to understand this grammatical convention in order to be able to create more effective and active sentences which directly target the reader.
It is also of note that when describing an activity undertaken with someone else that grammatically it is important to place the other person first. Therefore, Me and Mary went to the beach, should become, Mary and I went to the beach. The pronoun ‘Me’ must change to ‘I’ because of the fact that if Mary was removed from the original sentence, stating Me went to the beach would make no sense.
Conjunctions, Commas and Colons
And finally it is time to discuss three c-words: Conjunctions, Commas and Colons. Colons and semicolons will be discussed in a full Let’s Get Technical article by themselves, however it is important to note that while either can be used to join clauses, only colons can join a single noun clause to another clause. For example ‘His name: Jeremy.’ And on the other hand, semicolons are typically used for separating two clauses that could stand alone such as ‘It was a dark night; Jeremy struggled to find the door.’ A later post will focus on the full uses of these two concepts.
Conjunctions and commas often walk hand in hand. This is especially true when you need to use the Oxford or serial comma. This is a comma that appears before the word ‘and’ and is typically seen as a stylistic choice by many writers. However, the Oxford comma is incredibly useful. Take for example the following situation: ‘I went to the store and bought apples, oranges, bananas and a chicken’. Without the Oxford comma in this example, ‘bananas and a chicken,’ become one item bought together (which is certainly an odd combination). However, include the Oxford comma as follows and you can see that the chicken is a separate item: ‘I went to the store and bought apples, oranges, bananas, and a chicken.’
The above is an example of the conjunction ‘and’ working together with commas. Sometimes it can be a stylistic choice to replace some conjunctions with commas, however this would not make sense in every situation. Certainly the opposite is not necessarily an option without adding wordiness to your writing – for example ‘I went to the store and bought apples and oranges and bananas and a chicken.’ The important thing to note about conjunctions is, as with the example above – not to use too many of them together to avoid confusion. A conjunction should join together two clauses, not three or four. Otherwise you create a run-on-sentence.
And even though you should not technically begin a sentence with a conjunction, there are times you may do so. This is of course a creative option, dependant upon the particular writer.
Most important is to choose conjunctions that will add to the flow of the sentence with their meaning in how they join the two phrases. ‘I went to the zoo but saw elephants’ makes no sense compared to ‘I went to the zoo and saw elephants.’ However, ‘I went to the zoo but I did not see the elephants’ makes almost as much sense as ‘I went to the zoo and I did not see the elephants’ with subtle differences in nuanced meaning. In short, be careful with your choice of conjunction in how it adds or changes the sentence meaning.
So what now?
These are a few of the grammatical rules that may prove helpful to understand. If you have a particular grammar question do not hesitate to ask us and we will see how we can help. Grammar is a set of rules and conventions to make writing easier – however it can often prove daunting and lead to many confusing writing moments. The number one rule to think about with grammar is this: is my sentence meaning clear through the structure I am using. If the answer is ‘no’ then you may have made a grammatical error.
Finally, to conclude this post, please find an infographic of five basic English rules of writing that everyone should know: